Since the days of the Reformation a considerable proportion of the population of Lancashire, including Preston, had maintained their Roman Catholic identity, creating centuries old tensions between the followers of the Church of England and Catholicism. The influx of Irish immigrants from the 1830’s and 40’s, who were predominantly catholic, fuelled these religious tensions.
For many of the poor and impoverished working class of Lancashire, who suffered at the hands of exploitative employers and the cruelty of an uncaring system, the adherence to a religious grouping was considered important. It was no surprise then that loyalty to a certain religion, sometimes provoked hostility towards the followers of other faiths Unfortunately in Preston, religious rivalries occasionally spilled over into violence as both sides defended the supposed honour of their chosen faith.
1868-Rioting in Preston leaves Several Injured
The traditional holiday festival of Whitsuntide was considered one of the most important occasions of the year in Preston and eagerly looked forward to by all sections of society in the town. On Whitsuntide, or Whit Monday and Tuesday as the days were fondly known, the churches and Sunday schools of the neighbourhood, of all faiths, took part in processions about the town. They were often accompanied by bands and banners displaying religious regalia as they made their way along the main thoroughfares, lined either side by cheering and clapping townsfolk.
However, the Whit Monday processions were also a great source of anxiety as different religious factions paraded together on the same day. To ease these tensions the religious bodies were segregated. Protestants for instance would march in the morning, while Catholics did the same in the afternoon. During the Whit Monday celebrations of 1868 the day passed off without incident, however on the following day the situation changed.
Religious hostility surfaced once more resulting in a series of altercations which at first appeared confined to separate drunken brawls. These incidents occurred mainly around the Milton St and Craggs Row area of Moor Lane, better known as “Paddy’s Rookery”, due to the substantial number of Irish inhabiting that district. On Whit Tuesday evening a group of Protestant Orangemen hell bent on provoking trouble entered the neighbourhood and began kicking the doors of the homes of the Irish, while enticing them to come outside to fight. Fortunately the doors remained closed and the group dispersed. On the following day a much larger group of Orangemen assembled and once again marched to the area, to find that this time, the Irish were waiting for them.
A barrier had been thrown up across the road to which Irish women were seen bringing stones ready for the menfolk to throw at their opponents. For a short time both parties contented themselves with hurling stones at one another but as both sides became reinforced, hand to hand fighting broke out, with women also joining the fray. All sorts of weapons began to appear as the rioting continued, when suddenly, an Irishman burst from his house and fired a pistol into the English, one of whom one fell to the ground crying out, “Oh, I am shot”. He was later named as Robert Alston. Two more shots were fired by the Irish wounding a man named John Ribchester, who was seriously wounded in the eye, from which considerable blood flowed. The stunned group of English at first maintained their position, but eventually retreated with the Irish in full pursuit.
Both sides continued to hurl stones at each other and a young man was hit on the head with a paving stone, which knocked him to the ground. As he was being removed from the scene by friends, a body of Police under the command of Superintendent Dunn arrived. A Roman Catholic priest, Father de Betham was also on the scene and immediately set about persuading the Irish to withdraw, while the police attempted to restore order.
The wounded man, Robert Alston, was conveyed to the nearby Spinners Arms in Lancaster Rd, still bleeding profusely. Medical aid was summoned where it was discovered he had received eight severe wounds to the head and other parts of the body. Dr Smith and Superintendant Dunn also arrived at the pub to be informed by the Doctor that Alston’s wounds had not been inflicted by a pistol but by some other weapon. Alston was expected to survive, while an Irishman named Thompson, who was also wounded, was treated at the Dispensary.
On the evening of the following day rival groups once again assembled in the Moor Lane area near Craggs Row. As more and more people gathered at the scene, Superintendent Dunn and the Police struggled to keep both factions apart. Tension increased further with rumours of a large body of Orangemen assembling at another part of Preston, ready to join the fight. The Irish remained as determined as ever to defend their area and one of their number was seen to drop a large knife from beneath his coat sleeve, which he immediately recovered. Another Irishman was seen standing at the door of his house brandishing a pistol.
The entrances to the various streets affected were blocked and guarded by police, with no one allowed to enter or leave. At about 9.30 pm the police were forced to resist a number of attempts to breach the lines which sealed off the street entrances and the assailants were driven back several times. Eventually the crowds began to disperse and the neighbourhood assumed a more peaceful manner. With the worst of the disturbances over a cleanup operation of the area was authorised and barricades removed. Public Caution notices were displayed with warnings of strict penalties for those attempting to repeat the violence of previous days. (PC June 6th 1868)
1876-Hostilities between Catholics and Orangemen
The intense religious rivalry that existed in Preston between Orangemen and Catholics, was on the whole of a peaceful nature .The annual Whitsuntide festivities however would often raise emotions on all sides as the various churches proclaimed their allegiances. Occasionally, a minor incident could soon escalate into violence.
On Whitsuntide Monday 1876, an arrangement had been previously agreed between the principal organisers of the Protestant and Catholic Church processions, of staggered marching times along different routes through Preston. This arrangement which was meant to avoid any physical contact between the two religious contingents had the full consent of all participants. As the processions commenced as planned and the two marches made their way around the agreed routes, all appeared to have gone smoothly.
Unfortunately tensions mounted as both marches came to an end. As the St Wilfred’s Guild separated from the main body of the Catholic march, they made their way along Upper Walker St heading back towards their school. At the same time the procession of Orangemen were passing from Lancaster Rd in the direction of Elizabeth St. They had already passed the end of Walker St, when 20 or 30 of the Orangemen had somehow become separated from the main body. They did however get within a few yards of the others, when the Catholics, who did not deem it there duty to wait, pushed their way through, thus creating a gap in the ranks of the Protestant march.
The Orangemen were irritated at this and retaliated by breaking through the lines of the Catholics, which led to a number of scuffles. Matters might have ended there had not another similar incident occurred, when the Catholic St Austin’s Boys Guild, met the Orangemen at Melbourne St. Here a much more serious episode of trouble emerged with blows exchanged from both side. The fighting quickly escalated into a large scale brawl
Fearing a serious riot, Police Inspector Brown quickly summoned a group of a dozen or so Police, who had been strategically placed at potential flashpoints along the processional routes. During the melee one little girl was hurt, a priest was struck and one or two others were injured. The rapid intervention of the Police prevented a much more serious situation evolving and the processions were able to finish in an orderly manner. After the holiday festivities had ended, the organisers of the Church processions were urged to ensure all future marches were arranged in such a manner so as to avoid all possible contact with each other. (PC June 10th 1876)
1878-Attack on a Clergyman
Religious bigotry was practiced equally by both Orangemen and Catholics in 19th Century Preston, often leading to vicious unprovoked attacks on completely innocent people. An incident of this nature happened in January 1878 when an Irishman named John McLaughlin was charged at the Police Court with attacking the Reverend R Thistlethwaite
The Reverend Thistlethwaite, who was Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Great Shaw St, left his church on the evening of Sunday 30th December 1878. He made his way to nearby Vickers St to visit the home of a parishioner who was in an advanced state of Consumption. As he began delivering his ministrations he heard loud shouting coming from outside in the street, from what he described as a gang of roughs.
After confronting and remonstrating with them, he was met with a barrage of profanities with one man calling him a “Protestant bastard” As he later left the house and travelled a short distance along Vickers St, the crowd followed him. He was then struck on the back of the head, the blow knocking his hat off. He was further struck on the arm with a stick and again by the fist of the accused. The case was proved and McLaughlin was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour at the House of Correction. (PC Jan’ 5th 1878)