I’ve recently started working on a biography of the 19th-century Preston Conservative MP Robert Townley Parker, which I thought was going to be a straightforward account of a ‘Church and State’ Tory and his hostility to the town’s Catholics. This would have aligned him with the virulently anti-papist position of the town’s Anglican clergy, led by the vicar, the Rev John Owen Parr. And this was the view I had taken from the many references to Townley Parker in Nigel Morgan’s MPhil thesis on politics in Preston in the first half of the 19th-century.
The right wing, identified from 1835 to 1852 with the bigoted Protestant squire of Cuerden Hall, Robert Townley Parker, exploited the sectarian and anti-Irish animosities of the lower orders … the Tories resorted to the 19th century equivalent of race riots: they attacked the Irish, … possibly with the connivance of Robert Townley Parker, the Tory candidate … Townley Parker denied that he was a violent Orangeman: he was not ‘one who would flog alive all Roman Catholics’.
Elsewhere, Nigel took Townley Parker to task for ‘holding out the stick of papal despotism’ in his electioneering.
But when I started gathering material it soon became clear that Townley Parker was a far more interesting and complex character. For, although a formidable opponent of any attempts to weaken the Church of England establishment, he was a lifelong friend of many Catholics and supported many of that church’s Lancashire projects.
For example, I came across a newspaper account of a speech he gave at the end of his life in which he referred to an audience he was granted with Pope Pius VII in 1814, when he would have just turned 20. It seemed implausible that as a Protestant visitor to Italy, just out of his teens, he and his companion would have been granted such access. But with a bit more digging I discovered that not only was the newspaper report correct but I also found an account of what was discussed at the audience.
In addition, Townley Parker included among his friends the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, with whom he shared a platform at St Augustine’s RC Church when Manning visited Preston. Another friend was the Catholic bishop of Liverpool, who was a welcome guest at Townley Parker’s home, Cuerden Hall.
I discovered many more examples of his active involvement in Catholic affairs: he threw open the grounds of Cuerden Hall to hundreds of children from St Augustine’s; he saw to it that priests were provided for Catholics in the Preston House of Correction and in the county asylum, with their salaries paid by the county; he gave land for Catholic schools; and when he decided not to contest his seat again a delegation of the town’s leading Catholics visited him at Cuerden Hall and tried to persuade him to change his mind.
There was clearly much more to Townley Parker than a superficial account of his career would suggest. While I continue working on the biography I would be grateful if anyone who can suggest avenues worth exploring would get in touch: all assistance would be fully acknowledged.