[Disponible en español]

William Murphy, who has been called "the apostle of popular anti-Catholicism in the England of the 1860s" (Arnstein 88), was born (in 1834) and baptized a Catholic, but his father converted to Protestantism. Although before 1867 he had been arrested for obstructing a Catholic procession and had at least on two occasions had to flee from mobs disguised first as a policeman and then as a woman, it was not until 1867 that he came to national attention (90). In that year a series of anti-catholic lectures in Wolverhampton led to such disturbances that the Lord mayor had to ask the Government for protection and advice (91). Everywhere Murphy lectured that year special police constables had to be sworn in. After he delivered an anti-Catholic tirade in Birmingham, during which he called the Pope "a rag and bone gatherer in the universe" (quoted in Arnstein 92) there was a riot , led, as was usually the case in the Murphy Riots, by Irish immigrant laborers, and the crowds which gathered in the streets the next day were estimated at between 50,000 and 100, 000. After considerable property damage, the Mayor was forced to supplement his police force with some 400 soldiers (including 100 cavalry) and a force of some 600 special constables (93).

Murphy only acted more defiantly and provocatively by saying that he was willing to risk his life for the cause of truth and liberty and that "Popish stones would let him see what Popery was" (quoted 93). The Catholic district of Birmingham was invaded by his supporters who, to the tune of "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" and "John Brown's Body," attacked a Catholic chapel and looted houses.

Murphy's lectures were full of venom and hatreds -- in one lecture he declared that "every Popish priest was a murderer, a cannibal, a liar, and a pickpocket" and in another that "the Virgin Mary was A Protestant and no Roman Catholic" (quoted 94,95). He played on Victorian sexual sensibilities by stressing that Catholicism appealed mostly to young women, while his lectures on the confessional served to increase the sales of a sensational and pornographic pamphlet, The Confessional Unmasked. In 1869 he continued his campaign in the North, harping on the

Depravity of the Priesthood and the Immorality of the Confessional" and again provoking attacks on Catholic chapels and pitched battles between English and Irish immigrant labourers (97-99). Riots continued in 1869 and he was denied permission to lecture again in Birmingham - - a decision which he successfully contested in court and which led to a debate in Parliament on freedom of speech. [101-102]

The Murphy lectures, though clearly inflammatory and full of bigotry, nevertheless presented a challenge to English liberalism, although Matthew Arnold in his Culture and Anarchy (1869) took the right of Murphy to speak as a clear example of "a very strong belief [in England] in freedom, and a very weak belief in right reason"(104). For the most part the responsible press, led by The Times and the Daily News, found little trouble in drawing the line between freedom of expression and freedom to incite riot and rebellion. On the other side, the ultra-Protestant and violently anti-Catholic Protestant Evangelical Mission and Electoral Union thundered that Murphy was being victimized:

Englishmen are being deprived by a Military Despotism at the dictation of ROMISH PRIESTS. Such is the tyranny and cruelty to which Loyal Protestants are exposed under the il-Liberal Government of our Popish Premier {Gladstone} [who was, partly due to his Irish sympathies widely suspected of Catholic, or at least (Ritualistic) sympathies]" (Quoted 105).

In April 1871, before Murphy began a lecture at Whitehaven in Cumberland, a band of over 200 broke into the hall, dragged Murphy downstairs and beat him unconscious. He never fully recovered and died in May 1872. Walter Arnstein concludes that Murphy was "evidently a powerful and skillful platform lecturer who did much to arouse and, at the very least, to reconfirm latent anti-Catholic sentiments among working-class and lower-middle-class Englishmen, many of them already troubled by the self-assertive Irish minority recently established in their communities." (107).

Related materials


Victorian Web Overview Race and Class History Religion Roman Cattholicism

Last modified 4 April 2002