The Education Act Tax Resistance Campaign: July 1903

The “passive resistance” campaign against the Education Act continued to heat up in . Here are some excerpts from news reports of from the time.

First, from the Chelmsford Chronicle comes a report of a meeting at the Braintree Baptist Chapel with designs to form a passive resistance coalition. The following comes from remarks made by “A.C. Wilkin, of Tiptree,” who presided:

There was no weapon left nearly so effective as passive resistance. [Hear, hear.] If it were largely adopted it would have the power of law. Believers in passive resistance would use their influence in the polling booths and on every convenient occasion; but in another way some meant to form citizens’ leagues in order to protect the poor who should resist the rate. In their cases all goods seized should be bought in for them, and richer people could afford to buy in their own goods. [Applause.] Stand by the poor! [Applause.] The citizen’s undoubted right could be used without a breach of the constitution. [Hear, hear.]


The Rev. A. Curtis, Baptist minister, Braintree, moved a resolution re-affirming detestation of the Act, expressing sympathy with those who passively resisted the rate, and promising assistance to such.

“The resolution was carried without dissent.”

Mr. Henry Gibbs moved that a Citizens’ League be formed, and said that while he had not taken up the position of passive resistance he honoured those who had. The league would comprise full members, who resisted, and associate members, who did not.

This motion was also carried and “[a] number gave in their names as members of the League.”

An article critical of the passive resistance movement in the Leamington Spa Courier and Warwickshire Standard included this detail:

At Hastings, on , and again at Stroud, on , auction sales were held on goods seized under distraint for the non-payment of the education rate. The Sussex sale proved abortive; the auctioneer, a Mr. Firdinando, having to leave the town under police protection. “The blackguardism of Hastings was let loose,” he said when subsequently interviewed by a London press representative. “We will not answer for your life” was the declaration of the constable, who in the hall forced a way for him through the mob. At the Gloucestershire sale, the crowd abstained from violence, amused itself by song and banter, and ultimately permitted a prominent Nonconformist townsman to bid for the spoil — ten chairs and a couch. These the generous sympathiser secured for £3 7s. 6d. the lot, presumably his own price. He returned the chattels without delay to their respective owners. At Hastings, as also at Stroud, the “passive resisters” themselves behaved as gentlemen. To the rowdy element and the comic element in the respective cases is to be ascribed all the demonstration. It may be taken that neither the rowdies nor the comics cared in the remotest degree for the issue which the “resisters” imagine they have at stake.

The Evening News of Portsmouth carried this news in its issue:

Passive Resistance.

Bournemouth Ladies in Court.

Free Church Ministers of Bournemouth, led by the Rev. J.D. Jones and the local secretary of the Citizens’ League, with a number of people, crowded the Court at Branksome , where two Bournemouth ladies — Misses Townsend — were summoned to show cause why distress warrants should not be issued against them for 3s. 9d., being the balance of the rate for educational purposes. Defendants refused on religious grounds.

The Magistrates ordered distress warrants, remarking that it was contrary to good citizenship because they thought the law was bad to take it into their own hands. This was the first case heard in the district, and the ladies were loudly cheered in Court.

The Court was ordered to be cleared, but the police could not carry out the instruction. A public demonstration was held outside the Court.

A letter by an “E. Hopkins” dated which appeared in the Shields Gazette complained that the overseers had returned his partial rate payment with a statement saying that they could not accept anything but a full payment. Hopkins clarified his[?] grounds for refusal and gave the justification for the amount he intended to refuse, along with the usual arguments against the Education Act. He concluded “I understand a number of ratepayers have tendered part payment and have met with a similar refusal.”

An anti-passive-resistance editorial in the Kent & Sussex Courier added a bit more about the supposed goings on at the auction in Hastings:

Even those whose passivity assumes a paradoxically aggressive form will, we are sure, recognise that no good purpose can be served by a display of physical force against an auctioneer, or by meeting a legal process by the illegal method of smothering in flour a Sheriff’s Officer, as the passive resisters of Hastings did.

