The First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston

The title page of Fr. Page's book
The title page of Fr. Page’s book

The First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston, as it became known, was formed in 1731 as ‘The Catholick Bretheran’ of Preston. Its history from the early 18th century up until the 1920s charts the transformation of the town’s Catholics from suspected traitors forced to meet clandestinely to the socially conservative and respected members of the wider community they had become by the end of the period.

The brethren’s history has been told by two of the town’s priests. Firstly by Fr James Splaine in 1895, when he was rector of St Wilfrid’s. [1] And secondly by Fr Bernard Page, of St Walburge’s, who incorporated the material in Fr Splaine’s book into his own history of the charity, and expanded on it. [2] Fr Page’s book, which appeared in 1923, has been transcribed and republished here:


The First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston
by Bernard F. Page, S.J.

Preface, Foreword and Introduction
Chapter 1 – Setting the stage
Chapter 2 – Foundation of the society
Chapter 3 – Original rules of the society
Chapter 4 – Early additions and alterations in the rules
Chapter 5 – Modern rules
Chapter 6 – The old and the new
Chapter 7 – What it is and What it does
Chapter 8 – Progress of the society
Chapter 9 – 1753-1853
Chapter 10 – The modern society
Chapter 11 – Works initiated and directed by The First Catholic Charitable Society
Appendix A – Some random extracts from the old account books
Appendix B – List of presidents of the society
Appendix C – List of papers read at meetings of The First Catholic Charitable Society since 1887
Appendix D – Priests whose names occur in the old account books
List of subscribing members


The difficulties faced by Catholics in Preston in the 18th century almost led to an early end to the Society of Catholick Bretheran to judge by an item from their minute book dated 1753, and recorded by Fr Page in his introduction (I think he added the emphasis):

This Charitable Society so piously instituted and so fervourously carry’d on for so many years in this town of Preston for ye benefit of ye poor & to ye increase & encouragement of Christian morality hath been obliged during ye late storms to lie under ye Bushel for so long a time that it has in a manner quite expired.

Fr Page’s choosing to stress that Catholics needed to ‘lie under the bushel’ captures the clandestine nature of the faith’s worship in penal times. Of course, the level of toleration varied considerably, ranging from a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ acceptance to a full on persecution based on an 18th-century version of the crude Tebbit test, which points up the fact that much of the intolerance was of a political rather than religious character:

Ever since the sixteenth-century Reformation, the English and following them the Scots and Welsh had regarded Catholicism as a form of national treachery, and only gradually had opinion softened as the threat of invasion by Catholic powers like France and Spain receded. Catholics like Protestant dissenters had long been barred from public office, which was reserved for fully paid up members of the Church of England, but in 1828 and 1829 these restrictions were removed by Act of Parliament, not least in the Catholic case to defuse mounting tension in Ireland. So inflamed were parliamentary passions that the Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister who had introduced the legislation, fought a duel against the Earl of Winchelsea, who had accused him of plotting to destroy the Protestant Constitution of the United Kingdom. [3]

Thus, Sir Thomas Clifton, the leading Catholic in the Fylde at the end of the 17th century, saw his family suffer sequestration for its support for the Royalists in the Civil War, only to find himself made a baronet in 1661 by a grateful Charles II. This gratitude proved short-lived, for Sir Thomas and his wife were indicted for recusancy at the time of the Popish Plot. Then, James II’s determination to promote Catholicism, leading to the invasion of William of Orange in 1688, rendered Lancashire Catholics vulnerable to accusations of support for the Stuarts. One of the consequences was that Sir Thomas and several other prominent local Catholics were arrested in 1689 and held at Preston. Sir Thomas, alone of those arrested, was not transferred to Manchester but detained at the Preston home of his friend Thomas Patten. The final indignity came in 1694 when he was caught up in the ‘Lancashire Plot’ and tried for treason. He was acquitted, partly on account of the testimony of Thomas Patten. He died shortly after.

