Religious tensions have been present in the East End for a long time and Wapping is no exception. I’ll be writing a few articles about some examples of tension and conflict between and within people of faith in the area.
This article is reasonably light-hearted but shows how expressing religious and cultural identity should be done with care and certainly without aggression. Today most people focus on the fireworks of the fifth of November but historically there has been unpleasant anti-Catholic rhetoric.
It was just off Old Gravel Lane, now Wapping Lane that schoolboy zeal led to the involvement of the Thames Police.
It was about midday on the fifth of November 1838 when a group of schoolboys, and a procession of hangers on, carried an effigy of Guy Fawkes into a court inhabited chiefly by ‘Irish coal-whippers and ballast-getters’.
[A coal whipper was someone who lifted coal off a ship and a ballast getter was someone who collected gravel from the river to act as ballast for ships which had just unloaded their cargo]
The children carrying the guy were full of zeal, albeit focussed on emphasising the perceived role of Catholics in The Gun Powder Plot, calling out ” No Popes,” and “Pray remember the 5th of November”.
This chanting could only have aggravated the Irish Catholic residents of the courtyards. However, the entry into the court appears to have been spectacularly mistimed, as it was also letting out time for the local Catholic school and a group of ‘Irish’ boys then attacked the procession and ‘captured poor Guy, and carried him off in triumph’.
The Protestant boys had been put in their place and their Guy taken off them to be disposed of in a less incendiary manner. Surely that would be the end of it? This being the East End however meant it would be far too simple to leave it at that.
Like a Victorian game of capture the flag, the Protestant boys retreated and then sought and found reinforcements to make an attack upon the “Popes”. The improvement in numbers helped and they regained possession of the effigy.
However, the fight for the Guy continued into a more general street brawl with the two groups throwing stones at each other. Wayward missiles caused some collateral damage and broke several windows of a house belonging to Hugh Bird.
[Mr Bird probably lived on Green Bank and owned properties at numbers 1-4 and 7-12]
The police arrived and the boys scarpered, leaving only two Irish boys and the Guy for the officers of K Division to take into custody.
In The Times, it was noted by Mr Greenwood of the Thames Police that rather than a black pointy hat as was traditional, the Guy had a red hat which looked somewhat like a mitre. It’s not clear whether this was an intentional design or merely an accidental aggravating factor in the boys’ behaviour.
Mr Bird didn’t wish to press charges and the boys were released (nothing was reported in the papers about the Guy).
On a philosophical note, Mr Greenwood perhaps expresses tolerance well in promoting consideration when touting around with a Guy when he said “they may carry as many [Guys] as they like, but we must have no disturbance”.