The Education Act Tax Resistance Campaign: February 1904

. The “passive resistance” movement, in which thousands of British nonconformists have been refusing to pay taxes they believe to support Anglican or Catholic sectarian teaching, has now been going on for about a year. An “Inside Contributor” for the Portsmouth Evening News sums it up so far:

This persecution is now no longer like a rivulet, it has swollen to a torrent; 8,112 summonses have up to the present been issued against Passive Resisters, an increase of 566 for the week. The Free Churchmen of Hornsey, whose goods were sold last week, have again been summoned for the new rate. Here is a clear case of indecent haste on the part of the authorities, as it is six weeks before the time of issuing the ordinary summonses. Last week at Leicester, when the second batch of 142 appeared before “their worships,” one of the Resisters, who insisted on his right to utter his protest, was forcibly ejected from the Court after a severe struggle.

The Coventry Herald covered the sermon of W.E. Blomfeld at the Ford Street Chapel in its edition. Excerpt:

He did not see a vast distinction between himself teaching a child doctrines and practices he disbelieved in, and in putting his hand in his pocket to have it done. Some people called the passive resisters “anarchists,” but hard names did not break bones. Anarchists went about with bombs in their pockets; passive resisters carried the New Testament, and it was the New Testament which told them they must obey God rather than man. They did not wish to pose as cheap martyrs, he had no wish even for applause; they were prepared to carry out what they thought right and suffer the consequences. He ventured to say the Government would be tired of inflicting this injustice half-year after half-year long before Passive Resisters were tired of registering their protests. He predicted for Passive Resisters a great victory.

Daniel Francis Baker and Ann Baker, husband and wife, brought a lawsuit against the overseers of their parish, a tax collector, and an auctioneer “to recover damages for trespass and illegal distress.” The case was heard on and covered in the Sussex Express, Surrey Standard & Kent Mail.

According to the Bakers’ attorney, what had happened was something like this: Baker did not pay his rates when due, intending to register a protest when he was summoned and then to pay the rate minus fifteen shillings (the amount he attributed to the education portion of the rate). However, he was late in answering the summons and so didn’t have a chance to register his protest and a distraint order was issued for the whole amount. He at first decided to just pay the whole amount, but after getting the run-around about whom he should pay, decided instead to pay the tax collector all but the fifteen shillings. Mr. Baker then, through an intermediary, made an agreement with one of the overseers that, in order to make things go off with the least amount of fuss, they should seize one of his cows and sell it discreetly in the market. The overseer however violated this agreement and, on , three men came to the farm while Mr. Baker was away and “took all the furniture in the house except the bed.”

A brother of Mr. Baker, who had recently broken his leg, was sitting on a couch, and when he moved from the couch, the auctioneer said “Book it.” The couch was entered in the inventory and subsequently it was taken away. The things taken were valued at £100.

(The opposing council said that the value was more like £5.) Mr. Baker testified that “The family were obliged to live in the scullery for three weeks. Some £9 worth of articles, belonging to his wife, were not returned, and others were damaged.”

One of the assistant overseers who carried out the distraint testified that Mr. Baker “called him dirty names, and struck him in the mouth, making his lip bleed.” He also said that he had been called to this case because “[t]his was the first occasion on which the police had refused to execute rate warrants.” Rather weakly, when asked why he had let his assistants strip the house clean of furniture for a fifteen shilling bill, he said: “It is not the value of the furniture. You see at a sale it might not fetch so much.”

Walter Edward Wright, one of the overseers, was then called. Examined by Mr. Lawless, he said he did not want the appointment, and it was a gross piece of treachery on the part of the Parish Council to appoint him. He went away on and returned two months later. He first heard of this matter on , when he was at Plymouth.

In cross-examination, Mr. Wright admitted telling Washer [the previously-examined assistant overseer] that the best way to deal with passive resisters was to pay their rates for them.

Mr. Avory– Is that how you view the office of overseer?

Witness replied, that as a matter of fact he had paid one man’s rates, and the amount of the costs. He did not say much about it, however, because the whole parish might turn passive resisters.

The other overseer tried to wash his hands of the whole thing, saying that he had told Washer “to be careful not to overstep his duty” and had not authorized them to seize Mrs. Baker’s furniture or to seize an excessive amount of goods. The auctioneer testified that he’d been told by Washer to go to the house and do an inventory in search of £70 worth of goods.

The judge didn’t decide either way, but only said he’d hear “the legal arguments” in London at another date. A follow-up article I found in the Leeds Mercury reads:

Damages for Excessive Distraint.

The Lord Chief Justice on decided that there had been excessive distraint in a case in which, refusing payment of 15s., Mr. Baker, a farmer, residing near Brighton, had his house cleared of furniture, and judgment for £50 damages with costs was given against Mr. Webster, an auctioneer and bailiff, who, acting under the instructions of the assistant-overseer, seized the goods. No order was made against the assistant-overseer, and it was held that the overseers, not being in the position of a Sheriff, were not responsible.