Similarly, the Fernyhalgh priest Christopher Tootell was arrested in Preston in 1689 and sent to Lancaster but later enjoyed a period of comparative peace in the years before 1715 when tolerant Tory magistrates controlled the quarter sessions. This ended with the first Jacobite rebellion when the Whig vicar of Preston and Whig magistrates made life once again difficult for Catholics. Fr Tootell wrote that in place of ‘the Quiet we had enjoy’d under the late Magistracie’ the succeeding Whigs were ‘active and severe in their Office’.

So it is not surprising that following the 1715 Jacobite rebellion Preston’s Catholic brethren chose to ‘lie under the bushel’. Of course, the suspicion of Jacobite sympathies was not unfounded, as Fr Page acknowledges when writing of the first days of the society in Chapter 1 of his book:

Though beaten into outward submission, Catholics were still feared. Only sixteen years before stirring events took place, when the horse and foot of the Pretender marched through the streets of Preston and occupied the town. Catholics had lent their aid. Fourteen years later they rallied around Prince Charles Edward in 1745. They thought their cause and that of the exiled Stuarts was one. As a body they were with the Jacobite cause. This kept on them the Government’s attention; and this attention meant fresh penal legislation—in other words persecution.

Preston Catholics attracted the ire of local Whigs again in 1768 when a mob was incited to attack and plunder St Mary’s, the new chapel in Friargate. Its priest had to flee for his life. That chapel was to serve the Irish Catholics who settled in the town both before and following the Irish famine of the mid-19th century. Their arrival and competition in the local job market provoked economic as well as political antagonism. These antagonisms are brought out in Nigel Morgan’s study of the town’s politics in the first half of the 19th century:

The left wing of Preston politics was appropriated by an alliance of anti-Corn Law and Roman Catholic leaders. 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, and quickly established a well-knit web of political connections through the Operative Conservative Association.

He notes that in the election of 1837:

… the Tories resorted to the 19th century equivalent of race riots: they attacked the Irish, almost certainly with the troops of John Armstrong and the Operative Conservative Association, possibly with the connivance of Robert Townley Parker, the Tory candidate. The Chronicle reported ‘shameful destruction’ in that part of the town known as ‘New England’ on 25th July … ‘the whole of the houses on one street (were) literally gutted’ and not just by a crowd of roughs because ‘some persons calling themselves respectable… even… professional… were among the most busy’. On the following morning John Gradwell, the Rev. Mr Connell (of the Jesuit church of St. Wilfrid) and Peter Haydock (the mayor) went to pacify ‘the Irish Brigade employed on the railway’. In the next week Robert Townley Parker denied that he was a violent Orangeman: he was not ‘one who would flog alive all Roman Catholics’.

Such bigoted prejudice laid Parker open to ridicule, as Nigel Morgan recorded:

… a half civilised OURAN-OUTANG or MAN MONKEY, lately caught in the Woods at Cuerden, by a party of Conservative Poachers (98)… A newly invented GAG… has been provided, known by the name of the ‘Operative Conservative Association GAG’… No Roman Catholics, or Dissenters… the MONKEY having taken a most unaccountable dislike to persons so denominated…

And later in the century came hostile reactions to the reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850. Other provocations to anti-Catholic feelings included Fenian disturbances in the town, leading to the arming of members of the Preston police force with revolvers in October 1867.

Hostility continued into the 20th century. Fr Page records the First Catholic Charitable Society objecting strongly to anti-Catholic protests in London:

It will be remembered that on the occasion of the Eucharistic Congress held in 1908 at the Cathedral of Westminster, it had been the intention of His Eminence the Cardinal, to carry the Blessed Sacrament in solemn procession around the Cathedral through the Square, known as Ashley Gardens. Protestant Societies cried out in protest. Such pressure was brought to bear that the then Prime Minister forbade the procession to take place. In consequence the following protest was sent from a meeting of the Society held on October 19th, 1908: ‘We, the members of the First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston, assembled at our October Quarterly Meeting, express our emphatic protest against the Prime Minister’s action in interfering and preventing the Eucharistic Procession, which was to be the culminating point of the great Congress.We also, as loyal citizens, demand our full civil rights and religious liberties, and the removal of all such disabilities from the Statute book.’

