The first May Day Marches in Manchester

On 1 May 1892 Manchester workers marched for the first time in a mass labour demonstration for a shorter working week and an independent political voice. It was part of a worldwide movement as unskilled workers organised in mass trades unions and Socialism developed a mass political following.

May Day was instituted as an international Labour Day from 1890 onwards. The impetus came in part from a long-running campaign to reduce the working day to 8 hours. In September 1866 the International Workingmen’s Association (otherwise known as the First International) meeting in Geneva passed a resolution adopting 8 hours as a goal. In October 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions of the United States and Canada also passed a resolution calling for an 8 hour day from 1 May 1886.

In May 1886 tens of thousands of workers responded across the United States. The most militant city was Chicago, where on 3 May the police shot dead six strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. In response strikers organised a massive rally the following day at Haymarket Square. The rally was peaceful but as it ended somone threw a bomb into police ranks. This was followed by a savage battle in which a number of police died, as well as members of the crowd. There was a political show trial of a number of anarchists, of whom four were convicted and hanged. They become known as the Haymarket Martyrs.

On 14 July 1889 the Second International meeting in Paris called workers around the world to march on 1 May 1890 for an 8 hour day.

The Congress decided to organize a great international demonstration, so that:

“in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.”

This coincided with a new mood amongst unskilled workers, hitherto ignored or excluded by the trades union movement, which had largely organised skilled male workers only. In July 1888, for instance, women workers at the Bryant & May match factory in East London went on strike and won with the support of Socialists. The following year there was a massive dock strike in London involving thousands of dock labourers, which brought the miles of docks to a halt. The result was victory for the workers leading to higher pay, better working conditions and a new union for unskilled workers, The Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers Union. The strike was led by trade unionists and Socialists including Tom Mann, John Burns, Ben Tillett and Will Thorne.

For the first time Socialist ideas were getting a mass audience. John Burns wrote of the importance of the dispute after it had been won:

“Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organize itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything. He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain. Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors.”

On May Day 1890 there were strikes and marches in many part of the United States and Europe. Frederick Engels wrote:

“As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One army, under One Bag, and fighting One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day, established by legal enactment…. The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!”

The London march to Hyde Park was huge, with perhaps 100,000 attending. Engels wrote an account in the newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung:

“There can be no doubt about that: on May 4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army. And that is an epoch-making fact. The English proletariat has its roots in the most advanced industrial development and, moreover, possesses the greatest freedom of political movement. Its long slumber — a result, on the one hand, of the failure of the Chartist movement of 1836-50 and, on the other, of the colossal industrial upswing of 1848-80 — is finally broken. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are stepping into the line of battle.”

The success in London was repeated in 1891 and Manchester followed with its own march in 1892.

On 16 April 1892 The Clarion reported that a “a great labour demonstration” was being planned for Manchester for 1 May. Trade union and labour societies were requested to communicate with Mr James Quinn at the County Forum, 50a Market Street. (The County Forum was a debating society). Organising meetings were to be held every Thursday.

On the day before the march Robert Blatchford wrote a millenarian editorial in The Clarion:

“The people will meet , that is the main thing. We shall see each other face to face, feel each other should to shoulder, hear each other voice to voice, trust each other soul to soul and we shall go away open-eyed and conscious of a change. we shall have felt our strength, imagined our numbers, seen as a vision of the world the golden dawn streak of the day of our deliverance, and our triumph. Manhood suffrage and payment of members! What are these? They are as candles to the sun in comparison with the new LABOUR DAY. …Our labour day as bind us as corn in the sheaf. The sturdy miner, the skilful engineer, the broad-handed navvy, the white-fingered artist, the lusty farmer, the fragile seamstress, the outcasts of the streets, the despised denizens of the slums, the sweater’s slave the hearty sailor. Strong and weak, feeble and brave, old and young, simple and wise, the workers shall band themselves together in fraternity and freedom. They shall march on from this labour day growing ever wiser, nobler and juster until there is honour for those who make more than those who mar, reward for those who labour better than for those who loaf, until snobbery and prejudice, and theft and butchery are banished into the Hell they came from; until Labour shall hold that which it wins, and England shall be the freehold and the home and inheritance of the English.”

The procession was to assemble in Stevenson Square at 2.30pm and march to Alexandra Park by way of Oldham Street, Piccadilly, Portland Street, Oxford Street, Stretford Road, Great Jackson Street, Preston Street, Moss Lane and Alexandra Road. The order of procession was advertised as follows

The Manchester Fabian Societies
Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
Tailors
Bakers & Confectioners
The Labour Church
Shirt & Jacket Makers
Salford Social Democrats
North East Manchester Labour Electoral
Spindle & Flyer Makers
Horsehair & Fibre Workers
Dressers, Dyers & Finishers
Enginemen & Cranemen
Navvies & Bricklayers
North Manchester Labour Electoral

According to the report in the Manchester Guardian, a white ensign headed the procession with the slogan “Work for all, Overwork for None”. Other banners stated “Unity is Strength” and “Equality by Right, Justice to All”. Members of the Labour Church carried a banner stating “God Is Our King” while the Social Democratic Federation contingent carried red flags and a red cap on a pole (the symbol of the French Revolution).

Due to the numbers the procession moved off before the appointed time and was enlivened by at least a dozen bands. The Manchester Guardian noted that watching crowds, especially women, cheered the mottos in favour of the 8 hour day. In Hulme the march was greeted by large crowd and “something like the fervour of enthusiasm”. The march reached the park at about 4pm with at least 60,000 people now present.

At the park there were six platforms with a mix of trade union and Socialist speakers who advocated the following political programme;
1. Formation of an Independent Labour Party
2. Payment of MPs
3. Shorter Parliaments
4. Adult suffrage
5. Nationalisation of the land.

On one of the platforms Robert Blatchford moved the following resolution:

“That this meeting recognises that the establishment of a working day of not more than 8 hours is the most immediate step towards the ultimate emancipation of the workers and urges upon the Government the necessity of fixing a working day by legislative enactment.”

One of the platforms was reserved for Jewish speakers who spoke in Yiddish, including Mr Wess from London. This platform was chaired by Mr R Abrahams, who said that he hoped that next year Jews would be more numerous. There do not seem to have been any women speakers and women’s suffrage was not included as an aim.

In 1893 Manchester Council tried to stop the march taking place, turning down an application from 35 trades unions to use Alexandra Park. According to a report in The Clarion, the Corporation Parks Committee had deemed it:

“inadvisable that Sunday demonstrations should be held in the public parks and considers that unless desired by a considerable section of the Manchester citizens they should not be permitted. This meeting believes the present application is not of such a nature to warrant such permission and therefore declines to grant it.”

