Friday, 17 June 2011

Rome on the Rates

My grandfather, Richard Durant Shilston, was marine engineer who became an inspector for Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. Only once in his life was he in trouble with the authorities, in a case which he and others considered to be of great moral importance. It happened in the following manner, and tells us a great deal about the differences between life a century ago and the present day. His diary includes some cuttings from the local press, describing the case.

There had been a system of compulsory state primary education in Britain since the 1870s, but the provision of secondary education was still most unsatisfactory. For this, apart from the independent boarding schools (confusingly known as “public schools”) and some ancient grammar schools, there were a number of “voluntary schools”, many of which were sponsored by the Church of England, and which consequently could be expected to impart religious instruction on Anglican lines.
In 1902 the new Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, piloted through Parliament a far-reaching Education Act, which empowered county and borough councils to run primary and secondary schools, financed through the rates (a local property tax). The Act enabled the “voluntary schools” to enter the system and receive finance from the rates, whilst retaining a measure of independence, such as the appointment of their own staff. This proved deeply controversial. Despite the fact that the Act laid down that religious instruction in the schools was to be “non-denominational”, there was an outcry from Nonconformist churches (such as Methodists, Baptists, and in my grandfather’s case Congregationalists) that children would now be fed Anglican or even Roman Catholic propaganda at ratepayers’ expense. A cry went up denouncing, “Rome on the rates!” A National Passive Resistance League was formed, whose members refused to pay that section of their rates which they believed was going to support church schools.

On November 6th 1903 Richard Shilston was one of nineteen “passive resisters” (eight of whom were Nonconformist clergy) who appeared before the Police Court in Middlesbrough, charged with refusal to pay their rates. It was all very British somehow. The local paper commented that the stipendiary magistrate “had never previously had before him so highly respectable a batch of defendants, and never have cases been dealt with in a more happy, good-tempered or courteous way”. All the defendants stated that they would not contribute towards the teaching of doctrines in which they did not believe: my grandfather saying, “I conscientiously object to pay anything to increase the power of the priests”. Some of the others in the dock expressed their beliefs in stronger terms; one of the Nonconformist ministers saying, “My master, the Lord Jesus Christ, will not allow me to pay it”. Although the magistrate appears to have been fairly sympathetic, he ordered that if the defendants continued to refuse to pay, their goods would be distrained to cover the sums involved plus the legal costs. In my grandfather’s case, the sum he refused to pay amounted to one shilling and four pence: a little under seven pence in today’s money!

On January 13th 1904, bailiffs seized a quantity of Richard Shilston’s silverware, listed in his diary as “A case of carvers, a case of fish carvers, a silver soup ladle and half a dozen silver teaspoons”. These were to be sold to cover the rates he had refused to pay plus the legal costs, amounting to a total of £1. 4 shillings. The local papers reported “lively scenes in Stockton High Street” when these items, together with goods from the other “passive resisters” were auctioned off on market day. As it happened, the first item offered for sale (the carvers) was bought by a supporter, the Reverend E. B. Mahon, for the required sum, so the remainder of the distrained items were returned. (I presume that Mahon also returned the carvers to my grandfather, though this is not mentioned in the diary). The fact that my grandfather possessed this quantity of silver cutlery shows that he was quite well off, and could easily have paid the rates, but he viewed the whole question as a matter of high principle. He refused to change his opinions, and in consequence was summoned to appear before the courts again in August 1904, in February 1905 and in March 1906, but his diary does not record what happened as a result of these hearings. At least he was not sent to prison, which was the penalty suffered by about 170 “passive resisters”.

My grandfather’s refusal to pay was just one small part of the campaign of passive resistance. It was particularly widely supported in strongly Nonconformist areas such as Wales, where some local councils simply refused to implement the scheme, and were strongly supported by the rising Liberal politician and future Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The campaign was believed to be one of the main reasons why Arthur Balfour was forced to resign as Prime Minister at the end of 1905, and his Conservative and Unionist Party suffered one of its worst-ever defeats in the general election of early 1906. The incoming Liberal government was much more sympathetic to Nonconformist attitudes, and the controversy quietened down.
A local newspaper report of the Middlesbrough events describes a mass meeting to support the protesters, at which a certain Nonconformist minister said, “At one time England used to pride herself upon the motto ‘Government for the people, by the people’, but now it seemed as though it was government for Mr Joseph Chamberlain, by Mr Joseph Chamberlain’”. It seems grossly unfair to pin the blame on Chamberlain: he was Colonial Secretary in Balfour’s government, he had nothing to do with the Education Act (being at the time out of action following an accident), and as a prominent Nonconformist himself was known to have doubts about it. But this was the penalty he had to pay for being the government’s most high-profile member: better-known even than the Prime Minister himself!

Nowadays historians see the Balfour Act as being one of the most important steps forward in the history of education in Britain. It is not easy for us to understand how controversial it was at the time, reflecting deep divisions, not as today between Christians and non-Christians, but between different Protestant churches. The only possible modern analogy I can think of (and it is not a very close one) would be if it was alleged that taxpayers would have to finance Moslem schools which were said to be spreading extremist terrorist propaganda. Even then, I doubt if it would result in many people risking prison for refusing to pay their taxes.

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