The life of Sir Joshua Walmsley – Chapter IX.

CHAPTER IX.  This takes us from December 1836 to the middle of 1837. The major concern is religion and education. It’s a fairly toxic mix, combined with Catholic emancipation [the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829] and a huge increase of the Irish into Liverpool. Suffice to say, the Tories are less than welcoming……

On the eve of the termination of the reform council’s first year in office [December 1836], when, according to a clause of the Municipal Reform Bill, sixteen of its members were to go out. [Because it was a new council, with a third of the members up for re-election each year; the councillors who got the fewest votes in each ward in 1835 only served one year, the runners-up served two years, and those polling highest served for all three years of the first reformed council.]  Mr. Walmsley read a paper, entitled, “What has the new council done ?”  In it he passed in review the abuses that had been found prevalent, and the Acts that had been framed. Notwithstanding the difficulties with which it had to contend, the Council had effected a saving to the borough fund of ten thousand pounds per annum. In this paper he also expounded the system by which the Educational Committee had opened the Corporation schools to all sects and denominations.

William Rathbone V. (1787-1868) by William Smith, Walker Art Gallery; Liverpool.

Let us glance at this act of the council, one that raised a storm in Liverpool, the like of which had not been known. Mr. William Rathbone [- V. 1787 – 1868. His father William Rathbone IV [1757-1809], and grandfather William Rathbone III [1726-1789]  had been founding members of the Liverpool Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade] and Mr. [Thomas] Blackburn took the lead in the movement. Mr. Walmsley devoted to it what time he could spare from the arduous task of reforming the police.

The feeling that impelled the Educational Committee to advocate the adoption in the Corporation schools of the Irish system of education, was awakened by the spectacle of the multitude of children in Liverpool debarred from every chance of instruction. The report drawn up by the committee showed that besides numerous Dissenters, there were sixty thousand poor Irish Catholics in the town. The old corporation had quietly ignored this alien population, but threw open the doors of the Corporation schools to children of all sects, provided they attended the services of the Established Church, used the authorised edition of the Bible, and the Church Catechism. This virtually closed these schools against the Irish. The new council maintained that the State had the same responsibility as regards these children as it had towards others ; and the Educational Committee drew out a plan from that of the Honourable Mr. Stanley, Secretary for Ireland in 1831, Dr. Whately, and others, for the education of the Irish poor. Early in July, the committee laid its scheme before the council. The schools were to open at 9 A.M, with the singing of a hymn. The books of the Irish Commission were to be used. Clergymen of every denomination were invited to attend at the hour set apart for the religious instruction of the children of the various sects. The town council unanimously adopted the plan and made it public.

The storm now burst over Liverpool, and crowded meetings were held at the Amphitheatre and elsewhere, to protest against the Act, and to promote the erection and endowment of other schools, where the un-mutilated Bible would form a compulsory part of every child’s education. In vain the council invited its accusers to come and see for themselves, the un- mutilated Bible forming part of the daily education. The cry continued to be raised by the clergy, and to be loudly echoed by their agitated flocks.

” Dissenting and Roman Catholic clergymen came,” said Mr. Walmsley, ” eagerly, to teach the children of their respective flocks during the hour appointed for religious instruction ; but with the exception of the Rev. James Aspinall, the English clergy stood obstinately aloof. Soon, in addition to the meetings, the walls were placarded with great posters, signed by clergymen. These exhorted parents not to send their children to the Corporation schools, promising them the speedy opening of others, where the un-mutilated Word of God should be taught Some of the lower classes maltreated children on their way to the schools, pelted and hooted members of the committee as they passed. The characters of Mr. Blackburn, Mr. Rathbone, and my own were daily assailed in pulpits and social gatherings. Still we persevered, answering at public meetings the charges brought against us, and inviting our detractors to come and visit the schools. So particular was the Educational Committee that each child should be taught according to the creed of its parents, that every sect seemed represented. I remember one child, on being asked the invariable question on entering the schools, to what persuasion her parents belonged, answered, to the ‘ New Church.’ We were puzzled to know what the ‘ New Church ‘ was ; it proved to be Swedenborgian. She was the single lamb belonging to this fold, yet a teacher of her creed was found ready to undertake her education.”

