1828 - 1865

Anti-Catholic agitation in Wolverhampton (part 7)

1859-67: a reduction and recurrence in friction

There then followed a period of nine years during which there was less friction between the various religious groups in Wolverhampton. The number of new Irish immigrants entering the town continued to fall throughout the 1850s, [WC 8th Sept 1852] and by the mid-1860s plans were under way for the construction of a new chapel for those living in the vicinity of Caribee Island. Improvements in Catholic-Protestant relations received an unfortunate set-back in February 1867 when the notorious William Murphy arrived in Wolverhampton to deliver a series of five lectures.

Murphy claimed that he had been born and baptized a Roman Catholic in County Limerick in the year 1834. While still a young boy he had followed his parents in changing to Protestantism, and by 1862 he had emigrated to England and was offering his services to the Protestant Evangelical Mission in London, the main purpose of which was to "defend ourselves and others from the yoke of the Romish priesthood and its abettors". [W.Arnstein "The Murphy Riots: A Victorian Dilemma" Victorian Studies xix 1975 p.53].

The week before Murphy arrived in Wolverhampton, he had been banned by the Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme from lecturing in that town "for fear of a disturbance and the destruction of property". [WC 20th Feb1867] One of the priests at Ss Peter & Paul's, Father Henry Davies, warned of the likelihood of violent consequences should Murphy be allowed to lecture at the Agricultural Hall:

"The Catholic body of Wolverhampton .... is not prepared to pass over in silence or without an indignant protest to tolerate the insult, libel and mockery .... The experience of the past goes to show that these ungodly assaults upon our feelings, faith and morals, are for the most part destructive of social peace and public morality." [ibid].

His colleague, Father George Duckett, pleaded for Murphy to be prevented from entering Wolverhampton:

"As we Catholics have always wished to live in peace and harmony with our fellow townsmen; as we take our share in the burden of rates and taxes; and as we contribute equally with others to the social order, interests, and welfare of the town ... the authorities of the town are bound to protect us from the annoyance of which I complain" [ibid].

His appeal was heard sympathetically by the magistrates of the town who tried to persuade the directors of the agricultural Hall not to allow Murphy's lecture to be delivered in the building for fear of violence. The request was ignored as the hall's directors had received a guarantee from the lessee that any damage would be put right.

On the evening of the first lecture, Monday 18 February 1867, the rate of admission had been set at 1d and 2d, and at these low prices several hundred Irish had been able to join the audience. When Murphy began his talk, he had been able to utter only a few words when the trouble began. The Wolverhampton Chronicle later reported that though "the disturbance was chiefly by a number of boys ... a number of women were using language calculated to excite the men ..." [ibid] Several chairs were smashed up to provide impromptu hand weapons, and Murphy was forced to flee in a cab which was conveniently stationed outside the Hall. When those accused of leading the riot appeared in court the following day to face charges of willful damage to property, their cases were dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence. [ibid].

To exclude the Irish labourers from the second of the lectures on Tuesday 19 February, the minimum admission was raised to 4d. This time Murphy was able to give his lecture on "Popish heresy and immorality" despite the hurling of stones and bricks through the windows and the glass roof of the hall. His talks always contained provocative remarks which were certain to excite a hostile reaction from Roman Catholics. For example, he argued that "every Popish Priest was a murderer, a cannibal, a liar and a pickpocket" and that the "Virgin Mary was a Protestant and not a Roman Catholic". [Arnstein op cit pp.58 – 9].

There were a number of possible motives for Murphy's being invited to speak in Wolverhampton. A Protestant councillor, Mr Sidney, claimed in March of that year, that it had been a deliberate act of provocation designed to insult Catholics in Wolverhampton, [WC 6th Mar 1867] while Alderman Hawkesford believed that there had been important commercial considerations. Gaining the services of Murphy for the week had cost only £3.[ibid] while admission receipts would have amounted to over £350, and even after the deduction of the cost of hiring the hall and repairing the damage, a large profit would have remained. At a later meeting of the Town Council, the Mayor disclosed that Wolverhampton ratepayers would have to pay the bill of £140 that had been incurred in providing the extra policing during the week of Murphy's visit. [WC 13th Mar 1867].

Many Protestants wrote angry letters complaining that the actions of the Catholic mob had been an assault on civil and religious liberty, and one went so far as to cast doubt on the morals of the town’s Catholic clergy. "Romish priests have been seen to go into the Convent of the Holy Sisters late in the evening and not return until the following morning." [ibid] The following week the Chronicle editor was forced to admit that "there is not the slightest foundation in the insinuation". [WC 20th Mar 1867] Edward Davies, a leading industrialist in the town, was compelled publicly to deny the rumours that he intended to dismiss all the Irish who were employed at his ironworks on Snowhill after the trouble in the Agricultural Hall. [WC 27th Feb 1867].

William Murphy brought with him copies of the booklet 'The Confessional Unmasked' which, though it had not been written by him, contained similar views to his own. On march 4 the Watch Committee banned the sale of this book, but during the following week Mr Scott, of Waterloo Road, was visited by the police and found to be in the possession of 252 copies. [WC 6th Mar 1867] The books were seized and Scott ordered to appear before the town's magistrates, who found him guilty of selling an obscene publication. [WC 20th Mar 1867] On appeal at the Wolverhampton Quarter Sessions and with the personal support of Murphy himself, Scott won his case on a technicality and his books were returned to him. The Recorder, in giving his judgment, expressed the hope that the Catholic Church would take the case to a higher court and he gave "every facility for prosecuting such an appeal" because he believed that "day after day in this locality aspersions have been cast upon the religion and morals of Roman Catholics ... of whom there are no more faithful servants of the Queen". [WC 29th May 1867] In fact, the original verdict against Scott was reaffirmed on 29 April 1868 by the Lord Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn and four associates in the Queen's Bench who decided that the publication was likely to "deprave and corrupt the minds of those into whose hands the book might fall". [Arnstein op cit p.64].