The Derbyshire Times of reported:

The Nonconformist View.

The Rev Ambrose Pope at the service at the Bakewell Congregational Church announced his intention to decline payment of that portion of the rate recently levied that would be required for educational purposes and he invited those sympathising with this attitude to meet in the schoolroom on for the purpose of formulating a plan of campaign.

Rather go to Gaol than have his Goods Sold.

At this meeting there was an attendance of about 30. The Rev A. Pope, as chairman of the Bakewell and District Free Church Council (under whose auspices the meeting was called) explained the purpose of the meeting, and thought that considering the shortness of the notice given — time did not permit of longer — the attendance was very satisfactory. The meeting was not for the purpose of discussing the Act or even for the consideration of whether or not a Passive Resistance League should be formed. The Free Church Council at its meeting on were unanimously of opinion that such a league should be formed, and that meeting was called to enlist sympathisers, and to form the machinery of the league. That sympathy might take two forms. A few might feel that they could not conscientiously pay the Education rate, and there would be others who had not yet reached that stage, who would want to know a little more about the question but were prepared to sympathise with the movement.…

Mr Joshua Barrett was elected to the chair and said he had long since determined that he must resist payment of the rate under the new Education Act. He said he would rather go to gaol than have his goods sold.

“Same here,” was the cry from several others.

The league was then formed… The names of members were then taken in two divisions: (1) those determined to “passively resist” payment of rates; and (2) those “sympathising” with the movement.

The same issue carried a few articles about Citizens’ Leagues in other regions and about actions taken against, or expected against, passive resisters elsewhere.

A letter in the Bristol Western Daily Press from F.W. Bryan, “Co-Secretary of ‘Bristol Citizens’ League’,” complained that some of the leaders of the passive resistance movement had had their rates paid for them by some anonymous “benefactor” in a way that was decidedly not cricket:

The announcement in your columns this morning that some person has paid the Rev H. Arnold Thomas’s rate calls for vigorous protest on the part of all right-minded people. However others may differ from us in our principle of passive resistance, we at least are open in our dealings, giving the greatest publicity to our names and motives; and this anonymous, mole-like method of fighting us, as already practised on Mr Thomas, Mr Hiley, and others, is most unsportsmanlike and un-English. The man who will do it is no gentleman, and most certainly reveals a lack of any fine sense of honour. I believe men on both sides of this controversy most strongly condemn this unworthy method of tampering with the sacred convictions of others. Mr Thomas calls him “friend” in his usual courteous and kindly way, but the man who would practise this lie upon the Rates Office, and by stabbing me in the dark tend to injure my reputation in the eyes of the public by making them believe I am a hypocrite, can be no friend, however kindly I may feel towards him. There appears to be no legal redress; it is simply a position in which one must trust to the honesty and honour of our fellow citizens; and the man who imperils that sense of trust is a menace to the highest life of the city.

It is unlikely that this “friend” (?) will have compassion on the rank and file of the hundreds of “Resisters.” I presume he aims at weakening our cause by removing our prominent leaders from the fighting line. Poor misguided man; he evidently thinks the spirit of resisters is as weak as his own. Does he dream that in this matter of conscience the absence of the active co-operation of these esteemed leaders would have a damaging effect? We still retain their sympathy, influence, and support, and two or three out of the hundreds who will be proceeded against can make little difference. Neither does it delay the issue in the slightest. These gentlemen will still refuse to pay, and next time will refuse in such a way as to prevent any recurrence of such measures. The attack upon good and true citizens like the Rev Arnold Thomas will tend to embolden many of the rank-and-file who may have been wavering.

The Gloucester Citizen carried this news:

Passive Resistance.

Magistrate and Minister.