Leonard Hall, chair of the demonstration committee, wrote to The Clarion to state that the march was a labour demonstration open to all and not an Independent Labour Party or Socialist demonstration. After more public protests, permission to use the park was eventually granted.

Manchester was alive with Socialist organisations and activity. In the week before the 1893 march The Clarion carried notices for meetings of the Independent Labour Party in various parts of Manchester and Salford as well as a “gigantic” excursion to Morecambe on Whit Friday, the Social Democratic Federation, Hyde Labour Club, Ashton ILP, Oldham Independent Labour Club, North Manchester Fabians and Manchester Anarchist Group who held public meetings every Sunday in Stevenson Square. Joe Waddington (known as “Clarion” Joe) sold The Clarion, Labour Prophet, Labour Leader, Workman Times, Shafts, A Paper for Women and “Socialistic” literature from his shop at 4a Crown street, Chester Road. The Manchester Labour Press was based at 59 Tib Street.

The march took place on 6 May leaving from Stevenson Square at 2.30pm. The Clarion reported that it had been attended by 20,000. In his editorial Blatchford attacked the “city fathers” who had tried to stop them using the park and the Chief Constable who had deployed very large numbers of police who were threatening to the crowd, pushing people off pavements.

In 1894 the authorities refused to allow the use of Alexandra Park and instead the march went to Philips Park in Openshaw. The tradition of May Day marches continued for a century until it ceased in the wake of trade union decline and defeat. In recent years the tradition of a May Day labour procession has been revived although the numbers attending are at present but a fraction of those attending in the early years.

Article by Michael Herbert.

Hannah Mitchell, Socialist and Suffragette

Hannah Mitchell was a self-educated Socialist and suffragette, originally from Derbyshire. In her later years she served on Manchester City Council. Her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, is now seen as a classic account of life by a working class woman.

Hannah Mitchell was born Hannah Webster in 1871, one of six children raised on a remote farm in Alport Dale, Derbyshire. She had just two weeks of formal schooling in her whole life. Her father taught to her to read and she became passionately fond of books, even doing her brothers’ chores in return for being allowed to read the books they brought home from school. Her love of books lasted a lifetime. Hannah was often brutally treated by her mother and finally left home aged just 14, unable to bear it any longer. Many years later she recalled this event in her autobiography The Hard Way Up:

“I tramped over the hill, hardly conscious of the distance, blinded by tears and full of grief at leaving my father and uncle, and the two younger children who were both vey fond of me. I knew now that I must rely on myself. I knew also that I was ill-equipped for the battle of life, uneducated, untrained, what should I find myself capable of doing among more fortunate youth? These were bitter reflections and did not tend to soften my feelings towards my mother, although I felt a faint sense of relief in the knowledge that I was free from her scolding tongue and violent temper. But somewhere on the moorland road I left my childhood behind.”

Hannah was taken in by her brother Will and his wife, finding employment as a maid in a schoolmaster’s house and later as a dressmaker’s assistant, first locally and then in Bolton, where she made evening frocks. All the time she worked hard to improve her handwriting and her reading, making full use of the local library.

Along with her co-workers she attended a public address by the novelist Menie Muriel Dowie as part of a campaign for shorter working hours for shopworkers. It was common then for the women to work six days a week.

Hannah also began reading The Clarion, the Socialist newspaper launched by Robert Blatchford in Manchester in December 1891, and attending Socialist meetings in Bolton where one night she heard a woman speaker.

She was Katherine St John Conway, a:

“slight girlish figure in a black frock with a Medici collar, and her hair swept back from her forehead; she looked as if she belonged to some religious order. Though not much older in years than myself, this girl was already a highly educated, well-trained personality. Perhaps at first I paid more attention to the speaker than her speech, but heard enough to send me away with an inspiration which later sent me out to the street corners with the same message.”

Hannah’s Socialist convictions remained with her the rest of her life. She began courting a fellow Socialist, Gibbon Mitchell, attending meetings of the Labour Church with him, and they married two years later. She wrote:

“Married life as lived by my brothers, sisters and friends, held no great attraction for me, but I wanted a home of my own. Perhaps If I had really understood my own nature, as I came to do later, I should not have married, for I soon realised that married life as men understand it, calls for a degree of self-abnegation which was impossible for me. Probably I should have hesitated, even then, but for the newer ideas which were being propunded by the Socialists. Men and women were talking of marriage as a comradeship, rather than a state where the women was subservent to, and dependent on, the man.”

The couple had just one child at Hannah’s insistence, after a difficult birth. “I soon came to realise that although birth control may not be a perfect solution to social problems, it is the first and the simplest way at present for women to obtain some measure of freedom” she later wrote.

Hannah and her husband spent three years living in a village near Burton-on-Trent where they were active in the Independent Labour Party, attending meetings and putting up speakers, and also in the Clarion movement, helping out the Clarion newspaper’s delivery van when it toured their area.

In 1900 the couple moved to Ashton-under-Lyne where Hannah and Gibbon were active in the ILP and in the Labour Church where Hannah became the lecture Secretary, organising the weekly lectures and putting up the speakers:

“…the Labour Church attracted a type of Socialist who was not satisfied with the stark materialism of the Marxist school, desiring wamth and colour in human lives; not just bread, but bread and roses, too….We had enough imagination to visualize the greater possibility for beauty and culture in a more justly ordered state.”

Hannnah herself gave her first public speech when the Clarion Van came to Bolton and then began to speak at outdoor public meetings and at the Labour Church. To her surprise she was soon in demand as a speaker.

