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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


The monument to Mary Carpenter (1807-1877) in Bristol Cathedral.

The monument to Mary Carpenter (1807-1877) in Bristol Cathedral.

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Beyond the pale? Mary Carpenter and the Irish poor in mid-Victorian Bristol (1)

Madge Dresser, University of the West of England

'Identity' is a slippery concept, but it is generally agreed that one common way of constructing an identity, be it civic, ethnic or personal, involves establishing distinctions between oneself and a putative 'Other'. (2) Thus boundaries are set and borders drawn between the 'them and us' in question. To their creators, such differences may seem natural, self-evident and unchanging. To historians however, it becomes evident that such categories of difference are porous, context-dependent and ever shifting.

The way Irish immigrants and their children were perceived, as 'different' by English commentators in mid Victorian England is a case in point. It has become a commonplace to acknowledge that anti-Catholicism in England merged with emerging racial theories, political tensions and class anxieties to produce an atmosphere hostile to Irish immigrants. (3)

This article draws on research currently in progress on Bristol's nineteenth century Irish migrant community and its reception. It seeks to place in context a particular instance in which anti-Irish sentiments were expressed in Bristol. To what extent are such sentiments best explained as motivated simply by religious bigotry and/or racism?

The Victorian commentator whose anti-Irish pronouncements will be scrutinized here, is the reformer, Mary Carpenter (1807-1877). Now portrayed as one of Bristol's most revered adopted daughters, she is best remembered as pioneering educational provision for the poor. (4) The Irish about whom she spoke were specifically the city's Irish Catholic poor (Bristol had no problem assimilating propertied Irish Protestants into the civic elite, and there were few affluent Irish Catholics in mid Victorian Bristol).

Carpenter has been characterized as 'highly prejudiced' toward the Irish. Her testimony to the 1861 Commons Select Committee on the Education of Destitute Children is cited as evidence for this. (5) There she is recorded as condemning 'the low Irish' in Bristol's Quayside as 'uncivilized' and as criticizing Catholic authorities for promoting ignorance and sectarianism. It is tempting to discount her opinions and her offensive terminology without further analysis.

It is precisely for this reason that we should revisit her testimony. If nothing else, her observations, afford us a window into the way at least one Bristolian viewed the Irish. But Carpenter, is no typical Victorian 'racist'. Her views cannot be dismissed as solely as the product of hegemonic imperial self-interest.

The complex boundaries she constructs between the 'low Irish' and others, between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, between Catholic and Protestant, might be couched in offensive terminology, but they are drawn from intensive first-hand observation and were a good deal more nuanced and qualified than is at first evident. Her perspective, though bounded by her historical position, was not completely determined by it, and the tensions her testimony reveals about the 'low Irish' and the 'Catholics' still have a resonance for larger and still unresolved tensions existing between minority and majority groups in Britain today.

Carpenter's internationalism

The daughter of a Unitarian minister, her religion (which was theologically radical enough to challenge the divinity of Christ) predisposed her to the cause of rational reform and public service. As a reformer and non-conformist, she would not have seen herself as part of Bristol's old Anglican mercantile ruling class. Nor would she, as an unmarried woman in the public sphere, have been fully accepted by the professional men and manufacturers who increasingly came to dominate Bristol's newly reformed Town Council.

Carpenter's Unitarianism distinguished her in some respects from the more reactionary and ethnocentric excesses of Victorian evangelicalism. Influenced by Raja Rammohun Roy, the Bengali reformer who came to Bristol in 1833, she developed a passionate life-long interest in India, forging friendships and working partnerships with other Indian progressives.

In the 1840s when mainstream Protestant reformers in the city joined to promote 'unsectarian' education, both Catholics and Unitarians had been excluded from the remit. It was this which led to Mary Carpenter taking up the cause of educating poor children of all denominations in her 'ragged schools', the first of which was in Lewin's Mead, in Bristol, an area of heavy Irish settlement and great poverty.

She was also heavily involved in the anti-slavery moment in America. It was through her antislavery activities that she helped to host the former slave and eloquent abolitionist campaigner Frederick Douglass, who spoke in Bristol in 1847.

Over her lifetime, Carpenter travelled to India three times visiting schools and prisons there and hosted two Hindu pupils in Bristol before her death in 1877. Carpenter's Unitarianism and personal friendships with people of all races distinguished her from the more provincial and narrow-minded evangelicals in the city. Given her intelligence, energy and evident internationalism, we should ask why Mary Carpenter spoke about the Irish poor in the terms she did.

Carpenter on the Irish Catholics

There were plenty of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigots around in Victorian Bristol. The city's biggest demonstration before the 1831 Reform riot was in 1829 against the Catholic Emancipation Act. But generally speaking, Bristol Unitarians urged a more tolerant view about religious freedom and would have condemned any violence taken against Irish labour. Yet the dominant Protestant culture of the city was clearly hostile to both the Catholic Church (whose establishment of a Diocese in 1850 excited much fearful local comment) and to the Irish migrants who came in increasing numbers into its port.

