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The Spectator: Anti-Catholic Riots in Ashton, 1868

Report in The Specator 16 May 1868


IF Parliament cannot contrive to strengthen our county and 1 municipal arrangements for maintaining order, it will wake up one day to find civil war raging over half the North. of England. In those vast hives of humanity the mining and manufacturing cities, with their narrow streets and fierce- population, there are plenty of elements of combustion,—one alone, the quarrel between Unionists and Non-Unionists, is of the most dangerous and wide-spread character,—and the Roughs of all classes have at last found out the secret weak- ness of the English system—the feebleness of authority when opposed by force. It is only a fortnight since we had to record the seizure of Wigan by a mob of colliers, who terrorized the town, stoned the police, and robbed five hundred decent working-men of their labour with almost entire impunity. Two or three of their ringleaders were no doubt sentenced to- terrible, almost to excessive punishments, but that brought no, redress to the "knobsticks," and only showed that our organization, though impotent for prevention, is still strong enough to secure retribution. This week the prosperous town of Ashton has been the scene of a still more dangerous, because religious, riot, during which one person has been killed, two- left at the point of death, and some twenty-five severely wounded, while no less than seventy houses have been destroyed, and three hundred families turned naked, homeless, and moneyless into the street for no offence whatever. For three days, in fact, there was civil war in Ashton—war fought out with revolvers and lethal weapons, and the authorities were- either powerless to stop it, or too feeble to use the power in their hands.

The riot began, as some months since at Birmingham, with a lecture from that firebrand Murphy, the Irishman who is. making it his mission on earth to induce the lowest "roughs" of the Northern cities to attack and insult his countrymen.. Inflamed by his oratory, a body of Orangemen. on Sunday paraded Old Street, Ashton, till they were met by a body of Irish, who, either from a greater habitude of affrays, or owing to the presence among them of some Irish-Americans, were better armed. They drove the unprepared English be- fore them with clubs, stones, and revolvers, shooting one man, and hacking another with axes till he lies in hospital almost on the point of death. They then paraded the town, roaring defiance, followed by their women shrieking out cries of delight at the " glorious victory." This was too much for the English, who gathered in hundreds, armed themselves with clubs and hatchets, attacked the Irish without success, and then, in spite of the resistance of ten or twelve police- men, destroyed the Catholic chapel of St. Anne, smashed the windows and doors of the priest's house, and then proceeded to a second chapel, St. Mary's. Here, however, the Irish, recognizing that civil war had commenced, used their re-volvers from the windows, and the rioters retreated to sack Flag Alley, a feat they successfully accomplished, gutting twenty houses in as many minutes, and turning upwards of 100 men, women, and children into the street, without furniture or food, or any clothes except those they stood in. Up to this point the rioters might possibly have advanced in a Belgian or Dutch town. In France they would have been arrested when they began to collect, in Prussia soldiers would have been on the spot and in action when the chapel was attacked, in Ireland the first shower of stones would have drawn a volley, but in Belgium and Holland the authorities are more afraid of parliamentary inquiry. Even there, how- ever, the sack of Flag Alley would have been the signal for a display of military force, for patrolling the streets, and for ordering all groups of persons to disperse at once. The Mayor of Ashton, however,—who seems to have been most active and energetic in doing his duty on his own view of its requirements,—contented himself with swearing in and brigading 250 special constables. Of what earthly use orderly people armed with staves were to be against dis- orderly persons armed with stones, hatchets, and revolvers we fail to perceive, but that has been for years the British mode of meeting a riot. It fails now because rioters have dis- covered that it is a mere menace, that a special with his staff is no better than a rough with his blackthorn, and that no amount of authority, or prestige, or legality will save an unprotected man's head from cracking if the black- thorn hits it. Formerly they were overawed by a lingering belief in the power as well as the awfulness of law ; but since that belief died away nothing has stopped an excited English or Irish crowd except the sight of the clear steel, or the sound of charging cavalry.

