The Fight Against the Vicars’ Rate in Halifax

There was also a kerfluffle about the Vicars’ Rate in Halifax, around (see ’s Picket Line for a later case in Coventry). Francis Pigou, who took over as the establishment church’s Rural Dean in Halifax , wrote of how he remembered the disturbances:

No one outside Halifax can have any idea of what I had to face in connection with the “Vicar’s Rate.” On the death of Archdeacon Musgrave, in , the Nonconformists, influentially and numerically strong in Halifax, one of the very strongholds of Nonconformity, commenced an agitation for the Repeal of the Vicars’ Rate Act of , so far as the same related to the rate of a house. They contended that, as the Rate upon houses imposed by the Act of was in lieu of Easter Dues, and as such Easter Dues were no longer recoverable by law, such Rate ought to be abolished. They did not object to the charge upon Land, which was in lieu of Tithes. Within a very short time a sum of £12,000 was raised to meet any cases of prosecution for non-payment! On my arrival at Halifax, I saw, posted and placarded in large letters on hoardings, with deep black-edged paper, the following pleasant greeting: “Judas Vicar’s Rate, died , buried in a pauper’s grave, to know no Resurrection.” The Rate used to be collected like Gas or Water Rates. Occasionally I found my letter-box stuffed full with them. I received a large envelope, containing some thirty or forty, with this letter: “Dear Sir, we found these poor little papers fluttering in the street, having no home, and send them to you, as you will probably best know what to do with them.” Dr. Mellor, of Square Chapel, a tower of strength to the Nonconformists, a man of great gifts and eloquence, gave notice one Sunday morning to this effect to his great congregation: “The Vicar’s agent will be calling this week upon me, and I advise you all to do what I am going to do: button up your pockets.” The Sunday following he told them that my Agent had called and that he had refused to pay him. There was no alternative but to distrain for the amount, some five or six shillings. “ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘take what you like.’ The Agent went into my larder and took a ham, which you will be glad to hear was bad.”

One could only take all this in good humour. The people of Halifax knew perfectly well that I had not originated the Rate. They knew, also, that I had no alternative, as matters stood, but to claim, and, if need be, to enforce payment. It does not do to show the white feather in Yorkshire. Yorkshiremen fully appreciate sticking up for your rights. It was evident, however, that to persist in enforcing it would only intensify the bitterness of animosity, as it did at St. Michael’s, Coventry. The matter was referred to the Government. They brought in, after much inquiry and debate, a Bill in , providing for the extinction of the rate on houses on payment of the sum of £11,200 to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners; in other words, they proposed the redemption of the rate at twenty-three years’ purchase. My faithful friend Mr. Robert Baxter came down to Halifax, and consulting with local lawyers and men of business, particularly with Messrs. Emmett and Walker, formulated with great care a scheme for the redemption, fixed at £11,200. And thus the redemption was brought about. I was calling on the late Mrs. Prescott, and expressed to her my fear that I should have to place my resignation in the hands of the Prime Minister, inasmuch as £1,300 a year was imperilled, and I could not afford to work the parish on £700 a year, and have, as I felt I must have, six, or at least five, curates. She said: “But you do not think, do you, that we are going to let you leave us for the sake of the Vicar’s Rate? I will give you £500 towards its redemption.” On leaving her, I met Mr. Hill, the well-known solicitor in Halifax, and told him of this handsome offer. He immediately went to Pye Nest to inform Sir Henry Edwards of it. Sir Henry called on me next day and went with me to see Mr. Joshua Appleyard, at Clare Hill, and this brief conversation took place, to show how quickly things are done in Yorkshire: “Mr. Appleyard, there is no doubt that the right thing to do is to redeem the Vicar’s rate. The Vicar has received £500 towards it; what will you do?” “Whatever you do,” replied Appleyard. “I will give £1,000,” said Sir Henry. “So will I,” said Appleyard. We started with three subscriptions amounting to £2,500! The matter was at once taken up. A meeting, at which Sir Henry presided, was summoned. A committee was formed, everyone engaged in raising this fund cheerfully and gratuitously worked for it, and in about six weeks no less a sum was contributed than £12,955 by 360 contributions! Many Nonconformists, anxious that an end should be put to this internecine strife, contributed, and through the most generous and hearty help of all well-wishers to the Church, I was instrumental in bringing it about that the income of over £2,000 a year is permanently secured to the Vicarage of Halifax.

