Edinburgh Resists the Annuity Tax

The Spectator covered the annuity tax resistance in Scotland in . Here are some excerpts of note:

From the edition (excerpt):

It appears that a considerable sum of money has been annually raised, by a tax called the Annuity Tax, , for the support of the Edinburgh Clergy. This tax, though said to have been illegal , when it received legislative sanction by means of a clause fraudulently introduced into a local act of Parliament, has generally been submitted to. But of late considerable opposition has been made to the payment of it; and last week, Mr. William Tait, the bookseller, and proprietor of the spirited monthly periodical which bears his name, actually suffered himself to be sent to gaol rather than submit to it. His reasons for this conduct are given in a letter published in the Caledonian Mercury. In the first place, he doubts the legality of the impost; next, he affirms that it is too large, un-equally levied, and absurdly and illegally applied. He goes on to say–

For these and other reasons, detailed in a petition to Parliament, and a report by the Committee of Inhabitants, the collection of the annuity has been considered unjust and oppressive. Payment has been refused by the inhabitants; and when the clergy proceeded to distrain the goods of the recusants, their proceedings were rendered ineffective by the impossibility of finding purchasers for the distrained goods. Finding their seizure of the citizens’ goods inoperative, the Clergy are resorting to the extremity of imprisonment. Mr. Wilson, pocketbook-maker, was the first seized on. He, as was publicly announced, submitted immediately on being imprisoned to the imposition of the Clergy, on account of the state of his health. I have been selected as the second victim and as I have not Mr. Wilson’s reason for instant submission to what I conceive injustice and oppression, I have permitted the Clergy to imprison me; and send you this statement from my place of confinement, the Gaol, Calton Hill.

The Standard of Wednesday sneers at the whole of this proceeding; and, after intimating that Mr. Tait has seized upon this opportunity of advertising his Magazine, concludes its remarks upon the subject in these words.

We trust no more of the trade will be permitted to invade in this way the advertising profits of the newspapers. Indeed, if we may so far anticipate the Weeklies as to make the observation, the Annuity Tax will be collected least distressingly by distraint, and the peine piano will be found a more powerful instrument of coercion than the peine forte.

If the Standard will turn to those words in Mr. Tait’s letter, which we have printed in Italics, it will find that the peine forte was only had recourse to after the “more powerful instrument of coercion,” the peine piano, had failed.

From the edition:


The Edinburgh papers received since our last Number, are full of the exciting subject of the Annuity Tax and Mr. Tait’s resistance to the payment of it. Upon his arrival at home, Mr. Tait addressed the assembled multitude who had accompanied him from the prison, and seems to have played the orator with admirable effect. The following are extracts from his speech.

A compulsory provision simply means, a provision supported by distraint and imprisonment. Are distraining and imprisoning fit employments for spiritual teachers? No; assuredly not. Conceive, my friends, a meek man of God seizing the goods of a parishioner who happens to be of another sect, and carrying them off to the Cross to be rouped for his stipend! Or conceive him seizing a Seceder, or a Baptist, or a Catholic, by the collar, and dragging him to the gaol? To bring this more completely home to our minds, conceive the Reverend Dr. Brunton loading his back with a poor widow’s half rotten chest of drawers, tucking her meal-girnel under his right arm, and her creepy under his left, with the porridge-pot upon his head; conceive him thus accoutred, wending his way to the Cross, and there knocking them down to the highest bidder, pocketing the miserable sum which they bring for his stipend and expenses of seizure and sale. (Immense cheering and laughter.) Conceive the Reverend Dr. Inglis, or Dr. Horning as he is now called, going a step beyond his nickname, flourishing, not a horning (the fees of which “go all to my son,” as a recent ballad says), but a caption, in his left hand, while his terrible right seizes some obdurate recusant, like myself, by the collar, and the process of dragging to gaol follows the process raised by the Reverend Dr. Horning’s son. Conceive that the gentle and Reverend Doctor, who preaches Toryism occasionally to “Why rage the Heathen?” and other texts, should mildly take out of his waistcoat-pocket, not a snuff-box, but a messenger’s three-inch ebony baton, tipt with silver like his own voice, saying with a half-bow, and a loving paternal air, I request you to consider yourself my prisoner. And are not all these conceptions of things monstrous, odious, and abominable? (Tremendous cheers.) But is there any real difference between the Clergy doing these things themselves, and employing other and ruder hands to do them? (Cries of “No, no”) I know that the Edinburgh Clergy give out that not they, but the Magistrates, poind and imprison for annuity. The Magistrates might as well say that not they, but Peter Hill; and Peter might as well say, that not he, but my captor, Mr. Thomson the messenger, thrust me into the Calton Gaol, without allowing me to go two divisions of Prince’s Street, to see my morning letters. My friends, this is an old trick of Established Clergy.

