Some of the worst riots ever seen in Cardiff took place in November 1848 after a street fight which led to an Irishman killing a Welshman in the shadow of the only Catholic Church in the then growing town of Cardiff.
Squalor and death were constant companions in the warren of narrow streets which surrounded St David’s Church, on the corner of Stanley Street, a church built in the 1840s by Fr Patrick Millea, known as the father of the Cardiff Catholic mission.
The small, unventilated, brick houses were built with indecent haste to accommodate the refugees from the Irish potato famine, which lasted from September 1845 to 1849. Most had been shipped to Cardiff from Ireland as a cheap form of ballast. Their homes in Cardiff were slums from the start.
A Government health inspector named Rammel carried out a survey in the area in the late 1840s and described the Irish refugees as the most wretched members of the society from which they had been cast out. The head of the town’s 12-man police force, Superintendent Stockdale, told the health inspector of a visit he made to No. 17 Stanley Street, just a few doors from the church.
In one room, measuring just over 17ft by 16ft, he found no fewer than 54 men, women and children, eating and living and sleeping. The room had no windows or rear entrance and the only furniture comprised a few boxes where babies were placed so they would not be crushed. The stinking, unwashed, ragged inhabitants kept their few paltry possessions about them, including salt fish, bones and rotting potatoes.
They shared an uncovered privy which was full to overflowing, flooding the outside yard with raw sewage. The street in front of the house was littered with offensive decaying vegetable matter and other rubbish dumped by those who lived in the ghetto.
It was on the corner of this street that Fr Millea built the church and it was in the shadow of the church that an Irish navvy, John Connors, stabbed a Welshman, John Lewis, to death in a street fight on November 11, 1848. It was too much for the locals who were still protesting over a decision not to hang two other Irishmen who had admitted killing two Welshmen in a fight earlier that year.
On the morning of November 12, 1848, the police interrupted Mass to take away a man suspected of harbouring the Irishman who had killed John Lewis. Connors was not found at that time but some weeks later the man who had been taken from the church admitted hiding the wanted fugitive for nearly a week at his home in nearby Mary Anne Street (where the Irish-owned Jury’s Hotel now stands).
It was not surprising that Connors was not found by the police. Four or five large families would have been living at the house which may well have been the one where the health inspector found a stone being placed over the privy under the stairs to provide a pillow for one more head at night.
As the hunt went on for Connors, a chanting group of Welshmen, armed with stones, demanded that the church and presbytery be searched. They forced the doors but found no sign of Connors. The incident led to a sensational headline in The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, the main newspaper in South Wales at a time when all type was handset and when some of the treatment given to stories was every bit as shocking as some of the tabloids of the late 20th Century.
The 1848 headline read:
DREADFUL RIOT IN CARDIFF: MILITARY CALLED OUT: HORRIBLE STATE OF EXCITEMENT: FURIOUS ATTACK OF WELSH UPON THE IRISH: FLIGHT OF THE CATHOLIC PRIEST:
DEMOLITION OF CATHOLIC CHAPEL AND PRIEST’S RESIDENCE:
TWO HOUSES BURNT: INTENSE EXCITEMENT OF THE PEOPLE AND VERDICT OF THE JURY
These and other rumours were about in Cardiff today....
The newspaper did not carry a correction the following week when it was revealed that the damage to church property was no more than a few smashed windows. The scenes were nevertheless frightening, especially on the day of John Lewis’s funeral when 150 Irish navvies, armed with pick handles, marched into Cardiff to protect their fellow countrymen from the angry Welsh.
After the funeral the Irish contingent surrounded the police station and persuaded local officials to give Fr Millea the £6 needed to repair the church and presbytery. Earlier in the week, Fr Millea avoided trouble by dressing in old clothes – some reports suggested he dressed as a woman – and seeking refuge with the Hemmingway family who lived near where St Peter’s Church now stands.
The rumours continued and the driver of a mail coach is reported as having told people in Chepstow that Cardiff was under siege. Cardiff’s Mayor, Walter Coffin, published handbills calling for peace and calm. He also swore in 20 local tradesmen as special constables and armed them with mop handles sawn in half.
A reward of £50, a substantial fortune in those days, was offered and Connors was eventually arrested at Newbridge, now known as Pontypridd, where he was working as a navvy laying the railway line.
At Swansea Assizes he was cleared of murder but found guilty of manslaughter and ordered by the judge to be transported beyond the seas for the rest of his natural life. So Connors went off to Australia in the hold of a convict ship, leaving his countrymen to wallow in the Cardiff slums where the killer diseases of cholera and typhoid went unchecked for many more years.
In the outbreaks 349 people died of cholera – the potato disease – brought about as a direct result of the Irish Famine.
Fr Millea moved from Cardiff at his own request but continued his great work for the Church at Dowlais where he laboured for 20 years before his death at the age of 68 on May 7, 1873. He is buried just inside the main gate of Pant Cemetery, Merthyr Tydfil. The grave is marked by a memorial cross, erected by the parishioners of St Iltyd’s, Dowlais:
In affectionate and grateful memory of a much loved pastor.
It would be fitting if the words Father of the Cardiff Mission were included on the weather beaten stone which stands at the last resting place of the priest to whom Catholics in Cardiff and South Wales owe so much.