At Wirksworth Police-court the Rev. Macdonald Aspland, secretary to the first contesting Passive Resistance League, was summoned with another Nonconformist minister and others for failing to pay poor-rate tax. Aspland’s defence was that he had not refused as stated in the summons. The Court held that neglect to pay was refusal. In the case of the Rev. B. Noble, one of the magistrates said: “You must understand if every fool in the place were to refuse to pay there would be no rates or taxes to collect.” The defendant answered: “I have no reply to make to language of that kind.” Distress warrants were issued.

Mr. T.B. Silcock, the Liberal candidate for the Wells Division, is among the latest additions to the ranks of the passive resisters.

Summonses against 45 passive resisters, including several well-known people, were applied for at Weston-super-Mare Police-court on by the overseer.

The North Devon Journal reported on the launch of the passive resistance campaign in Barnstaple, under the auspices of the newly-formed Barnstaple Citizens’ League, in its edition. It described the meeting as “largely-attended” and said “it was a highly successful gathering, the addresses being listened to with deep interest and appreciation, and not a dissentient note being struck throughout the meeting.”

Among the things reported at the meeting was that someone had investigated what percentage of the rate would be going to offensive expenses in their area (1½ pence in the pound) and that the recommended method of resistance would therefore be to refuse to pay that percentage of their rates.

Much of what is reported of the speeches given is a recitation of complaints about the Education Act, the sinister motives behind it, and the control of the local education authorities by Church of England adherents with a few lurking Roman Catholics in the background. The Rev. J. Hirst Hollowell, representing the National Passive Resistance Committee, gave a nice shout-out to the Concord civil disobedience set: “Ralph Waldo Emerson had said that the progress of the world had been greatly promoted by the refusal of good men to obey bad laws; let them write that on their banner of passive resistance. (Applause.)”

The Northampton Mercury brought us up-to-date in its issue:

Passive Resistance.

William Ramsill and Samuel Newbold, of Donisthorpe, were summoned at Ashby-de-la-Zouch on for the nonpayment of poor rates, amounting to £1 2s. 8d. and 12s. 7d. respectively. The Bench decided to issue an order for the recovery of the rate and for the payment of the costs. They refused to state a case.

The number of passive resisters to appear before the Bath Bench on has now been increased to 65, which is believed to be the record batch for any borough in the country so far. Nine of them will be Nonconformist ministers:– Baptist: The Revs. F.J. Benskin, T.R. Dann, A. Sowerby, B. Oriel, and Mr. J.R. Huntley. Congregational: The Revs. J. Turner Smith and T.B. Howells. Primitive Methodist Revs. Thomas Storr and T.H. Bryant.

At Brigg, on , goods seized from “passive resisters” were sold by auction by Mr. Grassby. The effects included a hearthrug, the property of the Rev. J. Spensley, Primitive Methodist; a swing chair, belonging to the Rev. H.J. Parry, Congregationalist; a wicker chair, seized from Miss Blanchard. Bidding was brisk, and the articles were mostly bought in for the owners. Though there was considerable excitement no disturbance took place. A demonstration followed.

At the Bath County Police Court, on , the adjourned summonses were heard for nonpayment of a portion of their rates against three parishioners at Bathford. An adjournment had been allowed as the result of a point of law raised by Mr. W.F. Long, representing the Bath and District Passive Resistance League, that the rate was invalid because the Somerset County Council had no power to raise money for the administration of the Education Act before that Act was in force in the county. After hearing the arguments, the Bench made orders for the payment of the rate, and declined to grant a stay of execution or to state a case.

Lively scenes were witnessed at Pocklington on on it becoming known that the goods of nine passive resisters were to be sold, and excitement prevailed. All the auctioneers in the place refused to sell, and Mr. Sharp, of Market Weighton, was prevailed upon to officiate. He arrived at the railway station and was met by a large crowd of passive resisters and sympathisers. Accompanied by the assistant overseer, he made for the solicitor’s office, followed by a hooting crowd. A rotten egg was thrown, and just missed his hat. He remained inside the office some time, and the crowd, becoming impatient, erected a tailor’s dummy on a trolley, which created great amusement. At last Mr. Flint, a prominent resister, announced that the auctioneer had declined to sell, owing to being unable to come to terms. Cheers followed the announcement, and the crowd, which numbered about 500, marched in procession to the marketplace, where an enthusiastic meeting was held, and the Education Act was strongly condemned.