In May 1904 she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian to the board in Ashton-under-Lyne. At the same time she became increasingly involved in the campaign for votes for women that had been started by fellow ILP members Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in October 1903. Hannah visited their home in Nelson Street and spoke at many meetings around Lancashire. In October 1905 she was amongst the crowd that greeted Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney on their release from Strangeways prison after their arrest during a meeting in the Free Trade Hall. Hannah now committed herself body and soul to the cause of women’s suffrage:

“It seems to me now, looking back, that all my previous life had been a preparation for this geat experience. While indirectly it caused me much sorrow, it brought me many contacts which have immeasurably enriched my life. Through the suffrage movement I have come to know many notable women who honoured me by their friendship and encouragment. Chief amongst these was that fine and gracious woman, Charlotte Despard, who, I am proud to remember, to the end of her long life, always called me her dear friend…”

During the campaign for the 1906 General Election she interrupted a January 9th meeting addressed by Winston Churchill in St John’s School, Deansgate (Churchill was then a Liberal). She wrote of the incident:

“I rose and and displayed my little banner, calling out; “Will the Liberal government give the vote to women?” At once the meeting broke into uproar, shouting “throw her out!” along with less decent suggestions. My banner was snatched from me, and clutching hands tried to pull me over the seat, but I was young then, and strong, and pushing my assailants away. I mounted the seat, held up my second banner, and repeated the question. The chairman seemed unable to do anything, except to make wild gestures of rage… so Mr Churchill himself took a hand. Appealing for order he said “Let the lady come to the platform and tell us what what she wants”. My immediate attackers gave way at once, but I was subjected to so much rough handling on the way, that I must have looked a sorry sight when I reached the platform. The chairman, who seemed entirely to have lost his self-control, seized me roughly by the arm and lierally shook me, until Mr Churchill interposed, saying he would deal with me myself. With his usual forcefulness he induced the meeting to give order and invited to state my case. In spite of my agitation I did so, saying briefly that we wanted the promise of a government measure granting the vote to women, “as it is” or “may be” granted to men.”

A recording of Hannah Mitchell an account of her interruption of Churchill’s meeting can be listened to on the Working Class Movement Library website, here.

Hannah Mitchell and Alice Milne also interrupted a meeting addressed by Lloyd George at Hale. They were kept in the hall until the meeting was over and had to walk seven miles home as the last train had gone.

In the summer of 1906 Hannah was arrested and sent to prison after interrupting a Liberal Party rally at Belle Vue at which John Burns and Winston Churchill were the speakers. However she was released early, much to her annoyance, after her husband paid her fine. The agitation continued and the outdoor meetings became rougher and more dangererous as men tried to attack the women speakers.

In the autumn of 1906 Hannah paid her first visit to London, speaking in a number of parks and taking part in a raid on the lobby of the House of Commons. She went up to Huddersfield to campaign during a by-election and thereafter went on to Oldham, around the North East and elsewhere. During the campaign to elect the independent Socialist Victor Grayson as an MP for Colne Valley, Hannah collapsed with exhaustion and suffered a nervous breakdown. It took her a long time to recover. She was deeply hurt by the fact that the Pankhursts did not show any interest in her illness, not even a letter of sympathy. By contrast Mrs Despard came to visit her, saw Hannah’s doctor and sent money to help with extra food.

There was a split in the WSPU in the autumn of 1907 after Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst abolished its democratic structures. A group of about seventy women, including Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and Elizabeth How-Martyn, left the WSPU and established the Women’s Freedom League. Hannah joined as soon as she was well enough and worked for a short time for the WFL in Scotland in Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s constituency.

The Mitchells now moved from Ashton to Manchester and joined the local ILP branch. Hannah was soon in demand again as a speaker. In 1914 she attended the Coming of Age conference in Bradford, marking 25 years of the ILP’s existence. Within months Europe was engulfed in a savage war with lasted four years and killed millions.

Despite the popular pro-war jingoism Hannah remained true to her Socialist beliefs and opposed the conflict. She became active in the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League. Her son decided that he could not fight, applied to the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, and to Hannah’s great relief, was granted exemption.

In 1924 Hannah was elected for Labour to Manchester City Council and remained a member until 1935. She was an active member and particularly enjoyed being on the Libraries Committee because of her love of reading. She was also on the Baths Committee which established public wash houses in working class areas “…a real public service greatly appreciated by women.” After leaving the Council she became a magistrate. She had been working on her autobiography for many years but it was not accepted for publication during her lifetime. After Hannah’s death it was found amongst her papers and finally published in 1968 under the title The Hard Way Up by Faber & Faber, with an introduction by her grandson Geoffrey Mitchell, who had edited the manuscript. It is now considered a classic account of a working class woman’s personal and political emancipation.

Article by Michael Herbert

William Murphy in Manchester, August 1868

The Anti-Catholic lectures given by William Murphy in the late 1860s often stirred up communal tensions and even rioting in the Midlands and the north of England. When he came to Manchester he was detained and prevented from speaking by the authorities.

In the last week of August 1868 William Murphy’s supporters placarded Manchester announcing that he would be giving a week of lectures in the Assembly Rooms, Cooke Street, Hulme, starting on Monday 31st August The chosen rooms could hold an audience of 500 and were near – possible deliberately so – to a Catholic chapel and two Catholic schools. Alarmed local magistrates hurriedly met and decided that the lectures should not be allowed to go ahead for fear of disorder. The following afternoon, as Murphy arrived at Victoria Station from Bolton, he was met by the Chief Constable Captain Palin and taken in a cab to the detective office, where it transpired that he carried a loaded revolver and a knuckle-duster. He was bailed to appear in court the next day.

Meanwhile, unaware that Murphy had been stopped, a large crowd gathered in Cooke Street and also in Rutland Street outside St Wilfrid’s. According to the Manchester Guardian ,“it was plain from the composition of the crowd that all the elements of disorder were present.” Eventually the police cleared Cooke Street and everything was quiet by 10pm.

In court William Murphy was charged with attempting to create a breach of the peace. He defended himself, asserting that “in free England I have as much right to speak as Mr Ernest Jones, or any other man”. A number of witnesses gave evidence of the potential for disorder if the lectures went ahead, including Captain Palin, William Kelly, a mantle manufacturer who lived near the Assembly Rooms, and William Waller, the headteacher of a Church of England school. One of Murphy’s fellow lecturers, a Mr Flannagan, gave evidence that he himself had addressed a crowd of 2,000 on Sunday afternoon in Chorlton Road, and an even larger crowd in the evening, without any trouble. At the end of the hearing the magistrates ordered that Murphy should enter sureties of several hundred pounds to keep the peace for three months and that he be kept in Belle Vue Gaol until the money was paid into the court. Thus Murphy was sent to the very jail where the Fenians Deasy and Kelly had briefly been imprisoned the previous autumn.

