The Education Act Tax Resistance Campaign: October 1903

We’re now up to in my sampling of news coverage of the tax resistance campaign waged by members of a variety of British nonconformist Christian sects against the provisions of the Education Act of that allowed for public funding of sectarian religious education.

Although it’s early going still, both sides in the struggle are starting to show signs of impatience. Officials are getting frustrated with having to process large numbers of long-winded civil disobedients, and the resisters are ramping up their rhetoric and their eagerness to take more confrontational and law-defying stands.

The usual routine, seen in multiple examples over the previous months, is something like this: Several indignant nonconformists in some jurisdiction refuse to pay the portion of their “poor rates” that they expect will be destined for the sectarian education they despise. The rate collector either accepts the remainder of the rates or stubbornly refuses to, and then applies to the magistrates for distraint orders for either the refused portion or the whole amount. The resisters are then summoned to appear before the magistrates, attempt to use the occasion to protest as vehemently as they can, and then the magistrates issue distraint orders. Property is seized from the various resisters and sold at auction, these auctions being more or less well-attended and well-behaved. After the hearings before the magistrates or the auctions, public indignation meetings are often held, featuring speeches, resolutions, and singing. Occasionally this summon-seize-and-auction process is interrupted by mischievous foes of the nonconformists who pay their refused rates anonymously for them behind their backs.

So, that pattern established, I’m going to try to limit myself to sharing examples that reveal something new about how the movement operated or developed.

The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald of covered an auction and subsequent indignation meeting in Canterbury. The auction was attended by a few bargain hunters, several passive resistance sympathizers, and a number of people who had “come to see the fun.” Each of the lots up for auction was purchased by a Councillor Godden, presumably to return to the resisters (the lots seemed to go suspiciously at exactly the amount that was due, suggesting coordination between the bidder, the resister, and possibly the government). At the conclusion of the auction, Godden congratulated the authorities for having conducted the distraint and auction “in the best possible way without the least friction.”

The tactic of officials resigning their positions began to come into play. This example comes from the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser:

Passive Resistance.

A Bowdon Magistrate Resigns.

The name of Mr. Jesse Haworth, J.P., of Woodside, Bowdon, has, at his own request, been struck off the Commission of the Peace for Cheshire. Mr. Haworth is one of the passive resisters who were summoned on at Sale for non-payment of the education portion of the poor-rate, and his goods were distrained upon and afterwards sold.

Mr. Haworth has occupied a seat on the magisterial bench for twenty years. His letter of resignation, dated , and addressed to the Clerk of the Peace, was in these terms:–

As I cannot conscientiously administer the Education Act, I feel it my duty to withdraw from the Cheshire Bench, and shall be obliged if you will take the necessary steps for my being removed from the roll of county magistrates.

[Haworth] stated that he had no desire to pose as a martyr; his action had simply been taken because he could not conscientiously administer the Education Act. He was not a member of the Passive Resistance League, nor even a subscriber to its funds, and his action was quite independent, and made according to the dictates of his conscience.

Attempts to frustrate distraint on the grounds of legal technicalities were scoring occasional victories, too, as this article from the same paper shows:

Distraint Orders Invalid.

The passive resisters of the village of Gilerux, who a few months since were summoned at Cockermouth Police-Court, will apparently escape the consequences of the magistrates’ decision. The Rev. R.W. Watson, a Wesleyan minister, questioned the validity of the summons on the ground that one of the overseers was not a ratepayer in the parish. Notwithstanding this objection, the magistrates decided against the resisters, and made distraint orders. It has since been discovered that Mr. Watson’s objection was good in point of law, and that, therefore, the distraints could not be effected. No further action has been taken.

Other news further down the page included the note that a bust of John Wesley had been seized from the home of a Wesleyan Methodist resister (a good piece of symbolism to complement the resisters’ belief that the Act and its consequences were attacks on nonconformists’ faith). Also, “several thousand people” attended an auction of goods seized from passive resisters at Warrington, though “the proceedings were quiet and orderly.”

The Burnley Gazette of covered a conference of passive resisters at which the Rev. James Travis, in his remarks, noted the importance of preexisting nonconformist institutions for organizing the movement quickly:

Where, he asked, should we have been at this juncture in our history but for the Free Church Councils? They would have been comparatively helpless in this great struggle for religious freedom.

A public meeting was then held that evening. W.P. Hartley, a justice of the peace from Aintree, appealed for people to get off the fence and join the resistance:

Thousands of their best citizens, law-abiding, law-respecting, with a true love of their country, were submitting to have their goods distrained rather than be traitors to their conscience. Nonconformists must suffer and be prepared to suffer for their principles until the law was altered. Each distraint would be as a seed sown in the ground, which would yield a harvest. If there was to be a speedy victory, they must be reinforced everywhere by the friends of liberty. They had heard speakers demonstrate that in this Act conscience was invaded, and in the next breath the speakers had declared that they did not intend to be passive resisters.

The Evening News of Portsmouth announced the following developments in its edition:

Sales and Distraints.

The Wirksworth police have introduced a new method. They seize Resisters’ goods, but instead of offering them by public auction they advertise them in the local Press for sale by private treaty.

(The Northampton Mercury expands on this, saying that this is a sort of sealed-bid auction, and that “[p]rior to this course being taken notice was given to the thirteen resisters that they might if they liked buy back their goods at a price to cover the costs incurred. Not one of them, however, has done so.”)

A remarkable sale of Passive Resisters’ goods took place at Penge . The sale-room was a stable yard open to the sky, and for a full hour before the arrival of the auctioneer, Mr. Ferdinando, of Camberwell (who was half an hour late), a large crowd waited in the pouring rain. The auctioneer conducted the sale from behind a six-foot wall, and an incident which provided great amusement to the spectators was an accident to his assistant, who fell down the loft-stairs with a marble clock in his arms.

