Religion and Electoral Violence: Blackburn, 1868

The election of 1868 was particularly violent, as set out in our tweets of last year.  Following on from a previous blog exploring the 1868 election violence in Blackburn, David Hughes delves deeper into earlier events, identifying sectarianism as a major cause of subsequent events:

When William Murphy proposed giving a series of anti-Catholic lectures in Blackburn in October and November 1867, the mayor and magistrates tried to stop him. Murphy ended his visit to Blackburn with a ‘Great Protestant and Orange Demonstration’ which received no support from local political parties and was described sneeringly by the Conservative-supporting Blackburn Standard.

When Murphy returned to Blackburn in June 1868, the mayor and magistrates took no action. By July, the local Conservatives had allied with the Orange Order by participating in procession which was part of the celebration of the Battle of the Boyne on Saturday 11 July (the anniversary itself fell on a Sunday that year). This article will examine this change in relationship between the Conservatives and the Orange Order in Blackburn, and how that change contributed to electoral violence during the 1868 campaign. It will also argue that the fighting between Conservatives and Liberals, represented as a clash between Protestants and Irish Catholics, around the 11 July demonstration were the first outbreaks of sustained electoral violence in Blackburn as part of the 1868 campaign.

William Murphy toured extensively around England between 1864 and 1871, giving virulently anti-Roman Catholic lectures. Often, Murphy’s visits were accompanied by violence when Catholics tried to stop him giving his lectures, and Protestants retaliated. For instance, serious rioting had broken out during his visit to Birmingham in June 1867. Fearing a similar outbreak of rioting, Blackburn’s mayor and council attempted to stop Murphy lecturing. Although no serious rioting occurred, there was a confrontation between Protestants and Catholics, whom the local press reported as being Irish, after the final lecture on 2 November (this lecture was given by John Houston not Murphy). A crowd accompanied Houston back to his lodgings, then moving onto the nearby Catholic church and its adjacent priest’s lodgings which were guarded by armed Irish and Catholics.

There were fights during the evening and into the morning, but they did not escalate into a riot. Murphy concluded his visit to Blackburn by arranging a ‘Great Protestant and Orange Demonstration’. The Conservative Blackburn Standard’s report of the procession was scornful and derisory, mocking the regalia and the prominent display of orange and blue favours. Despite serious provocation from Murphy and his associates, no serious confrontation developed between Catholics and Protestants, partly due to the call for restraint by Catholics – posters to that effect were posted around the town.

After March 1868, when the Liberal leader, William Gladstone, made disestablishing the Irish church a national political issue, the relationship between the Conservative party in Blackburn and both Murphy and the local Orange lodges changed. When Murphy returned in June 1868 to give more lectures, he faced no interference from the mayor and the magistrates, even though they had received a petition with 900 signatures against Murphy lecturing. The Liberal-supporting Blackburn Times, in its issue published on 13 June, did not directly accuse the local Conservatives of using Murphy for their own political purposes but, after Murphy questioned the character of the two Liberal parliamentary candidates, the paper concluded that it ‘would lead every right-thinking person to infer that his visit to the town had not been entirely by the prompting of his own feelings’.

The relationship between local Conservatives and the Orange lodges became clear in July with the procession and celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne. There had been Orange lodges in Blackburn since before 1830 but, until 1868, any celebration of 12 July which may have occurred had received no attention from the local press. This changed after the Great Protestant Demonstration on 11 July 1868.

The Great Protestant Demonstration can be viewed as the first public event of the 1868 election. Not only was it a celebration of the Orange Order, but also a demonstration of support for the Conservatives. The parade was led by the men and women of Blackburn’s Orange lodges, wearing orange and blue regalia. They were followed by members of the Working Men’s Conservative Clubs, and workmen from the Conservative candidate Hornby’s Brookhouse Mill. The Blackburn Standard estimated that 4,000 people took part, judging it a great success. However, the Blackburn Times thought that only between 2,200-2,800 had joined the procession, and dismissed it as a failure because half were women and a third were youths. It calculated that only 500 voters under the new franchise joined the procession.

The Liberals held a counter demonstration on the same day. The verdict on the success, or failure, by the local press went along partisan lines; the Blackburn Times judged it a success, with 7,000 people taking part, and the Blackburn Standard a failure, with a meagre crowd of around 1,000 bolstered by people from Darwen, a neighbouring town. With two political and religious processions being held at the same time, the Blackburn Times noted ‘the fears of those who anticipated that it would give rise to an undesirable exhibition of party feelings and thereby lead to some disturbances were to some extent realised’. When the two processions met, fighting broke out with men on both sides using staffs, resulting in several serious injuries. The clash only ended after the police using truncheons intervened.

This could be considered to be the first outbreak of electoral violence in Blackburn during the 1868 campaign. Further fighting broke out on the evening of the demonstrations. There was a riot on Penny Street, near an Irish quarter, when the prospective Conservative candidate William Henry Hornby’s employees, on their way back to Brookhouse from the procession, clashed with Irish and Liberal supporters. The flashpoint appeared to have been the display of colours by both sides, as the Liberals and Irish wore green favours and the Conservatives orange and blue. Attacks upon people wearing the adopted party colours and clashes over the provocative display of colours became a feature of the violence during the campaign.

The open flaunting of party colours was adjudged to be a breach of the peace during the Liberal demonstration in October when a young man led a parade holding a besom (a broom made of twigs tied around a stick) bedecked with orange and blue ribbons. Orange and blue came to represent support for ‘Church and State’ in Blackburn, and the open display of these colours in front of Irish and Liberal crowd-members was considered provocative. During the election campaign, incidences of clashes sparked by the wearing party colours were reported in the local press and several prosecutions for violence were made, to which the wearing of colours contributed.

When the disestablishment of the Irish Church became a national political issue in March 1868, the local Conservatives relationship with the Orange order changed. The Conservatives, including employees of William Henry Hornby, one of the Conservative candidates, supported a Protestant demonstration on 11 July. Clashes between Conservatives and Liberals, represented as fights between Protestants and Irish Catholics, during and after the demonstration, can be considered as the first outbreaks of electoral violence during the 1868 campaign, featuring the new orange and blue favours adopted as Conservative party colours. The parading of such colours came to be seen as provocative in itself, partly causing outbreaks of damage to persons and property. National political developments interacted with local partisan cleavages, making sectarianism an important (if not pivotal) factor in causing electoral violence in Blackburn in 1868.


David Hughes is a history graduate of Bath Spa University, and works as a Community History Volunteer for Blackburn with Darwen Council.


(Sources: Blackburn Central Library ephemera collection, Blackburn Times and Blackburn Standard, held by Blackburn Central Library.

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