Leonard was born on the 18th February 1834 in Dublin. Son of Robert and Alicia Shaw he spent the first 13 years of his life in Ireland under the strict influence of the Church of Ireland, which no doubt had a strong influence on his later philanthropic work. In 1847 however, the family left Ireland and made the short trip across the Irish Sea to England. Along with Leonard’s three brothers, they travelled to Broughton, Salford and moved in with Alicia’s sister and her family, the Doolittle’s.
As with many things, we can only speculate about the reasons behind the Shaw’s move from Ireland to England. The year of emigration however, strongly suggests it was the state of Ireland at the time, which encouraged Robert to relocate his family across the seas. By 1847 Ireland had seen two years of famine as a result of what history now refers to as the Irish Potato Famine.
Between 1845 and 1852, one million people died from starvation as a result of the famine. A million more emigrated from the country causing the island’s population to fall by around 25%. The famine was caused by the potato blight, which had been ravaging the potato crop throughout Europe during the 1840s. As around two-fifths of the population were solely reliant on the potato, either as a food source or employment, the effect of the blight on Ireland was more damaging than in other countries.
It is unknown what Robert Shaw did as a job when he was in Ireland. In the 1851 census, four years after moving to Manchester he is listed as an Ale and Port Merchant. There could be a number of reasons why the Shaw family moved to England, however the effects of the potato famine, would not have made for an easy life in Ireland. Whatever the reasons, without the move the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuges and Homes would never have been founded.
‘Out of every crisis comes great opportunity’.