A tactic that I’ve encountered on many occasions in my research into tax resistance campaigns is that of disrupting government auctions of goods, particularly those of seized from tax resisters. Here are several examples that show the variety of ways campaigns have accomplished this:
Religious nonconformists in the United Kingdom
Education Act-related resistance
Some disruption of auctions took place during the tax resistance in protest of the provisions of the Education Act that provided taxpayer money for sectarian education . The Westminster Gazette reported:
There was some feeling displayed at a sale of the goods of Passive Resisters at Colchester yesterday, the Rev. T. Batty, a Baptist minister, and the Rev. Pierrepont Edwards, locally, known as “the fighting parson,” entering into discussion in the auction room, but being stopped by the auctioneer, who said he did his work during the week and he hoped they did theirs on Sundays. At Long Eaton the goods of twenty-three Passive Resisters were sold amid demonstrations of hostility to the auctioneer. A boy was arrested for throwing a bag of flour.
The New York Times reported that “Auctioneers frequently decline to sell goods upon which distraints have been levied.” And the San Francisco Chronicle noted:
Difficulty is experienced everywhere in getting auctioneers to sell the property confiscated. In Leominster, a ram and some ewe lambs, the property of a resistant named Charles Grundy, were seized and put up at auction, as follows: Ram, Joe Chamberlain; ewes, Lady Balfour, Mrs. Bishop, Lady Cecil, Mrs. Canterbury and so on through the list of those who made themselves conspicuous in forcing the bill through Parliament. The auctioneer was entitled to a fee under the law of 10 shillings and 6 pence, which he promptly turned over to Mr. Grundy, having during the sale expressed the strongest sympathy for the tax-resisters. Most of the auction sales are converted into political meetings in which the tax and those responsible for it are roundly denounced.
Edinburgh Annuity Tax resistance
Auction disruptions were commonplace in the Annuity Tax resistance campaign in Edinburgh. By law the distraint auctions (“roupings”) had to be held at the Mercat Cross — the town square, essentially — which made it easy to gather a crowd; or sometimes in the homes of the resisters. Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine reported of one of the Mercat Cross roupings:
If any of our readers know that scene, let them imagine, after the resistance was tolerably well organized, an unfortunate auctioneer arriving at the Cross about noon, with a cart loaded with furniture for sale. Latterly the passive hubbub rose as if by magic. Bells sounded, bagpipes brayed, the Fiery Cross passed down the closses, and through the High Street and Cowgate; and men, women, and children, rushed from all points towards the scene of Passive Resistance. The tax had grinded the faces of the poor, and the poor were, no doubt, the bitterest in indignation. Irish, Highlanders, Lowlanders, were united by the bond of a common suffering. Respectable shopkeepers might be seen coming in haste from the Bridges; Irish traders flew from St. Mary’s Wynd; brokers from the Cowgate; all pressing round the miserable auctioneer; yelling, hooting, perhaps cursing, certainly saying anything but what was affectionate or respectful of the clergy. And here were the black placards tossing above the heads of the angry multitude — ROUPING FOR STIPEND! This notice was of itself enough to deter any one from purchasing; though we will say it for the good spirit of the people, that both the Scotch and Irish brokers disdained to take bargains of their suffering neighbours’ goods. Of late months, no auctioneer would venture to the Cross to roup for stipend. What human being has nerve enough to bear up against the scorn, hatred, and execration of his fellow-creatures, expressed in a cause he himself must feel just? The people lodged the placards and flags in shops about the Cross, so that not a moment was lost in having their machinery in full operation, and scouts were ever ready to spread the intelligence if any symptoms of a sale were discovered.
Sheriff Clerk Kenmure Maitland appeared before a committee that was investigating the resistance campaign. He mentioned that “Mr. Whitten, the auctioneer for sheriff’s sales, was so much inconvenienced and intimidated that he refused to take any more of those sales.”
Q: What was Mr. Whitten’s express reason for declining to act as auctioneer?
A: He was very much inconvenienced on that occasion, and he believed that his general business connection would suffer by undertaking these sales, and that he would lose the support of any customer who was of that party.
Q: It was not from any fear of personal violence?
A: That might have had a good deal to do with it.
Q: Was Mr. Whitten the only auctioneer who declined?
A: No. After Mr. Whitten’s refusal I applied to Mr. Hogg, whose services I should have been glad to have obtained, and he said he would let me know the next day if he would undertake to act as auctioneer; he wrote to me the next day saying, that, after consideration with his friends, he declined to act.
Q: Any other?
A: I do not remember asking any others. The rates of remuneration for acting as auctioneer at sheriffs’ sales are so low that men having a better class of business will not act. I had to look about among not first-class auctioneers, and I found that I would have some difficulty in getting a man whom I could depend upon, for I had reason to believe that influence would be used to induce the auctioneer to fail me at the last moment.
It was difficult for the authorities to get any help at all, either from auctioneers, furniture dealers, or carters. The government had to purchase (and fortify) their own cart because they were unable to rent one for such use.
Here is an example of an auction of a resister’s goods held at the resister’s home, as described in the testimony of Thomas Menzies:
A: I saw a large number of the most respectable citizens assembled in the house, and a large number outside awaiting the arrival of the officers who came in a cab, and the indignation was very strong when they got into the house, so much so that a feeling was entertained by some that there was danger to the life of Mr. Whitten, the auctioneer, and that he might be thrown out of the window, because there were such threats, but others soothed down the feeling.
