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