The Flood that Divided a City

This weekend thousands of revellers across the UK will don the colour green, grab a Guinness and celebrate St Patrick’s Day. Arguably it is celebrated more in England now than St George’s Day. However, relations between the native residents of the Victorian English city and our Irish Catholic ancestors had not always been so harmonious, and in Manchester this came to a head during a flood in 1872.


During the early hours of Saturday 13 July 1872, torrential rain began to batter the city. The rain would continue to fall for the next thirteen hours. It was so bad that a resident described it as being like ‘a water sprout had broken out over the city’. Manchester’s flood defences were no match for mother nature.


By the afternoon the River Medlock had burst its banks, flooding the newly built municipal cemetery, Philips Park. The worst affected area of the cemetery was the east portion of the Roman Catholic section. Coffins that had been newly laid were swept from their graves and travelled with the flow of water into the heart of the city. For three days bodies were being recovered and sent to the local police station, which was acting as a makeshift mortuary. The furthest body was discovered in Castlefield, some three miles from the cemetery. In total the number of bodies recovered was 76. A request was sent to the Guardians of the Poor for eighty coffins to reinter the bodies into a higher portion of the Roman Catholic cemetery.


The flood of 1872 was not the first time that this section had been under water. In 1868, a flood defence was built along the river bank but in 1869, the Catholic community argued that the wall was not adequate enough to protect them from future flooding, and they were proved right.


Since the opening of the cemetery in 1866 to the flood in 1872, over 12,000 burials had been conducted in the Roman Catholic section of the cemetery. The size of the Catholic section was approximately eight acres. The most popular form of burial was the public grave which could take as many as twenty coffins.


In the wake of the floods, the Catholic community became increasingly angered by the treatment they had received from the council – Irish working-class Catholics had come under particular scrutiny from the authorities during the nineteenth century, both for their living conditions and their political opinions when it came to Home Rule in Ireland, particularly following the murder of Sargent Brett in 1867 by a group of Manchester fenians.


Since the opening of the cemetery, Catholic community leaders had argued that out of all of the religious denominations in the cemetery, they had been given the worst plot of land to bury their dead. However, now they had a point. A local Catholic priest wrote to the Manchester Guardian and Home Secretary, stating that a public enquiry by the Home Office was needed to address the failings of the Corporation.


A public enquiry was held at the cemetery on 24 July 1872. In charge of the proceedings was Peter Henry Holland, burials inspector for the Home Office. Even before the meeting started, disagreements were taking place between the two parties. The Burial Inspector argued that the meeting should take place on neutral ground, whereas John Gornall felt it should be at the Catholic chapel. After a heated debate, it was decided that meeting should take place in the ‘neutral’ dissenters’ chapel. The result angered members of the public who shouted ‘we want to be treated as Christians, not as barbarians’.


The feeling throughout the meeting was one of hostility towards the Burial Inspector and members of the council. Even when the enquiry officially opened, members of the public could be heard shouting angrily. The police were called to stop any violence and keep the public in order. After a series of heated debates on both sides, the council announced that they planned to build a new river wall and stop all burials in the low lying part of the cemetery.


Although burials did stop in the low-lying part of the Catholic cemetery, the Catholic community still felt that they had been treated terribly by the corporation. In 1875, less than three years after the Flood, the Catholics opened their own cemetery only a couple of miles from Philips Park. The new cemetery in Moston, named St Joseph’s, had an immediate impact on the number of Catholic burials in Philips Park, which fell dramatically. To further insult the governing authorities, the Catholic community erected a large monument to the Manchester fenians – Manchester Martyrs as they are otherwise known – in the heart of their new cemetery.


The degree of anti-Irish prejudice had regional variations. It was worse in the northern industrial towns. Although Manchester never achieved the bitter sectarian rivalry found in Liverpool or Glasgow, there was still an undercurrent of hostility towards the Irish.


Fast forward to 2018, and Irish Catholic migrants are an integral part of the community. Any anti-Irish or anti-Catholic sentiment has no place in the modern city. This Saturday (17 March 2018) in cities across the world, myself, along with thousands of others will wear something green with pride to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

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