Q: There was no overt act or breach of the peace?
A: No. The cabman who brought the officers, seeing they were engaged in such a disagreeable duty, took his cab away, and they had some difficulty in procuring another, and they went away round by a back street, rather than go by the direct way.
Q: Did Mr. Whitten, from his experience on that occasion, refuse ever to come to another sale as auctioneer?
A: He refused to act again, he gave up his position.
He then described a second such auction:
A: The house was densely packed; it was impossible for me to get entrance; the stair was densely packed to the third and second flats; when the policemen came with the officers, they could not force their way up, except with great difficulty. The consequence was, that nearly the whole of the rail of the upper storey gave way to the great danger both of the officers and the public, and one young man I saw thrown over the heads of the crowd to the great danger of being precipitated three storeys down. Then the parties came out of the house, with their clothes dishevelled and severely handled; and the officer on that occasion will tell you that he was very severely dealt with indeed, and Mr. Sheriff Gordon was sent for, so much alarm being felt; but by the time the Sheriff arrived things were considerably subdued.
Sheriff Clerk Maitland also described this auction:
I found a considerable crowd outside; and on going up to the premises on the top flat, I found that I could not get entrance to the house; the house was packed with people, who on our approach kept hooting and shouting out, and jeering us; and, as far as I could see, the shutters were shut and the windows draped in black, and all the rooms crowded with people. I said that it was necessary to carry out the sale, and they told me to come in, if I dare.
On another occasion, as he tells it, the auction seemed to go smoothly at first, but the buyers didn’t get what they hoped for:
At Mr. McLaren’s sale everything was conducted in an orderly way as far as the sale was concerned. We got in, and only a limited number were allowed to go in; but after the officials and the police had gone, there was a certain amount of disturbance. Certain goods were knocked down to the poinding creditors, consisting of an old sofa and an old sideboard, and Mr. McLaren said, “Let those things go to the clergy.” Those were the only things which had to be taken away. There was no vehicle ready to carry them away. Mr. McLaren said that he would not keep them. After the police departed, he turned them out in the street, when they were taken possession of by the crowd of idlers, and made a bonfire of.
A summary of the effect of all of this disruption reads:
So strong was the feeling of hostility, that the town council were unable to procure the services of any auctioneer to sell the effects of those who conscientiously objected to pay the clerical portion of the police taxes, and they were consequently forced to make a special arrangement with a sheriff’s officer, by which, to induce him to undertake the disagreeable task, they provided him for two years with an auctioneer’s license from the police funds. In , it was found necessary to enter into another arrangement with the officer, by which the council had to pay him 12½ percent, on all arrears, including the police, prison, and registration rates, as well as the clerical tax; and he receives this per-centage whether the sums are recovered by himself or paid direct to the police collector, and that over and above all the expenses he recovers from the recusants. But this is not all; the council were unable to hire a cart or vehicle from any of the citizens, and it was found necessary to purchase a lorry, and to provide all the necessary apparatus and assistance for enforcing payment of the arrears. All this machinery, which owes its existence entirely to the Clerico-Police Act, involves a wasteful expenditure of city funds, induces a chronic state of irritation in the minds of the citizens, and is felt to be a gross violation of the principles of civil and religious liberty.
The Tithe War
William John Fitzpatrick wrote of the auctions during the Tithe War:
[T]he parson’s first step was to put the cattle up to auction in the presence of a regiment of English soldiery; but it almost invariably happened that either the assembled spectators were afraid to bid, lest they should incur the vengeance of the peasantry, or else they stammered out such a low offer, that, when knocked down, the expenses of the sale would be found to exceed it. The same observation applies to the crops. Not one man in a hundred had the hardihood to declare himself the purchaser. Sometimes the parson, disgusted at the backwardness of bidders, and trying to remove it, would order the cattle twelve or twenty miles away in order to their being a second time put up for auction. But the locomotive progress of the beasts was always closely tracked, and means were taken to prevent either driver or beast receiving shelter or sustenance throughout the march.
The Sentinel wrote of one auction:
Yesterday being the day on which the sheriff announced that, if no bidders could be obtained for the cattle, he would have the property returned to Mr. Germain, immense crowds were collected from the neighbouring counties — upwards of 20,000 men. The County Kildare men, amounting to about 7000, entered, led by Jonas Duckett, Esq., in the most regular and orderly manner. This body was preceded by a band of music, and had several banners on which were “Kilkea and Moone, Independence for ever,” “No Church Tax,” “No Tithe,” “Liberty,” &c. The whole body followed six carts, which were prepared in the English style — each drawn by two horses. The rear was brought up by several respectable landholders of Kildare. The barrack-gates were thrown open, and different detachments of infantry took their stations right and left, while the cavalry, after performing sundry evolutions, occupied the passes leading to the place of sale. The cattle were ordered out, when the sheriff, as on the former day, put them up for sale; but no one could be found to bid for the cattle, upon which he announced his intention of returning them to Mr. Germain. The news was instantly conveyed, like electricity, throughout the entire meeting, when the huzzas of the people surpassed anything we ever witnessed. The cattle were instantly liberated and given up to Mr. Germain. At this period a company of grenadiers arrived, in double-quick time, after travelling from Castlecomer, both officers and men fatigued and covered with dust. Thus terminated this extraordinary contest between the Church and the people, the latter having obtained, by their steadiness, a complete victory. The cattle will be given to the poor of the sundry districts.
