The Fight Against the Vicars’ Rate in Coventry

From the Daily Saratogian comes a jaunty telling of resistance to the “Vicars’ Rate” across the pond:

The non-conformists in the English town of Coventry refuse to pay tithes and all the country round is having a good deal of fun over it. The bailiffs attempted to levy on the pigs of a farmer who refused to pay, but the farmer had carefully lathered the porkers with grease and the bailiffs gave it up. A Birmingham auctioneer tried to sell some goods that had been seized but he no sooner opened his mouth to announce the sale when an ancient egg cracked over his teeth and a cabbage hit him on the nose. The auctioneer immediately retired to Birmingham. There is great excitement and the police hesitate to answer the demands of the tithe collectors for assistance fearing a riot if they interfere.

This seems to be an abbreviated and altered version of a dispatch I found in the Boston Evening Transcript from :

Tithe War in Coventry.

Humorous Incidents Connected with the Collection of Church Dues.

The tithe war in Coventry culminated today in a riot, in which thousands took part. For a long time there has been bad blood in Coventry on the subject of the payment of tithes, a large proportion of the inhabitants protesting against the exaction. The Nonconformists have declared that they would never pay, and a good many of the church people are in sympathy with the anti-tithe movement. The quarrel was attended by a good many fights and some funny episodes as when a farmer, living in the suburbs, upon whose stock it was proposed to levy, greased all his pigs, so that they slipped through the hands of the bailiffs at every attempt, much to the delight of a crowd that witnessed the spectacle. The bailiffs at length gave up the chase in disgust. Today goods which were seized were exposed for sale in the market place. Thousands gathered to the scene and the mob showed a determination to prevent the sale if possible. The auctioneer was a man from Birmingham, as no local auctioneer could be procured for the dangerous undertaking. He started to put up the goods and was just about to state the conditions of the sale when he was assailed by all kinds of missiles. The Birmingham auctioneer had enough, and notwithstanding the protestations of the tithe collectors and police who offered to protect him from any further violence, he made his escape, though not without difficulty. Meantime the mob scattered through the streets, some of them whose goods and chattels had been seized recapturing the articles and taking them home again. The people are greatly excited and the police have wisely refrained from aggressive measures.

A London Times piece on the Coventry anti-tithe movement, reprinted in the New York Times , explained that the campaign grew slowly out of a single resister’s persistent and public stand of conscientious objection:

Coventry’s Church War

Vicars’ Rates Resisted in the Three-Spired City.

History of a Curious and Unrelenting Conflict — Livings of Famed and Noble St. Michael’s and Holy Trinity Dependenton a Rate Levied on All Householders — Their Ancient Origin

From the London Times

The agitation now proceeding in Coventry against the Vicars’ rates is a fresh chapter in an old story. The rates have never been paid with goodwill by Nonconformists, though hitherto there has been no organized resistance to the law. A few individual citizens have maintained a consistent protest against a tax which they declared offended their consciences, and one tradesman, whose goods have been distrained year after year, has retaliated with equal regularity by issuing handbills setting forth his woes, and the rapacity of what he was wont to describe as “Mother Church.” The leading Nonconformists, and it may be said the Nonconformists as a body, have until lately refrained from all open sympathy with this suffering brother, whose controversial tactics were generally regarded as somewhat wanting in good taste. In the annual testimony borne in this quarter attracted more attention than usual in consequence of an open-air indignation meeting by which it was followed. The meeting was by no means influentially attended, and it was not believed at the time that it would have any important consequences. It led, however, to the formation of an Anti-Vicars’ Rate Association, whose action has brought about the present crisis.