The auction mart in Herne Bay was filled to overflowing on , when the distrained goods of the Rev. J.S. Geale, the Rev. C. Pockney, Mr. J. Watkinson, and Mr. E. Ellwoof, who had refused to pay that part of the poor rate for the maintenance of Sectarian Schools, came under the hammer. Mr. P.E. Iggulden, an auctioneer of the town, officiated, and by his consent Mr. Beale made a short speech before the sale, in the course of which he denounced the Education Act as retrograde, unconstitutional, and unjust. Mr. Pockney also vigorously attacked the measure. As the distrained goods were preceded by more than 200 other lots, the interval of waiting was filled by an enthusiastic meeting in the Baptist Church, almost opposite the mart. Addresses were delivered by ministers from Whitstable, Margate, and Ramsgate. Returning to the mart just as the passive resisters’ goods were to be offered, the Rev. C. Pockney moved the following resolution:– “That this assembly protests against the Education Act of , that makes the sale of respected citizens’ goods possible for the payment of an unjust rate, and sympathises with those in the stand they are taking for conscience sake, and hopes that it will result in the speedy amendment of the law.” This was carried amid tremendous enthusiasm, and the sale then proceeded. The articles were all bought by a friend of the resisters. Outside the mart the Doxology was sung, the street being crowded.

Another article on the same page briefly mentions a meeting between “a deputation from the Wellingbborough Citizens’ League” and “the overseers” to try to convince the latter to accept partial payment of the rates from resisters and only pursue them for the part they were refusing, rather than refusing to accept payments not in full.

The Sunderland Daily Echo reported on a passive resistance meeting that had been held alongside the United Methodist Free Churches Assembly . It “was only moderately attended,” according the account, which the speakers attributed to the weather and to the fact that most of their target audience had already been in meetings all day. One “Councillor Hardy (Riddings)” said:

He used to be an overseer of the parish in which he lived, but two weeks after the Bill passed he made it known that he could not be a party to levying, collecting, or receiving the rates under this Act. His Council elected him again, and pointed out that, if he was elected, he must accept the position. He admitted the law compelled that, but also made it clear that the law could not make him do the duties. They, therefore, elected his successor, who, it was strange to say, was stronger in his convictions than he (Councillor Hardy) was. (Laughter.)

The Northampton Mercury of reported:

Passive Resistance.

At the Bath County Police Court on , Mr. T.B. Silcock, an ex-Mayor of Bath, and Liberal candidate for the Wells Division of Somerset, was summoned as a passive resister, and an order of distraint was made.

The first sale in Huntingdonshire in connection with the passive resistance movement took place at Alconbury, six miles from Huntingdon, on . Mr. R.C. Grey, of Brooklands Farm, had been summoned at Huntingdon Divisional Police Court, and ordered to pay 9s. 7d., but he refused, and a distress warrant was issued. For a long time, however, the police could not get an auctioneer to act, and eventually the sale was conducted by a gentleman named Bingham, from Peterborough. There was a large and excited crowd, including many prominent local Free Churchmen, and the proceedings were characterised by considerable feeling. The auctioneer was met with a perfect storm of booing and shouting, so vehement that nothing else could be heard till all was over, when it was understood a set of harness had been sold to a friend of Mr. Grey for 51s. When the sale was over, the auctioneer, who was accompanied by a number of police officials, retired to a constable’s house. The crowd remained discussing the event; but threw rotten eggs at him as he eventually rode off on a bicycle. Cheers were given for Mr. Grey, and groans for Mr. Balfour and the auctioneer.