Similar examples were reported in the foreign press:
Cork. — A most extraordinary scene has been exhibited in this city. Some cows seized for tithes were brought to a public place for sale, escorted by a squadron of lancers, and followed by thousands of infuriated people. All the garrison, cavalry and infantry, under the command of Sir George Bingham, were called out. The cattle were set up at three pounds for each, no bidder; two pounds, no bidder; one pound, no bidder; in short, the auctioneer descended to three shillings for each cow, but no purchaser appeared. This scene lasted for above an hour, when there being no chance of making sale of the cattle, it was proposed to adjourn the auction; but, as we are informed, the General in command of the military expressed an unwillingness to have the troops subjected to a repetition of the harassing duty thus imposed on them. After a short delay, it was, at the interference and remonstrance of several gentlemen, both of town and country, agreed upon that the cattle should be given up to the people, subject to certain private arrangements. We never witnessed such a scene; thousands of country people jumping with exulted feelings at the result, wielding their shillelaghs, and exhibiting all the other symptoms of exuberant joy characteristic of the buoyancy of Irish feeling.
At Carlow a triumphant resistance to the laws, similar to that which occurred at Cork, has been exhibited in the presence of the authorities and the military. Some cattle had been seized for tithe, and a public sale announced, when a large body of men, stated at 50,000, marched to the place appointed, and, of course, under the influence of such terror, none were found to bid for the cattle. The sale was adjourned from day to day, for seven days, and upon each day the same organised bands entered the town, and rendered the attempt to sell the cattle, in pursuance of the law, abortive. At last the cattle are given up to the mob, crowned with laurels, and driven home with an escort of 10,000 men.
In a somewhat later case, a Catholic priest in Blarney by the name of Peyton refused to pay his income tax on the grounds that the law treated him in an inferior way to his Protestant counterparts. His horse was seized and sold at auction, where “the multitude assembled hissed, hooted, hustled, and otherwise impeded the proceedings.”
In , a Sinn Fein leader told a reporter that the group was pondering a tax strike, and predicted that “No Irish auctioneer would consent to act at [distraint] sales. Auctioneers would have to be imported from England. So would purchaser. Then Irish laborers would refuse to move the sold goods to the wharves and Irish sailors would refuse to carry it on their ships. England soon would find herself without the millions of pounds sterling that she now squeezes out of Ireland.”
There was precedent for this. During the Tithe War period and thereafter, the authorities had to go to extraordinary lengths to auction off seized goods. As one account put it:
In Ireland we pay — the whole people of the empire pay — troops who march up from the country to Dublin, fifty or sixty miles, as escorts of the parson-pounded pigs and cattle, which passive resistance prevents from being sold or bought at home; and we also maintain barracks in that country which not only lodge the parsons’ military guards, but afford, of late, convenient resting-places in their journey to the poor people’s cattle, whom the soldiers are driving to sale; and which would otherwise be rescued on the road.
The women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom
The tax resisters in the women’s suffrage movement in Britain were particularly adept in disrupting tax auctions and in making them opportunities for propaganda and protest. Here are several examples, largely as reported in the movement newsletter called The Vote:
- “On a sale was held… of jewellery seized in distraint for income-tax… Members of the W.F.L. and Mrs. [Edith] How Martyn (Hon. Sec.) assembled to protest against the proceedings, and the usual policeman kept a dreary vigil at the open door. The day had been specially chosen by the authorities, who wished to prevent a demonstration…”
- “The sale of Mrs. Cleeves’ dog-cart took place at the Bush Hotel, Sketty, on afternoon. The W.F.L. held their protest meeting outside — much to the discomfort of the auctioneer, who declared the impossibility of ‘drowning the voice outside.’ ”
- “Notwithstanding the mud and odoriferous atmosphere of the back streets off Drury-lane, quite a large number of members of the Tax Resisters’ League, the Women’s Freedom League, and the Women’s Social and Political Union, met outside Bulloch’s Sale Rooms shortly after to protest against the sale of Miss Bertha Brewster’s goods, which had been seized because of her refusal to pay her Imperial taxes. Before the sale took place, Mrs. Gatty, as chairman, explained to at least a hundred people the reasons of Miss Brewster’s refusal to pay her taxes and the importance of the constitutional principle that taxation without representation is tyranny, which this refusal stood for. Miss Leonora Tyson proposed the resolution protesting against the injustice of this sale, and it was seconded by Miss F[lorence]. A. Underwood, and supported by Miss Brackenbury. The resolution was carried with only two dissentients, and these dissentients were women!”
- “The goods seized were sold at the public auction room. Before selling them the auctioneer allowed Mrs. How Martyn to make a short explanatory speech, and he himself added that it was an unpleasant duty he had to perform.”