The Tunbridge Wells borough police distrained on nearly forty Passive Resisters . Though it is now two months since distress warrants were issued at Tunbridge against certain Resisters, the warrants have not yet been executed. The Superintendent of Police stated that he had reported the matter to the Chief Constable, but he had received no instructions.

Twenty Resisters were before the Newmarket Magistrates . “We all protest against several taxes. I know I do,” said the Clerk to one. Another he assured that “the law has no conscience.” After a warrant had been issued in each case an application was made for the Magistrates to exercise the power vested in them by the Poor Law Act of and issue one warrant to cover all the twenty cases. This was refused, the Chairman remarking that they saw no reason to depart from the custom of the Court in issuing a fresh warrant for each case. The local auctioneer who will sell the goods seized has intimated that he will not charge for either selling or storing them.

The Nottingham Evening Post noted a couple of auctions: One at Arnold a single resister’s violin was sold and “[b]etween two and three hundred friends and sympathisers assembled outside the police-station to witness the proceedings,” and one at Sileby where seven resisters were backed up by “but a small crowd.”

A letter-to-the-editor in the Kent & Sussex Courier took pains to identify honorable historical precedents for tax resistance and civil disobedience:

“Observer” [to whom the writer is responding] speaks of passive resistance as a recent movement “being indeed a subversion of all constitutional government.” It has, however, the sanction of great as well as good men. The Puritans adopted this form of resistance against the despotic laws of those days for which they endured untold sufferings. John Bunyan (whom all Christendom delights to honour) was a sturdy passive resister. He said: “The law has two ways of obeying, the one to do that which I on my conscience do believe I am bound actively, and when I cannot obey actively, then I am willing to lie down and suffer what they shall do unto me.” Dr. John Brown, who fought a brave fight in his day against the Edinburgh Annuity Tax, which amounted to six per cent, on rental paid by the occupiers of houses, and appropriated to the ministers of the Established Church, very pungently said that “those who deny this principle would have considered it their duty to pay a rate for the expenses of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” The “Quarterly Review,” in its early days when it represented the strongest conservatism in the country, said: “It is a question that might admit of serious discussion, whether the majority of the members of any civil community have a right to compel all the members of it to pay towards the maintenance of a set of teachers appointed by the majority to preach a particular system of doctrine.”

The Northampton Mercury of covered the “about ninety summonses” of passive resisters in Leicester. Excerpt:

The Borough Police Court has witnessed many strange spectacles in its time; but ’s was as unprecedented as it was deplorable. One, accordingly, must wish that the painful and excited scene was destined to be the last, as well as the first of its kind [in Leicester]. Unfortunately, there is no such consolation. It was, indeed, but the first of a long series likely to occur and recur until an unjustifiable and most objectionable tax is expunged from the Statute Book. Under any circumstances the proceedings must have been unique, animated, and impressive. But bad was made worse by the injudicious refusal of the presiding justice to allow even four of the scores of defendants to — as Mr. Barlow, their solicitor, explained it — “just express shortly their reasons for declining to pay their balance of the rate” — on condition that the remainder of the cases were allowed to go by default. Mr. McCardie, a barrister, who appeared for the prosecution, thought the proposal fair and reasonable, and accordingly supported it. But the magistrates, after considering the matter, most unwisely decided that not more than two of the ninety could be allowed to explain their reasons for their resistance. The justices were very frankly reminded that two of the ninety was but a small proportion. But they merely reiterated their stolid “impossible.” They urged, indeed, that they were departing from the rule laid down in these courts by hearing even two. Having, however, resolved to commit the irregularity as regards two, they might just as well have stretched a point by unmuzzling the other four. The justices could not see it. The defendants, accordingly, exercised their right by falling back on reprisals. They withdrew their retainer to their solicitor, and each and all, thereupon, insisted on voicing their protests in their own words. The consequence was that the proceedings were correspondingly protracted. But the delay had one immense advantage. It enabled the resisters, one after another, to formulate their objections in emphatic phrases. Each was called upon to make his or her confession of faith on the subject, and did it in his and her own more or less expressive way. All this combined to make the most painfully eloquent demonstration against the Church Rate Act ever witnessed in Leicseter.

The article/editorial goes on to mention two summonses and distraint orders at Stalybridge, twenty-one at Newmarket, and one at Bridgnorth. A resister from Newbury had property seized. Ten resisters from Penge had their goods sold in the rain (the same event described in another paper, above). And here’s a new development:

By deciding not to levy a rate in support of denominational schools, Wales — excepting Radnor and Brecon — has not as yet been invaded by the passive resistance movement. It would, however, appear, from the proceedings of the Conway Board of Guardians, that these tactics are going to be adopted by the supporters of last year’s Act in reply to the policy of the Welsh councils. All the elementary schools in Conway are under the control of the Church party, and an effort is about to be made to organise the supporters of these schools with a view to a refusal to pay the rate unless assurances are given by the county councils that they shall benefit by the rate collected locally.

The Nottingham Evening Post included this example of the government signaling that it might be raising the stakes:

Lord Lindley, late Master of the Rolls, addressing the Grand Jury at Norfolk Quarter Sessions… [said a great many things about the Education Act being the law of the land, including:] A person duly rated could of course refuse to perform his duty which was to pay in full, but the statutory machinery for making him perform that duty was distress and imprisonment. Although to refuse to pay might not be indictable, any organised opposition to the enforcement of the law was an indictable conspiracy, and passive resisters might easily find themselves caught in the meshes of the criminal law, for the whole object of their movement was to bring into disgrace and to obstruct distresses for rates for denominational schools.

Lindley was at the time, I think, one of the “Lords of Appeal in Ordinary,” which was something like a Supreme Court justice.