The article goes on to give a history of the controversial tithe, then continues with a description of the resistance campaign:

When, in , the Anti-Vicars’ Rate Association set seriously to work and propounded a policy of passive resistance to the law, the announcement was deprecated by influential inhabitants who in political matters have been accustomed to act with the Nonconformist party. The defense made by the association was, in brief, that this policy had been determined on to compel attention to the grievance. In this it was successful. The settlement of the rate in Trinity being considered the weightiest part of the question, negotiations were opened up between the Vestry of that parish and the Anti-Rate Association. The result of the negotiations were disclosed in . The Vestry had agreed that for the future the Church estate should be chargeable with the greater part of the Vicar’s stipend; the sum that could be thus spared was estimated at £500 per annum. It was proposed to raise another £100 a year from investments of money to be otherwise obtained. The £600 thus secured the Vicar was willing to accept in lieu of the rate on the understanding that the congregation undertook, by a weekly offertory, to raise sufficient to pay the assistant curates. The arrangement involved a sacrifice on his part of about £150 per annum, and to carry it out £7,000 would be required, £3,600 of which would be devoted to paying off a debt on the Church estate. Of the £7,000, the rate-payers of the parish were asked to contribute £5,000, the remaining £2,000 would be met by a subscription among churchmen. The Nonconformist party were sanguine that the needed £5,000 could be raised by voluntary means, but there was not among churchmen the same confidence. The Nonconformist feeling was, however, deferred to, and a committee was appointed to make the necessary appeal, it being hoped that each rate-payer would be willing to make a subscription equal to five years’ value of his share of the rate.

But it didn’t work out. From those asked to subscribe, churchmen and dissenters alike, about £2,328 of the £5,000 were raised, and, according to the article, “there seemed no other alternative than to raise the needed funds by a legal commutation of the rate.” A meeting proposed a new plan whereby ratepayers could pay five years’ worth of the rates at once, or six years’ worth, spread out over those six years, at which time the tax would be abolished. Some of the Nonconformists seemed to be willing to go along with this, as it would finally (though not immediately) put an end to the offensive tax. But the Anti-Vicars’ Rate Association had had enough:

The proximate cause of the present crisis was a refusal on the part of Trinity Vestry to cooperate with the Anti-Vicars’ Rate Association in a second attempt to raise the needed funds by voluntary means. The Vestry seems to have felt that the fresh overtures on this basis made by the association indicated a resolution to settle the question in only one way — a way which had already been proved to be impracticable. The recovery of the rate, which had been suspended for months, so far as Nonconformists were concerned, was therefore resumed, and, the policy of passive resistance being persevered in, the city is now divided into two camps. It is indisputable that the Anti-Vicars’ Rate Association is largely supported by the Nonconformist party, but there are influential Nonconformists, and among them the Mayor, who strongly deprecate its policy. It is still too early to estimate the strength of the forces on either side of the probable issue of the contest. It is only just to record that the part played by the Vicar of Holy Trinity throughout the controversy has been most conciliatory, and that he has made great efforts, and no small sacrifice, to bring about its peaceful termination. This has been generally admitted by the Nonconformists, who before the failure of the voluntary scheme expressed themselves tolerably satisfied with the concessions that had been made to them. Until the other day they took their stand on the principle that while, as citizens, they were willing to unite with churchmen in an effort to extinguish the rates by voluntary means, they could not consent to pay them any longer as a legal impost. In other words, if the Church was to be helped to a new and less objectionable form of endowment, the process must be accomplished consistently with Nonconformist principles. The fatal objection to this policy is that it has already been proved impracticable and that a legal commutation presents the only peaceable solution of the difficulty. Since the institution of legal proceedings for the recovery of the rate the Anti-Rate Association has withdrawn its offer of voluntary assistance, and its leaders are apparently hopeful that the collection of the tax, so far as resisting Nonconformists are concerned, will before long be abandoned. On the side of the Church there are at present no signs pointing in that direction.

In trying to dig up more about this episode, I found another example from :

Tithe Auctioneer Robbed

 A lively tithe riot is reported from Cardinal, Wales. An auctioneer under the protection of the chief constable was engaged in selling farm produce for unpaid tithes when a crowd of assembled people determined to put an end to the sale. They were armed with eggs of a veteran vintage, and with these they began bombarding the auctioneer and chief constable. Those parties were soon plastered with the odorous stuff, but tried to drive away the crowd by threats of prosecution. This enraged the people more and they set fire to the furze, and seized the auctioneer and tried to duck him in an adjoining pond. He pleaded and promised to give up tithe sales, if they would let him go, which they did.