- by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library
In his book Christmas Carols: From Village Green to Church Choir, Andrew Gant tells us that it was one John Francis Wade who is normally credited with composing the very familiar Carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’; in truth, as Gant makes clear, it appears Wade was primarily responsible for copying out the Latin hymn ‘Adeste Fideles’ into prayer and devotional books and that it was a later man, Frederick Oakley, who translated the Latin words into the English so familiar today.
But what’s intriguing about this story from our perspective is that Wade is almost always referred to in the literature as having some relationship to Leeds: that he was said to be the son of a merchant, also called John Wade, who is variously said to have had “connections” to Leeds, or to even be the John Wade named in Archbishop Blackburn’s Visitation Report for 1735 as having been “perverted” to Catholicism two years prior (as seen in the publications of the Catholic Record Society of which our copies were published in Leeds by John Whitehead and Son):
How this possible connection to the John Francis Wade whose signature is found on all the earliest manuscripts of the ‘Adeste Fideles’ manuscript is less clear: that Wade is most commonly said to have left England for Flanders in 1731, where he was educated at the Dominican College at Bornhem until 1734, at which time he is reported to have, as described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Wade, moved to London. And after that, he is said to have left England entirely after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745; an intriguing note when we think of the claims that ‘Adeste Fideles’, in the form Wade noted it down, offers a coded support for the deposed monarchical line of the Stuart succession.
In one of those little ironies that History likes to throw up, any possible Jacobite activity in Leeds was stopped in its tracks by the combined Dutch, Swiss and English forces encamped between Sheepscar and Woodhouse; a force commanded by one Field Marshal George Wade. While that Wade and John Francis were unrelated, what remains unclear is what – if any – relationship our Catholic Wades may have had to the much more prominent Wades of Leeds: from Benjamin Wade, merchant, Council member, Alderman and Mayor; through Anthony Wade, Benjamin’s cousin, himself a Council man and then Mayor, whose son, another Benjamin, and grandson, Walter, were themselves elected to that latter office.
Most likely there is no connection beyond the family name. Searches of Ancestry.com (available free in all Leeds Libraries) and the Family Search archive throw up no ‘John Wade’ in Leeds during the early 18th-century. The closest possible match is a John Wade baptised in 1711 (the usual year given for John Francis Wade’s birth), to a father by the same name, in Stalmine of Lancashire.
In short, John Francis Wade and the nature of his connection to Leeds remain a blank mystery. All we can do, then, is try and fill in the gaps around his life, and his father’s life, based on what we know about their work and the times they lived in. Two books, both by Steven Burt and Kevin Grady, are the best starting points for such an investigation: War, Plague and Trade: Leeds in the Seventeenth Century and The Merchants’ Golden Age: Leeds 1700-1790. Volume LXIV of the Thoresby Society publications is also useful: Leeds in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries.
But beyond those general explorations of the Wades’ milieu, we might also want to think about exploring the wider context and story of the Leeds Roman Catholic community, especially in what we might call the pre-19th century ‘recusant‘ phase. This is a story that, to quote Hugh Aveling in his The Catholic Recusants of the West Riding of Yorkshire: 1558 – 1790, is “the history of a West Yorkshire community whose very existence seems unknown to many.”
It is Burt and Grady who tell us, in their magisterial The Illustrated History of Leeds, that “We hear little of Roman Catholics in Leeds during the seventeenth-century.” But as Aveling so capably explores, there is another truth behind that broad statement. So much so that there is not the space, nor the expertise, to (re)tell that history in this blog. All that can be offered is a sense of how that history can be experienced and explored – what other stories can be told – through the collections held at the Central Library.
Any such attempt would start with the aforementioned Aveling article. Though Aveling does not mention it during his illuminating passages on the social customs of Catholics in the West Riding, an extraordinary incident occurred in Leeds during this period. This was in 1584 when a Catholic family from ‘Chappiltoune’ were refused permission to bury a family member in the Parish (St. Peter’s) Churchyard. You can see the note to this effect in the scanned version of the St. Peter’s Parish Register for 1584, as available on Ancestry.com, together with a transcribed text from a Thoresby Society publication of 1889:
There can be no doubt that, while Aveling points out that “practically 25 per cent of the great of the Riding, the nobility and landed gentry” were part of the 2000-3000 Catholics in the region, the split between Protestant and Catholic was a deep and fierce one, in Leeds at any rate. That despite the comparably low numbers of Catholics reported as living in the town at the turn of the 17th-century; in A List of the Roman Catholics in the County of York in 1604 (ed., Edward Peacock) we find just 18 names (including a Margaret Lumby, presumably a relation – wife, even – of the Richard Lumby whose burial caused such conflict in 1584).
In the passage quoted above, Burt and Grady go on to say that “if there were any [Catholics in Leeds], they would be few in number and have worshipped in the greatest secrecy” because
not only was Catholicism regarded as a very superstitious religion, but Catholics were thought of as traitors and enemies of the nation.
We need only think of the events of 1605 to reflect on the way Catholics would have been perceived, even with as few living in the community as were seemingly present in Leeds. Writing nearly 100-years later, the antiquary Ralph Thoresby referred to great grief in the town at the death of Charles II; ‘grief’ for “the gloomy prospect of Popery” and Thoresby’s own fear of the “hectoring of some Romanists in the neighbourhood” (quotes from D.H. Atkinson, Ralph Thoresby, the Topographer: His Town and Times – Vol. 1).
