During the early part of the nineteenth century the population of Ashton rose considerably to meet the demand of the booming cotton industry. One of the ways in which the shortage of workers was addressed was to encourage Irish immigrants to come to the town.
Before the 1820s there had been very few Catholics in the town, with most of the church-going population being Church of England, Methodist or Congregationalist. By 1847, after the Irish Potato Famine had driven even more Irish people to seek work in England, ten percent of Ashton's population was Catholic.
A similar influx had taken place in other industrial areas leading to a build-up of tension and intolerance.
In 1868 an angry anti-Catholic mob, led by William Murphy, a visiting speaker and activist, marched into the area of the town where the Irish population lived and caused much damage to houses and to the two Catholic churches, St Ann's and St Mary's. Damage to St Mary's was so bad that it had to be completely re-built.
Murphy had incited a similar riot in Birmingham the previous year. He had referred to the Pope as a "rag and bone gatherer" in his address to the crowds and so angered the Irish labourers in the area that around 50,000 took to the streets, throwing stones and causing damage.
He toured areas of the country where there were Irish immigrant populations, such as Ashton, making inflammatory anti-Irish and anti-Catholic speeches and stirring up feelings wherever he went. In 1871, he was attacked by angry miners after a speech in Whitehaven and was pushed down the stairs and beaten unconscious. He never fully recovered from his injuries and died the following year.
Murphy, who was born in 1834, had been baptised a Catholic but had converted to Protestantism.
Return to Previous Page
Visit the Local History index page to find out about more about places and events in Ashton.