Remarkable proceedings took place at Bath Police Court on , when 70 passive resisters were summoned. The defendants included two lady members of the Church of England — the Misses Goldie — Mr. Walter, a supporter of the Government at the last election, chairman of the Bath Chamber of Commerce, and nine Nonconformist ministers — the Revs. F.J. Benskin, A. Sowerby, B. Oriel, T.R. Dann, W. Burton, and Mr. J.R. Huntley, Baptists; the Revs. T.B. Howells and J. Turner Smith, Congregationalists; the Revs. T. Storr and T.H. Bryant, Primitive Methodists. The Court was crowded with sympathisers, who welcomed the summoned, but after their first attempt to applaud during the proceedings they were sternly rebuked by the magistrates’ clerk. The demonstration being renewed, an officer was stationed to watch for any one not “keeping order,” but the officer’s vision must have been like Sam Weller’s, for there were no ejections and many applauders. In fact, towards the end of the lengthy proceedings applause was unrestrained, and as the Court cleared hearty cheers were given for the passive resisters. — Mr. W.F. Long appeared for all the defendants. An unexpected point was scored as to the powers of magistrates in hearing applications for distress warrants. On at Bath another Bench held that the magistrate could not go behind the rate-book if on the face of it the rate was in order. On the present occasion, however, the Bench expressed the opinion that if it appeared from evidence that the rate was illegal they would have a discretion in enforcing it. Counsel’s second objection that the rate was illegal, inasmuch as the City Council issued the precept in April before the Education Act had come into force, was overruled, the Bench deciding that the rate was justified under the Municipal Corporation Act, . A distress warrant was issued against Mr. Pitt, and the other cases were then taken in rotation, orders for payment being made. Among the protests of the defendants were the following:– Mr. James Hewitt: I gladly render unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s, but I cannot render unto Cæsar the things which are God’s. — The Rev. T.H. Bryant: I have a conscientious objection, and that for me is enough. — The Rev. T.B. Howells: I admit the rate, but will not help to endow the Church of England again. — Mr. C.H. Hacker: I admit the rate and deem it an honour to fight for religious freedom. (Much applause.) — The Rev. B. Oriel, asked if the rate was all right, replied: “No, wrong — wrong to compel us to pay for the proselytising of our own children. The amount is right, but the principle is wrong.” — A mild sensation was created when, after the names of the Revs. F.J. Benskin, T.R. Dann, and J. Turner Smith, and Mr. Hodges had been called, the assistant overseer said that the rates in their cases had been paid. Demands were made to know by whom, but the assistant overseer only replied: “I cannot tell.” This was met with loud cries of “Shame.” — At a subsequent protest meeting the Rev. T.R. Dann described the act of the person who had paid his rate as “contemptible cowardice.”

Dr. Clifford writes: “I am asked what those persons should do who have had to suffer the indignity of having the ‘tax on conscience’ which they have refused to pay paid for them by somebody else. A ‘Catholic Priest’ pays for a Nonconformist minister. An individual appropriating to himself the title of ‘Charity’ pays for a citizen, and then insults the whole Free Church people of the land by writing a letter which insinuates that they have caused the present strife, and ignores the patent fact that this unjust and immoral policy is the work of the Bishops of the Anglican Church. For myself, I should meet such tactics as those of the ‘Catholic Priest’ and ‘Charity’ by refusing to acknowledge any such payment as mine, and should accordingly deduct the amount of the rate from my second payment; and again, if necessary, from a third payment; and so on ad infinitum. Probably the ‘Catholic Priest’ and ‘Charity,’ and others like-minded, would thus be induced to cease from interfering with the rights of citizenship.”

The reverend A. Gray of Briercliffe penned a piece for the Burnley Express of that included these observations on the nonviolence strategy:

There have been up to the present time about 300 summonses issued against those who for conscientious reasons refuse to pay that portion of the education rate which goes to the support of non-provided schools — or rather the religious education in such schools. In most cases distress warrants have been issued and distraint has taken place. In some cases goods far exceeding in value the amount of the rate and the costs of distraint have been taken. The illegality of such excessive distraint is being considered by the legal advisers of the National Passive Resistance Committee. If the decision be that such excessive distraint is legal, nevertheless right-minded citizens, even though opposed to passive resistance, will undoubtedly condemn it as unjust and dishonest.

