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Why Stalybridge was put to the sword by the police

A police constable threatening a looter with a cutlass in the 1863 Stalybridge Bread Riot
Constables used cutlasses to stop looting and rioting

In Stalybridge Civic Hall, 30 cutlasses sit shining inside a cabinet, a startling reminder of the severity of the Victorian police's response to two flashpoints in the town.

The 1863 Bread Riots and the 1867 Murphy Riots are two of the worst moments in Greater Manchester's 19th Century history, but the motivation behind each was very different.

Fighting for food

In 1863, Lancashire was in the grip of the cotton famine, a crisis caused by the American Civil War disrupting the flow of raw cotton to the area's mills.

With nothing to work with, many mills were shut down and the workers left with no means of income and therefore no money for food.

The 30 police cutlasses in Stalybridge Civic Hall

Stalybridge was one of the worst-hit towns. The majority of its factories and machine shops were closed and the local population became dependent on money given to them through relief schemes.

It was a pressured situation, and when the local relief committee took the decision to replace the money with ticketed hand-outs, a public meeting of Stalybridge people decided they were not going to accept the change.

On Friday 20 March 1863, the committee went to hand out the tickets but found not only did the locals not want them, they were ready to protest in the strongest of ways.

The officials were forced back onto the streets and their cabs were stoned. Once they'd been dispatched, the mob turned on the shops and depots belonging to the relief committee.

With fighting on the streets, the Riot Act was read and a company of Hussars was dispatched from Manchester. In the meantime, Stalybridge Police turned to one of their most extreme weapons: a set of cutlasses they had for use in case of emergency.

The combination of threat and strength quelled the disturbance and 80 men were arrested.

The Stalybridge Bread Rioters attack a house in 1863
The rioters turned their anger on the houses of relief committee members

Yet peace was far from restored. Despite many of the prisoners being released the following day, another public meeting was gathered and again the response was to demand money and bread, rather than tickets.

The mob again took to the streets, going from shop to shop demanding bread and, as the shopkeepers feared trouble, bread was given to them.

Only the presence of a company of foot soldiers later in the day, patrolling the streets with bayonets fixed, cooled tensions.

The disturbance continued into the following two days, spreading to the neighbouring towns of Ashton, Hyde and Dunkenfield, but in truth, things were beginning to fizzle out.

Stalybridge's mayor declared on Tuesday 24 March that the matter would be taken to Parliament by the local MP and that the ticket system would be abolished.

Thankfully, without need for the cutlasses to be truly loosed, Stalybridge's first flashpoint was over.

Bigotry unsheathes the cutlasses

The second time the cutlasses were used had much darker motives at its heart - and the incident has a resonance today, as it lies in the use of economic recession by a political extremist to justify bigoted opinion and religious hatred.

A mob attacking a church in Ashton in 1867
Spurred by Murphy's bigotry, a mob in Ashton attacked St Mary's Church

In 1867, William Murphy arrived in Stalybridge to speak.

Described as both a political activist and a rabble-rouser, he travelled the country stirring up Protestant communities against their Catholic neighbours - who were predominantly Irish - by suggesting that they were the only ones profiting in the economic recession caused by the cotton famine by offering cheap labour and therefore taking local jobs.

Irish immigrants had come to Manchester to escape the Great Famine two decades earlier and were employed in both the mills and in the civic construction programmes that were commissioned to provide jobs to those struck hardest by the cotton shortage and its knock-on effects.

Murphy had already incited a riot in Birmingham and his lecture in Stalybridge had a similar effect.

It's little wonder that it did. A Church of England rector from Dukinfield who attended his speech recorded that Murphy had called for the hanging of local priests.

As a result, attendees left the meeting to riot and smash windows in the Irish quarter of the town - an action that required severe reaction from the local constabulary, who duly brought out the cutlasses.

The disturbance caused by Murphy was not confined to Stalybridge. In neighbouring Ashton, a mob attacked the chapel of St Anne's, burning crucifixes and laid siege to St Mary's. As a result, the Riot Act was read there also.

Back in Stalybridge, the parish priest of St. Peter's took to the roof of the church to defend it and in the commotion, a man was shot.

The priest was tried for his part in the disturbance but was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Such was the severity of that incident that it shocked the population back to their senses and Murphy chose to take his bigotry elsewhere, allowing the community to settle down again and the Stalybridge police to put away their cutlasses once and for all.




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