On this day … 1 May 1768

Joseph Smith, the priest in charge at St Mary’s Catholic Chapel in Friargate, died a month after a No-Popery mob burned down his church and forced him to flee for his life, escaping through the back of the chapel as the mob broke in.

It was believed that the attack contributed to his early death. The mob had been fired up by the Whigs contesting the election of that year, and the chapel was ‘scandalously and impiously plundered and violated by a band of unprincipled ruffians’, who burned its registers.

A sketch of St Mary’s Chapel

The seriousness of the threat to the lives of the town’s Tories and Catholics at the hands of the mob, goaded by the Whig candidate Colonel John Burgoyne, who had been put forward by the Stanley family headed by the earl of Derby, can be gathered by a letter, dated 21 February, that appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine:

The contest here is attended with imminent danger. I have just escaped with many friends. The country is now up in arms. As the town is now abandoned by our men, the cry is Leave not a freeman alive! God knows where this will end. I think to-night or to-morrow may be fatal to many. This is shocking work in a civilized country.

The following month, the magazine carried a letter from a correspondent in Lancaster:

… the violence committed on account of the ensuing election … at Preston exceed belief; murdering, maiming, pulling down the houses, destroying places of public worship, and breaking the furniture and burning the effects of each other, are among the acts of the inflamed mob.

The Tory mayor was dunked under the pump in Fishergate by Burgoyne’s supporters. Further indignities were reported to have been inflicted on another Tory, probably Thomas Pedder at his house in the Market Place:

Friday morning was ushered in by an assault upon the house and warehouse of a principal manufacturer in this town, in which they committed the greatest havoc and destruction. His goods and materials of manufacture were thrown out of the windows, and he himself at last reduced to the necessity of giving up his money, and begging his life on his knees.

Burgoyne and his fellow candidate Sir Henry Hoghton were eventually elected, but not before they had had to recruit their supporters in Parliament to enforce a rule that all the inhabitants in Preston, not just those approved by the corporation had the right to vote.

Of course, it was not all inhabitants, only adult males were given the vote, but it meant that Preston had universal male suffrage until well into the nineteenth century. The only other constituency to enjoy that privilege was Westminster.

St Mary’s Chapel was rebuilt and when Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell visited Preston in 1777, he heard Mass at St Mary’s, which he found ‘so filled with seats that I wondered at so much indulgence by the civil magistrates’. Burgoyne was fined £1,000 for the part he played in inciting the mob to violence.

David Berry: http://wyrearchaeology.org.uk/index.php/areas-of-interest/preston/election-1768
Charles Hardwick’s History of Preston
Friargate’s Catholic chapels

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