The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy – Zoe Handley

 “Cob Hall was a big, first-floor room at the corner of Slater and Leece streets where, every Sunday evening at half-past six, “Gypsy” Smith and his Evangelical aides-de-camp yelled the furies of hell-fire and damnation at a crowd of slummy children, all of whom were awaiting only the big bread cob to be distributed at the end of the sermon. Because of hunger, our gang attended regularly, but we had to be very discreet, for if Mr McGinnis, our headmaster heard about it, we would all get a severe spanking with the ruler. The purpose of Cob Hall was to save the Irish Catholic slummy children from a life-long devotion to the pope.”

O’Mara. P. The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy. (Liverpool: Blue Coat Press. 1994) pp.61-62.

Traditionally many historians have rejected autobiographies, claiming this type of first-person account to be subjective and therefore unreliable. However an increasing number of historians, including J. Popkin and L. Anderson, have investigated the usefulness of autobiographies and have ascertained that these writings can offer a unique narrative which is often overlooked. Popkin states that life writing texts are a source of personal knowledge and understanding often unachievable elsewhere.[1]

The Autobiography of a Liverpool Irish Slummy, as it was titled on its first publication in New York in 1933, offers a rare insight into slum life from a 51WBH6TVGRL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_typical Catholic slum-dweller. Wilkinson explains that many other accounts of slum life are written with an agenda or from a socialist perspective, by people who have never stepped foot inside a slum court, however Pat O’Mara, ‘a true slum-dweller’, reveals a frank and unemotional story of his upbringing and the lifestyle he experienced.[2] The book is often regarded as an essential read for anyone investigating Victorian poor life, Irish migrants in Liverpool, relationships between Catholic and Protestants and the feelings of the populace at the outbreak of the First World War.[3] It covers all aspects of life in the slums from a personal perspective rarely seen. For example, the autobiography contains only one of two known accounts of the Lusitania riots that took place in Liverpool in 1915 and thus is invaluable.[4]

Pat O’Mara was born Timotheus O’Meara at 49 Bridgewater Street, Liverpool, on 25 April 1901. He was born in a prominently Catholic area and refers to the importance placed on religion throughout his autobiography. Butterworth explains that there was a revival of religious activity in the nineteenth century as the Victorians tried to establish a moral code and level of respectability above that of the colonists. As a result of the increased attention to the poor, Evangelical influences and several philanthropic movements encouraged preaching in the slums.[5] Harris agrees with this interpretation of a religious revival, stating there was a sense amongst the English that Catholic migrants were unfaithful and possessed a lower living standard than was deemed acceptable.[6]

Throughout the autobiography, O’Mara discusses the complex relationship between Catholics and Protestants. Liverpool was considered the Belfast of England due to the high volume of Irish migrants. Harris explains that within the Irish community religion was a sign of conformity and allegiance, thus people of differing religions or religious factions were often seen as a threat to their culture and lifestyle.[7] This extract offers an insight into the relationship between slum-dwellers and preachers. O’Mara states the only reason he attended the sermons was due to bribery; at the same time, however, he understood why the preacher was there. He also discusses what the consequences were of being seen to betray ‘his people’ through attendance at such sermons, and this reveals a lot about inter-religion relations.

gipsy smith
A poster advertising the Evangelical preacher

Although not directly mentioned in the autobiography, the Evangelical preacher Rodney “Gypsy” Smith, was a part of General William Booth’s mission, The Salvation Army.[8] Gypsy Smith became a prominent member within the Salvation Army and a great deal has been written about his missionary work. O’Mara believed that the Cob Hall mission was there to save Catholic slummy children from a ‘life-long devotion to the pope’, however Lees states it was set up as a charity endeavour to persuade foundlings to work in exchange for a cob loaf.[9] This misinterpretation of the Cob Hall mission suggests a misunderstanding of missionaries and a mistrust in their intentions. These ideas were reinforced through the educational system offered by the church schools. O’Mara discusses the idea that if he had been caught attending the mission he would have received a spanking with the ruler by his headmaster. Wilcox agrees with this interpretation, suggesting that church schools had a stronger religious impact than family ties; it was through compulsory attendance of Sunday school and religious ceremonies that most slum-dwelling children received their religious education.[10] Wilcox suggests it was the role of religious education, rather than the variety of missionaries, that provided the slum-dwellers with an increased sense of religious morality.[11] Belcham agrees with this analysis, stating that the church schools were more prominent in the lives of slum-dweller children and that this education offered to the children in attendance had a greater impact than any mission to Liverpool.[12] It was through Catholic school that O’Mara received his first Holy Communion, which he speaks about with great fondness and pride.[13]