- “A scene which was probably never equalled in the whole of its history took place at the Oxenham Auction Rooms, Oxford-street, on . About a fortnight before the bailiffs had entered Mrs. Despard’s residence in Nine Elms and seized goods which they valued at £15. Our President, for some years past, as is well known, has refused to pay her income-tax and inhabited house duty on the grounds that taxation and representation should go together; and this is the third time her goods have been seized for distraint. It was not until the day before — — that Mrs. Despard was informed of the time and place where her furniture was to be sold. In spite of this short notice — which we learn on good authority to be illegal — a large crowd composed not only of our own members but also of women and men from various Suffrage societies gathered together at the place specified in the notice. ¶ When ‘Lot 325’ was called Mrs. Despard mounted a chair, and said, ‘I rise to protest, in the strongest, in the most emphatic way of which I am capable, against these iniquities, which are perpetually being perpetrated in the name of the law. I should like to say I have served my country in various capacities, but I am shut out altogether from citizenship. I think special obloquy has been put upon me in this matter. It was well known that I should not run away and that I should not take my goods away, but the authorities sent a man in possession. He remained in the house — a household of women — at night. I only heard of this sale, and from a man who knows that of which he is speaking, I know that this sale is illegal. I now claim the law — the law that is supposed to be for women as well as men.’ ”
- “[A] most successful protest against taxation without representation was made by Mrs. Muir, of Broadstairs, whose goods were sold at the Auction Rooms, 120, High-street, Margate. The protest was conducted by Mrs. [Emily] Juson Kerr; and Miss Ethel Fennings, of the W.F.L., went down to speak. The auctioneer, Mr. Holness, was most courteous, and not only allowed Mrs. Muir to explain in a few words why she resisted taxation, but also gave permission to hold meeting in his rooms after the sale was over.”
- “One of the most successful and effective Suffrage demonstrations ever held in St. Leonards was that arranged jointly by the Women’s Tax Resistance League and the Hastings and St. Leonards Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League, on , on the occasion of the sale of some family silver which had been seized at the residence of Mrs. [Isabella] Darent Harrison for non-payment of Inhabited House Duty. Certainly the most striking feature of this protest was the fact that members of all societies in Hastings, St. Leonards, Bexhill and Winchelsea united in their effort to render the protest representative of all shades of Suffrage opinion. Flags, banners, pennons and regalia of many societies were seen in the procession.… The hearty response from the men to Mrs. [Margaret] Kineton Parkes’s call for ‘three cheers for Mrs. Darent Harrison’ at the close of the proceedings in the auction room, came as a surprise to the Suffragists themselves.”
- “On , the last item on the catalogue of Messrs. Whiteley’s weekly sale in Westbourne-grove was household silver seized in distraint for King’s taxes from Miss Gertrude Eaton, of Kensington. Miss Eaton is a lady very well known in the musical world and interested in social reforms, and hon. secretary of the Prison Reform Committee. Miss Eaton said a few dignified words of protest in the auction room, and Mrs. [Anne] Cobden Saunderson explained to the large crowd of bidders the reason why tax-paying women, believing as they do that taxation without representation is tyranny, feel that they cannot, by remaining inactive, any longer subscribe to it. A procession then formed up and a protest meeting was held…”
- “At the offices of the collector of Government taxes, Westborough, on a silver cream jug and sugar basin were sold. These were the property of Dr. Marion McKenzie, who had refused payment of taxes to support her claim on behalf of women’s suffrage. A party of suffragettes marched to the collector’s office, which proved far too small to accommodate them all. Mr. Parnell said he regretted personally having the duty to perform. He believed that ultimately the women would get the vote. They had the municipal vote and he maintained that women who paid rates and taxes should be allowed to vote. (Applause.) But that was his own personal view. He would have been delighted not to have had that process, but he had endeavoured to keep the costs down. Dr. Marion McKenzie thanked Mr. Parnell for the courtesy shown them. A protest meeting was afterwards held on St. Nicholas Cliff.”
- “Mrs. [Anne] Cobden-Sanderson, representing the Women’s Tax Resistance League, was, by courtesy of the auctioneer, allowed to explain the reason of the protest. Judging by the applause with which her remarks were received, most of those present were in sympathy.”
- “The auctioneer was entirely in sympathy with the protest, and explained the circumstances under which the sale took place. He courteously allowed Mrs. [Anne] Cobden Sanderson and Mrs. [Emily] Juson Kerr to put clearly the women’s point of view; Miss Raleigh made a warm appeal for true freedom. A procession was formed and an open-air meeting subsequently held.”
- “The auctioneer, who is in sympathy with the suffragists, refused to take commission.”
- “[A] crowd of Suffragists of all shades of opinion assembled at Hawking’s Sale Rooms, Lisson-grove, Marylebone, to support Dr. Frances Ede and Dr. Amy Sheppard, whose goods were to be sold by public auction for tax resistance. By the courtesy of the auctioneer, Mr. Hawking, speeches were allowed, and Dr. Ede emphasized her conscientious objection to supporting taxation without representation; she said that women like herself and her partner felt that they must make this logical and dignified protest, but as it caused very considerable inconvenience and sacrifice to professional women, she trusted that the grave injustice would speedily be remedied. Three cheers were given for the doctors, and a procession with banners marched to Marble Arch, where a brief meeting was held in Hyde Park, at which the usual resolution was passed unanimously.”