Next evening, accordingly, the rioting recommenced, as why should it not recommence ? Wrecking houses is decidedly exciting work, daily life in Ashton is very dull, and as yet nobody had paid anything for his enjoyment excepting a little risk, which he, as a brave man, felt to lend a zest to his new pleasure. The rioters saw nothing to fear except the Irish, whom they were ready to face, and the specials, who were on the whole worse armed than themselves. They accordingly made a descent on a district called " Little Ireland," because it is filled with Irish, drove out the majority of the inhabit- ants (one poor woman said even the children had fled), and calmly and deliberately wrecked fifty houses more. The doors were beaten in, the windows and their frames smashed to pieces, and the poor furniture tossed out into the street to form huge bonfires, while the sick were thrown out of their beds on to the floors. By the special mercy of Providence it did not occur to them that fire would do its work even quicker than the hatchet, or Ashton would have been burnt down, as, if this anarchy continues, some great northern city probably will be. The rioters appear to have been entirely unmolested in their amusement ; but at last information was conveyed to the Mayor, and a body of eighty police sent to the scene. This body, apparently, was armed only with staves, but succeeded by weight and discipline in driving out the crowd, who in their flight found themselves encountered by a second body of police, the Cheshire constabulary, armed with cutlasses. and for the first time had to meet steel. They broke and fled instantly, leaping over walls and jumping in dozens into the canal to avoid the charge. They still, however, were not cowed, but increased the crowd in Bentinck Street and Brook Street, sacked a house from which a collier had fired on them, attacked St. Ann's Catholic Hall, a large new building, and finally decided to march on Stalybridge, there to sack other houses, burn other furniture, and ill-treat other sick, the police being able by frequent charges only to " scatter " them for a moment—divide the waves, in short. Raising "Britons never shall be slaves " as their hymn of battle, they were marching along, all armed with clubs, in happy and quite just consciousness of power to defy any number of laws, when a faint sound was heard in front, the jangle of the scabbards carried by the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, as they came up the street at the gallop. Of course the street was clear in ten minutes ; the right thing had been done at last, and Stalybridge was saved. That town had already had to encounter a small invasion, 500 roughs from Ashton having entered and " wrecked " Thomas Street, under a smart dropping fire of revolvers ; but the Chief Constable, Mr. Chadwick, seems to have been a man with an idea that his business was to maintain order, and not to chatter about bloodshed, and accordingly when he had collected his fifty men he did not " scatter " the insur- gents, but charged with bare cutlasses and a clear intention of using them, and order was restored in five minutes. Ashton • is still garrisoned by county police and soldiery, but after a loss in killed and wounded greater than that incurred in storming Magdala, the town appears to have subsided into an unsettled quiet, which it will retain until the Roughs are again in want of some excitement to break the dull monotony of their lives.

We have not the slightest intention of apportioning the blame of this shocking business between the two contend- ing parties, of abusing the incendiary Murphy, or of pointing out how the riot illustrates the latent hatred of Catholicism existing in our midst. We do not care one straw if the English attacked the Irish, or the Irish the English, whether the cause was the odium theologicum, or race hatred, or competition for labour, or all three ; whether the Irish were Fenians, or the English Orangemen ; whether it is worse to kill or to wreck, whether a wound from a stone is or is not less illegal than a wound from a revolver bullet. Our single contention is, that if English cities and counties were organized on any civilized principle riots like these could not occur, would be repressed at once in their inception, not by bloodshed, but by the production of force which could shed blood if necessary to restore order. The Dragoons took no lives. It was the rioters who took lives and the half-armed police. It was the wretched policy of displaying force not sufficient for coercion,—force which could be defied, or, if needful, overpowered,—which allowed the riot to become so dangerous that, but for the Dragoons, half Ashton might have been placed in peril, just as half London was in the Gordon riots, when the King's nerve saved his capital at the cost of a dozen volleys. It is order, common external order, freedom from mob rule and violent assault, which we are failing to secure, which apparently our rulers have forgotten how to secure now social deferences will no longer secure it. One would think, to watch the paralysis of authority all over England, that the magistrates held anarchy to be the normal and proper condition of things, or imagined that freedom meant the right of every man to brain his neighbour if that operation amused him. The art of repressing disorder, still alive in Ireland, seems to be lost here, till authority knows no better device than to send fists against fists, biltons against clubs, cutlasses against revolvers. We venture to say a reserve detachment of fifty policemen in Ashton armed with " Sniders," and authority to use them at the bidding of the Mayor, would do more to maintain external order in Ashton and ten miles round, than ten thousand special constables. That involves bloodshed ? Not a bit of it. Let 10,000 rioters know that fifty men in front of them are authorized, if resisted, to slay, and they will melt away like snow in sunlight. Bloodshed may be required once, and if it is, if there is no other way of protecting the feeble or the poor in our gre it cities, if, with- out it, any fool of a lecturer is to be able to give any town in England up to be sacked, bloodshed had better be.

Source: Spectator Archive

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