Aidan Cottrell-Boyce is a research fellow at St Marys University. He was awarded a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2018. He is the author of Israelism in Modern Britain (2020) and Jewish Christians in Puritan England (2021).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the long process of Catholic emancipation in Britain reached its conclusion. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church was restored. The Catholic population, at the same time, was swelled by hundreds of thousands of Irish refugees fleeing the Great Hunger. Shortly thereafter, Catholic charities began building schools for the education of the children of the Catholic poor. Around the same time, the Tractarian movement began to gather momentum. Tractarians remained faithful to the Church of England, whilst pursuing a more fraternal relationship with the Church of Rome. Many Tractarians employed traditionally Catholic devotional practices in their worship and some – eventually – converted to Roman Catholicism. 

These developments stimulated Protestant fears that Britain was being invaded by the insidious forces of Popery. In 1850, the Russell government passed the Ecclesiastical Titles Act, which tacitly implied the existence of a papal conspiracy to assert its imperial ascendancy over Protestant Britain. 1851 saw the publication of Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia. The novel presented the Catholic Church as the inheritor of Roman imperialism: ‘appointed to spread, and conquer, and destroy.’ Kingsley offered a lurid description of the mystical power wielded by the priesthood of the Catholic Church – a ‘spiritual police, enforcing, by a word, an obedience which the Roman soldiers could only have compelled by hard blows of the spear-butt.’ In London and Liverpool and Glasgow, effigies of the newly restored Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster – Nicholas Wiseman – were burned in the streets. Catholic schools – usually staffed by Catholic clergy and religious – were particular objects of suspicion.

In 1870, the Forster Act passed through parliament. The Act facilitated the building of board schools to fill gaps left by the patchwork of Anglican, Catholic and Nonconformist voluntary schools. It also facilitated the establishment of elected school boards across England and Wales. In 1872, a second act extended the system in Scotland. Board schools – in keeping with the Cowper Temple clause – would be ‘non-denominational’ and would offer no form of instruction in Christian doctrine. 

For many Catholic advocates of the voluntary sector, this was a cause for alarm. They feared that the fully-funded board school system – with its non-denominational curriculum – would soon subsume the voluntary system. This eventuality would leave Catholic parents with no choice but to send their children to secular schools. In order to prevent this from happening, Catholics stood for election to school boards across the country and won seats. Many of them used their positions to argue for the limitation of board school provision and for the preference of voluntary school provision. 

This attitude was interpreted by their Protestant peers as an attempt to wrest control of the education system and to lay the groundwork for the Catholicization of Protestant Britain. According to the Thomas Binney – the so-called Archbishop of Nonconformity – ‘unrestricted religious liberty,’ while desirable,  could not be extended to Catholics. ‘Popery,’ he believed, was ‘not simply and purely a religion,’ but was rather ‘a great and mighty ecclesiastical confederacy that aims at and desires political pre-eminence… animated by a spirit of intense hatred to real liberty, civil or religious.’

These fears manifested in sporadic sectarian antagonism, particularly in the major cities and particularly in the months leading up to School Board elections. Harry Alfred Long – a prominent Orangeman and member of the Glasgow school board – gave speeches to huge crowds in which he warned that ‘Rome sought to rule,’ Britain. The election of Roman Catholic members to the school boards ‘disgraced and degraded’ the Scottish people. In Darlington, Church of England school board members formed a coalition with a Roman Catholic priest, named Charles Turnerelli. Some Darlingtonians responded with ferocious expressions of Protestant patriotism. The Church candidates’ success had been won ‘by the wanton sacrifice of religion.’ They had betrayed the Church of England which had been established ‘as a bulwark against Popery.’ That ‘the Protestant town of Darlington,’ should be ‘dominated by such an unholy alliance,’ was ‘a monstrous thing.’ 

A London School Board

In London, the 1894 board election provided the setting for a surge of sectarian controversy. A Tractarian board member, Athelstan Riley, had attempted to use his position to advocate for more (denominationally neutral) Christian teaching in Board Schools. Riley – however – was perceived by many as a ‘gentleman under whose Church of England sheepskin the Romanist wolf was plainly visible.’ The backlash from Nonconformist leaders was ferocious. ‘The issue at stake,’ John Clifford (president of the Baptist Union) declared, in the days leading up to the election, was ‘the triumph of clericalism over the people.’ A second prominent Nonconformist, Dr. Joseph Parker, declared his intention to vote for the anti-Rileyite Progressive party and furthermore to ‘fight sacerdotalism to the death.’ ‘Unless the Reformation be undone and this country is to be abandoned to the Church of Rome, the battle must be fought,’ wrote a third. 

Their rhetoric was effective. The allies of Riley were accused of treachery, of being ‘Romanists in disguise.’  At a hustings held at Hackney Town Hall on 17 November, Riley was subjected to barracking from the crowd including ‘stamping of feet, the singing of comic songs, the cries of “No Popery” and “Romanism”.’ The noise ‘drowned out’ Riley’s speech, leaving him, for half an hour ‘speaking in dumb show.’ This scene was repeated whenever Riley took the stage in the lead up to the election.

Many observers lamented that London appeared to have once again descended into the mire of sectarian antagonism. One reported the testimony of a priest who had ‘been labouring for upwards of thirty years upon the London mission in the midst of a working class population,’ and who had ‘never [known] feeling to run so high against all things Catholic.’

The role of religion in schools is a topic of perennial controversy in Britain. Typically this debate is presented as a binary. On the one hand, secularists argue that taxpayers should not be called upon to subsidize religious institutions to which they are not affiliated. On the other, people of faith argue that their freedom to worship should encompass their right to choose whether their children attend faith schools or secular schools. 

Often, however, the most strident arguments against the endowment of religious education by the state are not made on principle but are rather made on the basis of a state of exception. Often these arguments invoke the paradox of tolerance: suggesting that the granting of liberties to one group will lead to the abrogation of the liberties of others. This paradox is a real pitfall of modern, liberal, procedurally secular democracy and it should be taken seriously. However, in the treatment of faith schools – and of religious minorities in general – it can also prove a powerful and dangerous weapon in the hands of those who wish to promote inter-community conflict. This is as apparent today – in the treatment of minority faith schools by right-wing political demagogues – as it was in the time of Clifford, Binney and Parker.