Extended EV Account: The Stockport Riot of 1852

Gareth Evans provides a fascinating in-depth look at the Stockpot riot of 1852, concluding that pre-existing tensions caused the violence, exacerbated by national political events, and with the election providing the catalyst.  Gareth has also updated the descriptions for many Stockport events on our Interactive Election Violence Map.

When the children gathered for the twentieth annual parade of scholars at the Roman Catholic chapel of Saints Philip and James on Sunday 27 June 1852, they could not have predicted that their trouble-free procession around the centre of Stockport would lead to the destruction of both Roman Catholic chapels in the town and their priest’s house.

Rioters at Saints Philip and James, Edgeley.  Illustrated London News, 10 July 1852

Despite being an annual event, the 1852 procession was controversial because many thought that it breached the terms of the Derby government’s proclamation of 15 June, which prohibited Roman Catholic clergy from wearing clerical robes outside their places of worship and private homes – taken by some as a de facto ban on Catholic marches.  The organisers of the parade had anticipated an adverse reaction.  The priests wore no robes and a large group of men, including some uniformed soldiers, headed the procession, marching six abreast.  The only religious symbols were carried by the two brown-robed apparators; one held a silver cross and the other a gilt ball and dove.

Other than some booing, the parade passed off without incident.  Though there was some trouble in the pubs in that Sunday evening, a number of contemporary sources noted that it was unusually quiet.

The following day saw Irish millworkers boasting about their ‘illegal’ procession.  These boasts led to what Henry Heginbotham, a Victorian historian of Stockport, described as ‘personal encounters’ between English and Irish workers.  The Irish may have been motivated to boast of the success of the procession in opposition to the considerable local anti-Catholic sentiment which seems to have been driven by national events.

The 1848 bill to establish diplomatic relations with Rome had led to the revival of local Protestant associations.  The formation by the Pope of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850 and the Russell government’s response in the form of the 1851 Ecclesiastical Titles Act attracted considerable local attention.  The 1852 election was fought in this context and one of the Liberal candidates, J. B. Smith, became a focus of anti-Catholic propaganda.

Before the election, J. B. Smith was the MP for Stirling Burghs.  Smith, unlike the two sitting Stockport MPs (the Liberal Kershaw and the Conservative Heald, who were both also contesting the 1852 election), had voted against the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill.  Smith was generally held to favour Catholic tolerance.  The pro-Tory Stockport Advertiser printed five anti-Catholic editorials between March 1852 and the election, accusing Smith of ‘papal aggression’ because of his voting record.  Before the riot, placards were posted in the town urging voters in virulent language to vote against those perceived to be ‘pro-Popery’.

The boasting of the Irish on Monday provoked a reaction.  By the evening an effigy of the senior local priest, Cannon Frith, was displayed.  The effigy attracted a crowd, and this led to scuffles between Englishmen and Irishmen, with the Irish coming off the worse.  The effigy was subsequently dismembered by the English crowd.

On Tuesday there were fears of a greater disturbance.  Stockport’s other Catholic priest, Father Forster, warned police superintendent Sadler of Irish grievances and the potential for trouble later that day.  Sadler had few options because his small force (a mere ten men and three assistants) was depleted, as four of his constables were attending Knutsford assizes.  He did have the option of using Special Constables.  A number had been recruited as early as March 1852 and many more were sworn in as the riot developed.  A total of 500 were deployed by the end of the riot on Wednesday evening. 

On Tuesday evening, a group of Irish men and women gathered in Rock Row and Carr Green, an Irish area of the town adjacent to the Anglican St Peter’s Church.  In attacking English youths, the Irish provoked a local response.  A battle then developed.  Whilst St Peter’s School sustained some collateral damage from stone-throwing, the adjacent church was untouched.  A rather different fate awaited the Roman Catholic chapels.

The English crowd gained the upper hand and entered the almost exclusively Irish-occupied Rock Row.  Once there the mob smashed in doors, broke windows, and threw furniture into the street.  The single-storey houses on one side of the road had their roofs stripped. 

During this part of the riot, a 23-year-old Irishman, Michael Moran, attacked John Wood with a brick.  Moran and Wood grappled on the floor.  Another Irishman, Matthew Mulligan, attempted to hit Wood with a poker but instead hit Moran.  Moran was taken to his uncle’s house on Rock Row and a doctor was called.  However, the house was attacked by rioters, and it was decided that Moran should be taken to the courthouse for treatment.  Despite being protected by a police officer with a drawn sword, Moran was attacked by an English rioter wielding a large wooden stick.  Moran was taken to the courthouse where he later died.