- “An interesting sequel to the seizure of Mrs. Tollemache’s goods last week, and the ejection of the bailiff from her residence, Batheaston Villa, Bath, was the sale held , at the White Hart Hotel. To cover a tax of only £15 and costs, goods were seized to the value of about £80, and it was at once decided by the Women’s Tax Resistance League and Mrs. Tollemache’s friends that such conduct on the part of the authorities must be circumvented and exposed. The goods were on view the morning of the sale, and as there was much valuable old china, silver, and furniture, the dealers were early on the spot, and buzzing like flies around the articles they greatly desired to possess. The first two pieces put up were, fortunately, quite inviting; £19 being bid for a chest of drawers worth about 50s. and £3 for an ordinary leather-top table, the requisite amount was realised, and the auctioneer was obliged to withdraw the remaining lots much to the disgust of the assembled dealers. Mrs. [Margaret] Kineton Parkes, in her speech at the protest meeting, which followed the sale, explained to these irate gentlemen that women never took such steps unless compelled to do so, and that if the tax collector had seized a legitimate amount of goods to satisfy his claim, Mrs. Tollemache would willingly have allowed them to go.”
- “Under the auspices of the Tax Resistance League and the Women’s Freedom League a protest meeting was held at Great Marlow on , on the occasion of the sale of plate and jewellery belonging to Mrs. [Mary] Sargent Florence, the well-known artist, and to Miss Hayes, daughter of Admiral Hayes. Their property had been seized for the non-payment of Imperial taxes, and through the courtesy of the tax-collector every facility was afforded to the protesters to explain their action.”
- “At the sale of a silver salver belonging to Dr. Winifred Patch, of Highbury, Steen’s Auction Rooms, Drayton Park, were crowded on by members of the Women’s Freedom League, the Women’s Tax Resistance League, and other Suffrage societies. The auctioneer refused to allow the usual five minutes for explanation before the sale, but Miss Alison Neilans, of the Women’s Freedom League, was well supported and cheered when she insisted on making clear the reasons why Dr. Patch for several years has refused to pay taxes while deprived of a vote. A procession was then formed, and marched to Highbury Corner, where a large open-air meeting was presided over by Mrs. [Marianne] Clarendon Hyde, of the Women’s Freedom League, and addressed by Mrs. Merrivale Mayer.”
- “Practically every day sees a sale and protest somewhere, and the banners of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, frequently supported by Suffrage Societies, are becoming familiar in town and country. At the protest meetings which follow all sales the reason why is explained to large numbers of people who would not attend a suffrage meeting. Auctioneers are becoming sympathetic even so far as to speak in support of the women’s protest against a law which demands their money, but gives them no voice in the way in which it is spent.”
- “The sale was conducted, laughably enough, under the auspices of the Women’s Freedom League and the Women’s Tax Resistance League; for, on obtaining entrance to the hall, Miss Anderson and Mrs. Fisher bedecked it with all the insignia of suffrage protest. The rostrum was spread with our flag proclaiming the inauguration of Tax Resistance by the W.F.L.; above the auctioneer’s head hung Mrs. [Charlotte] Despard’s embroidered silk banner, with its challenge “Dare to be Free”; on every side the green, white and gold of the W.F.L. was accompanied by the brown and black of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, with its cheery ‘No Vote, no Tax’ injunctions and its John Hampden maxims; while in the front rows, besides Miss Anderson, the heroine of the day, Mrs. Snow and Mrs. Fisher, were seen the inspiring figures of our President and Mrs. [Anne] Cobden Sanderson, vice-president of the W.T.R.L.”
- “…all Women’s Freedom League members who know anything of the way in which the sister society organises these matters should attend the sale in the certainty of enjoying a really telling demonstration…”
- “From early in the day Mrs. Huntsman and a noble band of sandwich-women had paraded the town announcing the sale and distributing leaflets. In the afternoon a contingent of the Tax Resistance League arrived with the John Hampden banner and the brown and black pennons and flags. These marched through the town and market square before entering the hall in which the sale and meeting were to be held, and which was decorated with the flags and colours of the Women’s Freedom League. Mr. Croome, the King’s officer, conducted the sale in person, the goods sold being a quantity of table silver, a silver toilette set, and one or two other articles. The prices fetched were trifling, Mrs. Harvey desiring that no one should buy the goods in for her.”
- “Miss Andrews asked the auctioneer if she might explain the reason for the sale of the waggon, and, having received the necessary permission was able to give an address on tax resistance, and to show how it is one of the weapons employed by the Freedom League to secure the enfranchisement of women. Then came the sale — but beforehand the auctioneer said he had not been aware he was to sell ‘distressed’ goods, and he very much objected to doing so.… The meeting and the auctioneer together made the assembly chary of bidding, and the waggon was not sold, which was a great triumph for the tax-resisters.… Miss Trott and Miss Bobby helped to advertise the meeting by carrying placards round the crowded market.”
