Hannah Welsh

Beyond the Gate: Hannah Welsh

In honor of Irish Heritage and Women's History Month, Beyond the Gate looks at Hannah Welsh, an Irish servant who worked at Cliveden when Anne Sophia Penn Chew (1805-1892) owned the house. Hannah was one of five Irish servants working at Cliveden by 1880.

During the mid-19th century, over 2 million men, women, and children left Ireland due to the potato blight, a bacterial virus which shriveled the plant and left it completely inedible. The potato was the main food staple and source of income for Irish families ever since it was introduced by the British. The rural poor relied almost exclusively on the potato for food because it was affordable, high in nutrients, stored well during the winter.  When the potato crop failed, millions of men, women, and children died from starvation. With little aid from the British government, many Irish left their rural lives to emigrate and settle in large U.S. cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

The Potato Famine was not the only reason for Irish immigration to the United States. Centuries of religious and class discrimination in Great Britain left Irish nationals in subservient positions often without diverse sources of income. Strict penal codes denied Catholic tenant farmers the right to own land, thus restricting their financial stability and social mobility. The majority of Irish farmland was dedicated to raising expensive grain and livestock to be exported to England at prices that most Irish workers could not afford. As in most colonized countries, the colonizers built infrastructure to extract natural resources to benefit themselves rather than the native people.*

Anne Sophia Penn Chew (1805-1892)
Anne Sophia Penn Chew (1805-1892)

Hannah Welsh was one of many Irish women immigrants who worked as domestic servants in wealthy homes. Although her life prior to working at Cliveden remains a mystery, we do know that she was hired by Anne Sophia Penn Chew in 1856 when she was just 13 years old. When Hannah first started working for Anne, she worked with James Smith, a free African-American coachman, and another Irish servant Norah Monahan. James purchased his freedom in 1815 and had worked for the Chew family since 1819. It is possible that Hannah and Norah were indentured servants which could limit their personal freedoms until the contracts expired.

According to Anne, Hannah was not well suited to a service position and was often insolent. Anne described Hannah to her sister Eliza Mason (1798-1874) as “overbearing to other servants, [and] disinclined to obey directions.”** At one point, Hannah left her position as cook to help in the nursery, despite the fact that there was already a nurse, Catherine. Regardless of the issues between Anne and Hannah, Hannah continued to work for Anne at Cliveden through the 1880s. Throughout Anne’s stewardship of Cliveden, four incredibly head-strong women occupied the Main House, Anne Sophia Penn Chew, Mary Johnson Brown Chew (1839-1927), Hannah Welsh, and Catherine, each with overlapping spheres of influence and their own designs for the future of the house.

* John Green. "Episode 2: Halley's Comet and Cholera." The Anthropocene Reviewed (audio blog), February 21, 2018. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://soundcloud.com/theanthropocenereviewed/episode-2-halleys-comet-and-cholera.

** Anne Sophia Penn Chew memorandum, June 20, 1868. HSP, Chew Papers, Box 205.


History.com Staff. "Irish Potato Famine." History.com. 2017. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/irish-potato-famine.

"Leaving the Emerald Isle: Irish Immigration to Philadelphia." Exploring Diversity in Pennsylvania History. July 13, 2006. Accessed March 13, 2018.http://hsp.org/sites/default/files/legacy_files/migrated/leavingtheemeraldislefinal.pdf.

Richards, Nancy E.. Cliveden: The Chew Mansion in Germantown. Philadelphia, 19


Looking for more information?

Hannah Welsh is a part of our women's exhibit, Preserving & Adapting Their World: The Women of Cliveden. Click on the link below to view our exhibit!