Superintendent Sadler called in the magistrates, who themselves called for military support.  By 9:45 sixty men and officers of the 4th Regiment of Infantry augmented the magistrates’ force, which was largely made up of Special Constables.  The magistrates proceeded to Rock Row and read the Riot Act.  The infantry fixed bayonets and formed a line across Rock Row.  The crowd then dispersed.  A number of Special Constables took the opportunity to break into nearby Irish houses and arrest Irishmen.

Interior of Saints Philip and James, Edgeley after the riot.  Illustrated London News, 10 July 1852

Around two or three hundred of the crowd regathered and decided to move to nearby Edgeley, the site of the Roman Catholic chapel where Sunday’s procession had begun and ended.  The chapel, capable of seating 1,200 people, was the focus of an attack which led to its almost complete destruction. Cannon Frith’s house, situated next to the chapel, suffered the same fate.  Frith avoided the mob by climbing into the bell tower of the chapel; he eventually escaped over the roof.

The authorities received news of the fresh trouble at Edgeley.  The force took a strangely circuitous route and warned the rioters of their arrival by sounding a bugle before their arrival.  Many of the crowd left as the authorities arrived.  The Riot Act was again read, and the remnants of the mob dispersed.

The mob wasn’t finished however, and many headed to Stockport’s other Catholic chapel, St Michael’s, a former theatre.  St Michael’s experienced the same fate as the Edgeley chapel, almost complete destruction.  Here a number of Special Constables were themselves observed damaging windows.

Interior of St Michal’s after the riot.  Illustrated London News, 10 July 1852

By the end of Tuesday night, order had been restored.  The authorities made 113 arrests, of which all but two were Irish.  Most of the prisoners were injured, the Manchester Guardian described the courthouse as ‘a scene not unlike that of a military hospital’.

On Wednesday the magistrates issued a notice closing all pubs and beer houses, and requesting townspeople to remain at home.  The magistrates’ forces had been augmented by additional infantrymen and a troop of cavalry.  Large crowds did gather, but there was no further large-scale rioting.  However, some smaller groups attacked Irishmen in their homes, claiming that Irish workers depressed wages.  A number of attacks failed because a significant number of Irish families had by this point left the town altogether.

With a large military presence and further proclamations from the magistrates warning of grave consequences, the town became quiet, and no further trouble arose.

The inquiry that followed the riot was somewhat more even-handed than the initial arrests and actions of the Special Constables.  The inquiry led to two trials, which took place at Chester assizes – one for Irish and one for English rioters.  Nine Irishmen appeared, while two absconded.  Of the remaining seven, all were found guilty of riot and riotous assembly, and sentences of between 3 months and 15 months were imposed.  Ten Englishmen appeared, of whom four presented alibis and were discharged by the judge. Three (including one special constable) were found not guilty by the jury, and three were convicted.  Those found guilty were sentenced to between 18- and 24-months imprisonment.

The next week Michael Mulligan was tried for the murder of Michael Moran.  Although Moran was hit a number of times, evidence suggested that it was a blow to the right side of Moran’s head which led to his death.  A number of witnesses indicated that this blow was administered by Mulligan.  His defence lawyer argued that it could not be proven that Mulligan made the fatal strike, that the witnesses were biased (at least one was known to have expressed anti-Irish sentiment), and that, in trying to protect his friend, Mulligan could not be guilty of murder.  Mulligan was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years’ transportation.

There is a question as to whether Stockport’s 1852 riot should be classed as an election riot, rather than a riot that happened at the time of an election.  The disturbance had a gestation of almost four years from the formation of local Protestant associations.  The establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 did lead to riots in other towns and cities at other times, outwith the election period.

The spark for Stockport’s riot was the well-established procession of Roman Catholic scholars taking place shortly after Derby’s proclamation.  The reasons for Derby’s stricture are not clear; Disraeli believed it was to avoid trouble in the run-up to the election and Gladstone that it was a ploy to attract the anti-Catholic vote.  Given that the procession had passed without major incident in other years when there was significant anti-Catholic feeling, it is likely that Derby’s election-related proclamation increased tension.

The election greatly increased the visibility of local anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in the attacks on J. B. Smith in both the principal local paper and by placards posted around the town.  It is probably true that the underlying cause of the riot was present long before the election, but the election acted as a catalyst. 

J. B. Smith, despite being singled out by his opponents, was elected to parliament as one of its two MPs.  He finished second to his fellow Liberal Kershaw.  The sitting Conservative, Heald, who had strong connections to the Stockport Protestant Association, lost his seat.

Further information on the 1852 Stockport riot can be found at:

The Stockport Riot of 1852’ by the author is available from Stockport Heritage Trust.

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