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On this day in 1844, Jerome Caminada was born in Deansgate, Manchester, opposite the Free Trade Hall, built to commemorate the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819. The families of Jerome’s parents were among the masses of workers who migrated to the city in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to look for work. His father, Francis, was a cabinetmaker of Italian descent, and his mother, Mary, was a textile worker with Irish roots.

By the time of Jerome’s birth, the couple had already had four children and had settled in the mixed area of Deansgate. Dubbed ‘Devil’s Gate’ by a contemporary reporter, this major thoroughfare was lined with shops, hotels, mills and warehouses, but behind the imposing façades lay some of the worst slums of Victorian Manchester. The Caminadas lived in Peter Street, which was the heart of the city’s theatreland, but it also had a reputation for brothels and illegal drinking dens.

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In the first of a series of tragic events, baby Louis died aged nine months of a disease of the brain. Jerome was born a year later, on 15 March. He was followed by his younger sister, Teresa. When Jerome was just three years old, his childhood was shattered by a double blow: his eldest brother, also named Francis, died of enteritis at the age of nine and then, three months later, their father died of heart disease. The remaining members of the fragile family were forced to move to the other side of Deansgate, into the dark underworld of the city, where poverty was endemic and crime rife. Caminada would later describe his former neighbourhood as, ‘a very hot-bed of social iniquity and vice.’ There were even worse things to come, including two illegitimate children, three early deaths and a devastating disease that would cast a shadow over the Caminadas for the next generations.

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I traced the movement of Jerome and his family as they struggled to survive and whilst I was tracking their descent into chaos, I came across an astonishing find. When  one of Jerome’s younger siblings died, his death certificate revealed that the family had been living in Southern Street, which still exists and is near the Museum of Science and Industry. The accommodation in this area was of the worst kind: airless  back-to-back tenements with no facilities. I searched online for possible images and found an illustration on eBay. When it arrived, I was astounded to find that one of the images depicted a worker’s dwelling that was two doors down from the Caminadas and it had been drawn around the time he was living there. It could almost have been his family huddled around the cold fireplace in the bare, cheerless room.

Jerome Caminada’s precarious early life made him the exceptional man he later became. He was a man of great compassion for others and a deep sense of social justice. Therefore, it is fitting on the day that would have been his birthday to remember his childhood battle to overcome the odds.

Happy birthday Jerome!