But he only looked to the prime actors in the business–

I thank Messrs. Baird, Brown, and Lee, &c., for my imprisonment. How different all this from the example of the meek founder of Christianity! How different from the noble conduct of the Apostle Paul! “These hands,” said he, with the warrantable pride of independence, “these hands have ministered to my necessities, that I might not be chargeable to any of you.” (Applause.)

There was no danger of the Clergy being distressed for the want of this tax.—

Does any one ask are the Clergy of Edinburgh to starve? Starving is not the alternative. There is not, there never was, the least chance of their starving. The proper fund for their payment is the seat-rents, as at Glasgow. (Cheers.) But if the Magistrates refuse them the seat-rents, cannot they prosecute the Magistrates as well as the citizens, and enforce their rights? Or cannot they apply to Parliament? Or cannot they appeal to the generosity or justice or their congregations? Have they so small an opinion of their own value to their congregations, as to think they would be left to starve, and be considered a good riddance? Or could they not work with their hands, or borrow, or beg, — any thing but disgrace themselves by resorting to distraint and the gaol? Why, gentlemen, rather than they should starve, we, who are here gathered together to show our abhorrence of their proceedings, would minister to their necessities, until they could find congregations willing to support them. Do they confess that they, of all the different denominations of Christians, would alone be left to perish.

Mr. Tait concluded, by exhorting the multitude carefully to avoid every thing like violence or a breach of the law; and added — “One word more — Good night to the Annuity Tax!" After this, the crowd returned to their homes in perfect order.

From the issue (excerpt):

Mr. Simpson, a wealthy poulterer in the market, was last week escorted to the gaol by a number of persons bearing flags, banners, &c., with a band of music, for refusing to pay the Annuity Tax. The parade seemed to attract much notice. At one o’clock, the procession returned from gaol, and we were surprised to see Mr. Simpson in front. We have just heard that Mr. Simpson alleges he was imprisoned for a sum, part of which he had previously paid; that his law agent paid the full sum claimed, under protest, and stated that an action of damages for wrongous imprisonment would immediately follow. — Edinburgh Paper.

From the issue (excerpt):

The issuing of diligences against the inhabitants of Edinburgh, for non-payment of the annuity tax has been going briskly on this week, and another gaolful of recusants are ready for the Calton march. On , five men went to 57, George Street, 59, George Street, and 9, Lauriston Lane, and poinded goods for ministers’ stipend from Alexander Cruickshank and Son, to the amount of about 3000l. — which the poinders have very modestly valued under 50l. — Scotsman.

From the issue (excerpt):

The Edinburgh clergy are taking harsh measures to compel payment of the odious Annuity-tax. Mr. Russell, a Councillor, and a Mr. Chapman, have been imprisoned in the Calton gaol for refusing, on account of conscientious scruples, to pay the clergy’s demand. A petition on the subject has been intrusted to Mr. Wallace for presentation to the House of Commons.

From the issue (excerpt):

The Annuity-tax is in progress of being collected in Edinburgh, by distreining and selling at the Market Cross the household and shop furniture and other goods and chattels of the Dissenters. The Reverend Dr. John Brown, one of the most popular of the Dissenting clergymen here, has had his house invaded and his effects carried off; Mr. William Tait, bookseller, has had his shop-furniture seized; and every hour one sees the forms of a sale attempted to be gone through at the Market Cross. I say “attempted to be gone through,” because the public have refused to buy the articles exposed; nay, the brokers and dealers in old furniture have published resolutions deprecatory of “the Law-Church,” and pledging themselves not to purchase the property of persons distrained for Ministers’ stipend. I witnessed lately one of these exhibitions. A pianoforte was produced by the officers at the Market Cross; a dozen of porters and a squad of boys, who had followed the piano in its progress through the streets, formed the company to whom it was offered for sale. Each oration of the auctioneer was followed by a shout of laughter, — not at his humour, for he was as grave as a parson wanting a dinner, but of derision at the helplessness of the men of the law, and of wonder at what the clergy would do with the piano when they got it for their stipends. — Correspondent of the Courier.