And, looking slightly beyond Leeds, we can get a glimpse of the situation for Catholics across Yorkshire through a fascinating volume entitled Short Memoirs of the English Martyrs (1885; “by a religious of St. Mary’s Convent, Micklegate Bar, York): “this little record of those English martyrs, who either laid down their lives for their faith in Yorkshire, or were natives of the county.” There we find the tragic tale of one Edmund Sykes of Leeds. Sykes, like John Francis Wade a merchant’s son, was executed in 1587 for preaching the Catholic faith:
We should, then, keep in mind the history of anti-Catholic feeling in Leeds suggested by the second of Burt and Grady’s statements – but what of the first? Was Leeds the site of any secret Catholic worship communities during the 17th and 18th-centuries?
The short answer is ‘yes’; the longer answer can be found in two complementary books: Catholicism in Leeds: A Community of Faith, 1794-1994 (ed., Robert E. Finnegan and George T. Bradley), which includes a superb opening chapter on ‘The Origins of the Catholic Revival in Leeds: From Ruin to Restoration, 1558-1794’; and Norman Waugh’s A Short History of St. Anne’s Cathedral and the Leeds Missions, whose first two sections tell the intriguing tale of Catholic worship at so-called ‘Mass Centres‘ in Middleton and Roundhay.
The history of both places is complicated but, in short, by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries, Catholic worship was well established among the families owning both estates: the Saville-Howards in Roundhay and the Brandlings in Middleton (those same Brandlings whose agent, John Blenkinsop, would later work alongside Matthew Murray to bring engineering wonders to Middleton Colliery). Both sites became the centre for small groups of worshippers (Thoresby records visiting Middleton in his diary) before, in 1786-1787, a formal Leeds Mission was established in the town with the permission of the Vicar and Council.
The founder of that Mission was one Albert Underhill Plunkett, a priest formerly resident at Roundhay, and who was eagerly desirous of moving worship from that “then quiet and sequestered village” to the “smoky, ugly, large town of Leeds.” Underhill, with financial aid from Joseph Holdforth – a prominent cotton spinner and later Mayor – moved into a room at the top of old Briggate, the area known as the “Back of the Shambles”. There Plunkett lived
in a miserable dwelling in a yard behind the public shambles, with often nothing better to eat than potatoes mashed with butter-milk, and with no food but the scraps of meat and bones which be bought.
But then, in 1792, just one year after the second Relief Act, a grant of around £600 enabled Plunkett to undertake the building of a brand new purpose-built Chapel in the nearby Lady Lane; later – from 1840 – the site of the United Methodist Chapel and, later still, the home of offices for the British Road Services transport company. The building is now owned by the developers of the new Victoria gate shopping complex; yet another reminder of the thread of heritage – the stories – lying behind each step in the ever-changing environment of our city.
It should not be supposed that this meant the complete absence of anti-Catholic feeling in Leeds at the time. The emerging campaign for Catholic Emancipation brought with it a competing narrative, encapsulated in the arrival of a so-called ‘Brunswick Club’ in the town. Active until the late 1820s, these were bitter opponents of any suggestion that the national law be amended in favour of Catholic rights.
Indeed, a quick scan of some titles held in the Central Library reveal a deeply-felt antagonism to the old religion: Remarks on a Speech in Favour of the Catholic Claims (1813), in which the author – ‘An Observer’ – boldly states “the principles of Popery” are not “friendly to liberty, or even to toleration”; Protestant Rights Contrasted with Catholic Claims (1813); Popery Unmaksed and Her Supporters Exposed (1828); Observations on the Members of the Church of Rome (1829) – “no apology is necessary to submitting to the consideration of Protestants, evidence…[t]o prove that Popery is not only unchanged in its arrogating pretensions to supremacy, infallibility, and the right of absolution, but that it is impossible for the Members of that Church to give any securities to a Protestant State” (italics in original). Most shockingly of all, perhaps, is Walter Farquhar Hook’s The Nonentity of Romish Saints and the Inanity of Romish Ordinances (1849): “We differ from the Church of Rome fundamentally and irreconcilably.”
Even so, the spread of Catholic worship in the town – largely due to the arrival of the Irish, but also, perhaps, a sign of increasing religious tolerance in the wider Leeds community – was such that, in 1838, the first St. Anne’s church could be built; then, in 1878, after the creation of the Diocese of Leeds (itself following on from the 1850 reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England), that Church was granted Cathedral status. And, by 1910, Leeds became the site of the First National Catholic Congress, a reflection of the pride the local community felt in the progress made over the preceding century: “a sense of pride, derived from the revival of their Church in the city.”
So, then, the history of Catholicism in Leeds is, in part at least, the history of a struggle in the margins; the struggle of a minority community unwilling or unable to yield to what we may call the tyranny of the majority. It’s also the history of change rooted in place; and of that deep sense of past that connects ‘now’ to ‘then’. So, when you next hear the familiar lyrics and melody of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ this holiday season, think of John Francis Wade and Albert Underhill Plunkett and every one of those long-forgotten men and women, each striving to carve out a sense of dignity and comfort in a time and space hostile to their beliefs. Because, whatever our beliefs, we are all the inheritors and the beneficiaries of those struggles for tolerance: “sing, all ye citizens…joyful and triumphant.”
All the books named in the article are available at the Central Library. Any where a link has not been made to our online catalogue will be found in our Local and Family History department. Other books used include:
- David Thornton. Leeds: A Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events
- Patricia Midgley. The Church and the Working Classes: Leeds, 1870-1920
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