In a parliamentary committee was selected to look into the Vicars’ Rate at Halifax and make recommendations. You can read their report at Google Books. It’s typically dry, but I scanned through it for details about how the resistance to the rates was carried out. Here are some excerpts:

Upon the death of the late vicar, which occurred on , the hostility felt by the inhabitants of the Parish of Halifax to the rate… assumed a very decided character; and meetings were held, and associations were formed throughout the parish to resist the further payment of the commutations of “Easter Dues” affected by the Act of . Vehement articles were published in the local papers, the public mind was greatly agitated against the rate, and a fixed determination was expressed by leading men in Halifax to submit to distraint on their goods rather than continue their payments. Of the depth and extent of this hostile feeling there can be no sort of doubt…

The committee grilled Edward Crossley, Mayor of Halifax, on :

When you say that there is a large number of the inhabitants who are determined not to pay, I presume that they are prepared to submit to distraint rather than pay?
They are fully aware of their own position if they refuse to pay?
To come to facts: have any meeting been held in Halifax within upon this subject?
Several; the meeting for the levying of the rate was held this year.
On what day was that held?
It was held a fortnight ago at the parish church, when a large assembly gathered to object to the rate.
Can you tell us anything which occurred at that meeting; was it a peaceful meeting or the reverse?
It was not disorderly, but it was a very determined meeting.

Later that day, attorney Robert Baxter testified about the curious law that enacted the Vicars’ Rate. It’s a little tricky to untangle, but there’s one peculiarity of the law that the resisters were able to take advantage of. Apparently, each year under the law the vicar is to convene a meeting of five churchwardens (or perhaps, five or twenty other Halifax citizens he is authorized to conscript for the purpose) and say “cough up my Rate.” The chosen five (or twenty) must then cough it up as asked. They then are to convene a meeting to decide how to recoup this money from the rest of Halifax.

Resisters took advantage of this by attending this meeting and using parliamentary procedure to immediately adjourn it, thus preventing the poor five-or-twenty from recouping their payments. In Baxter’s opinion, this tactic doesn’t comply with the law, but it has nonetheless been effective in delaying payment, as it would be legally cumbersome to compel a meeting to levy the tax against its will.

A later witness testified that in the district: “In nearly every township a meeting of inhabitants has been held; and at every one of these meetings the motion for adjournment has been carried, which means a refusal to lay the rate.”

One of the churchwardens later gave his point of view on this tactic:

I understood you to say [the rate] was laid before the meeting?
No, I say at the meeting; before the meeting was adjourned.
There was time for five people quietly to lay the rate, I suppose?
The two churchwardens signed the rate, and we are advised that that is sufficient. We could have had it signed by a dozen inhabitants and ratepayers, if the rate-book had not been forcibly borne away from the table and carried away into the churchyard.

Charles Mills, Legal Advisor of the Anti-Vicar’s Rate Association addressed the committee about the Association’s take on the law, its history, and its interpretation.

You can tell us something of the feeling of the people of Halifax and the neighbourhood about this rate?
The feeling is such that whether the Act of Parliament remains or not, they will not pay it.
I want to know how it is they have come to that conclusion, after having paid it, as we are told, , in full?
Because they paid it simply out of respect for the late archdeacon. This question has not just cropped up now; there was an Association formed years ago. This undercurrent of feeling has been felt in Halifax for years past; it only awaited the death of the vicar for it at once to find expression.
Out of pure respect to Archdeacon Musgrave this rate has been paid to this time in full?
I do not say that that feeling has been in existence for over 40 years.
I want to know if the Society of Friends paid the rate?
They have been distrained upon.
And it is understood that two or three clergymen have refused to accept the living on the very ground that this very difficulty would arise?
Yes; it was known the difficulty would arise the moment there was a vacancy in the living.

Thomas Ormerod, President of the Anti-Vicar’s Rate Union (distinct from the Association, of a similar name, which was formed later), was questioned next.

How long has that Association been formed?
A few months.
How many months?
It was formed in .
Was that after the death of the late Archdeacon Musgrave?
Afterwards; it might be of service to the Committee if I gave a little history of how the union has been formed, and the feeling that has originated it. Although there was very strong feeling existing both in the borough and in the out-townships for many years previous to the archdeacon’s death , yet, excepting in individual cases, no action was openly taken to allow distraint to ensue on goods for the Vicar’s rate. But when the archdeacon’s death occurred, although it took place somewhat suddenly, it did not find us unprepared. The feeling of the people had been evinced at various meetings that had taken place on different questions in connection with Nonconformist principles.

Ormerod testified that shortly after Musgrave’s death, “a short and somewhat pithy memorial was signed and sent up to the Premier” indicating that the people of the parish intended to work for the repeal of the Act that legalized the Rate, and meanwhile “that every legal obstacle would be thrown in the way of the collection of the rate.”

What do you mean by “every legal obstruction”?
We meant to put it plainly, that every inconvenience would be given to the officials in the collection of the rate, and that distraint would ensue; that is what was understood.
That means to say that you had determined to violate the Act of Parliament?
Not to violate it. The Act provides for distraint. We did not intend to violate the Act; certainly not.

