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