21 January 2014

Brisbane Catholics Rioted Against Mary & Joseph

What was the state of play in Catholic/Protestant sectarianism in Brisbane at the beginning of the 20th century? Judging by the angry mob of Catholics who attacked the Protestant Hall in 1900 with bricks and smashed almost every window there and knocked women unconscious, it probably could have been better.

There is, of course, a backstory here.

Mary and Joseph were in town. More precisely, Mary and Joseph Slattery. He was a Baptist Minister who had been booked to speak at the Protestant Hall that night on the subject of ‘Why I Left the Roman Catholic Priesthood’. He was a former priest who had been ordained as a minister in Massachusetts, and he was now on a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand to explain his transformation.

Discover how religious sectarianism was alive and well in Brisbane at the turn of the 20th century, and how it led to a riot at a church.
Joseph Slattery.

To make things so much worse, his wife Mary was a former nun. She was engaged for a number of speaking appointments herself, mostly for female audiences. Joseph usually delivered flamboyant ‘For Men Only’ lectures, dressed in his former Catholic vestments. He denounced the ‘Romish conspiracy’ of the church with talks such as ‘Why I Left The Roman Catholic Priesthood and What I Saw Therein’, ‘The Secret Theology of the Confessional’, ‘Where is Purgatory’, ‘The Jesuits and Their Secret Theology’, ‘Why Do Priests Not Wed’, and ‘How to Get In and Get Out’.

Discover how religious sectarianism was alive and well in Brisbane at the turn of the 20th century, and how it led to a riot at a church.
Mary Slattery

Mary, often under the name of ‘Sister Mary Elizabeth in the Convent’ or even ‘The Escaped Nun’, delivered a ‘For Ladies Only’ lectures titled ‘Secrets of Nuns, and the Confessional Exposed’, ‘The Secret and Hidden Life of Convents’, and ‘The Enforced Celibacy of the Clergy’.

The Slatterys had been holding these speaking tours for several years, mostly in the United States, and they were linked to the anti-Catholic American Protective Association. It was common for them to be denounced by their many opponents as frauds who had never been in the Catholic Church at all, and who were making a tidy living out of their tours.

Many Protestants would have lapped their material up, but the tour was seen as nothing less than an act of high treachery by most local Catholics. These two people were not only very publicly criticising their Church, but those same people had once (allegedly) been among its most trusted order of members. Needless to say, the Slatterys endured many rough receptions on their antipodean travels, but none compared to what took place in Brisbane.*

The Protestant Hall in which they were booked to speak was situated between Raff Street and Queen Street, and was run by the Loyal Orange Lodge.

Orange Lodge, Protestant Hall, Brisbane, 1889 (John Oxley Library)
Orange Lodge, Protestant Hall, Brisbane, 1889. (John Oxley Library)

Not surprisingly, the hall was packed for the night, and among the 700 attendees were many women and clergymen. Although it was known that there would probably be an organised attempt to disrupt and even stop the meeting, only a few policemen were present on the day.

The men, women and young children in attendance had to force their way in through a large crowd of Catholics that had gathered outside the hall that afternoon, and as soon as Slattery started to speak, a barrage of half-bricks and slate stones, some weighing several kilograms, rained down on the church roof, damaging some windows near Slattery’s platform. The uproar was short-lived and the missiles soon stopped, so Slattery collected himself and began to speak again. This only prompted another round of rock-throwing and one woman was hit on the side of the head and knocked unconscious, while elsewhere in the hall a reporter was knocked to the ground. Pandemonium broke out as almost every window in the hall was smashed and the crowd inside attempted to leave. Things were ugly outside:
‘A cowardly attack was made on a woman at the hall door as the audience were coming out. One of the aggrieved rioters raised a stick and struck her viciously across the back, but in less time than it takes to write the fact received a blow in the face that levelled him in the roadway.’ (Brisbane Courier, October 1900)
Only about six panes of the windows of the Protestant Hall escaped intact, and the floor inside was covered with broken glass, rocks and bricks. The damage was actually limited by the fact that the chairs in the hall had been bolted together, which stopped them from becoming weapons.

Many were injured in the fracas, but some of those in torn clothing who presented themselves for medical attention were reluctant to reveal their names. It was reported that it was only a matter of luck that people had not been killed.

The Slatterys remained in Brisbane for a short while longer, giving further addresses at the Protestant Hall, and it seems the protesters had vented their spleen because opposition was much quieter. Joseph returned to the Hall the following day to give a ‘men only’ lecture, and this time the police had put up rope barriers to help prevent a repeat of the previous days rioting. It was generally quiet, only the occasional stone being thrown, although one old man with a ‘rusty muzzle-loader’ rode up on horseback and threatened to shoot in the windows, but he was quickly arrested. There were about 150 police present, both mounted and on foot.

Mary also addressed an audience of women, and the proceedings were much calmer, despite the initial presence of another, smaller, protest crowd outside. At the same time three men appeared in the police court and were fined 10 shillings each for breaking the windows, with 15 shillings damages. 

Brisbane Courier, 25 October 1900.

The Slatterys continued their provocative international speaking tours for years afterwards, still dogged by accusations of fraud and still attracting violent protest.

* With, perhaps, the exception of Kalgoorlie, in which the doors and windows of the lecture venue were broken in, a free fight broke out using umbrella’s and chairs as weapons, a ‘pungent chemical’ was sprayed at the building, and a man mistaken for Joseph Slattery was beaten up in the street. All this took place at a lecture for women.

The Slatterys were in Kalgoorlie for several days but each of their attempts to speak was marred with similar violence. Eastern newspapers attributed it to the ‘generally rough nature’ of the population of Kalgoorlie.

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