No doubt the town authorities congratulated themselves on having dealt so easily with Murphy but he was not finished yet. From his prison cell he announced that he intended to offer himself to the electors of Manchester in the forthcoming general election campaign and his supporters placarded his election address around the town. Murphy promised that if elected he would “devote the whole of his energies to the support and extension of our national religion” and declared that “my life has been endangered, and my liberty is now taken from me, because I will not yield to the brute force gathered together by the devices of Maynooth priests trained with English money to sow sedition broadcast in the land”

Further placards announced that a meeting of “Protestants and Orangemen” would take place on Saturday 5th September at Chorlton Road. By four o’clock over four thousand people had gathered to listen to the speeches. Several fights broke out in front of the platform and then a column of several dozen Irishmen pushed to the front of the crowd and flung a shower of stones at the chair (a Mr Latham) and the speakers. After being taken by surprise Murphy’s supporters rallied and drove the Irishmen up the road. The police arrived and made thirty arrests. Murphy himself arrived by cab at 5.30pm and made speech in which he said that his motto was “William, Prince of Orange”. The first bill he would introduce would be that the working classes must have more wages and after that his next bill would be that nunneries must be inspected. At the end of his speech Murphy was born away on the shoulders of his supporters.

There was more trouble the following afternoon when a group of Irishmen gathered in Stevenson Square and then proceeded by separate routes to the Chorlton Road pitch where they set about the Murphyites with cudgels. Once again the police were summoned and made further arrests. Thereafter nothing more was heard of Murphy’s election ambitions. The events of the week prove, however, that Murphy was more than just an itinerant trouble-maker, that he appealed to a section of the Protestant working-class in Manchester who were sufficiently well organised for his supporters to be able to placard the town overnight and quickly raise sizeable sums for his sureties.

Murphy returned to Manchester on 15th February 1869 for a meeting of Orangemen at the Free Trade Hall. The advertised speakers included Mr Johnston, MP for Belfast, and a number of other leading Orangemen but they did not appear. Murphy made an appearance on the platform wearing an Orange sash. The meeting was chaired by Booth Mason from Ashton-under-Lyne, Deputy Grandmaster of the Orange Association in England. Ashton has been the scene of a serious riot between Protestant/Orange and Catholic communities in May 1868.

In the course of his speech William Murphy attacked Gladstone for wishing to disestablish the Church of Ireland and break up the British Empire. At the end of the meeting an Orange air was played and old women waved umbrellas and handkerchiefs decorated with pictures of King Billy.

The following month in Tynemouth several hundred Irish attacked the hall where Murphy was due to speak, firing shots into the building before being beaten back by the police.

Murphy’s nemesis came in the spring of 1871 when he began a series of lectures in the Cumbria town of Whitehaven. On Sunday 20th April several hundred Irish miners from the nearby town of Cleator Moor arrived by train, entered the hall, found Murphy on his own and viciously beat him until the police arrived and rescued him. Some of his attackers were sent to jail for 12 months while Murphy eventually succumbed to his injuries in March 1872. There was disorder – including bricks being thrown – even at his funeral in Birmingham.

Article by Michael Herbert

Mary and Percy Higgins: Communists in Tameside

Mary and Percy Higgins, a couple from Tameside, were active politically on the left, first in the Labour Party and then in the Communist Party, from the early 1930s to the end of their respective lives.

Mary was born Mary Boardman on 22 August 1914 in Failsworth, of working-class parents. Her mother ran a hardware and china shop. Politics ran in the family: her parents were members of the Failsworth Secular Society and founders of the Independent Labour Party, whilst on her mother’s side her grandparents had been Chartists. Mary herself joined the Labour Party at the age of 16 and was elected to the executive the next year. She also became active in the Labour League of Youth (LLY, which in the 1930s had 30,000 members) and was elected as a delegate to the Manchester Federation.

She attended a national LLY conference in Leeds but came back disillusioned because, she felt, the young people attending were not allowed to discuss matters of real importance. As well as being active in Failsworth she also helped out at Mossley Labour Party (very likely because she had met Percy Higgins, her future husband, who lived in Mossley). By the late 1930s she was becoming disillusioned with the Labour Party and began reading the Daily Worker. Mary joined the Communist Party in Oldham in 1940, at first it seems as a paper member, because she carried on working in the Labour Party. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil and hearing Harry Pollitt (the national secretary of the Communist Party ) she made the final break with Labourism and become an active member of the CP in Oldham. She later said that: “I found that I could not reconcile pacifism with a belief that, should the time come for the working class to defend their rights, I would fight for those rights.”

Within months Mary had become the Party Secretary in Oldham. That same year she got married to Percy Higgins. At this time they were living on Dacres Estate, Greenfield.

Percy was born in Mossley on 3 January 1910, one of a large family, and attended St George’s Elementary School. “I learned very early in life what it means to be one of a big working class family in wartime and slump. There were nine of us in the family, but a sister died at the age of three and my father became estranged and separated from the family as a result of the 1914 war.” From a young age Percy had shown an aptitude for painting and drawing but with his father gone and family on the breadline Percy had to be sent to work in a mill at the age of 14 to earn money for the family, instead of going to art school, as both he and his mother had dreamed of. “I shall never forget the heartbreak it occasioned my mother, never shall I ever forget the way she wept when I went off on my first day to work in a cotton factory at the age of fourteen, instead of art school as she had always hoped for.”

Starting as a learner piecer at 10/- a week, Percy rose to become a big piecer by the age of 17, earning 25/- a week, enough for him to afford evening classes in art in Ashton-under-Lyne where he won prizes and improved his technique. Percy was thrown out of work in 1928 but after a few months got another job with a commercial firm in Rochdale.

Whilst unemployed, Percy heard a speaker on the Market Ground in Mossley proclaiming how Socialism could solve the problems of poverty and ignorance. “I thought it over and read some books.” These included the Socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As a result he almost immediately joined the local Labour Party in which he became very active, assisting with the election of Herbert Gibson as the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Mossley at the general election in 1929. “I decided to give all the time I could to working for Socialism.” He started a Labour League of Youth and helped set up the Manchester Federation of Labour League of Youth (which is probably where he met Mary). In 1932 Percy organised a large demonstration by thousands of young people in Mossley against the Means Test and also stood for Mossley Council, but was defeated by 65 votes.

Percy realised his life’s ambition when he set up business as a freelance commercial artist in 1934. Though now a small businessman he did not abandon his Socialism and was Secretary of the Mossley Labour Party from 1933 to 1939 as well as Propaganda Secretary for the Lancashire District Clarion Youth Committee. In 1935 he assisted workers at Mossley Woolcombing to fight and win a strike over pay and conditions. At the same time Percy was also elected Secretary of Mossley Smalltraders Association, organizing a shopping week that same year to mark Mossley’s 50 years as a borough. He was also active in Aid Spain during the Spanish Civil War and in the Left Book Club. He took the 12 month correspondence course for Labour Party election agents, but left the Labour Party and joined the Communist Party in 1940.