In her testimony to the 1861 Select Committee, Mary Carpenter articulated her anger about the way she felt the Catholic authorities in Bristol had discouraged poor Irish children away from her own ragged school in Lewin's Mead. She initially accused the priests of forbidding their parishioners from attending any of her classes, and of fomenting hostility towards her as a Protestant.

I can only say that the children told us that the priests had in one case flogged a child for coming to our school, and had used very strong influence to prevent them from coming, and that I have myself been absolutely insulted in the street by Catholic children... who feel erroneously that they were showing their zeal for their own religion by insulting Protestants. (6)

And though she later withdrew her statement as she had no real proof of the priests' motives, she clearly believed that the children's behaviour had been incited by them.

She also complained that though the priests had effectively discouraged pupils from attending her school, they failed to ensure effectively that their children regularly attended the Catholic-run school in Trenchard Street. She all but accused the priests of fraudulently receiving capitation grants from the government for pupils who rarely, if ever, attended their school. She despised as bribery the priests' attempts to induce some children to attend by providing them with clothes and shoes. Such bribery was in any case ineffective, she said, since such inducements were more often than not promptly pawned. She criticized the priests and Sisters of Mercy in the city for not bothering to visit the homes of their truanting pupils.

Carpenter also admitted to the Select Committee that she would refuse on principle to employ a Catholic teacher in her schools. Her refusal was based on ideological grounds. She expressly felt that '... Catholics and Protestants may be and ought to be perfectly harmonious in friendly action,' but she did... 'not think they can be so in religious matters.' Why was this?

It was precisely because she saw Catholic theology at odds with religious liberty that she refused to employ a practicing Catholic as a teacher. She said that whilst she did not object to Catholic Schools, she did take exception to the fact that a Catholic teacher in her own school would not be at liberty to interpret their Bible according to his or her own conscience. Like all Protestants, she judged the priestly hierarchy and the power of the Pope to determine Catholic doctrine as a threat to individual freedom.

She did not see her own school as 'denominational' as she welcomed children of all faiths to her school and did not directly proselytize. What she could not understand was that though the atmosphere in her schools might not have been 'bigoted', (indeed, she went out of her way to welcome Catholic students), it was, given its stress on individual Bible reading among other things, in essence, Protestant.

On the other hand, Carpenter clearly had superficially congenial relations with the priests. More significantly, she expressed a genuinely warm respect for the head of the Catholic St. Mary's School at Trenchard Street in Bristol.

But even he, she added, felt himself stymied by his pupils' 'nature'. Whilst she used the word 'nature,' it is made elsewhere clear by her testimony that she recognized that the characters of both the Irish and English poor were more determined by their environment than by their inherent 'nature.' (She refused, for example, to use the term 'criminal classes' on those grounds.) What she really felt was frustrating the Catholic head of the Trenchard Street School were those aspects of the culture of the Irish poor which were palpably at odds with regular attendance at school.

More specifically, Carpenter simply could not understand why the children of Marsh Street and Host Streets (two of the Irish 'micro ghettoes' in Bristol) left school en masse for several weeks each year to go hop picking. She saw this as a wanton sacrifice of their educational progress. Of course, leaving school to do harvest work was not restricted to Irish children in those days, but it was the unanimous and communal nature of this practice by the poorest Bristol Irish, which struck her so strongly.

To counter such practices, Carpenter suggested a rationalizing agenda of rational reform. What such children needed, she said, was not the narrowly academic programme as laid down in the National Schools' curriculum. What they really required was:

[a] really religious instruction; [and] a great deal of attention to be paid to their civilisation, to their cleanliness and to the inculcation in them of good habits of every kind, which are adopted voluntarily by respectable working people; the object is to give them the feeling that they have to earn everything they have, that they are not to beg or to desire to have gifts, but to earn their money; to give them a feeling of independence, to the them to labour and to feel a pleasure in labouring. (7)

Such discourse today sounds at one level risibly ethnocentric and terribly Victorian. It is the talk of Grandgrind, the notion of training obedient wage slaves for the new industrial order. But there is a bit of Cissy Jupe there too, for Carpenter had a more holistic view of education than did Grandgrind or his counterparts in some of Bristol's National and British Schools. Carpenter recognized that a purely academic regime would not address the violence and deprivation affecting the children she wished to teach. And the log books of both Catholic and Protestant schools in Bristol of that time show she was not the only one to worry about the frenetic and often violent behaviour within the classroom, about illness, lack of food and clothing the children suffered or about the alcoholism afflicting some of their families.

If Carpenter was no Gradgrind, neither was she a racist. She knew her former Irish pupils had potential as individuals and wanted them to succeed in life. But if her intentions were compassionate and well meaning, her rationalism and stress on individual accountability made her blinkered about those whose culture was different to her own. She found it difficult to appreciate the limitations of a 'self-help' ethic in an economy riven by structural inequalities. The society to which she wished the Irish poor to adapt demanded a certain discipline and future deferment of pleasure without necessarily guaranteeing them a just recompense.

