1828 - 1865

Anti-Catholic agitation in Wolverhampton (part 2)

1829-54:  the removal of disabilities and the fortress chapel

Within less than a year of the new chapel of SS Peter & Paul being opened for worship, the Wolverhampton Chronicle published one of its very rare Saturday supplements because of "the great anxiety manifested by the public to be acquainted with the measures intended to be introduced for the removal of Roman Catholic Disabilities". [WC [supplement] 7th Mar 1829].

There were a number of letters in the correspondence columns throughout February and March 1829 from local Protestants who feared the increase in Catholic influence that would be a consequence of Emancipation. These fears and the reassurances from Bishop Walsh were remarkably similar to those that were heard twenty-one years later, after the Restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales. Walsh explained that Roman Catholics owed spiritual obedience only to Pope Pius VIII, while "full and undivided allegiance in all civil and temporal matters is due .... to our beloved sovereign King George IV". [WC 29th April 1829].

During the following year, correspondence and reports of lectures concerning the alleged place of image-worship in the Church of Rome prompted the Revs P. O'Sullivan and F. Mostyn to complain that the Chronicle had broken its previous promise to cease printing details of the controversy surrounding this matter. They explained that images were used simply to help "recall our wandering thoughts and to enliven our memories towards heavenly things". [WC 5th Jan 1831].

The Church of Ss Peter and Paul with "many of the qualities of a fortress".  The windowed block is a later addition.

The design and construction of SS Peter & Paul's chapel shows just how important contemporary Catholics felt security to be in Wolverhampton at that time. A London court case on Boxing Day 1831 brought to light some interesting details. Part of the evidence against Ann Williams, who faced several charges of robbery, was a letter from James Peck, a noted thief. Mrs Williams asked him to appraise the possibility of executing a successful burglary at the chapel, but his reply had offered no encouragement.

"As for Enny body thinking to crack into that place, the [sic] might as well think of cracking into Newgate as there is no windows hall round this chapel. It consists of scuy lites [sky lights], and there is but one door, an wen enny body goes through that door, the have got to pass through two more doors which is very strong bard on the inside .... It is a thing impossable to think about getting into that place without being found out…." [WC 28th Dec 1831].

It is most likely that in building a chapel with many of the qualities of a fortress, the Catholics were more concerned about the actions of their more violent religious opponents than the criminal deeds of petty thieves.

There appears to have been no further outbreaks of anti-Catholic feeling in Wolverhampton until the spring of 1845, when the controversy broke out over the Parliamentary Bill to give an additional and permanent grant to the Roman Catholic College of Maynooth. Although a number of letters from angry Protestants appeared in the local Press, there does not seem to have been a great deal of support for the suggestion contained in one such item of correspondence: "I do trust that some influential townsmen will take the necessary steps to convene a meeting; and I doubt not that a powerful response will be found in the hearts of a majority of our fellow townsmen". [WC 14th May 1845 "Letter from a Protestant"] The Chronicle, however, realized that little could be done to alter the course of events, no matter how desirable. "We see no probable plan by which the strongly, and we may say, nationally disapproved measure is likely to be set aside .... Failures in high quarters, we might add, deceptions - have almost removed all hope ...." [WC 23rd April 1845].

The Maynooth debate passed off quietly in Wolverhampton, probably because at that time its Catholic community was still relatively small, "respectable", and predominantly English. This state of affairs changed dramatically during the following five years as thousands of Irish invaded the town in search of employment and accommodation. The ghetto area of Caribee Island was flooded by the huge famine influx of impoverished and disease-ridden Irish, "and the social misery which was a by-product of such a brutalizing environment, together with a ready acceptance of the notion that Irish peasant society was inherently violent" [O’Tuaghaig op cit p.162] formed for many of the less sympathetic townsmen an explanation for all Irish troubles and misfortunes.