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Stafford was unusual, but not unique, in having a thriving English Catholic community before large numbers of Irish Catholics arrived during the Famine.[1] This produced a complicated situation if Protestant agitators tried to rouse anti-catholic feeling in the local population. There were many in the town’s elite who wanted nothing to do with sectarian conflict. It was bad for business and social relations.

There is little local evidence about the nature and strength of Catholic beliefs amongst Irish immigrants to Stafford during the Famine. Although descendants of these families have been interviewed, they have no direct evidence of the new arrivals’ experiences or attitudes in the form of letters, diaries or legends. But the mass of poor immigrants must have faced St Austin’s Catholic Church with mixed feelings. There was at least an active and secure Catholic mission. Its priest was Rev. Edward Huddleston, ‘a worthy scion of one of our most ancient Catholic families’.[2] It was said that his ‘unobtrusive and courteous manners and kindness of disposition had won him the esteem of the inhabitants of Stafford generally.’[3] He had some record of positive help to Irish immigrants[4], but by the time the Famine Irish came he had been at St Austin’s for more than sixteen years and was approaching retirement. The mission had ‘taken the shine out of him’.[5]

The Irish faced, therefore, a parish with a tired upper class priest and a stratified English congregation dominated by its upper class patrons. If and when the Catholic Irish went to mass they milled around the walls and doors of the church whilst their Staffordian co-religionists occupied the paid pews and free seats in the centre. It was not an experience to make them feel welcome. The degree of social interaction was probably low and in this undemonstrative ‘old Catholic’ church the few other activities going on were equally exclusive. In August 1850, for example, a ‘Roman Catholic tea party’ was held at Stafford Castle. 700 people attended, including many Protestants, but few of the poor Irish trailed up the hill to the event.

Exclusive as the local church was, the national outbreak of Protestant agitation in 1850 against the restoration of the Catholic bishops probably helped to unify the congregation. In early December a four-hour public meeting was held in Stafford to protest against this ‘papal aggression’ and an Ulsterman was one of the most vitriolic speakers, the Presbyterian minister James Speers.

Cartoon in 'Punch', 1850, with its anti-Catholic 'Papal Aggression' message.

Cartoon in ‘Punch’, 1850, with its anti-Catholic ‘Papal Aggression’ message.

His made an anti-Catholic joke in stage Irish about Irish ‘Pat’, but no-one else at the meeting said anything public about Stafford’s Catholic Irish. Indeed, Alderman Boulton ‘urged people not to leave the meeting with bitter or acrimonious feelings against their Roman Catholic neighbours’, a comment that shows some of the town’s elite wanted to treat sectarian issues with kid gloves. Nevertheless, 1,000 people subsequently signed an address to the Queen and Prime Minister against ‘papal aggression’.[6]

Speers was a speaker at another meeting in late January 1851 and this time he made some more garbled but equally squalid comments about the Irish:-

‘He believed they [the Roman Catholic Church] were practising a system of wholesale deception on the public concerning the vast accessions of strength they profess to have gained in England in the past few years. (Hear ! Hear!) They boasted of five or six hundred chapels they had erected. But who filled those chapels ?  Didn’t everybody know their chief strength came from the wilds of Connemara ? (Laughter and loud cheering) These were the triumphs of the faith in England. It was no compliment they paid to their co-religionists in Ireland who, the world being witness, were sufficiently Romish already, to tell them that they had to find their way to England to be thoroughly converted. (Laughter) …. The great body of the English people were sound and thoroughly Protestant at least’[7]

Anti-Catholic agitation continued to be fomented by Speers into 1852. The rabble-rousing ex-monk Alessandro Gavazzi visited Stafford’s Lyceum Theatre in January 1852 and Speers proposed the vote of thanks.

'Father' Alessandro Gavazzi (1809-89), renegade Catholic monk and violent anti-Catholic agitator.

‘Father’ Alessandro Gavazzi (1809-89), renegade Catholic monk and violent anti-Catholic agitator.

The following night he seconded a resolution to set up a Protestant Alliance in Stafford and he later chaired its public meetings.[8] Members of the local Protestant aristocracy and gentry supported the Alliance, but the whole enterprise faded away. There was little stomach for violent anti-Catholicism in Stafford. When the rabble-rousing Baron de Camin came to the town in 1856 he only attracted a ‘small’ audience for his speech.[9] In 1856 Speers returned to his Ulster roots in sectarian Belfast and with his departure the Stafford lost its most public anti-Catholic voice.

The ‘Papal Aggression’ agitation seems to have brought little direct violence against Catholic people or property in Stafford. There is no recorded instance of anti-Irish riot in the town at any time, but there were instances of violence against individual Irish people. In August 1848 James Karney was beaten up by George Willshaw and the Staffordshire Advertiser commented that:-

‘This is not the only instance in which Irishmen have been maltreated in Stafford. On more than one Sunday of late, persons who ought to know better have insulted and attacked these poor fellows, and the peace of the town has been endangered by this misconduct. We understand the parties are known and will be watched’[10]

This shows the local press expressing the local élite’s desire for social peace and making it clear that they saw no advantage in ethnic or religious conflict. Although hundreds of Irish people continued to live in Stafford for the rest of the century, evidence for anti-Irish violence and assault is almost impossible to find. If native Staffordians had anti-Irish and anti-Catholic attitudes, and many no doubt did, the social environment acted to repress their public manifestation. In this Stafford differed from other areas of Britain, especially the industrial areas of the North, Wales and Scotland, where periodic anti-Catholic and anti-Irish violence continued for the rest of the nineteenth century.

[1] J. Herson, ‘The English, the Irish and the Catholic Church in Stafford, 1791-1923’, Midland Catholic History, No. 14, 2007, pp. 23-46.

[2] J. Gillow, St Thomas’s Priory, or the Story of St Austin’s, Stafford (Stafford, locally published, c.1892-4), p. 110.

[3] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 18 October 1856; comment made at the time of his retirement.

[4] In 1834 he had led a campaign to save two Irish labourers from the gallows after they had been found guilty on a trumped up charge of assault on constables. Gillow, St Thomas’s Priory, pp 112-3.

[5]M.W.Greenslade, St Austin’s, Stafford: a History of the Catholic Church in Stafford since the Reformation, (Stafford, 1962, p. 17). This comment was made in 1861 after his retirement.

[6] SA, 7 and 14 December 1850

[7] SA, 1 February 1851

[8] SA, 31 January 1852; 29 April 1854

[9] SA, 29 March 1856

[10] SA, 12 August 1848