In 1941 he joined the RAF and during his time at Padgate camp led a successful deputation to protest at the inept training and the food. After a brief spell in the Shetlands (where he established a Communist Party branch in Lerwick along with Peter Jamieson), he was eventually posted to Allahabad in India in 1943. He remained politically active, organising a Daily Worker reading classes and making contact with the Indian Communist Party. He met Indian Nationalists, including the son of Gandhi. Percy also served in Burma. His activities led him being moved to Nagpur, though this did not dampen his fervour for he made contact with local Communist Party and organized a Daily Worker reading group. He was posted again to Burma where he organized a Forces parliament.

Percy was demobbed in 1946. According to biographical notes submitted for a CP National School in January 1946 the Higgins were living back in Greenfield and Mary was working as a short-hand typist at R Radcliffe in Mossley. In 1947 they moved to Wales, where Percy worked as a full-time organiser and election agent for Harry Pollitt who stood as Communist Party candidate in the Rhondda East constituency several times, though was not elected. They lived in Penygraig, near Tonypandy, at this time.

Percy attended a National CP School in May 1950. The assessment of him noted that that he was very co-operative and ready to tackle problems and contributed well to group and class discussions, “though he has rather a tendency to leap into discussion without sufficiently thinking out his points.”

By the early 1950s Mary and Percy were back in Lancashire. Percy was now organising sales of the Daily Worker in Lancashire, quite successfully, according to a report in the CP archives. Mary worked as a medical secretary at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

They were very active members of CND formed in 1958, and took part in the Aldermaston marches and also marches to Holy Loch where nuclear submarines were based. Mary was involved with the Women’s Peace Caravan which crossed Europe to Moscow. In their spare time (what there was of it) they enjoyed walking in the Pennines and Lake District and also spent time at Dent in the Yorkshire Dales. Percy painted landscapes of their beloved lakes.

Percy died on 7 November 1977 and Mary died on 20 March 1995. The Working Class Movement Library has a tape of Mary taking about her life and politics.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Anti-Irish Riot in Ashton-under-Lyne, May 1868

In the 1860s a number of anti-Irish riots occurred in the Midlands and the North of England, provoked by William Murphy who gave virulently anti-Catholic lectures. The worst local riot took place in Ashton-under-Lyne in May 1868.

According to his own account William Murphy was born a Catholic in Limerick in 1834 but his family converted to Protestantism whilst he was still a child and his father, after being sacked from his teaching post, assumed a new post as head of a Protestant school in Mayo. By the 1860s Murphy was touring England lecturing for the Protestant Evangelical Mission & Electoral Union, using a platform style which combined violent rhetoric with lurid “revelations” of the alleged sexual exploitation of female Catholics by their priests. He would begin by declaring “My name is Murphy and a red hot one it is. I am for war with the knife, war with revolver if you like, war with the bayonet if you like” and then declare to his audience that “your wives and daughters are exposed to debauchery in the confessional, and are betrayed and kidnapped into convent prisons, and there kept the dupes or slaves of priestly lust.”

A flier advertising one of Murphy’s meetings in Lancashire read: “Protestants! Come and Hear the Questions Put to the Married and the Unmarried in the Confessional”. The main feature of Murphy’s show was a simulation of a confessional in which Murphy and an assistant played the roles of priest and confessor. Those whose taste for sexual saliciousness had not been completely sated by the evening’s events could afterwards purchase pamphlets entitled Maria Monk and The Confessional Unmasked, describing in graphic detail the variety of sexual practices that Catholic theologians had defined as mortal sins.

Many Catholics were deeply offended by Murphy’s attack on their religion and his lecture tours frequently caused uproar. Some local authorities refused to let him halls while others allowed him to speak, relying on the police to keep the peace. In February 1867 he caused considerable disorder in Wolverhampton and magistrates were forced to summon troops and cavalry from neighbouring towns. In June, Murphy began a week of meetings in Birmingham, using a specially built wooden “tabernacle” after the mayor had refused him use of the Town Hall. On the first afternoon Murphy offered to take on “any Popish priest, from Bishop Ullathorne to the biggest ragamuffin in the lot; and if there was ever a rag and bone gatherer in the universe it was the Pope himself”. The local Irish then began attacking the hall and the police were summoned to clear the area. The following day a huge crowd gathered and there was more rioting during which the mayor read the Riot Act and had to call out the troops. After the third lecture Murphy’s supporters attacked the Irish area and ransacked a local chapel. Troops eventually restored order and the rest of the week passed off largely without incident.

The following year Murphy headed north to the textile districts where his meetings were accompanied by riots and attacks on the Irish at Ashton, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury, Stalybridge and other towns. The worst riot was in Ashton in early May 1868 where the Orange Order had strong support (even today there is a pub near the station called The Prince of Orange). Murphy himself was not present but on Saturday 9th May the Protestant Electoral Union sponsored a tea-party for a thousand people in the Town Hall at which they gave away Orange emblems that were then worn around the town by Orangemen and supporters of Murphy. Almost inevitably this was followed by skirmishes in the streets between Irish and English.

On Sunday afternoon the Irish assembled in Bentinck Street and Old Street wearing green ribbons and led by John Flynn. The Orange crowd held Henry Square. During the fighting which soon broke out both sides threw stones, while the Irish freely used their revolvers, forcing the Orangemen to retreat. The police intervened, persuading the Irish to pull back and arresting a man named McHugh for drunkenness. The Irish then made another charge, firing many shots at the Orangemen in Old Street who retaliated by attacking Irish houses in Peter Street and Cavendish Street, Flag Alley, breaking the windows with stones and hatchets and, as in the riot in Stockport, dragging the furniture into the street where it was smashed or burned by the crowd which numbered several thousand by now. At least 100 people were left homeless. The Orange crowd then moved on to attack St Ann’s Roman Catholic chapel. They were held off for a while by shots fired by its defenders but eventually broke in and ransacked the place, smashing windows and pews and destroying the statues. They also damaged the house of the priest and local Catholic schools.

At about ten o’clock in the evening a large Orange crowd attacked St Mary’s Roman Catholic chapel in Charlestown, which was defended by men from the congregation armed with revolvers, including a number of Fenians it was later rumoured in the parish. One of the attackers, a man named William Ibbetson, was wounded in the stomach. While this was happening the Irish attacked houses in Blatford Street. Finally, around midnight, the magistrates read the Riot Act and the violence finally died out. The police arrested John Flynn. There was one fatality, a woman named Mary Bradby who died in Lower Bentinck Street. Initially it was reported that she had been trampled by the Orange crowd whilst watching what was going on but, after hearing evidence that she bore no trace of any injuries and had a bad condition of the heart, the inquest held a few days later decided that she had died of fright.