- “There was a crowded audience, and the auctioneer opened the proceedings by declaring himself a convinced Suffragist, which attitude of mind he attributed largely to a constant contact with women householders in his capacity as tax collector. After the sale a public meeting was held… At the close of the meeting many questions were asked, new members joined the League…”
- The authorities tried to auction off Kate Harvey’s goods on-site, at her home, rather than in a public hall, so that they might avoid demonstrations of that sort. “On morning a band of Suffragist men carried placards through the streets of Bromley, on which was the device, ‘I personally protest against the sale of a woman’s goods to pay taxes over which she has no control,’ and long before , the time fixed for the sale, from North, South, East and West, people came streaming into the little town of Bromley, and made their way towards ‘Brackenhill.’ Punctually at the tax-collector and his deputy mounted the table in the dining-room, and the former, more in sorrow than in anger, began to explain to the crowd assembled that this was a genuine sale! Mrs. Harvey at once protested against the sale taking place. Simply and solely because she was a woman, although she was a mother, a business woman, and a tax-payer, she had no voice in saying how the taxes collected from her should be spent. The tax collector suffered this speech in silence, but he could judge by the cheers it received that there were many ardent sympathisers with Mrs. Harvey in her protest. He tried to proceed, but one after another the men present loudly urged that no one there should bid for the goods. The tax-collector feebly said this wasn’t a political meeting, but a genuine sale! ‘One penny for your goods then!’ was the derisive answer. ‘One penny — one penny!’ was the continued cry from both inside and outside ‘Brackenhill.’ Then men protested that the tax-collector was not a genuine auctioneer; he had no hammer, no list of goods to be sold was hung up in the room. There was no catalogue, nothing to show bidders what was to be sold and what wasn’t. The men also objected to the presence of the tax-collector’s deputy. ‘Tell him to get down!’ they shouted. ‘The sale shan’t proceed till he does,’ they yelled. ‘Get down! Get down:’ they sang. But the tax-collector felt safer by the support of this deputy. ‘He’s afraid of his own clerk,’ they jeered. Again the tax-collector asked for bids. ‘One penny! One penny!’ was the deafening response. The din increased every moment and pandemonium reigned supreme. During a temporary lull the tax-collector said a sideboard had been sold for nine guineas. Angry cries from angry men greeted this announcement. ‘Illegal sale!’ ‘He shan’t take it home!’ ‘The whole thing’s illegal!’ ‘You shan’t sell anything else!’ and The Daily Herald Leaguers, members of the Men’s Political Union, and of other men’s societies, proceeded to make more noise than twenty brass bands. Darkness was quickly settling in; the tax-collector looked helpless, and his deputy smiled wearily. ‘Talk about a comic opera — it’s better than Gilbert and Sullivan could manage,’ roared an enthusiast. ‘My word, you look sick, guv’nor! Give it up, man!’ Then everyone shouted against the other until the tax-collector said he closed the sale, remarking plaintively that he had lost £7 over the job! Ironical cheers greeted this news, with ‘Serve you right for stealing a woman’s goods!’ He turned his back on his tormentors, and sat down in a chair on the table to think things over. The protesters sat on the sideboard informing all and sundry that if anyone wanted to take away the sideboard he should take them with it! With the exit of the tax-collector, his deputy and the bailiff, things gradually grew quieter, and later on Mrs. Harvey entertained her supporters to tea at the Bell Hotel. But the curious thing is, a man paid nine guineas for the sideboard to the tax-collector. Mrs. Harvey owed him more than £17, and Mrs. Harvey is still in possession of the sideboard!”
- “The assistant auctioneer, to whom it fell to conduct the sale, was most unfriendly, and refused to allow any speaking during the sale; but Miss Boyle was able to shout through a window at his back, just over his shoulder, an announcement that the goods were seized because Miss Cummins refused to submit to taxation without representation, after which quite a number of people who were attending the sale came out to listen to the speeches.”
- “The auctioneer was very sympathetic, and allowed Miss [Anna] Munro to make a short speech before the waggon was sold. He then spoke a few friendly words for the Woman’s Movement. After the sale a meeting was held, and Mrs. Tippett and Miss Munro were listened to with evident interest by a large number of men. The Vote and other Suffrage literature was sold.”
- “A joint demonstration of the Tax Resisters’ League and militant suffragettes, held here [Hastings] as a protest against the sale of the belongings of those who refused to pay taxes, was broken up by a mob. The women were roughly handled and half smothered with soot. Their banners were smashed. The police finally succeeded in getting the women into a blacksmith’s shop, where they held the mob at bay until the arrival of reinforcements. The women were then escorted to a railway station.”
- “The auction sale of the Duchess of Bedford’s silver cup proved, perhaps, the best advertisement the Women’s Tax Resistance League ever had. It was made the occasion for widespread propaganda. The newspapers gave columns of space to the event, while at the big mass meeting, held outside the auction room…”
- “When a member is to be sold up a number of her comrades accompany her to the auction-room. The auctioneer is usually friendly and stays the proceedings until some one of the league has mounted the table and explained to the crowd what it all means. Here are the banners, and the room full of women carrying them, and it does not take long to impress upon the mind of the people who have come to attend the sale that here is a body of women willing to sacrifice their property for the principle for which John Hampden went to prison — that taxation without representation is tyranny. … The women remain at these auctions until the property of the offender is disposed of. The kindly auctioneer puts the property seized from the suffragists early on his list, or lets them know when it will be called.”
