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

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4 thoughts on “William Murphy in Manchester, August 1868

  1. This is fascinating stuff. I did some looking into his career in Birmingham when I came across his grave in the Key Hill Cemetery there.

    The trouble there was caused by the city authorities not allowing him to preach in the Town Hall (owing to his reputation in Manchester and Leicester having followed him ). They had allowed Cardinal Manning to preach there previously and Murphy made this a major point of his rhetoric.

    He and his cohorts had a wooden tabernacle built just outside the Irish community’s segment of the city and his sermons were surrounded by protestors hurling rocks as he spoke.

    One night a whole group of his followers went through the Irish quarter and totally levelled it.

    The kind of sermons he preached involved Catholic Priests being only after protestant women, how nunneries were used as brothels and how any resulting pregnancies incurred as a result were terminated through infanticide and other such imflammatory material.

    He also preached in a Black Country town called Wednesbury in a chapel which he had extended through the installation of balconies. One of these actually collapsed at one point causing some injuries among the congregation. He, however, merely adjourned the gathering to a nearby grassy mound and carried on regardless.

    He actually continued preaching in a chapel in Birmingham city centre for a couple of years after he was attacked in Whitehaven, and his death seems to have been also caused by a TB infection which started in his throat.

    A fascinating figure.

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