Next morning trouble started again between the hours of nine and ten in the morning when the Orange crowd resumed its attack on St Mary’s and pillaged some Irish houses in Hill Street. When special constables intervened the crowd set off for Stalybridge singing “Rule Britannia”. The police tried to bar the way but the crowd found another path and went to the Irish area in Henry Street where they started smashing windows until the police caught up with them and drove the rioters into the River Tame.

In the course of Monday a man called Houston (described in the press as “the anti-Popery lecturer”) delivered a lecture to sixty people or so in the Old Mill, Charlestown, blaming the disturbances on Roman Catholics, but there was no trouble afterwards. Some of the “peaceably disposed” Irish spent Monday night on Ashton Moss, fearing to return to their houses. The Mayor of Ashton opened a subscription list for the benefit of those who has lost their homes, while some English families offered to take in homeless Irish women and children. Seven Irishmen and fifteen Englishmen subsequently appeared before the magistrates, charged with various offences in connection with the rioting. The Pall Mall Gazette’s comments on the events in Ashton could equally have applied to Murphy’s whole career, pointing to a deep-rooted anti-Catholicism as an explanation:

Such an insignificant creature as Murphy could never have lighted such a fire as this if there had not been a vast mass of fuel ready to his hand. The ease with which he stirred up the feelings of the people both at Birmingham and in the North shows how powerful and widely spread those feelings… The overwhelming majority of Englishmen of all ranks of life do from their very hearts, and in a great variety of ways, utterly detest superstition and priestcraft…

Article by Michael Herbert

Mary Stott, journalist and editor of the Guardian’s women’s page 1957-71

Mary Stott was a journalist for a number of Manchester newspapers before becoming editor of The Guardian’s women’s page from 1957-197. After retiring she was active in an organization called Women and the Media and wrote two volumes of autobiography as well as editing an anthology of writings from the Guardian women’s page.

Mary Stott was born in Leicestershire in 1907. The smell of newsprint was in her nostrils from birth as both her parents and her uncle were journalists. She later recalled in her autobiography Forgetting’s No Excuse:

When as small child I told my dolls “I have some copy to write now , I was only imitating my journalist parents, not indicating my destined future. That future was to be working in newspaper uninterruptedly for almost half a century, but it was also to be a human being with affections, passions and pursuits, and a child of my times. The strands of my life cannot be separated out; it is their interlocking, heredity and environment, work and home, that makes a pattern. Being a journalists’ child made me a journalist; having a working mother made me expect to go on working myself; being born female hindered me from becoming a the kind of newspaper journalist I would have liked to be; being a wife and mother probably made me a more effective women’s page editor.

Her parents were active Liberals and one of her earliest memories was of riding around in car wearing a green ribbon during the 1911 general election.

Aged just 17 she started work on the Leicester Mail as a temporary copyholder in April 1925, though the union would not let her join because she was a woman. She progressed to the reporters room and was then at the tender of 19 given the women’s page. She also learned the craft of sub-editing and layout.

In 1931 Mary was sacked from the paper as the economic slump deepened, but she got a new job just a few weeks later at the Bolton Evening News, reporting on meetings and writing a weekly “women’s diary”. After two years she moved to the Co-operative News in Manchester where she edited the Women’s Co-operative Guild pages as well as Women’s Outlook, the monthly children’s magazine Our Circle, the monthly Co-operative Youth and finally Sunshine Stories for very small children:

…I loved and venerated the women of the co-operative movement, whose courage persistence and loyalty seemed to me often heroic, for though most of them were under-educated and many were scarcely above the poverty line, they learned to speak in public, go on deputations, organize and preside at great conferences. To me the most remarkable thing about the Women’s Co-operative Guild was the training it gave in the art of government, its completely democratic structure.

There was no money for contributions, so Mary and her colleague Nora Crossley wrote practically everything themselves, including some of the fiction. They copied recipes from cook books and borrowed illustrations from other magazines. They also made-up the pages themselves, becoming experts in fitting in text and pictures. Mary was the obvious candidate to get the editor’s job when it became vacant, but her gender counted against her even in the progressive Co-operative movement.

In 1945 Mary went to work for the Manchester Evening News as a news sub-editor, She loved the job, writing later that: “I got to rather good at this swift cutting and piecing, this remorseless battle with the clock”. However, she was sacked in 1950 to allow a man to take the job. She devoted herself to looking after her daughter Catherine before going back to work for the Co-operative Press again as editor of Woman’s Outlook.

In 1957 the new editor of the Manchester Guardian, Alastair Hetherington, asked her to edit the newspaper’s women’s page, at the time called Mainly for Women.

The page had started in 1922 when it was edited by Madeline Linford. As Linford later recalled in a piece written for Mary in 1963, she had been the only woman on the staff of the newspaper and had been instructed by the editor C P Scott to start a women’s feature on six days a week. “…My briefing was lucid and firm,” she recalled. “The page must be readable, varied and aimed always at the intelligent woman… I saw her as an aloof, rigid and highly critical figure, a kind of Big Sister, vigilant for lapses of taste, dignity and literary English.” Madeline had recruited a talented set of contributors which included Vera Brittain, Leonora Eyles, Winifred Holtby and Evelyn Sharp.

During her stewardship of the page Mary also relied on contributions from readers, receiving upwards of fifty unsolicited manuscripts each week: “I reckoned myself a Guardian woman through and through so that my range of interests was likely to be shared by a fair proportion of women readers.”

The page led directly to creation of women’s organizations. In February 1960, for instance, Mary published a letter from Maureen Nicol living in Eastham, Cheshire, who wrote that “perhaps housebound housewives with liberal interests and desire to remain individuals could form a national register, so that whenever a one moves one contacts like-minded friends.” She received 400 letters in one week in response and led to her set up the National Housewives Register. Other organizations that the page acted as a midwife to included the Pre-school Playgroups Association, Invalids at Home and National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependents.

Fiona McCarthy arrived in Manchester in 1964 to work as Mary’s assistant. She later wrote:

Mary set out to create a page which “depended mainly on warmth, sincerity and personal involvement”. With extraordinary speed, it established its identity, reflecting, to an uncanny degree, the attitudes and personality of Mary herself. I can think of no other editor who built up such direct rapport with her readers, or who saw such possibilities in them as contributors. At a time when feminism in Britain was just dawning, Mary was acute in her judgment that what women cried out for was the sharing of experience, the sense of real people writing on her page…… Mary established her own power base, an influential and idiosyncratic female sub-state. She knew from her own experience the struggle women had in balancing love, family and their professional lives, and she ran her page with a dogged sense of purpose in opening out the possibilities for women, forming supportive networks, creating solidarities.