A critic of corporate privilege, Carpenter placed too much faith in the power of individual self-determination. An enemy of entrenched hierarchy, she seemed unable to see how her 'non-denominational' schools and evening classes, with their stress on liberty of conscience and individual self-discipline, could seem very Protestant indeed and thus culturally alien to the Irish.

A perusal of the records of Bristol's Catholic archive shows another perspective. The Irish priests were sometimes anti-Protestant, they did encourage deference and obedience rather than critical enquiry in matters of religious doctrine. Their attitude to drink did vary according to the calibre of the individual priest involved. But by their own lights, they and the nuns and teachers working with them genuinely want to help their flock. Their tolerance of the often pre-Christian elements in the wakes, processions and rituals of Bristol's Irish Catholics showed a pragmatic tolerance based on a close familiarity with Irish folkways and cultural practice. This might not have been effective in promoting their pupils' social mobility but it had the virtues of familiarity and acceptance. (8)

So where Carpenter saw oppressive doctrine, others saw guidance and security; where she saw rigid hierarchy others saw a haven in an alien and heartless world. And what she condemned as self-defeating fecklessness and superstition, others celebrated as communal fun and a relief from grim routine.

But can we dismiss Carpenter's insistence on the need for moral and religious instruction and 'civilization' simply as the rantings of an ethnocentric Victorian? Are her recommendations really all that different from more recent discourses of 'holistic education', 'affective learning' and 'social skills training' for the 'socially excluded'? Was her condemnation of the lifestyles of the Irish poor not redolent of more current analyses of the destructive impact of 'chaotic families' who are themselves undermined by dislocation, poverty and substance abuse? Is her charge that Catholic priests urged their pupils to acts of hostility towards her as a Protestant, a trumped-up charge or a legitimate (if one-sided) complaint about imported religious intolerance?

Perhaps instead we should recognize that today's problematic boundaries between modernization and traditionalism, between multi-culturalism and assimilationism, between culture, class and 'ethnicity' also preoccupied Carpenter. She did not have the conceptual vocabulary which might have refined her own understanding of the terrain which she and Bristol's Irish poor both inhabited. But if the past is a foreign country, we should at least have the humility to recognize that its borders might be less distant than we commonly assume.

  1. This research is part of a larger project on 'Identity and the City: a History of Ethnic Minorities in Bristol 1000-2001 which is in turn part of the 'England's Past for Everyone' (EPE) initiative funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and administered by the Victoria Country History Project at the Institute of Historical Research. The Bristol Project, 'Identity and the City: a History of Ethnic Minorities in Bristol 1000-2001', led by Madge Dresser and Peter Fleming, is one of 14 local history projects under the EPE umbrella and the only one specifically to address ethnic identity. For more details about the initiative see http://www.EnglandsPastForEveryone.org.uk [accessed 2 November 2006]. Back to (1)
  2. A. Rattansi, '"Western" Racisms, Ethnicities, and Identities', in Racism, Modernity and Identity on the Western Front, ed. A. Rattansi and S. Westwood (Cambridge, 1994), p. 25 Back to (2)
  3. Donald M. MacRaild, Irish Migrants in Modern Britain, 1750-1922 (Basingstoke, 1995), pp. 75-9; Pamela Joan Gilbert, 'In the Midst of a Protestant People: the Development of the Catholic Community in Bristol in the Nineteenth century' (upublished PhD dissertation, University of Bristol, 1995), pp. 78-90; The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939, ed. R. Swift and S. Gilley (1989); G. Davis, The Irish in Britain, 1815-1914 (Dublin, 1991) Back to (3)
  4. F. Prochaska, 'Mary Carpenter', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4733 [accessed 2 November 2006]. Back to (4)
  5. D. Large, 'The Irish in Bristol in 1851: A Census Enumeration', in The Irish in the Victorian City, ed. R. Swift and S. Gilley (Dover, 1985), p. 48. Back to (5)
  6. Evidence presented to the Select Committee on the Education of Destitute Children, PP, House of Commons, 1861, vol. VII, p. 128. Back to (6)
  7. Evidence presented to the Select Committee on the Education of Destitute Children Back to (7)
  8. I should also like to thank the Rt. Rev Declan Lang, Bishop of Clifton for his kind permission to consult the archives of the Diocese of Clifton and to Canon J.A. Harding, Diocesan archivist and Gill Hogarth, Diocesan librarian for their time and advice. See also Tim Bryan, St. Nicholas of Tolentino Church 1848-1995: A short history of one of Bristol's oldest Catholic Churches, (Bristol 1995); Bristol Records Office, 'Infants log book 1872-1919 St Mary's on the Quay Infants School', 375534. Back to (8)

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