From the issue (excerpt):

The Annuity-tax war continues in Edinburgh. Baillie Stott and another citizen were sent to gaol on for nonpayment of the tax. A regular agitation of meetings is to commence immediately.

At a special meeting on , the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Sheriff of Edinburgh, decided on issuing proclamations to prevent open-air meetings in the city.

From the issue (excerpt):

Edinburgh has been the scene of a series of arrests for arrears of annuity tax. The clergy of the established church sent the sheriff’s officer to seize three persons. Two went to gaol rather than pay the tax. The third, a Mr. Hunter, said he would offer no resistance, but would not willingly move a step. He was seized by the head and feet, carried out of his shop, and flung into a cab. Here he lay on his back, his feet projecting into the street. The sheriff’s men vainly endeavoured to raise him, and they placed handcuffs at least on one wrist of the unresisting man. They pulled at his arms, lugged at his head, doubled up his legs, but in vain. A mob having collected, on hearing the cause of the arrest, they fell upon the officers, one of whom drew a knife in defence. At length the officers sheered off, and Mr. Hunter reëntered his shop, the handcuffs hanging from one wrist. The mob pursued the constables until they ran. Two ministers of the established church were present during this extraordinary scene.

From the issue:

Church Matters in Edinburgh.

The Established Church of Scotland is in very hot water at this moment, in consequence of the wrong-headed policy which has maintained the Annuity-tax, and which now logically compels the responsible official functionaries to enforce payment. Our readers have been already informed of the scenes that have occurred in the streets of Edinburgh. An order went forth, that the tax should be demanded from certain persons. Three were pounced upon. Two, a Mr. Fairbairn and a Mr. William Brown, went quietly to gaol, rather than pay. A third, Mr. Hunter, conceived the brilliant idea of refusing to pay the tax and of offering no resistance, beyond a passive resistance, to the constables. Forthwith ensued a scandalous scene of lugging and hauling. Hunter, a heavy person, was carried out of his shop by the head and feet. Thrust into a hack cab, he lay on his back with his legs dangling outside. Handcuffs were placed upon him in order apparently that the chief of the arresting party might obtain a greater purchase on their passive prisoner. A mob intervened. Resistance to the law is not a Scotch characteristic. If a felon were apprehended in the streets of Edinburgh, the mob would, if it were needed, assist in the capture. But in this ease, the phrase “arrested for refusing to pay Annuity-tax,” roused the passions of a people who have always been ready to take fire at the sight of what looks like religious persecution. When it was the fashion to seize the goods of those Dissenters who refused to pay the odious tax, a great array of soldiers and police was required to protect the auctioneer instructed to sell the goods; and when purchasers could not be found in Edinburgh, they were sought for and found in Glasgow. Opposition to the payment of this impost, therefore, is an idea familiar to the minds of the people of Edinburgh. Moreover, there was an air of novelty in the attempt to imprison the malcontents. It was deemed a harsh measure to distrain, it is regarded as odious to arrest. To the multitude, the officers, hauling at the passive and manacled Hunter as he lay helpless beneath their hands, appeared somewhat in the light of familiars of some Scottish inquisition. The people acted on the impulse of the moment, obstructed the constables, and put them to flight; and we have no doubt it would now require a strong armed force to arrest the man in broad daylight. He therefore goes free; but we hear that the constables are on the alert each night to catch the marked men; and that fearing a visit in the dark, these persons quit their homes and sleep abroad.

Now this is not a creditable state of things. “When a tax has to be collected by means of handcuffs and claspknives,” as the Scotsman pointedly observes, “it is in a bad way,” and probably is about to meet “with a fate worthy of its deserts.” The Annuity-tax can be defended by no one unless he be a minister or a member of the Church which benefits by it. It is not a property, it is a personal tax, — a fine upon those who live in certain houses. Yet no tax is more capricious. It skips over the rich man and alights upon the poor. “The members of the principal and most lucrative profession in the city, the great majority of whom are either members or supporters of the Establishment, are exempted — shopkeepers and tradesmen, most of whom are Dissenters, have the choice of a receipt or the handcuffs.” This is the kind of tax which the Ministers of the Established Church — a fragment only of the Presbyterian community — think it compatible with their sacred mission to enforce by the strong arm of the law. We suppose this unwise proceeding is one of the consequences of the strength acquired by the Tory opposition at the last general election.

