Tax Resistance to the New Poor Laws in Britain

Tax resistance played a part in the opposition to the New Poor Laws in Britain. The following description comes from the book Daniel O’Connell and the Repeal Year by Lawrence McCaffrey:

County Waterford, particularly the Gaultier district, was the center of the anti-poor law agitation. In , the Waterford Union turned to the government for help in collecting the rates. A hundred and fifty policemen were sent to Waterford from neighboring counties to assist local rate collectors. The extra police help did not do much to increase the amount collected for poor rates. In the city of Waterford a series of demonstrations were held to protest against the poor law and thousands of marchers participated in the protests. … Finally, in , the Government sent in cavalry and artillery to collect the poor rates in the Gaultier district. This also proved a futile gesture. While the soldiers were occupied in their unpleasant task the people barricaded themselves in their cabins, laughed as the soldiers marched off with their cattle, and refused to participate in efforts to auction off the confiscated livestock.

I’ve only skimmed the history of the Poor Laws and the movement against them, so I don’t fully understand the issues at stake. The new laws seem to have been designed under the theory that the best way to help people out of poverty is to make their lives so miserable that they will be especially motivated to stop being so poor. I can see why some taxpayers might not have been too excited about contributing to such a scheme.

Here’s a news report about the Gaultiere disturbances from the Waterford Mail ():

Our readers are already aware that the attempt to collect the poor rates due from the Barony of Gaultier proved a failure, the police being unable to effect the object of their mission, the cattle having been removed by their owners. It was, however, understood that another attempt to levy the rate was about being made, and the most warlike arrangements were made on the part of the people to repel force by force. We quote the Chronicle of :–

Notices were posted extensively throughout the country on , calling upon the people to meet at the scene of action on , and to bring their hurleys with them. Mounted men were posting express to distant quarters at all hours for the last two or three eventful days. — Plans of attack and defence were discussed and deliberated upon, with a seriousness that bespoke a deadly resolve — men, women, and children were resolved to die upon their thresholds rather than surrender.

On , as before stated, a mob consisting of at least from 5 to 6,000 men entered Waterford, every one of whom appeared armed with bludgeons, of immense size, one or two had pikes, and as they proceeded through the city they alarmed the peaceful inhabitants by the most savage yells, accompanied by the flourishing demonstration of their clan-alpeens…

Alpeens were metal-reinforced ash sticks; hurleys may have been another name for the same thing: clubs well-made for hand-to-hand combat.

The crowd proceeded to the center of town, where a Captain Newport explained that they could get in a lot of trouble for this sort of thing, and read them the riot act. Between that and the later arrival of the military, the crowd seems to have been convinced to disperse.

We conclude by another extract from our contemporary:–

An impression had gone abroad that the cattle seized would be exported for sale, in order to obviate the difficulty of procuring purchasers at a poor-rate auction in this country. The knowledge of this fact added tenfold determination to the spirit of resistance by which the people were animated. “Were we to leap upon the tops of the bayonets we will die before we let our cattle go,” was a saying we heard amongst a party of Gaultier men. At the very fiercest stage of the anti tithe warfare we never witnessed such a spirit of deadly hate to the law, and fixed resolve to resist it, through fire and smoke and steel — an actual thirst for war even to the death, rather than submit to the system of legislation adopted by the collective wisdom of the Poor Law authorities upon this occasion. The very first seizure effected would have been the signal for a popular outbreak. Nor would it have ended in a mere temporary riot. The first shot fired, we have no doubt, would be a signal for a general rising — an “Insurrection” throughout a great portion of the County Waterford.

A second article in the same paper reads as follows:

Poor Rates.

Mr. Robert Fleming, the poor rate collector in the Waterford Union, and solicitor to the Board of Guardians, has, in consequence of the organized system of opposition and passive resistance given by the farmers in Gaultier, in the County of Waterford, to the payment of the rates, abandoned the idea of distraining, for he could get no one to buy the goods seized.

In consequence of the elected or repeal guardians being three to one more than the ex officio guardians, farmers have been appointed as valuators in the different unions, who have in most instances valued the lands at only one fourth of their value, which throws the entire rate on the landlords… Passive resistance has now become so general, that unless [the tax] is placed on the landlords it cannot be collected; the gentry and rich farmers are equally as much opposed to paying as the poorest cottagers… [Communicated.]