Such excessive distraints, together with the harsh and tyrannical treatment Passive Resisters have received at the hands of certain magistrates, may explain, in part, the unseemly behaviour of the crowd at certain sales of distrained goods. Such scenes as were witnessed at Hastings, Bury St. Edmunds, etc., are deeply to be regretted. Were, though, the Passive Resisters in those towns responsible for the uproar? We think not. The auctioneer at Hastings has borne this testimony:– “The Passive Resisters behaved like gentlemen.” We have no doubt if impartial eye-witnesses in other towns where disturbances have taken place were asked for their opinion it would be in the same strain. We are not responsible for the actions of the crowd. Passive Resisters may be relied upon to carry out to the utmost the principle of the movement. Our resistance will be passive. We deprecate any scene whatever at the auction. As we cheerfully admit the bailiff to our homes to mark and take away our goods, so we in like manner shall abstain from any interference with the auctioneer. Both perform their respective duties in a purely professional spirit. Our opportunity to demonstrate may be before or after the sale, but not at the sale, and our demonstration must be characterised by good humour, courtesy, and fairness. The more calmly we bear our suffering, the more courteously and honourably we fight this battle, the more converts shall we win, the stronger will be our cause, and the sooner will victory be won.

An article in The Derbyshire Times of under the unflattering subhead “Belper Passive Resister’s Stupid Action” concerned a Mr. James Bakewell, whose goods were sold under distraint at auction to cover his income tax and the costs of the sale. Bakewell bid on and won the goods himself, making this a convoluted way of paying. Although the article refers to Bakewell as “one of the ‘passive resisters’ of Belper,” it’s not entirely clear whether he was acting along with the Education Act protest, which did not typically involve the income tax.

The overseers in Portsmouth decided they would not take partial payment of the rates, but would insist on all-or-nothing. This angered the resisters there. One wrote a letter to the Portsmouth Evening News saying in part

That we resent the treatment goes without saying, and the gentlemen responsible for the harsh decision cannot expect us to go out of our way to make things work over-smoothly after what they have done for us. … The question of the day for Portsmouth is not… whether “Passive Resisters will be distressed,” but is it to be peace or war. The Overseers can decide.

Also noted was a “largely-attended” meeting of the Portsmouth Passive Resistance League at which “It was decided to form an indemnity fund for the benefit of members with slender means, and to open the membership to residents in the surrounding district. On the same page was this article:

Prosecutions and Sales.

The batch of Passive Resisters before the Oxford City Magistrates on included some well-known citizens. Among them was Dr. Massie, until recently Vice-Principal of Mansfield College. The amount claimed of Dr. Massie was £9 5s. 4d., and he had tendered £8 19s. 1d.. In a letter to the collector he said he neglected to pay the 6s. 3d. as a protest against the Education Act, . The Magistrates having consulted, the Mayor said they had come to the conclusion they must make an order for the full payment of £9 5s. 4d. and costs.

At the Longeaton Police Station, on , Mr. Webster, of Wirksworth, auctioneer, held a sale of goods of Passive Resisters. A force of 50 police were present, but they did not prevent the crowd from jeering at the auctioneer, who sold the goods in a doorway. After the sale an indignation meeting was held in the Market Place, at which a letter was read from Dr. Clifford, urging the continuance of the fight “till we win.” Good humour prevailed, and police interference was unnecessary.

At Ashford, on , summonses were issued against two ministers and four other Passive Resisters.

Goods have been seized at Tenterden, but a difficulty is being experienced in finding an auctioneer to sell them.

All of this represents only a portion of what I found being printed at this time on the subject. I have omitted many examples of people arguing back and forth about the legitimacy of the grievance that led to the passive resistance campaign, in order that I might concentrate on how that campaign was carried out, what challenges it faced, and how it met such challenges.