It is not to be supposed that the Edinburgh clergy are particularly proud of the opening of their campaign. If they have overcome Fairbairn, they have failed to catch Mr. Hunter, and their detention of Mr. William Brown is more likely to promote the repeal of the tax than anything else. Mr. Brown shows a decided penchant for the honours of martyrdom, and the wisest thing the ministers could do would be to disappoint him. As it is, he is sure to be the local hero of a local agitation, and his fame will spread to Glasgow and the other towns where individuals are called upon to support a church because they live in certain houses. Mr. Brown already has shown that he can use his pen,* and that he is determined to make the most of his situation. The tax may not die a violent death at the hands of one Brown, but it is clear that the ill-advised course adopted by the ministers, if extended to many Browns, would be fatal to the impost. No taxes, in these days, can be collected by force of arms; least of all taxes that fall on special persons and involve anything like a violation of conscience. The common sense of the community would revolt at any attempt to extort a personal tax from the members of the Society of Friends for the direct support of the army. All London would rise were the tenants of particular houses called upon to pay a house-duty to provide an income for the clergy of St. Barnabas and St. George’s-in-the-East. Yet these taxes would not be more inequitable than the Annuity-tax. The Scotch establishment had far better be wise in time, cease their legal proceedings, and consent to a reasonable compromise. How can they collect the impost, if all the malcontents follow the example of Mr. Hunter, and offer passive resistance to the constable? If it should so happen that the tax is unconditionally abolished, the clergy will have none to blame but themselves. What they have foolishly done, and what they may foolishly do, makes no difference in the actual merits of their claim to equitable treatment; but it will make a great deal of difference in the feeling with which the question is regarded, — and debated in the House of Commons; for questions of this kind are precisely those which are apt to be settled less by reason than by feeling whenever resistance is unduly prolonged, and proposals of compromise are treated with disdain.

* See an amusing pamphlet, entitled “Dead Brown and Living Brown, a dialogue between a past and present victim of the Annuity tax.” Published at Edinburgh for William Brown.

Also, from the same issue (excerpt):

A public meeting at Edinburgh has adopted the following resolutions on the subject of the Annuity-tax.

  1. That the imposition of taxes for ecclesiastical purposes is beyond the rightful province of the civil magistrate, and all such imposts are a grievous encroachment on the rights of conscience and civil freedom; and that the Annuity-tax, besides being unjustifiable on these general grounds, is peculiarly obnoxious and oppressive in its operation, and should be immediately and completely abolished.
  2. That the conduct of the Established clergy of the city of Edinburgh, in opposing all the plans which have ever been proposed for the abolition or mitigation of the tax, and in permitting their agents and officers to enforce payment by the cruel and inhuman use of handcuffs and knives, and by imprisonments, has brought discredit on religion and frequently disturbed the peace of the community.

That this meeting desires to express its earnest sympathy with Mr. Brown, now imprisoned in gaol for non-payment of the tax, and with other victims who have recently suffered injury at their hands.

Mr. William Brown, one of the persons arrested for refusing to pay the annuity tax, is still in prison. Mr. Fairbain has been liberated; his wife having paid the money. Mr. Hunter is at large.

From the issue (excerpt):

Orders have been issued by the Edinburgh Crown Office for the apprehension of several of the parties who assaulted and deforced the sheriff’s officers in the collection of the Annuity-tax on . On the city officers, aided by the police, proceeded to the premises of Mr. Hunter, confectioner, St. Andrew’s Street, where the deforcement took place, having warrants for the apprehension of Mr. Hunter and Thomas Peacock, his foreman. Mr. Hunter was absent at the time, but Peacock taken into custody and conveyed to the office of the Procurator-Fiscal for the city, where he was afterwards liberated on finding bail for 30l. Mr. Hunter was the person the officers were sent to apprehend, and in place of submission he is said to have made the utmost resistance in his power [namely, passive resistance], in which resistance he was aided by several of his employes and other persons, the result being that he escaped from the officers hands.