American war tax resisters
There have been a few celebrated auction sales in the American war tax resistance movement. Some of them have been met with protests or used as occasions for outreach and propaganda, but others have been more actively interfered with.
When Ernest and Marion Bromley’s home was seized, for example, there were “months of continuous picketing and leafletting” before the sale. Then:
The day began with a silent vigil initiated by the local Quaker group. While the bids were being read inside the building, guerrilla theatre took place out on the sidewalk. At one point the Federal building was auctioned (offers ranging from 25¢ to 2 bottle caps). Several supporters present at the proceedings inside made brief statements about the unjust nature of the whole ordeal. Waldo the Clown was also there, face painted sadly, opening envelopes along with the IRS person. As the official read the bids and the names of the bidders, Waldo searched his envelopes and revealed their contents: a flower, a unicorn, some toilet paper, which he handed to different office people. Marion Bromley also spoke as the bids were opened, reiterating that the seizure was based on fraudulent assumptions, and that therefore the property could not be rightfully sold.
The protests, odd as they were, eventually paid off, as the IRS had in the interim been caught improperly pursuing political dissidents, and as a result it decided to reverse the sale of the Bromley home and give up on that particular fight.
When Paul and Addie Snyder’s home was auctioned off for back taxes, it was reported that “many bids of $1 or less were made.”
Making a bid of pennies for farm property being foreclosed for failure to meet mortgages was a common tactic among angry farmers during the Depression. If their bids succeeded, the property was returned to its owner and the mortgage torn up. In some such cases, entire farms plus their livestock, equipment and home furnishings sold for as little as $2.
When George Willoughby’s car was seized and sold by the IRS,
Friends, brandishing balloons, party horns, cookies and lemonade, invaded the IRS office in Chester and bought the car back for $900.
The Rebecca rioters
On a couple of occasions the Rebeccaites prevented auctions, though not of goods seized for tax debts but for ordinary debts. Here are two examples from Henry Tobit Evans’s book on the Rebecca phenomenon:
A distress for rent was levied on the goods of a man named Lloyd… and a bailiff of the name of Rees kept possession of the goods. Previous to the day of sale, Rebecca and a great number of her daughters paid him a visit, horsewhipped him well, and kept him in safe custody until the furniture was entirely cleared from the house. When Rees was freed, he found nothing but an empty house, Rebecca and her followers having departed.
Two bailiffs were there in possession of the goods and chattels under execution… Having entered the house by bursting open the door, Rebecca ran upstairs, followed by some of her daughters. She ordered the bailiffs, who were in bed at the time, to be up and going in five minutes, or to prepare for a good drubbing. The bailiffs promptly obeyed, but were driven forth by a bodyguard of the rioters, who escorted them some distance, pushing and driving the poor men in front of them. At last they were allowed to depart to their homes on a sincere promise of not returning.
Reform Act agitation
During the tax resistance that accompanied the drive to pass the Reform Act in the in the United Kingdom, hundreds of people signed pledges in which they declared that “they will not purchase the goods of their townsmen not represented in Parliament which may be seized for the non-payment of taxes, imposed by any House of Commons as at present constituted.”
The True Sun asserted that
The tax-gatherer… might seize for them, but the brokers assured the inhabitants that they would neither seize any goods for such taxes, nor would they purchase goods so seized. Yesterday afternoon, Mr Philips, a broker, in the Broadway, Westminster, exhibited the following placard at the door of his shop:— “Take notice, that the proprietor of this shop will not distrain for the house and window duties, nor will he purchase any goods that are seized for the said taxes; neither will any of those oppressive taxes be paid for this house in future.” A similar notice was also exhibited at a broker’s shop in York Street, Westminster.
Another newspaper account said:
A sale by auction of goods taken in distress for assessed taxes was announced to take place at Ashton Tavern on , at Birmingham. From forty to fifty persons attended, including some brokers, but no one could be found except the poor woman from whose husband the goods had been seized, and the auctioneer himself. A man came when the sale was nearly over, who was perfectly ignorant of the circumstances under which it took place, and bid for one of the last lots; he soon received an intimation, however, from the company that he had better desist, which be accordingly did. After the sale was over nearly the whole of the persons present surrounded this man, and lectured him severely upon his conduct, and it was only by his solemnly declaring to them that he had bid in perfect ignorance of the nature of the sale that he was suffered to escape without some more substantial proof of their displeasure.
Railroad bond shenanigans
There was an epidemic of fraud in the United States in in which citizens of local jurisdictions were convinced to vote to sell bonds to pay for the Railroad to come to town. The railroad never arrived, but the citizens then were on the hook to tax themselves to pay off the bonds. Many said “hell no,” but by then the bonds had been sold to people who were not necessarily involved in the original swindle but had just bought them as investments.
In the course of the tax resistance campaigns associated with these railroad bond boondoggles, auction disruption was resorted to on some occasions. Here are some examples:
St. Clair [Missouri]’s taxpayers joined the movement in to repudiate the debts, but the county’s new leaders wanted to repay the investors. Afraid to try taxing the residents, they decided to raise the interest by staging a huge livestock auction in , the proceeds to pay off the railroad bond interest. On auction day, however, “no one seemed to want to buy” any animals. To bondholders the “great shock” of the auction’s failure proved the depth of local resistance to railroad taxes.
