104: John Sayers Orr, street preacher 1854-1855
John Sayers Orr was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) and had a career as a ‘favourite fanatic’ of mobs in the U.S.A., Britain, and Guiana. In 1854 numerous British newspapers reported on his activities in America where he blew a trumpet to attract crowds and then preached anti-Catholic invectives. In April 1854 ‘an immense crowd gathered’ to hear him on Boston Common where the police took him into custody to protect him. The London Daily News 21 April, the Liverpool Mercury (25 April) and Manchester Times of 26 April all reported these symptoms of a general riot. His trumpet blowing led to the title ‘the Angel Gabriel’. The Massachusetts near-riot was also reported by the Liverpool News 23 May 1854 and the details included that a cross had been torn from the steeple of a Catholic church in this fight between ‘the Americans and the Irish’.
Another near riot took place in New York, ‘occasioned by the fanatical preachings of the “Archangel Gabriel,” and one of his minor luminaries’ when 200 extra police were called in (Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, 4 July 1854). Orr moved on the Bath, Maine, where the mob attacked a Catholic church – and was reported in London’s Morning Post on 20 July and many other newspapers including Berrow’s Worcester Journal, Examiner (London), and the Huddersfield Chronicle all of 22 July 1854. Others included the Era (London) 23 July, Blackburn Standard and Essex Standard (Colchester) of 26 July, and the Hull Packet of 28 July. There are suggestions that Orr was sent to prison.
In the spring of 1855 Orr was in Britain where there were disturbances in Greenock, in Scotland. The Daily News of London (6 April 1855) reported ‘John Orr, the street preacher (known, in Scotland and America, as “The Angel Gabriel”)’ had been sent to prison for sixty days for breach of the peace. Taken to prison in Paisley, the mob considered attacking the prison to release their hero: and broke 55 panes of glass in the Catholic church and caused other damage. Royal Navy sailors and 140 soldiers of the militia were called in to restore order. The Scotsman reported that ‘there was no disturbance’ when Orr was in Edinburgh in mid-July 1855. Orr sued for ‘wrongous imprisonment’ and was awarded ‘considerable’ compensation (Dundee Courier, 18 July 1855; Derby Mercury 8 August 1855).
Orr went to Liverpool at the end of July: ‘an undersized, strange-looking man’ with a sun-burnt face and black eyes (Liverpool Albion quoted in the Glasgow Herald 1 August 1855). The Dublin Freeman’s Journal of 1 August noted Orr spoke ‘a rhapsody of nonsense’ and that he had been hissed and booed by the crowd. The Liverpool Albion quoted him saying that the magistrate who had sent him to prison was someone ‘whom the Almighty would consign to the bottomless pit’ according to the Glasgow Herald of 1 August. Two days later it said Orr was touring Lancashire towns, and the Bradford Observer said he was ‘a mad fanatic’. He moved back to Scotland, and the Caledonian Mercury (17 November 1855) reported he had sailed from Liverpool on 14 November 1855 to go to ‘his natal home’, British Guiana, adding ‘we can amply afford the loss his going has occasioned’.
In March 1856 British newspapers reported days of rioting in British Guiana ‘incited by the ravings of a fanatic named Orr, a creole of the colony, who some of our readers may remember under the name of the “Angel Gabriel”.’ The militia had been called out, a ship hurried off to Barbados to collect additional troops for the four dozen of the West India Regiment were vastly outnumbered. The Daily News and Morning Chronicle of London gave much space to the riots which had spread into the countryside, with Portuguese-owned shops and property looted. Orr and more than one hundred others were arrested. The detailed report in the colony’s Royal Gazette was quoted. The Glasgow Herald 24 March noted Orr spoke ‘rampant anti-papistical froth and lies’. The Times indicated Orr’s name would be known to its readers (20 March). The Morning Chronicle 19 May noted Orr had been charged with holding an unlawful assembly, libel, and exciting a riot. He was sentenced to three years in prison (Belfast News-Letter, Liverpool Mercury 6 June 1856).
In December 1856 numerous British newspapers reported – using the Royal Gazette as source – that Orr had died. ‘John Sayers Orr, better known by his cognomen of “the Angel Gabriel,” is no more. He died of dysentery in November, at the penal settlement, where he was undergoing his sentence of imprisonment with hard labour’. This report was in the Daily News 18 December, Morning Chronicle 19 December, Leeds Mercury and Manchester Times 20 December, Aberdeen Journal and Bradford Observer 24 December and even the London showbusiness weekly Era 4 January 1857. The Montreal Gazette reported it and was copied by the Caledonian Mercury of 6 February 1857.
The Guiana reports noted that Orr was a ‘creole’ and his mother was ‘a respectable coloured woman’ according to Edinburgh’s Caledonian Mercury 24 March 1856. Otherwise the British press made no mention of his African descent. Aspects that remain vague are the suggestions that Orr was arrested in Montreal, that in July 1848 he had participated in the Chartist meeting in London (when several people were arrested and some transported to Australia including the black William Cuffay), and that Orr had been closely associated with the anti-Catholic (and anti-black, anti-foreign born etc) Know Nothing Party in the U.S.A. which had 43 representatives in Congress in 1855. ‘This 200% native American was a mulatto, half Scottish and half Negro’ (Terry Coleman, Passage to America. A history of emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to American in the mid-nineteenth century London: Hutchinson, 1972, pp 229-230).
V. O. Chan wrote ‘The Riots of 1856 in British Guiana’ in Caribbean Quarterly Vol 16, No 1 March 1970, pp 39-50.
It was reported that Scottish supporters paid his fare from Liverpool to the Caribbean, and we might assume that others accommodated him during his months in Britain. The newspapers generally regarded the people who were roused by Orr’s preaching as common people and people of the streets. Orr’s father had held a responsible post in the colonial government and he may have had financial resources from that. In the history of African-descent activists attempting to change British society John Sayers Orr is somewhat unexpected.
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See also sonofskye.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/john-sayers-orr-greenock. This June 2014 article references the above page (written December 2012), and includes a photograph of Orr as well as detailing his activities in Greenock.