A tangle of history

The Guardian recognises the benefit of having an online archive of articles that reaches back to 1820, and has recalled some real gems on occasion, today they’ve noted an article from July 3, 1852 [entirely unrelated to current events natch – Ed] reporting on the Stockport riots, which, following a contentious procession, saw three days of violent clashes between, what the article describes as, “ignorant Irish catholics on the one hand, and as ignorant English protestants on the other”.As with almost every historical event, there will always be competing claims to a cause and effect.. and in this case there are quite a few historical strands worth noting. There is, as ever, the prejuduce theory.

But there are also other strands worth noting. A website in the area of Stockport, for example, has some brief historical notes on local industry and a population explosion that undoubtedly played a role:

..By 1801 Stockport’s population had risen to nearly 15,000 and by 1841 had doubled to nearly 30,000. However, by now another 20,000 people lived in the neighbouring villages.

As in Manchester, cotton- spinning factories based on machinery, including powerlooms,* dominated Stockport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries until hit by a depression around 1840 and stagnation of industry until the 1920s.

With Religion and Society in the mix too:

Arrowsmith (1997), notes that local noncomformist groups or ‘dissenters’ (Quakers, Congregationalists, Presbyterians) were particularly strong in the Stockport area and met regularly in houses and barns, later erecting meeting houses and chapels during the 1700s. Anglican worship was in decline, despite fines imposed for absenteeism! The second half of the century also saw the rise of Methodism and towards the end of the century Catholicism rose due to Irish immigration, although the latter declined after the anti-Irish riots of 1852. An important aspect of the religious communities was the early provision of schooling.

A number of strikes, riots, and insurrections had taken place in the area during the period 1775-1829, the most famous ending in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. During government reforms of the 1830s, Stockport became a parliamentary borough (1832) which included Cheadle Bulkeley and Cheadle Moseley, had a town council (1835), and introduced a number of measures to improve education* and housing which was particularly poor in the area. Police, courts and public services (refuse collection, gaslighting) were also introduced or extended and the upper class rulers were replaced by radicals. Eventually the town took over from manorial rule. Richard Cobden, a famous campaigner for reform, was MP for Stockport from 1841-1847. Eventually shorter working hours provided opportunity for leisure and amenities and parks thrived.

The profane corruption of politics at that time was a focus of none other than Karl Marx, in an article written in August 1852, and published in the New York Daily Tribune on September 4, 1852. He also noted the spiritual corruption taking place:

To these profane means of corruption spiritual ones were added by the Tories; the royal proclamation against Roman Catholic Processions was issued in order to inflame b_igotry and religious hatred; the No-Popery cry was raised everywhere. One of the results of this proclamation were the Stockport Riots. The Irish priests, of course, retorted with similar weapons.

And, to complete the mix, there is the additional element of European politics, as noted in this article primarily discussing Queen Victoria’s attitude to religion and, in doing so, notes the issuing of a papal bull in 1850:

Less than a month after the death of the queen of the Belgians, Pope Pius IX published the edict that opened a new chapter in Queen Victoria’s involvement with the Roman Catholic Church. Even in the nineteenth century, that institution had operated in England as a missionary church under the supervision of vicars apostolic, but late in September 1850 the pope promulgated a papal bull restoring the Roman Catholic hierarchy to England and dividing the land into twelve episcopal sees. Named to oversee the restored church as the new archbishop of Westminster was Cardinal Nicholas Wise-man, who added oil to the flames by means of his archepiscopal letter: “Catholic England,” he declared, “has been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament, from which its light had long vanished, and begins anew its course of regularly adjusted action round the centre of unity, the source of light and of vigour.” John Henry Newman, the most notable of recent converts to the Roman Catholic faith, warmly applauded the manner in which “the people of England are about of their own free will to be added to the Holy Church.”(14)

Queen Victoria’s immediate reaction was one of deep anger over this

“extraordinary proceeding of the Pope, who has issued a Bull, savouring … of the time of Henry VIII’s reign, or even earlier – restoring the Roman Catholic ‘hierarchy’ …, saying that England was restored to the number of Catholic Powers, & that her religious disgrace had been wiped out…. The Cardinal has desired the Pope to be prayed for before me and the Bishop of Birmingham, Dr. [William Bernard] Ullathorne, has been publicly and pompously enthroned, Dr. Newman, the head of the Oratorians, preaching the sermon! All this is inconceivable, & it is in the highest degree wrong … of the Pope to act in such a manner, which is a direct infringement of my prerogative, without one word as to his instructions having been communicated to this Gov[ernmen]t.”

Ultra-Protestant organizations throughout Britain erupted in fury, and even cosmopolitan Whigs such as the lord lieutenant of Ireland, the fourth earl of Clarendon, felt indignant. “It is high time,” he insisted, “to resist the encroachments of Rome and to let His Holiness know that we are still Protestants, and that the Reformation was not an error of our forefathers for which the present generation is desirous of atoning.”(15)

Lord John Russell, the Whig prime minister of the day, gloried in his reputation as a religious liberal, but he soon decided that his government would have to provide a formal response to allay public discontent. Before Parliament could act, however, Russell stirred the fires of religious dissension in his own way with a public letter to the Anglican bishop of Durham. Russell was troubled less by “papal aggression” per se, “insolent and insidious” as it was, than by Puseyite forces within the Church of England that were quietly restoring all manner of Roman Catholic practices to the national church and thereby leading their unwitting flocks to the edge of the precipice. The prime minister described several such practices as “mummeries of superstition,” words that aroused Roman Catholic anger in turn. Irish nationalist agitators of the day found “a godsend” both in Russell’s letter and in the anti-Catholic sentiments that dominated numerous English newspapers.(16)

Queen Victoria soon came to deplore the intensification of sectarian conflict in her kingdom. “We are between two fires in this country,” she lamented to her uncle in late November, “a furious Protestant feeling and an enraged Catholic feeling in Ireland.” Some biographers of the queen have cited such sentiments to contrast Victoria’s good sense with her prime minister’s militant pro-Protestant stand. Yet Russell would hardly have disagreed with the queen’s insistence that “we wish in no way to infringe the rights of the Roman Catholics” and her regret at the “intolerant spirit exhibited by many people at the public meetings.” Like Russell, Queen Victoria was fully persuaded “that the real danger to be apprehended… lies in our own divisions, and in the extraordinary conduct of the Puseyites.”(17)

The practical question faced by both the prime minister and the royal couple was what could legally be done. Albert’s hope that Uncle Leopold might persuade the pope to revoke the bull was soon dashed, and Victoria in turn discouraged Russell from sending a special envoy to Rome. The queen considered “it entirely against her notions of what is becoming to ask the Pope for a favour.”(18)

Only two years earlier, after political revolution had broken out in the Papal States, the British Crown had offered the pope a refuge on Malta. Only a year before, the queen had expressed to the pope her “sincere friendship” and her “unfeigned respect and esteem.” With regard to Pius IX, the queen found little cause to reiterate such sentiments. By the end of 1850, she had become persuaded instead that the Austrian empire was fanning the flames of Catholic militancy in Rome and that “the whole movement on the continent is anti-Constitutional, anti-Protestant, & anti-English.”

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