From the issue:


The Lord Advocate’s bill for the settlement of the vexed question of the Edinburgh Annuity-tax meets with strong opposition from the dominant party in the Town-Council. A meeting on the subject was held on , the Lord Provost in the chair. The principal speakers were the chairman, Mr. David and Mr. Duncan M‘Laren, Mr. Grorrie, Professor Dick, and Mr. Henry Darlington. The language used was very strong, and the resolutions equally emphatic. The bill was denounced in the most comprehensive terms. It was declared that it does not provide for an equitable settlement of the Annuity-tax; that, in consequence of the low valuation of the seat-rents, it imposes a taxation on the community greatly in excess of what is required; that there is reason to fear, should the bill pass, the opposition to the payment of the police-rates may endanger the municipal revenue, and increase feeling of hostility to the Church, which may materially interfere with the peace and well-being of the city; that the provisions of the bill fall so far short of that which was proposed as a basis of settlement in the resolutions adopted by the public meeting held in , are otherwise so objectionable, and give so little prospect of improvement on the present state of matters, that the Lord Advocate should be urged to withdraw his bill. It was suggested that the Town-Council should petition against it; and the meeting “strongly disapproved” of the conduct of the Lord Advocate in bringing so “disagreeable” a bill into Parliament. But the most curious resolution was the following:—

That this meeting, considering the unconstitutional nature of the bill, and the many serious practical difficulties which would arise in the working of such a measure if it were passed into a law, earnestly entreat the Magistrates and Council to consider whether it would not be the duty, in that event, of a majority of their number, or of the whole municipal body, rather to resign their seats — (Loud cheers) — than consent to sign the bonds of annuity — (Renewed cheers) — or to lay on the tax for Ministers’ stipends under the deceptive form of its being a tax for police purposes; and this meeting further entreat that the Council will take no steps whatever respecting the Act till after the general election of councillors shall take place in .

The reason for deferring action on the subject was that the municipal elections take place in , and the Opposition hopes to increase its strength. Professor Dick valiantly declared he would adopt the course recommended in the resolution; and Mr. Duncan M‘Laren cordially approved of this determination.

From the issue (excerpt):

Edinburgh was somewhat agitated this week in its municipal elections, which turned upon the Annuity-tax. Under the Act, the city council signs bonds for 600l. each to the clergy, reimbursing themselves out of the police-rate. The legal profession, exempt for two centuries past, is now liable to payment of the tax, and it is to the honour of the profession, that the demand is not resisted. The suburbs of Edinburgh are also liable. But the impossibility of evading the police-collector raised an outcry, against the “clerico-police rate,” and in some three or four of the city wards contests were arranged, the result of which we shall know in a few days.

From the issue (excerpt):

Edinburgh is still agitated by the vexed question of the Annuity Tax. The voters elected a candidate in one ward, of whom it was known that he would not act, in the hope that the Council not being full, would be disqualified from signing the bonds to the clergy. Mr. George Young, advocate, advised that the Council could proceed to business, at the meeting on ; the Act of Parliament requiring the bonds to be signed before ! A stormy discussion ensued, in which it was first determined that the Council should proceed, and afterwards, not before much warmth and erroneous statement of law, misquotation and misapplication of history, the Council resolved, by 20 to 10, to sign the bonds, and by 15 to 12 to sign, simpliciter, and against a motion to sign under protest. The Lord-Provost, Treasure, and Town Clerk, signed the bonds before leaving the Council chamber.

From the issue (excerpt):

That old grievance the annuity tax has not been settled by the Act of the Lord Advocate. The malcontents are still fighting for unconditional repeal. They have petitioned against it, declaring that it disturbs the peace of the city. The tax is now collected with the police rate, and, acting on a favourable “opinion” obtained from two eminent English barristers, several citizens have tendered the police rate less the amount imposed by the Lord Advocate’s Act in place of the annuity tax.

From the issue of the Cambrian:

Rebecca in Carmarthenshire.

In addition to the destruction of Porthyrhyd gate for the third time on , when the Rebeccaites compelled one of the constables to turn out in his shirt and assist them, while they made the other promise that he would never again interfere in their movements, we have to record the demolition of Tyllwyd gate, two miles from Carmarthen, also for the third time, on . This feat was performed by about thirty Rebeccaites at nine o’clock in the morning. It is hardly necessary to say, all escaped undetected, though the military are stationed at Carmarthen. — We have just learnt that Cwmgwilly gate, near Carmarthen, was entirely destroyed by a party of Rebeccaites or .