Another attempt was made the other day to sell farm property in the town of Greenwood, Steuben county [New York], on account of a tax levied for the town bonding in aid of railroads, and another failure has followed. The scene was upon the farm of William Atkins, where 200 of the solid yeomanry of the town had assembled to resist the sale… A Mr. Updyke, with broader hint, made these remarks: “I want to tell you folks that Mr. Atkins has paid all of his tax except this railroad tax; and we consider any man who will buy our property to help John Davis and Sam Alley as contemptible sharks. We shall remember him for years, and will know where he lives.” The tax collector finally rose and remarked that in view of the situation he would not attempt to proceed with the sale.
The White League in Louisiana
In Reconstruction-era Louisiana, white supremacist tax resisters disrupted a tax auction.
There was a mob of fifty or sixty armed men came to prevent the deputy tax-collector effecting a sale, armed with revolvers nearly all. Mr. Fournet came and threatened the deputy and tax-collector. The deputy and tax-collector ran into their offices. I came down and called upon the citizens to clear the court-house, but could not succeed. I then called upon the military, but they had no orders at that time to give me assistance to carry out the law.
Mr. [Valsin A.?] Fournet came with eight or ten. When the deputy tax-collector attempted to make a sale Mr. Fournet raised his hand and struck him. The deputy then shoved him down. As soon as this was done forty, fifty, or sixty men came with their revolvers in hand.
…very few people attended tax-sales [typically], because the white people were organized to prevent tax-collection, and pledged themselves not to buy any property at tax-sales, and the property was generally bought by the State.
- The First Boer War broke out in the aftermath of the successfully resisted
auction of a tax resister’s waggon. Paul Kruger wrote of the incident:
The first sign of the approaching storm was the incident that happened at the forced sale of Field Cornet Bezuidenhout’s waggon, on which a distress had been levied. The British Government had begun to collect taxes and to take proceedings against those who refused to pay them. Among these was Piet Bezuidenhout, who lived in the Potchefstroom District. This refusal to pay taxes was one of the methods of passive resistance which were now employed towards the British Government. Hitherto, many of the burghers had paid their taxes, declaring that they were only yielding to force. But, when this was explained by the English politicians as though the population were contented and peacefully paying their taxes, some asked for a receipt showing that they were only paying under protest and others refused to pay at all. The Government then levied a distress on Bezuidenhout’s waggon and sent it to public action at Potchefstroom. Piet Cronjé, who became so well known in the last war, appeared at the auction with a number of armed Boers, who flung the bailiff from the waggon and drew the waggon itself back in triumph to Bezuidenhout’s farm.
- When the U.S. government seized Valentine Byler’s horse because of the Amish man’s conscientious objection to paying into the social security system, no other Amish would bid at the auction.
- Between the Wars in Germany, the government had a hard time conducting
auctions of the goods of tax resisters. Ernst von Salomon writes:
Everywhere bailiff’s orders were being disobeyed.… Compulsory sales could not be held: when the young peasants of the riding club appeared at the scene of the auction on their horses and with music, nobody seemed willing to make a bid. The carters refused, even with police protection, to carry off the distrained cattle, for they knew that if they did they would never again be able to do business with the peasants. One day three peasants even appeared in the slaughter yards at Hamburg and announced that unless the distrained cattle disappeared at once from the yard’s stalls the gentlemen in charge of the slaughterhouse could find somewhere else to buy their beasts in the future — they wouldn’t be getting any more from Schleswig-Holstein.
- Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher disrupted a Bureau of Land Management auction by making winning bids on everything that he had no intention of honoring.
- During the Poujadist disruptions in France, “They also took to spiking forced tax sales by refusing to bid until the auctioneer had lowered the price of whatever was up for sale to a laughably small figure. Thus a tax delinquent might buy back his own shop for, say 10 cents. At an auction the other day, a brand-new car went for one franc, or less than one-third of a cent.”
- in roughly the same region
It was in the south where the wine growers refuse to pay taxes to the government. A farmer had had half a dozen rabbits sent him by a friend; he refused to pay duty on them, whereupon they control or local customs tried to sell the six “original” rabbits and their offspring at auction. The inhabitants have now boycotted the auction sales so that the local officials must feed the rabbits till the case is settled by the courts.
- In York, Pennsylvania in , a group “surrounded the crier and forbid any person purchasing when the property which had been seized was offered for sale. A cow which had been in the hands of the collector was driven away by the rioters.”
- In the Dutch West Indies in “The household effects of a physician who refused to pay the tax were offered for sale at auction today by the Government. Although the building in which the sale was held was crowded, there were no bids and the articles were not sold.”
- In Tasmania, in , “Large quantities of goods were seized, and lodged in the Commissariat Store [but] Lawless mobs paraded the streets, tore down fences, and, arming themselves with rails and batons, smashed windows and doors.… The fence round the Commissariat Store was torn down…”
- During the Bardoli tax strike, “There were meetings in talukas contiguous to Bardoli, not only in British territory, but also in the Baroda territory, for expression of sympathy with the Satyagrahis and calling upon people in their respective parts not to cooperate with the authorities engaged in putting down the Satyagraha… by bidding for any forfeited property that may be put to auction by the authorities.”