In the late 1960s and early 70s the women’s page reflected the emerging women’s movement. Jill Tweedie, who started working for the paper in 1969, later wrote that to be “young, female and a hackette when the Women’s Movement was getting into high gear was very heaven, the icing on the Sixties cake, which for all its excitements , hadn’t done much more for women than shove us into bed with a lot of stoned hippies playing rotten guitar.”

In March 1971 Jill reported for The Guardian on the International Women’s Day march in London, which was a key event in the emergence of the new movement:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversion will come later, as fall-out comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went, unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering, and bawdy and prim and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley, frost-defying sex.”

As well as her journalism Jill also wrote the fictional Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist which, with a nod to the nineteenth century epistolary novel, took the form of a series of letters between Martha and her younger and more liberated sister, Mary. This was later adapted for TV by Jill and Christopher Bond and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1984 with Lynn Redgrave as Martha and Sarah Neville as Mary.
Jill worked for The Guardian until 1988. She died from motor neurone disease in 1993. She is commemorated in a group portrait at the National Portrait Gallery with fellow Guardian Women’s Page contributors Mary Stott, Polly Toynbee, Posy Simmonds and Liz Forgan.

Mary Stott retired in 1971 and was given an honorary fellowship by Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan University. She remained active after retirement, helping to found Women in the Media, for instance. In February 1973 Mary led a march by the organisation to 10 Downing Street. They were not received but the duty policeman, Sergeant Garnham of Cannon Row, said that two of them could deliver a written message. The women had pens but not a sheet of paper between them. The sergeant tore a page from his notebook and they left a note for Ted Heath.

Mary wrote two volumes of autobiography, Forgetting’s No Excuse (1973) and Before I Go (1985). She also edited an anthology from the women’s page covering the period 1922-35 and 1957-71 called Women Talking, which was published in 1987.

Mary Stott died in 2002 aged 95. Lena Jager in her obituary of Mary in The Guardian in September 2002 wrote:

“Part of her strength – and perhaps why so many men read her page – was her belief that discrimination, in any form, was a total sin. She cared about poverty, unemployment and disability, wherever lives were diminished. She tried hard to win equality for women, but not as an isolated problem. She could be combative in all her campaigns, but never a bigot.”

In July 2007 the Guardian introduced the Mary Stott prize to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s pages, and the centenary of Mary Stott’s birth, the Guardian women’s page. Anyone aged 18 or above can enter – the only requirement is that entrants have plenty of editorial ideas for Guardian women. The prize is a week spent editing the women’s pages in the Guardian’s London office commissioning and editing features, choosing the pictures and writing the headlines.

Article by Michael Herbert

Stockport riot, June 1852

There was a short-lived but violent anti-Irish riot in Stockport in June 1852. The causes appear to have been local resentment at Irish migration into the town, coupled with public concern at the growth and public displays of Catholicism. Protestants organized into Associations spurred on by a number of Protestant priests and politicians. The outburst was not repeated.

The revival of Catholicism and the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in Britain by the Pope in September 1850 caused some Protestants to fear that the old enemy was plotting to reclaim their country for Rome. These fears were stoked higher by a badly worded pastoral letter issued by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman in which he told his fellow Englishman that “Your beloved country has received a place among the fair churches, which, normally constituted, form the splendid aggregate of Catholic communion; Catholic England has been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament, from which its light had long vanished”.

There was a popular belief that the Pope was still making a claim to some authority in Britain (Queen Victoria is alleged to have asked “Am I Queen of England or am I not?”), which led to a wave of anti-Catholic meetings and protests against “Papal aggression”, including one in Manchester in the Free Trade Hall on 21st November 1850. Local anti-Catholic cleric Reverend Hugh Stowell delivered a lecture on papal aggression at the Free Trade Hall on 16th January 1851. Stowell was the first priest at the new church of Christ Church, Acton Square, Salford, opened in 1831. From the beginning he preached a fervent brand of fundamentalist Protestantism, denouncing Dissenters, Tractarians and “Popery” from the pulpit and from public platforms (there was little distinction). In 1839 he also founded the Salford Operative Protestant Association, which distributed pamphlets by the thousand for many years.

Anti-Catholicism reached deep into the roots of English society in this period. For many it defined who they were as Englishmen and women and explained and revealed English history as a journey from superstition and darkness into liberty and light. The popular writer Charles Kingsley, for instance, attacked Catholicism in many of his novels and writings. In an article published in 1848 entitled “Why Should We Fear the Romish Priests?” he wrote:

The real history of England, from Ethelbert to the Reformation, is the history of a struggle, issuing in the complete victory of the laity, the anti-national and hierarchic spirit being gradually absorbed by the national lay spirit, which asserts the rights of the citizen, the husband, the individual conscience. This battle has to be fought in every Christian country, the married layman and the celibate priest may make truce for a time, but they are foes in grain.

Jumping onto the populist bandwagon the government passed the Ecclesiastical Titles Act in 1851, which banned Catholic bishops from holding the same titles as Anglican bishops (which is why there is a Catholic Bishop of Salford and an Anglican Bishop of Manchester.) No prosecutions were ever brought and the Act was repealed in 1871 when common sense on these issues returned. Suspicions about Catholic intentions were also kept simmering by a number of high profile conversions to “Rome”, including those Anglicans associated with the Tractarian or Oxford movement. On 15th June 1852 (three weeks before the general election) in an obvious play to simmering anti-Catholicism amongst the public, Lord Derby’s Tory government issued a proclamation which forbade Catholics to walk in procession through the streets with the symbols of their religion.

However, the nineteenth annual procession by Stockport’s Roman Catholics went ahead on Sunday 27th June 1852, headed by local priests Reverend Randolph Frith of St Philip and St James, Edgeley and Reverend Robert Foster of St Michael’s, who were followed by local schoolchildren and Irish labourers walking six abreast. No banners or Catholic emblems were carried and even the priests wore ordinary dress, not canonical vestments. There was no trouble on the procession itself, apart from a small number of Protestants who hissed and groaned, and no trouble in the Irish public houses in the evening.