The value of the histories written by Frs. Splaine and Page is that they put the flesh on the above skeleton of an account of the tribulations of the town’s Catholics, shedding light on the lives of those who lived through those times. What is disappointing is that so little now remains.

Fr Page quotes the following from Fr Splaine’s account:

The sources from which we have to draw the history of this venerable Society are very limited. They consist mainly if not exclusively, of the two first account books, kept by the Treasurers of the Society for the time being, and used also by the Secretaries instead of a minute book. They have passed through many vicissitudes, and run many risks of being lost or destroyed. One was discovered among the old account books of St. Wilfrid’s. The other was, fortunately, rescued by the then Secretary of the Society from the sweepings of a newspaper of office, in the very process of being carted to the dust heap. Both are now safe. They are deposited with the Chairman of the Society at St. Wilfrid’s Presbytery, in a tin case specially made for them, open, of course, for inspection when necessary; but it is to be hoped that the Society will jealously watch over them, and not allow them to be carried about or lent, containing as they do the sole authentic record of its formal constitution and its early work. The minutes of meetings, and various other notices, have been written in the midst of the entries of expenditure and receipts, on the fly-leaves, on the covers, in fact, anywhere that happened to be convenient, so that it has required both trouble and patience to arrange the facts in chronological order, and it may be that some mistakes have crept into our work.

Fr Page adds:

If Fr. Splaine had to regret the limited sources from which he had to draw the history of the Society, the present writer is no less handicapped. For the period before 1853, he has only those same old ‘two first account books.’ They are still preserved in St. Wilfrid’s Presbytery in the tin case that Fr. Splaine had specially made for them. For the period after 1887 the writer has had recourse to the minute books of the Society. At times—it depended largely on the Secretary for the time being!—these minutes are very meagre. Great care was taken to record wholly uninteresting matter, e.g., names of all members present, the fact that such a member proposed and such another member seconded a resolution, which was unanimously adopted, that a hearty vote of thanks be accorded to the Reverend Chairman, who suitably responded. That such a thing happened might quite easily have been left to the imagination of subsequent generations. Nor would it have mattered much, if such a matter were forgotten. But matters of real lasting interest are so lightly touched on that, though the note is sufficient to awaken our interest, it is not enough really to quench our thirst for knowledge.

Of what happened between 1853 and 1887 we are almost entirely in the dark. Minute books relating to those years seem somehow to have been all lost.

What has now also been lost is Lancashire Library’s only copy of Fr Splaine’s book. Until the recent reorganisation at Preston’s Harris Library the copy was on the open shelves in the library’s reference and local history room. I made use of it for the account of Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ on this site. It can no longer be located, despite a diligent search by library staff. The only other copy I know of is in the Talbot Library collection, now held at Liverpool Hope University. The Lancashire Library catalogue records four copies of Fr Page’s book. Of the two that should be in the Harris only one can now be located, which loss prompted me to publish a version on line. I am not sure whether the ‘tin case records’ that Fr Page refers to are still at St Wilfrid’s: they are not among the society’s papers held at Lancashire Archives, which all deal with the society’s later period. [4]

Fr Page is very good on the early history of the society, providing in his chapter one a description of how Catholics would worship at the time:

Would they hear Mass? It must be done in secret. In the parlour of some friendly hostelry Catholics assembled, a few at a time. They sat around a table, pipes alight and tankards of ale to hand. When all had arrived, a sliding door revealed an altar, or a seeming wardrobe or sideboard was transformed into one. A priest in vestments came in from another room and began the Sacred Mysteries, while a watch was kept for the approach of spies. Did danger threaten, the priest snatched up the chalice and the missal and disappeared with them into ‘the priest’s hiding hole.’ The altar was quickly hidden. The devout congregation remained chatting and drinking and smoking like ordinary tap-room frequenters.