Omerod gave a brief history of the Union he presided over, including this:

The Union was publicly inaugurated in the Mechanics’ Hall in Halifax, at which two resolutions were passed, the first supporting the formation of the Union, its object being the total and unconditional repeal of the Act; and the second resolution being that of a preliminary guarantee fund of not less than 1,000 l. be formed to support any poor man who should suffer from the spoiling of his goods under distraint.

William Brook, a Quaker, testified next.

I am a member of the Society of Friends, and I am in a position to controvert the statement that the operations of the Act up to a certain time were generally acceptable. The members of the Society of Friends from the first declined to be parties to the Act by voluntarily paying the amount demanded of them. I myself have had a demand repeatedly made upon me, and have never paid it. I have once been distrained upon, but for a number of years whilst the amount has been regularly demanded no distraint has been made.

Did you regularly refuse to pay the rate, or was it only on one occasion you refused, and were distrained upon?
Personally I have refused to pay the rate ever since I was a householder. The members of the religious society to which I belong, without exception, from the passing of the Act, have refused to pay the rate, and up to the period of about 13 years ago they had, from time to time, their goods seized, in satisfaction of the demands of the churchwardens, for this rate. At that period, from some representations that were made, I believe personally, to the vicar, he gave a distinct intimation that the members of our body should not any longer be distrained upon.

He later added: “there are a number of others who have taken the ground of the wrongfulness of paying, and have been willing to suffer the consequences, who also have not been distrained upon.” One of the churchwardens testified later that he believed it was the practice for other people in the community to come forward and pay the rates of Friends “to prevent them being summoned.”

Next, William Henry Clay, a Halifax Baptist, spoke:

I think it was in that I was summoned the first time because I objected to pay this rate. I omitted to pay it one year, and of course, instead of holding my noise, I told that I had got off.
Were you distrained upon?
No, I was summoned; I was not as fully aware of the Act as I am now, and so I tried in the first place to upset the legality of the rate, and had a barrister from Manchester; of course in that I failed. Being rather young and timid I paid then. There was a distraint warrant issued, and I paid that.
What was the amount for which you were summoned?
Two shillings and threepence.
Your objection to the payment, I presume, was a conscientious objection simply?
Yes, like the rest of my fellow parishioners. I think we have some grievance to complain that are worthy of the consideration of this Committee, independent of Halifax [he had said earlier that “I represent the outlying townships”]. I stood in Erringden on Sunday night, and I was able to count 16 different places of worship… Fourteen of those are self-supporting dissenting bodies, and two of the belong to the State.
To the Church?
Yes; that is one grievance, that we have to support those 14 freely, and that they go eight miles away to support what we consider the richest church in the whole parish. We go five miles further up to Garple and Ridge and those places, outlying districts where the inhabitants are very poor, and where they have never seen the vicar, and very likely never wish to do so. I may say that I have gone a great deal about to public meetings, and so forth, and have got a pretty accurate opinion of the inhabitants, and they are very bitterly against it.
Is it on the principle that you have just laid down that you object to pay the rate?
That is the foundation, certainly.
It is not the amount?
No, the amount has nothing to do with it. To show you the feeling that has grown, I think there is no better proof that the rate used to be collected for 50 s. in Heptonstall, and I believe the last time the rate was collected it cost 20 l.
Are you able to account for the difference between 50 s. and 20 l.?
Yes; it is owing to the opposition. I may say I was summoned, along with some more in , and I was distrained upon. The cost of getting my 2 s.d. was 1 l. 13 s.d.
You had to pay that?
Yes, of course; that aroused my indignation greater than before.
You voluntarily incurred that additional expense from conscientious motives?
Yes; and shall do again if the rate is collected. Of course it put the churchwardens to very considerable inconvenience, which roused the matter up, and for the time being it caused a great amount of party feeling. The plan they adopted last year was this: There is a clause in the Act that gave them power to appoint whom they liked as collector; so seemingly they thought I was a suitable person, and they appointed me to collect the rate.
Did you undertake that duty with much willingness?
Of course I did not regret that they had taken such a step, because I thought it would be a good thing for our cause. There is another clause in the Act that notice is to be served within 14 days, so I quietly took a trip to Ireland and other places till the 14 days expired. Of course the matter has been very much talked about in the neighbourhood, and we formed an Anti-Vicar’s Rate Association. I believe I am the president at the present time, and all the members are pledged that they will not pay any more.
Then the rate has never yet been collected?
It has been partially. Perhaps they have about a third of it. Everybody really is standing out.

William Henry Rawson, a magistrate for Halifax county, and a member of the official church, testified (among other things):

Already a large Anti-Vicar-Rate Association has been formed, numbering, I am told, nearly 1,000 members. On , in my magisterial capacity, I issued distress warrants against three individuals, the least of them owing 8 d. only, but refusing to listen to advice or reason, and this is the beginning of the end. When the Nonconformist ministers advocate an open defiance of the law, what else can be expected from their flocks?