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My last post (6 January 2016) looked at some of the ways the Catholic Church in Stafford tried to fight secularisation and ‘leakage’ of Catholics from the faith. This post looks at one specific example of the Church’s social role which at first sight seems trivial but is nevertheless an indicator of the search by some Irish Catholic families for respectability and integration with the host Catholic population. These were the soirées that became a major part of the Catholic social scene in the decades before the Great War.

Stafford’s Catholic elite had always gone in for fund-raising tea parties and similar events and soirées were a development of this. The first mention of a soirée survives from 1873 when 250 people attended a tea party, concert and ball in the Shire Hall in aid of ‘St Austin’s and St Patrick’s poor schools’.[1] None of the participants’ names was given and we don’t know whether these were already regular events. The next newspaper report of a soirée dates from 1886, but thereafter the press covered them because they had become major events in Stafford’s social calendar. Almost all the later soirées were held in the Borough Hall (opened in 1877) and the basic format was that proceedings began with a tea party, the trays of refreshments being provided by subscribers either directly or by monetary donations. The local paper usually listed these people and the evidence is a good guide to the respectable people and families who organised the events. Most were Catholics, but not all. The soirées were yet another example of the overtly anti-sectarian stance of Stafford’s elite. Although the Catholic priests always attended, and the Stafford-born Bishop Ilsley came in 1891, the soirées were social rather than religious events and non-Catholics came in significant numbers.[2] The current mayor and civic dignitaries normally attended even though the mayors were all Protestants until 1907 when Dr E.W. Taylor became Stafford’s first Catholic mayor.

Stafford borough hall crop

Stafford Borough Hall, opened 1877 and the normal venue for Catholic soirees.

Press reports usually gave the numbers who ‘sat down’ at the tea party and the numbers rose from 250 in 1886 to 440 in 1889 and stayed in the four hundreds until St Patrick’s mission was established in 1893. Thereafter the two churches had separate events, St Patrick’s soirée being held in November and St Austin’s in February or March.  The numbers at each fluctuated between 170 and 300 in the twenty years before 1914. The tea party was followed by various entertainments and press reports often gave the names of the performers. These people were normally drawn from the church congregations and were often from a more modest social background than the aspirants who provided the tea trays. This gives some evidence of social involvement and the quest for respectability amongst the wider Catholic Community including the Irish Catholics. Dancing usually followed the entertainments, and whist drives had become part of the proceedings by 1913 when an amazing 884 people played in the ‘mammoth whist drive’ at the St Austin’s soirée.[3] By this time whist drives had become important fund-raising events in their own right.

The soirées were mainly organised in their early years by Staffordian Catholic families. There was, nevertheless, Irish involvement in the first reported soirée in the Borough Hall in 1886 and this increased in the succeeding years. The table summarises the Irish Catholic families recorded at the soirées between 1886 and 1914, but this is very much a minimum statement of Irish participation. There were doubtless others whose attendance at one time or another went unrecorded. Even so, this is a good guide to aspirant Irish Catholic individuals and families and also of their upward social mobility over time. Involvement in the soirées was one of the badges of respectability. They were hob-nobbing with the town’s elite Catholic families and potentially with other civic leaders as well. As a group, they were clearly aspirant and they were positively prepared to exploit the situation as they found it. Activities like the soirées clearly helped to promote the Catholic Church as a respectable institution at the heart of local society.

Soirees table

Irish families attending Catholic Soirees, 1886–1914.

Within a generation families like the Mitchells and Corcorans, active and early participants in the soirées, made the leap from unskilled impoverished immigrants to people of some substance and respectability in Stafford. They were not, of course, typical of the majority of the town’s Irish immigrants, particularly those from the Famine period. In the 1900s many descendants of the Famine Irish continued to work in low status jobs and lived in Stafford’s slum streets and yards. Even so, for some these people there was also a clear search for respectability and the soirées document this. During the 1890s members of the Carney, Concar, Dolan, Ruhall, Devlin, Coleman and other families began to appear as subscribers and performers in significant numbers. There was a gender dimension to this. Women typically organised the tea trays and often presided at the tables, though the latter was not exclusively done by women. It was female involvement with Church activities that played a pivotal role in demonstrating family identification with respectable Stafford Catholic society.

The social importance of the soirées in Stafford’s social life in the 1900s emphasised the respected position held by the Catholic Church amongst the town’s elite. In 1907 Dr E.W. Taylor, the organist at St Mary’s Anglican church, was a high-profile convert to Catholicism and in the same year he was elected Stafford’s first Catholic Mayor. The Civic Service was held at St Austin’s, and the priest, Fr Keating, made some cautionary comments on attitudes to the Church in the town when he said that

‘of course, in these days to enter the Catholic Church was not so astonishing a thing as it would have been 60 years ago. But still at the present time there were people, and people in Stafford, who would allow a man to follow his conscience along every road except that which led to Rome. And there were people – not many – but there were some still living who thought it was their duty to punish in whatever way they could anyone who joined the Roman Catholic Church. When the Mayor decided to become a Catholic he was willing to take the risks because he felt God had a claim on him. …. The citizens of the Borough had seen fit to honour him whom God had already honoured.’ [4]

This statement emphasises that the absence of violent anti-Catholicism in 19th century Stafford did not mean there was no insidious hostility in local affairs. Even so, the local elite’s anti-sectarian stance was articulated at the Civic service held at the Methodist chapel in 1909 when the preacher commented that

‘it was a pleasure to know that some Roman Catholics were present that morning. He thought that was a step in the right direction because the Kingdom of God was one.’[5]

The previous week the new Primitive Methodist mayor had attended Dr Taylor’s retiring service at St Austin’s. All of this evidence points to the fact that in Stafford there was no political mileage in public anti-Catholicism and that it could no more be a proxy for anti-Irishness in the 1900s than it had been in the mid-19th century.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 7 June 1873

[2] SA, 14 February 1891

[3] SA, 8 February 1913

[4] SA, 16 November 1907.  His conversion occurred before he was made mayor and members of the council therefore voted him into office with knowledge of the fact.

[5] SA, 20 November 1909