It was still High Treason for a priest to say Mass. It was still a crime to give a priest a refuge. A Catholic was still unable to purchase land or to succeed to real estate. It was still punishable to send one’s children to the Continent for education; and it was but by stealth that they could be educated as Catholics at home. An apostate son could still drive his own father from his home. Still were Catholics kept out of the Army and Navy and excluded from the professions of law and medicine. Still were Catholics forbidden to be guardians over children. Still were the prisons filled by felons, whose crime was their Faith.

In his second chapter Fr Page quotes from a pamphlet of 1856 that says the charity was ‘commonly called “Duckett’s Charity” ’, although he can find no other reference to that name. The pamphlet apparently also noted that the charity ’embraced as its members only the upper classes of the town of Preston’. The original rules of the charity are set out in Fr Page’s third chapter, along with the names of the founding members, then limited to 40. The ‘Rules of 1887’ are set out in chapter five. In chapter six, Fr Page compares the old with the new, and is rather disappointed:

May we not remark the great difference that exists between the ‘Rules’ of 1887 and the ‘Articles’ of 1731? And is it always for the better that changes have been made? Gone are the quaint old entries. Gone are the obscure and involved and ill-spelt passages. But gone also are the devout homilies and apt quotations that point the moral and adorn the bare unpolished rule. How cold and cheerless in comparison are the hard cut-and-dried rules, as we have them now, stripped of all poetry and romance. Stripped are they also to a large extent of their piety. No rule now enjoins any spiritual works upon the members, except in so far as they contribute to the Charity. But members are no where in our present rules told that they must say ‘five pater nosters, five ave maries,’ or that at meetings the Litany of Loretto should be said, or once a quarter the Litany of the Saints. No rule now bids them ‘hear mass once a quarter for ye good Intencion of ye company and upon a work-day if it can be.’ Nor is it anywhere even hinted now that when a member dies charity demands that as many of the company as are able should ‘come to burial and say by the corpes of ye deceased Brother five pater nosters,’ or any other prayers at all. Nowhere is any mention made now in the rules of such things. Yet such acts of piety were among the first things laid down by our good founders.

Other changes included an increasingly important role for the clergy:

In the very old days of the Society there were no Clergy among the members; and, when they came in, they came as ordinary Brothers. It was not until … June, 1817, that the Clergy were given an ex-officio position as ‘Directors.’ And then it was only tentative.

Writing in 1923, Fr Page considers the charity in his time to be:

… a body of leading practising Catholics of Preston, unparochial, belonging to no parish, but to all the parishes of the town. It is a body of Catholics, who may be used on all occasions in the interests of the Church in all her needs, who will promote her interests, defend her rights, and assist her clergy in all their difficulties. It has done this splendidly and successfully on many occasions in the past, as we shall see. It will, we have no doubt, do so no less zealously in the future.

Its members were, according to Fr Page, the most important members of the Catholic community in the town:

It is well known without reference to the minutes, old members will tell you, the archives of the various Churches will bear witness, that no great Catholic movement took place in Preston that did not have its rise in and was not forwarded by the First Catholic Charitable Society. Was the Catholic population of the town growing so that a new parish had to be formed, a meeting of the First Catholic Charitable Society was called, and during a smoking concert the needs of the Church were explained and ways and means for carrying out the project were discussed and the Society undertook the work.

By the end of the 18th century the original rule limiting membership to 40 had been dropped and in 1800 membership stood at 52 and by the early years of the new century women were appearing on the membership lists, encouraged by Fr Dunn of St Wilfrid’s. This was a privilege they had lost by the end of the century, as Fr Page notes in his chapter 9:

Another interesting item appears in the 1813 accounts. At the bottom of the page we find this entry: ‘Lady Gerard 10s. for the ensuing year July 4 1813.’ And then appear the following names: Mrs. Chadwick, Mrs. Blanchard, Mrs. Shepherd, Miss Talbot, Mrs. Yates, Miss Agnes Yates, and Mrs. Arrowsmith. This is the first time that we find the names of women on the roll of members. Nothing in the rules of the founders explicitly excludes ladies . (Fr. Splaine pretends to see a prohibition in those words of the Articles: ‘No one shall be admitted but such as will keep the secrets of the Brethren.’) But ladies are here admitted as members. Our present rules admit wives of members who survive their husbands and who continue to pay subscription. But it seems quite plain from these names that at least for a period ladies could enter and did enter on their own account. Mrs. Shepherd was probably the wife of Richard Shepherd, whose name appears on the same page. So, too, Mrs. Arrowsmith was probably the good lady of Richard Arrowsmith. But Lady Gerard (wife of John Gerard, Esq., of Haighton), Mrs. Chadwick, and Mrs. Blanchard do not seem to have followed their spouses. And Mrs. Yates and her daughter, Agnes, and Miss Talbot seem to be quite without male escort and to have joined the Society entirely on their own account. Some years later indeed we find Fr. Dunn in 1825 announcing, during a determined recruiting rally, that he would pay the fee for the admission of the next twenty members, ‘especially if they were ladies.’

In our days, ladies are by custom, if not by the wording of the rules, not admitted to membership. Indeed members have been so ungallant as to decide, after lengthy debate, that ladies should not be admitted as guests on the occasion of the annual dinner.

When ladies ceased to be admitted is not quite clear. But for several years one finds names of women on the ordinary rolls, paying their half-crowns like the men. To mention only a few others, there are Nancy Anderson, May Bot, Mary Dalton, Miss Lucy Dalton, Mary Nixon, Miss B. Dalton, Miss Elizabeth Dalton, Mrs. Singleton, Miss Tootel, Mrs. Gillebrand, and others.

Fr Page then turns his attention, in chapter ten, to the society as it operated in his day. He discusses the subjects that were exercising its members at that time:

There was great anxiety felt in 1896 by all who had anything to do with Catholic education on account of a Bill that was proposed, which would have had disastrous results for Catholic schools. Catholics throughout England turned to Lancashire, and Lancashire showed an unbroken front. Mass meetings of protest became the order of the day. Naturally it was to be expected that Preston Catholics would be staunch. And staunch and unbending they were. Unequivocal was the message that they sent forth. It has been already said that the First Catholic Charitable Society is the ‘Cadre’ of the Catholic Army in Preston. At the signal it mobilises and brings itself to strength. The call came at the general meeting in January, 1896. We quote the entry in the minutes of that date: ‘Fr. O’Hare, S.J. appealed to the meeting to rally round our Bishop at the forthcoming educational meeting and to support the resolutions which would then be proposed.’ There was the call. And well the Society rose to it.

Another matter which was taken up by the Society was the rescue of Catholic children from non-Catholic Poor Law Schools. As we shall see, it was largely due to the exertions of the Society that St. Thomas’ Home and St. Vincent’s School owe their existence. It was certainly, as our minute books bear witness, at meetings of the Society that they were first proposed and discussed. The subject was first mooted in papers on “Boys’ Homes” and “Rescue Work” read by Messrs. R. H. Smith and W. P. Meagher in April, 1889. The matter was pressed at a meeting in July, 1898, when a somewhat heated discussion took place.

In his next chapter Fr Page expands on the work of the society in his time, particularly in its opposition to the various Education Bills being put forward at the time. In October 1906 the society sent the following resolution to the House of Lords:

‘This meeting of the First Catholic Charitable Society renews its protest against the Education Bill now before the House of Lords and repeats its request for the three essential conditions necessary for any just solution of the Education Question, viz.:—Catholic Schools, Catholic Teachers, Effective Catholic Oversight of all that pertains to Religious Teaching and Influence.’

The real meat of Fr Page’s book for the local historian comes in an appendix which contains extracts from the old account books such as:

7th July 1769 After my Deseas my Weaving loomes now in posion (sic) of James Banes I give unto the said James Banes for the benefit of oure Society by me Peter Bolton. Witness hereto John Graystock.

