1828 - 1865


There is little doubt that the period 1828-67 saw considerable development in the Roman Catholic community in Wolverhampton. The dramatic growth in the number of Catholics in the town was largely responsible for this development. Only one in every 33 Wulfrunians was a Roman Catholic at the beginning of the period whilst, at its close, the figure stood at one in six.. Other evidence of growth can be seen from the programme of church building, with three places of worship being built and opened during the thirty-nine years in question. At the same time, several new schools were opened: St Mary's in Blakenhall, St Patrick's and St George's in Little's Lane, and SS Mary & John's on Snowhill.

The factors responsible for this increase both in human and material terms are of considerable importance. There is some evidence of a "Second Spring" with many conversions in the 1830s, though it is obvious that the most significant factor was the arrival of thousands of Irish during the famine years. The mid-century estimate of 6,000 Irish in Wolverhampton is proof of the extent of their penetration, and it is clear that, from this point onwards, their presence was probably the greatest determinant in the development of Catholicity in the town.

When SS Peter & Paul's chapel was opened in 1828, it was possible for all the Roman Catholics in the town to be accommodated at one service. By 1867, however, the three churches in Wolverhampton had only enough room to seat 20 per cent of the town's adherents. As in many other industrial towns, therefore, the influx of Irish families put a great deal of strain on the resources of the Roman Catholic Church in Wolverhampton. In this town, on the other hand, the immigrants were prepared to help remedy this situation by building a church of their own.

The main doorway to Ss Mary and John's Church, Snow Hill.

Apart from greatly increasing the size of the Roman Catholic population of Wolverhampton in a relatively short period, the Irish were also responsible for changing the social balance of the community.

In the late 1820s, the Catholics of Wolverhampton were a typical cross-section of the town's society as a whole, but four decades later, the domination of the group by unskilled Irish labourers and their families meant that Catholicism was seen by many Protestants as catering mainly for those of the lower social order. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that the Catholic schools were principally concerned with the education of the poorer children in the town.

The strongest opponents of Roman Catholicism, of whom there were several amongst the Evangelical ministers of the various Protestant denominations, regarded a Catholic community dominated by the Irish as a foreign, violent and unwelcome body.

The attacks from outside forces which occurred throughout the period were never sustained. Just as E. R. Norman describes in a wider context, anti-Catholic agitation in Wolverhampton flared up as the result of particular national events or with the arrival of certain notorious Protestant orators. While it may have been expected that fierce criticism from others would have united the Catholic body, this was often far from the case. Again, the Wolverhampton situation reflects the national struggle between clergy and laity for domination of the Catholic community. In John Hawkesford the Roman Catholic clergy had a formidable opponent, though it is not possible to conclude by 1867 whether this power struggle had been resolved. This area could be developed by future study. The tension between English Catholics and their Irish counterparts, as outlined by O'Tuathaig, is borne out by events in Wolverhampton. The building of St Patrick's was partly a consequence of the Anglo-Irish tensions within the Wolverhampton Catholic body, though there is little other evidence in the local press or Archdiocese Archives. It would be interesting to look at the period after 1867 to discover whether the Irish in Wolverhampton had become more integrated into society as a whole and within the town's Catholic community in particular.

Future research might also show if any other orators followed in the train of Gavazzi, de Camin, and Murphy, and whether the Evangelical Protestants softened in their opposition to Roman Catholicism. Was the reaction to the announcement of Papal infallibility in 1870 similar to that which greeted the Restoration of the Catholic hierarchy two decades earlier, or did it pass off in Wolverhampton with muted protest?

The provision of education was considered by the Catholic Church to be of paramount importance and, in Wolverhampton, despite the limited finance and rapidly expanding demand, some progress was made. The attitude of Catholics in Wolverhampton to the 1870 Education Act is another topic for future examination which would reveal how the principle of State involvement was viewed locally.

The development of the Catholic community in Wolverhampton had been shaped both by outside forces and by various internal pressures. It was, however, the latter which was of greater significance, since the degree and nature of the growth of the Catholic body produced the dynamic momentum which became the generating force behind this development.