Preston Orange Order MP’s Catholic sympathies

Robert Townley Parker, as a young man
Robert Townley Parker, as a young man. (Wikipedia Commons)

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.

Nigel wrote:

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.

4 thoughts on “Preston Orange Order MP’s Catholic sympathies

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. I find that people are generally more complex than we tend to realize. I am a practicing Traditionalist Roman Catholic descendant of James and Susan Fletcher of Preston and Bolton, Lancashire. They emigrated to Connecticut in about 1890 and both died young. They even had a cousin who was a vicar of the C of E,who remained in England. I am proud that they kept their Faith through hard times and that their great-great grandchildren are being raised the same way. It’s good to know that there were men like Townley Parker as part of their local history. I would like to read your book when it is finished.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Barbara. I should say the result will be more of a biographical article, rather than a full biography. And it will appear on this website and not in print. After spending most of my working life in print publishing I am now enjoying on-line publishing which is much more forgiving of my more embarrassing mistakes, which can quickly be corrected and thus spare my blushes. I will email you with updates.
      Personal contact can often resolve conflict: even in religion. Norman Cresswell, a former editor of the Catholic Times, told me of the time he shared a railway journey with Ian Paisley. The two men were surprised to find they enjoyed each other’s company, and even indulged in some gentle teasing.

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      1. That’s an amazing anecdote about Cresswell and Paisley. I remember Mr. Paisley from the conflict with the IRA and it’s hard to believe that he could have a pleasant conversation with a Catholic. Mr. Paisley and I would have agreed about the IRA though. I thought it was disgraceful how many American Catholics supported them financially. However, I have learned over the years that, when people meet face to face, it’s harder to deny the other’s humanity.

        I agree with the online publishing issue. It’s also much more costly to publish hard copies and sell enough to make a profit. Unfortunately, fewer people are even reading anything, digital or otherwise. And history is the most neglected topic of all.

        Best of luck with your research, Peter. I look forward to reading the article.

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