Missionaries were not the only ones to face Catholic persecution as tensions between the Protestant and Catholic population of Liverpool grew throughout the nineteenth century. MacRaild argues that urbanisation and industrialisation encouraged the growth of migrant communities and, in turn, close proximity increased tensions.[14] O’Mara discusses the antagonism between the Catholics and Protestants throughout his autobiography. The main example of the relationship between the groups is shown in O’Mara’s depiction of the ‘King Billy’s Day parade’:


‘A huge crowd of our worst enemies (the O’s) …. I had never known there were so many enthusiastic Protestants. I had always been brought up in the belief that Protestantism was a dying cult, and its adherents cowards, easily frightened….’

O’Mara. P. The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy. (Liverpool: The Bluecoat Press. 1994) p.65

His depiction of the Protestants suggests a negative reinforcement through his upbringing and education; it also reinforces the idea of segregation within the Irish community of Liverpool. MacRaild explains that throughout the nineteenth century there was a strong anti-Catholic movement, specifically aimed at Irish Catholics, and that this contributed to increased strain between the religious factions.[15] It is clear that Liverpool had developed a sectarian culture, developing Irish and Orange only areas. This often resulted in a large amount of conflict between the two groups.

O’Mara’s writing offers an unusually personal insight into the life of an Irish Catholic slum-dweller in Liverpool during the Victorian period. The rare accounts of the Lusitania riots, the Cob Hall mission and the King Billy parade offer an invaluable perspective on events often overlooked. O’Mara’s writing supports the common perception that religious activity experienced a revival in the nineteenth century and discusses the inter-religious relations at the time from a Catholic perspective. The antagonism discussed suggests a lot about the sectarian nature of Liverpool throughout the period and the division between religious factions.

Zoe Handley



[1] Anderson. L,  Autobiography (The New Critical Idiom) 2nd. ed. (London: Routledge, 2011); Popkin. J. D., History, Historians, and Autobiography (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005).

[2] Wilkinson. C., ‘Introduction,’ in O’Mara. P., The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy. (Liverpool: The Bluecoat Press, 1994), p. iv.

[3] Wilkinson, ‘Introduction’, p. vi.

[4] O’Mara. P. The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy. (Liverpool: The Bluecoat Press. 1994), pp. 162-167.

[5] Butterworth. R., Dickens, Religion and Society (London: Macmillan, 2015), p.102.

[6] Harris. J., Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914 (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p.157.

[7] Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, pp. 157-158.

[8] Smith. G., Gypsy Smith (1860-1947) His Life & Work. (London: Evangelical Press, 1901). Available Online: [Accessed: 28/11/2015]

[9] Lees. A., Liverpool: The Hurricane Port (London: Mainstream Publishing, 2013), p.46

[10] Wilcox. A., The Church and the Slums: The Victorian Anglican and its Mission to Liverpool’s Poor (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) p.151.

[11] Wilcox, The Church and the Slums, p.114.

[12] Belcham. J., Irish, Catholic and Scouse: The History of the Liverpool-Irish, 1800-1939. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), p.299.

[13] O’Mara, The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy, p.67.

[14] MacRaild. D., Culture, Conflict, and Migration: The Irish in Victorian Cumbria. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998), p.141.

[15] MacRaild, Culture, Conflict, and Migration, p.170.


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