Here are found payments for local Catholics to go on pilgrimage and for young men to go abroad to train for the priesthood. About the latter, Fr Page notes:

We find frequent payments to young men ‘going abroad.’ No doubt they were going to study for the priesthood. It is noticeable that, as a rule they bear good old Catholic Lancashire names. They probably belonged to recusant families, who had suffered much in purse for their religion, and, being unable to go abroad at their own expense, were sent by their brethren, as being of the right kind of stuff for priests, those hard times.

There are also more prosaic matters as on 8 June 1733 ‘Pd. Richard Pemerton for loss of two cows 10/-‘. There is also an interesting reference to a Walton-le-Dale bookseller:

1758. ‘To John Shorrock for the Twelve Apostles 2/6.’ (John Sharrock was a Catholic bookseller or publisher in Walton-le-Dale. ‘The Twelve Apostles’ was probably an engraving. The Sharrocks were a great Benedictine family, and continued their bookselling business well into this century.—G. [Joseph Gillow])

The Brindle Registers supply the following information on John Shorrock:

One of this family settled in Friargate, Preston, and was the father of four Benedictines, where the eldest, Dom William Gregory Sharrock, subsequently bishop and V.A.-W.D., was born in 1742. The father then removed to Walton-le-Dale, and apparently commenced the printing business carried on by his son, J. Sharrock, who published at Walton, amongst other religious works ‘The Paradise of the Soul’ in 1771, and whose widow continued as a Catholic bookseller in Preston for many years, and died at Ribchester Mar. 13, 1827, aged 79. At Walton were born the three other sons, Dom James Jerome in 1750, Dom John Dunston in 1754, and Bro. Walter William in 1756, all having followed their uncle, Bro. William Joseph Sharrock, to St. Gregory s at Douai (Kirk, Biog. Collns. MSS.; Snow, Necrology; Maziere Brady, Episc. Succ.). Several Sharrocks of Ribbleton, Brindle, and Clayton were convicted of recusancy at the Preston sessions in Jan. 1714 and April 1717. [5]

The first mention of contributions to Catholic Sunday schools comes in 1787. Later the society was to support the schools founded at Brindle and Brownedge and shortly after it was contributing money for the building of St Wilfrid’s.

Fr Page includes an appendix listing papers read at meetings of the society from 1887 (he could find no record of earlier papers) until 1922. Subjects covered included church music, Fr Splaine’s ‘To Iceland and Back’ lecture, medieval mystery plays, spiritualism, the Oxford Movement and the Oberammergau Passion Play. In April, 1898, Fr Cortie was offering his lecture, ‘The Age of the Sun—An Argument against Darwinism’.

One surprising omission for a charitable organisation concerned with poor relief is any discussion reported on the situation of the working class in Preston, given that at this time Cardinal Wiseman was leading calls for social action and winning the gratitude of striking workers for acting as mediator in the London Dock Strike of 1889. And surely when Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum novarum two years later to address ‘the condition of the working classes’ it would have provided a worthy subject for discussion at at least one of the society’s meetings at that time.

Finally, Fr Page adds an appendix listing all those clergy whose names appear in the account books between 1733 and 1851, with short biographical details for several of them.

[1] James F. Splaine, History of the First Catholic Charitable Society (Preston: Buller (Printer), 1895).
[2] Bernard F. Page, The First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston (Founded June 6th, 1731): Some Account of Its History and Work Taken from Original Documents (Preston: T. Snape (Printers), 1923), http://capitadiscovery.co.uk/lancashire/items/148300.
[3] Richard J Evans, ‘The Victorians: Religion and Science’ (Gresham Lecture, Museum of London: Gresham College, 2011), https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-religion-and-science.
[4] ‘DDX 1130 – The First Catholic Charitable Society, Preston’, Lancashire Record Office Catalogue, 1923, https://archivecat.lancashire.gov.uk/calmview/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=DDX+1130.
[5] John Peter Smith, ‘Lancashire Registers: Brindle and Samlesbury’, Catholic Record Society 23 (1922): 72, http://archive.org/details/lancashireregist23unknuoft.

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