1828 - 1865

Anti-Catholic agitation in Wolverhampton (part 6)

1858:  the violence continues

Though there was some truth in this criticism of the Irish, the organizers of anti-Catholic rallies were certainly aware of the response that such events would evoke. Five years later, in June 1858, similar violent agitation was incited by the arrival in Wolverhampton of Baron de Camin, whose anti-Popery talks were known to have led to rioting amongst the lower class of Irish Catholics in neighbouring towns. Shortly before his first lecture at 9.00 pm on Tuesday 29 June at the Corn Exchange, a volley of stones was thrown at the windows by young Irish colliers and labourers. The missiles had been provided by the Irish women who had carried them some distance in their aprons. The hats of the Mayor, a number of magistrates and several police constables were damaged by the stones, and the former, Mr Ironmonger, felt that it was his duty to read the Riot Act. Meanwhile, inside the Exchange, several Irishmen had paid the 3d admission but were prevented by policemen at the door from smuggling in their sticks and stones. The anger of the Irish reached its peak when the Baron appeared, dressed as a Dominican monk, and erected a mock altar with candles, a crucifix and a doll to represent a saint. The Irish tried to attack him but were restrained by stewards and police. Captain Segrave, the Chief Constable, urged Father Kelly to speak to the Irish, telling them that they should go home peacefully as the organisers had decided to postpone the meeting. This he did, and order was restored as the mob left the building, though the Irish did not realize that once they had departed, the Baron would proceed with his lecture after all. Fearing further disturbances at de Camin's next lecture the following night, several steps were taken. The Mayor and the Borough magistrates ordered the swearing in of a number of special constables, the Wolverhampton troop of yeomanry was put on standby, and in an attempt to exclude Irish Catholics from the meeting, the minimum admission was raised to 6d. [WC 7th July 1858].

Tension remained high during the summer and several Irish Catholics were involved in incidents with certain Protestant street preachers. Though the Irish committed a number of acts of violence on the latter, there was strong evidence to suggest that there had been considerable provocation. In selecting the particular sites for their open-air services, the members of the Protestant Wolverhampton Town Mission should not have been surprised at the response. Mr Fowler had held a service outside the Catholic church on Snowhill on the evening of 11 June 1858, and even after an angry mob had formed, he had ignored the plea by the police to desist from speaking "in order to conciliate the mob". Fowler later complained that when he had been struck by a stone on the head, the police had deliberately failed to assist him. Two days later, the elderly Missionary, Mr Clarke, conducted an open air service in front of the Catholic chapel in North Street, and he, too, had taken no notice of the police advice to stop preaching for fear of a disturbance breaking out. Eventually a group-of about 100 Irishmen chased the Missionaries away. [WC 1st Sept 1858]

Despite the threats of violence against them, some of the more daring members of the Town Mission continued their campaign of going into those parts of the town in which they would come into contact with Irish Catholics, to conduct their services. Infuriated by the presence of one such Protestant, Mr Clarke, who stood outside the Sir Tatton Sykes public house on the night of the first Sunday in August 1858, a group of about 20 Irishmen demanded that he removed himself immediately. When he refused to go, Mr Clarke, who had intended "to deliver a few earnest words to the depraved denizens of our overcrowded courts and alleys", was knocked unconscious, sustaining "concussion of the brain, in addition to several internal and external injuries". [WC 4th Aug 1858] Again the police were accused of standing by in perfect apathy by their refusal to afford him protection. [ibid].

In a letter to the Wolverhampton Chronicle, one member of the Town Mission considered why the Irish were behaving so badly, and went on to criticize other Roman Catholics for their lack of action:

"People naturally ask how it is that the Irish Roman Catholics have assumed such an aggressive attitude during the last two years, and solve the problem while they ask it by pointing at the police. Why are the police permitted to wander about the town in threes in the principal thoroughfares .... It is high time that the respectable Roman Catholics in the town bestir themselves, or they will be open to the charge of conniving at the wrong complained of .... The priestly influence which is at work will continue .... but the Town Missions will continue undeterred." [ibid].

On Sunday 3 August, four Irishmen were arrested for disturbing a religious open-air meeting in Darlington Street and were severely dealt with the following day in court. The magistrate remarked that "the conduct of these Irishmen on Sundays, in interrupting peaceably disposed individuals, had become so formidable that it would be necessary to adopt more stringent measures". They were each fined 50 shillings. [WC 411th Aug 1858] Despite this firm line taken by the judiciary, the Town Missionaries were still highly critical of the police force and they pressed for a special meeting of the Watch Committee to consider their complaints. When the meeting was held at the end of August 1858, Mr Mottram, a barrister from the Oxford Circuit, who represented the police, accused the Town Missionaries of inciting "excitement in the minds of the populace". Police Sergeant Brookes, who had witnessed some of the incidents, argued that the Irish mobs had not been threatening, and said that, he had almost arrested the Mission members for causing an obstruction. After listening to all the evidence, the Watch Committee decided that there was no foundation for the complaints against the police. [WC 8th Sept1858] Roger Swift has recently suggested that in the Wolverhampton of the late 1840s and early 1850s the Irish "bore the brunt of the police drive to assert their authority in society", and that the latter had implemented a deliberate policy which brought them into specific contact with this immigrant community. [R.Swift "Crime and Ethnicity: The Irish in early Victorian Wolverhampton" West Midland Studies Vol 13 1980]] In the confrontation between some members of the Town Mission and the Irish, however, the police seem to have taken a far more sympathetic attitude, appreciating, perhaps, the sensitive nature of the issues involved.

While it appears that physical assaults by Irishmen on Protestant street-preachers had almost ceased by the autumn, there were still occasional outbursts involving some of the younger Catholics. In October 1858, when Mary Cassidy appeared in court, one such type of incident came to light.

"For some time past numerous interruptions have taken place at St Mary's Church, during the hours of divine service, in consequence of some of the lower class of Irish, principally boys and girls, who infest Stafford Street, suddenly throwing open the church doors and commencing shouting and creating a disturbance." [WC 3rd Nov1858].

The Anglican churchwarden, in bringing the case, stated that he was not seeking retribution, but that he simply wanted to ensure that it did not happen again. Cassidy was ordered to pay a surety of £5 and to keep the peace for three months.