Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Sandgate Riot

Anti-Catholicism in the 1850s was rife. This xenophobic attitude came from the incredible influx of Irish Catholics, who sought refuge during and after the potato famine. Officials thought it much better if the Irish population were of the Protestant faith, but others were plain anti-Irish. Sadly, history is constantly repeating itself, and those of other faiths, cultures or ethnicities are still seen as a burden, too foreign or a nuisance. As is the case today, those seen as foreign or a irritant were demonised by newspapers and other media outlets. 

Naturally, destitute Irish migrants went to industrious towns and cities around the world. In Britain, the majority went to Glasgow, Barrow, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. They took up manual work, such as labouring jobs, coal and iron mining, and shipbuilding. Dundee was a centre for linen, and so Irish settlers also went there. 

The impoverished, emaciated Irish.
The Irish were conscious of the ill-feeling towards them from English natives and officials. They lived with threats from Poor Law officials about the possibility of removal back to Ireland if they proved too burdensome. When the famine conditions were better understood by officials and others of rank, they did become more lenient to the poor Irish, although they still held their prejudices. 

The Irish typically settled in old, tenement buildings in the poorer parts of towns and cities. In Newcastle, a lot of Irish migrants settled in the Sandgate area, located in All Saints parish. 

'Most of the houses are entered by a narrow flight of steps outside the buildings. On reaching the summit of these rude elevations, you are invited to grope your way into passages where light never enters, and up wooden stairs that threaten at every footstep to yield to the slightest pressure. The apertures made, in the shape of windows, to admit light, are the rudest contrivances imaginable. Few of them are glazed. Some consist of the patchwork of old rags, boards and straw, which are taken out when the weather permits, to allow the air and the light to enter. The narrowness of the alleys is another obstacle to the health of their occupants, the average of them being little more than four feet. Almost our first insight to one of these hovels, revealed a sad spectacle. Scarcely an article of furniture was to be seen in the room. The wife, as we were informed, lay ill in bed, the children, clothed in rags, were amusing themselves, to the best of their ability, and the husband was suffering from the effects of intemperance.'
- The Newcastle Guardian, 24 April 1847

Sandgate, Newcastle circa. 1890
From Newcastle Libraries, Flickr

In Newcastle, the Irish were blamed for the increase in fever rates, although records show that fever was a constant problem in the Sandgate ghetto long before the famine and the influx of Irish migrants. As well as being used as a scapegoat for such worrying illnesses, the Irish were generally thought of as drunken, violent and angry layabouts. 

The Irish Catholics were devout in their faith, and so were quick to defend it, the Pope, and themselves from English slurs. Sensing the tension, people known as 'ranters' targeted the areas inhabited by the Irish, and tried their best to provoke and thus further vilify and demonise the Catholic population. 

A man who went by the name of 'Ranter Dick' went to Sandgate one Sunday night in May 1851 and delivered a sermon of No-Popery, denouncing the Pope and the Catholic faith. He was described as a dilettante; a foolish, unintelligent man who had no real knowledge of the subject matter, only wishing to provoke and cause trouble. It worked.

As most of our readers are aware, there is one street in Newcastle-upon-Tyne of almost universal notoriety. We do not allude to Grey Street, or Grainger Street, or Clayton Street, with their gorgeous buildings and magnificent shops, and their pathways continuously crowded with the fashionable, gay, or industrious pedestrians. These streets have their fame, but none of them are so long, so widely, known to fame as Sandgate. This street is situated at the lower end of the quay, and runs parallel with the Tyne to the south, and the New Road to the north. It is formed on both its sides by houses which appear to have been erected far beyond the reach of legal memory. To the eye they appear old, rickety, filthy hovels, and they are inhabited by the lowest of the people. The Irish are congregated in great numbers, and it is said that for some time past they have been cultivating feelings of hostility towards the English portion of their neighbours, in consequence of the recent agitation on the Papal question. This feeling found vent on Sunday afternoon last, when there arose a quarrel between them and the English, which was not thoroughly quelled for several days. How this riot originated it is difficult to say. The accounts are so contradictory; the people on the spot are not agreed; the police are not agreed; indeed, there appears to be no agreement whatever. Some attribute the disturbance to some one who was preaching in the open air, and who made some allusion to the Pope; others allege that an Irishman striking an English woman led to the tumult. Whatever was the immediate cause, it was not long before the Englishmen had to flee in all directions. Four police officers then appeared upon the scene, and attempted to clear the streets, but they were resisted, and two of them were rather severely handled. Having this driven away the officers of the peace, the Irishmen, to the number of upwards of two hundred, issued simultaneously from different alleys and lanes into the main street, armed with huge sticks, iron rods, pokers, tongs, coalrakes, and other steadily available offensive weapons, while women and lads accompanied them with brick-bats and missiles of various descriptions, shouting in a hideous manner. One of the rioters, who appeared to act as a ringleader, exclaiming, "Och, by Jasus, we'll take Sandgate to-night, and be revenged on every ----- in it." These words were soon followed up by actions. Stones, brick-bats, and other missiles flew in every direction, breaking windows, and otherwise destroying the property of the peaceful inhabitants. The English appeared to have been panic stricken by the violence of their opponents, and no resistance was offered until the arrival of a strong reinforcement of police, when the supremacy of the Irish mis-rule was completely subverted. In a very short time twenty or thirty of the more prominent rioters were in the hands of the police. Then it was that the work of the retribution commenced. The unfortunate Irishmen, now in custody, were set upon by the infuriated English. Women with rolling-pins battened them without mercy; and, but for the exertions of the police, the lives of some of them might have fallen a sacrifice. By the combined exertions of the police and the English, the Irishmen were completely overcome, the those who escaped being taken into custody, decamped from the scene of destruction as rapidly as possible, and left town next morning. The streets in the neighbourhood, however, for several days after were thronged with persons desirous of seeing the extent of the injury committed. That was of great extent. On Monday morning, the shop-windows remained unopened, and business was carried on inside by the aid of a swealing candle, or a flickering jet of smoky and offensive gas. About forty prisoners were brought up at the police court on Monday morning, before the Mayor, Mr. Philipson, Mr. Atkinson, and Capt. West. Peter Develin, a lodging-housekeeper, charged with exciting the mob, and presenting a pistol at a police-officer was fined £5, or one month imprisonment with hard labour. The others were variously mulcted in sums varying from 2s. 6d. to £2, with the alternative from seven days to one month. Several not identified were admonished and discharged. One of the witnesses attributed the outbreak to the conduct of the Watch Committee in having dismissed two active officers, Prior and Nicholson. The inhabitants of Sandgate had sent a memorial to the committee to replace the officers, but they would not, and from that time the Irish were uncontrollable; and one of the witnesses said he believed that if something was not done, they would some day tear down their dwellings.'
- Newcastle Journal, 17 May 1851

From the slums of Newcastle, the Irish later settled in mining communities in towns and villages. They may have been liberated from the poverty and conditions of Sandgate, but they never truly escaped the harsh prejudices. Some prejudice is still apparent towards Catholics and Irishmen. 

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