The following afternoon, however, an effigy of a priest was paraded by members of the local Protestant Association and later on Monday evening fighting between Irish and English began in the Bishop Blaize public house on Hillgate. The Irish ran into John Street and Edward Street – which were largely Irish streets – and gathered reinforcements, whilst the English did likewise. There was a short street brawl which had died down by the time the police constables, led by Mr Sadler, arrived and there were no further disturbances for the rest of the evening.

Large crowds gathered the following evening in Hillgate, armed with sticks and stones, and renewed the fighting. The Irish retreated to their home territory of Rock Row pursued by the English, who broke the windows of the houses in the street with volleys of stones, kicked in the doors and dragged the furniture into the street where they smashed it to pieces. Michael Moran, who had previously been knocked down and severely wounded in the head by the mob in Lord Street, was taking shelter on a bed in an upper room when the mob rushed in, smashed the furniture and wrecked the room. Other houses received similar treatment and the inhabitants – men, women and children- only narrowly escaped serious injury. Moran left the house, supposedly under police protection, but as he came out a man hit him on the head with a large piece of wood saying “Come, let us look at his head and see if he is an Irishman”. Moran died within a short time of his injuries. He was a single man and labourer, aged 23, who had been staying with his sister and brother-in law, James Hannigan.

The Irish replied with an attack on the house of Alderman Graham, a well-known Protestant, which was situated on Lord Street, very near Rock Row. They then turned their attention to the Protestant church of St. Peter’s and its schools. One eyewitness, a Mr Cheetham, later described the scene in the Illustrated London News:

All this time there was a continued screaming and yelling screaming, and about seven o’clock the blood of the Irish being tolerably warmed, they had armed themselves with the weapons they could lay hold upon readiest – pokers, soldering irons, sticks, pieces of chair, sickles, scythes, and other barbarous instruments, and were ready for conflict with any power that might present themselves. The scythes and sickles seem to corroborate the account given by some of the men subsequently apprehended, that they had only just come England, that being so, they were over here for the harvest, and these were their implements of labour.

The English then marched in force armed with pick-axes, hatchets, crow-bars and hammers to the Catholic church of St. Philip and James in Chapel Street, Edgeley, which had been opened in 1803. They smashed the windows of the priest’s house and then broke into the church, breaking the altar rails and smashing the altar and tabernacle. Women were described as being as “as eager and active in the work of destruction as males”. All church furniture, fittings, candlesticks, pictures, even the organ was destroyed. The priest and his friends, who had been hiding from the fury of the mob in the bell-turret, were forced to flee across the roof to a nearby house as attempts were made to fire the church. The rioters wreaked similar destruction upon St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church Chapel in Park Street (which had only opened the year previously), leaving little more than four bare walls standing.

Police finally arrested some rioters in the chapel and in total arrested 113 people, of whom 111 were Irish. The Manchester Guardian described the scene in the courthouse when the prisoners appeared on Wednesday morning:

Within a rail separating the lower end of the court from that where justice is administered were penned together some sixty or seventy youths and men, nearly all Irish, most of whom had bandages and plasters on their heads, faces, hands, and arms and legs…..others were moaning and bleeding and the whole formed a scene not unlike that of a hospital after a battle.

A number of other Englishmen were arrested and eventually ten English and ten Irish were sent for trial at Chester, where all the Irish – but only three of the English – were found guilty and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment with hard labour.

Local politics and the influence of the media appear to have played a significant part in stoking up anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish feeling in Stockport. A Protestant Association had been formed in December 1850, part of a national organisation set up in 1835 to campaign for the repeal of Catholic Emancipation and against Catholicism, which placed anti-Catholic placards around the town. Local Tory politicians such as Alderman Claye were members of the Association as were a number of Anglican clergymen, including most prominently the Reverend Meridyth of St. Peter’s church. Meridyth was an Irish Protestant who spoke at anti-Catholic meetings ( sometimes in the company of Stowell) which probably explains why his church was singled out by the Irish during the riot.

The simmering pot of anti-Catholicism and anti-Irishness was stirred by the Stockport Advertiser, which was strongly pro-Tory and published five anti-Catholic editorials in the summer, often linking the names of the Liberal candidates to support for “papal aggression”. There were explicit attacks on the Irish. “What is it that so often disturbs the peace of our borough, increases our rates and saps the very foundation of all our charitable institutions, but popery embodied in Irish mobs, paupers and fever patients?”.

The issue of the riot was raised in the House of Commons:

Mr Chisholm Anstey seeing the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department in his place, he wished to put a question to him with reference to the unfortunate affray which had taken place at Stockport. He begged to ask, in the first place, whether the right hon. Gentleman had any further information as to the causes that led to the riot than was mentioned in the morning papers; secondly, whether it was true that a religious procession of Roman Catholics was the original cause of the riot; and, thirdly, whether it was the intention of Her Majesty’s Government from this time forth to take effectual measures to prevent religious processions of that kind taking place in this country, where their recurrence was eminently calculated to excite breaches of the public peace?

Mr Walpole: Sir, with reference to the three questions put to me by the hon. and learned Gentleman, I have to state, in the first place, that I have received no further information than that which the daily organs of communication have put the House in possession of with reference to the unfortunate disturbances which have taken place in Stockport. In answer to the second question put by the hon. and learned Gentleman, perhaps I had better read to the House a passage from a letter which I have received from the Mayor of Stockport with reference to the origin of the disturbances: — As far as is at present ascertained, the disturbance appears to have arisen out of a quarrel between the English and Irish, in which, I fear religious animosity has been brought into play; but the whole matter was so sudden and unexpected, and the attention of myself and brother magistrates has been so entirely required by the necessary measures for preserving the public peace, that the facts have not yet been accurately ascertained. In that state of things the House, I think, will agree with me in the propriety of forbearing from the expression of an opinion one way or the other with reference to the origin of these disturbances. As to the third question put by the hon. and learned Gentleman, whether it is the intention of the Government to prevent all religious processions which lead to these unhappy disturbances, I can only state that, both in England and in Ireland the Government have taken every possible precaution to discourage processions of such a character, or which can in any way lead to disturbances arising out of religious differences existing between different members of the community. We have done so in Ireland with reference to the processions which usually take place at this time of the year, by communications between the Lord Lieutenant and the magistrates, expressive of the desire of the Government to repress and check to the utmost extent processions which may lead to these disturbances. We have done so, also, in England; and all I can assure the House is this—that the present Government are anxious, above all things, that any of those ostentatious parades which may lead to religious disputes shall be discouraged and discountenanced by the Government, and I hope the country will support us in doing so.

Article by Michael Herbert