To illustrate to what degree fanaticism blunts the moral sense of those who blindly surrender themselves to its influence, we quote the following fact :

” One day, when the hour of religious instruction had come, a clergyman of preponderating influence entered the schoolroom of the North School. The large room was divided into two compartments by a curtain drawn across it ; on one side were the Roman Catholics, on the other were the Protestants. The latter, divided into several groups, were gathered round different teachers. My wife, who seconded with all her heart this scheme of liberal education, was a daily visitor in the North School. She taught a class there — the Church Catechism and lessons from the authorised version of the Scriptures. The clergyman made the circuit of the room, passing near each group.”

” He at last approached my wife’s class and lingered near it. The lesson was taken from the Scriptures. It was no class-book of Biblical extracts she was using, but the Bible as it is used in the Protestant Church. The reverend visitor listened to the questions put and answers given, and to the children reciting their verses. The following Sunday my wife and I went to church. The preacher that day proved to be the clergyman who had a few days before visited the school. The sermon was eloquent, and, as usual, was directed against the spread of Liberalism and the ‘ Radical council.’ In the midst of the torrent of denunciation the preacher emphatically asserted that, some days before, he had visited the Corporation schools in the hour of religious instruction, and that no Bible was in use during that time.”

As the period drew nigh for the November election [1836] to replace the retiring third of the council, the religious zeal of the town burned higher. To the imagination of frightened Protestants, the Conservatives presented themselves in the reassuring role of ” Defenders of the Faith.” They played the part so well that seven Tories replaced seven of the sixteen Liberal councillors who had retired.

Matters had now reached such a pitch that, at the next meeting of the board, Mr. Birch moved that the schools be discontinued, the property sold, and the Corporation trouble itself no more with the question of education. The proposition was so unexpected that the debate upon the motion was adjourned for a fortnight.

When the day for the debate arrived, the Educational Committee were ready to meet their opponents. In long and able speeches, Mr. Rathbone and Mr. Blackburn met and refuted every objection. They sketched the history of the mixed system of education, showed its essential fitness to the requirements of Liverpool, where the number of Catholics and Dissenters rendered the question of education as knotty to solve as the Government had found it to be in Ireland. They described the difficulties they had already surmounted, and earnestly pleaded that no change should be introduced into the committee’s plans until fair time for trial had been allowed it. Mr. Walmsley also spoke. He made no attempt to refute the quibbling assertions advanced against the system, but he went straight to the heart of the subject, to the humanity and justice that were the very core of it. This was no political or party question, but one in the decision of which the moral training and future welfare of a number of children were involved. He showed that one thousand three hundred children were daily taught in the schools ; if the majority were Catholics, it proved only their greater need of schools. ” The result of giving them up,” he said, ” would be to give up to vice and ignorance children whose hopes we have raised towards better things. It has truly been said that ‘ he who retards the progress of intellect countenances crime, and is to the State the greatest criminal.’ ”

By a large majority of votes, the council decreed that the mixed system should be continued in the schools.

In the month of August, 1837, Mr. Wilderspin, to whom the committee had entrusted their arrangement and organisation, announced that his work was finished. Before retiring, he wished an examination to take place of all the scholars. Clergymen attended to put the little Protestants through a sifting and trying ordeal. The result of this trial will be best expressed in an extract from a letter of the Rev. J. Carruthers.

” The examination proves that the teaching given is not of a secular kind, but on the contrary embraces an amount of instruction far exceeding what is usual in either public or private seminaries. The Bible is not excluded, is not a sealed book. The amount and accuracy of Biblical knowledge possessed is astonishing.”

Thus the children silenced by their answers the cry raised against the mutilation of the Scriptures. The innocent replies proved better than could the ablest defence, in what spirit the Educational Committee had worked, and in what spirit their enemies had judged their efforts.

Before separating, the audience who had been present, and who for the most part had come to criticise, united in passing a vote of thanks and congratulation to the Educational Committee for the work they had done, and for the excellent state of the schools.

We have dwelt at some length on this attempt of the council to establish a free and religious scheme of education in Liverpool, for it was destined to prove the rock ahead on which Liberalism was to split.

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