The Rights of Conscience

How English Catholic Schools Secured State Grants in an Age of Popular Anti-Catholicism

(left to right) Frederick Lucas; (engraving) Emigrants Leaving Ireland, by Henry Edward Doyle (1868); Charles Langdale.

The United Kingdom was anything but united in the early years of the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The ongoing process of industrialization created deep economic dislocation, with a growing gap between rich and poor. Urban unemployment and agricultural distress combined during what became known as the “Hungry 40s.” Politicians were divided between reformers and conservatives, especially over the direction of trade and economic policy. Popular disturbances were common, with radical Chartists demanding greater political rights for the lower classes and more responsive government policies. British culture and thought split over issues of social reform and the conflict between religion and science. Religious controversy seemed endemic—Anglicans divided over issues of ritualism, doctrine, and theological interpretation; Dissenters clamored for recognition and influence; Catholics were isolated and despised; freethinkers ridiculed traditional believers. The popular press reflected social divisions, and became fiercely polemical in attacking perceived opponents. Most politicians were distrusted and government disdained for its failures to address pressing social and economic issues. As revolution loomed on the Continent, Britain teetered on the brink of violent civil war.

It was a particularly difficult time to be Catholic in Britain. While the repeal of the penal laws granted Catholics full political rights in 1829, a deep, popular, anti-Catholicism permeated British society. The Oxford Movement, culminating in the conversion of John Henry Newman to Catholicism in 1845, seemed to confirm fears that closet Catholics lurked everywhere. The influx of Irish immigrants into England, many fleeing the effects of the Great Famine in Ireland, fed the resentment of this largely foreign, ignorant, and Catholic underclass. Respectable newspapers like the Times routinely stoked the fires of anti-Catholicism, engaging in the most blatant racial profiling of Irish Catholics (often caricatured as monkeys in political cartoons). The growth of the Catholic population inspired some Catholic leaders to plan for the reorganization of the Church, including the return of the Catholic hierarchy to a land that, since the Reformation, had been administered as mission territory. English nativists responded with attacks on this “papal aggression,” and, within five years, the government would contemplate legislation to prevent such an incursion. While controversy reigned, the mass of Irish Catholics in English cities remained desperately poor and uneducated.

English Catholic schools proved incapable of improving the situation, existing (in the words of a recent history) in “a decentralized, irregular, and poverty-stricken condition.”1 The Catholic Institute was founded in 1838 to improve Catholic schools but could do little to improve conditions, given its lack of resources. Effectively rubbing salt in Catholic wounds, in 1839, the English government proposed changes in educational policy, establishing a Committee of the Privy Council on Education to dispense public grants to private schools, including those operated by the Church of England, and by dissenting denominations. Catholics were to be excluded from these grants unless they consented to use the protestant Bible in their curriculum—a blatant discrimination that was felt keenly by the leadership of the English Catholic community.

What to do? The ecclesiastical head of the English Church, Vicar-Apostolic Nicholas Wiseman, was preoccupied with Vatican negotiations for the return of the English hierarchy. The most popular figure in the Catholic community—Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell, the great “Emancipator”—focused on efforts to repeal the Act of Union with Ireland, and the devastating effects of the Great Famine. O’Connell died on May 15, 1847. The remaining lay leadership of the Catholic community was, unsurprisingly, deeply divided. The old Whig Catholic gentry favored a patient, moderate approach stressing quiet negotiation and keeping a low profile. The new converts were more aggressive, polemical, and unattached to any political faction. Neither side was willing to defer to the other. Prospects did not look good for a Catholic campaign to secure government grants for desperately needy Catholic schools.

The acknowledged leader of the old Catholics was Charles Langdale, scion of a distinguished family of Catholic nobility from Yorkshire. Born in 1787, Langdale was one of the first English Catholics elected to the House of Commons after Catholic Emancipation, and became first chairman of the Catholic Institute, founded in 1838, to provide support to struggling Catholic schools, and to rebut the attacks of vocal protestant bigots. Among the other stated goals of the Institute was “securing for Catholics the full enjoyment of rights of conscience that the law guarantees.”2 A former Whig MP, Langdale epitomized the traditional tactics of the Catholic gentry, who emphasized allegiance to the Crown, and support of government in an effort to establish the credibility of the Catholic community. Under Langdale’s leadership, the Catholic Institute sponsored meetings, drafted petitions, and wrote pamphlets in defense of Catholic positions, but never fully developed a popular base for direct political action.

Frederick Lucas (1812-1855) became the most vocal advocate for the new Catholic faction. The product of a Quaker upbringing and education, Lucas converted to Catholicism in 1839 and, within a year, founded the progressive (and still extant) Catholic periodical, The Tablet. Described as a man of “unhesitating vehemence,” Lucas used the pages of his journal to clamor for more aggressive and direct political action by English Catholics.3 In response to a suggestion that the moderate Catholic Institute be made the official “standing agency for dealing with the state,” Lucas responded vigorously—“We deprecate with all our might any such arrangements. To consent to it is to sell the Catholic interests to the enemy without hope of redemption. We would as soon place our interests in the hands of the Whigs themselves as in the hands of their Whig deputies. God save us from all Whigs, but especially from all Whig Catholics.”4

The death of O’Connell exacerbated the growing division between Lucas and Langdale. In the pages of the Tablet, Lucas thundered against the conciliatory tactics of the Catholic Institute, and called for more aggressive, anti-government action. Langdale responded by insisting that the education question be considered within the broader context of the state of the English Catholic community, and denied that the Institute should be charged with the political mobilization of English Catholics.

Langdale had already established (in 1845) a special education committee, under the aegis of the Catholic Institute, to raise funds for Catholic schools, and campaign for state aid. Then, he began a “long and tedious” correspondence with government officials, including Robert Peel (Tory prime minister until his resignation in July 1846), Lord John Russell (Whig prime minister who succeeded Peel), and Henry Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne (Lord President of the Privy Council).5 The result of Langdale’s efforts seemed to be bearing fruit in early 1847, when the Privy Council invited the Institute to submit a formal proposal for state aid to Catholic schools. When a proposal was submitted, the Council temporized, citing vague concerns about the need to maintain the protestant Bible as the standard for English education. In response, the Catholic Institute convened a general meeting in April, at which Langdale’s correspondence with government officials was read aloud to an indignant crowd. Sentiment favored the call for a countrywide Catholic gathering on the education issue, but Langdale pulled back from such a tactic, proposing, instead, the formation of yet another new committee to take up the issue. Lucas responded incredulously, “It is with the utmost dismay we announce to our readers the lamentable fact that the Acting (un-acting? inactive? incapable?) Committee of the Catholic Institute, after sending to every congregation in Great Britain invitations to form an Aggregate Catholic Meeting, has decided that the subject is beyond its capacity (which we firmly believe), and that it must hand over ‘the correspondence’ to some other Committee not yet in existence, and which will never be formed.”6

After a series of exchanges between Lucas and Langdale in the pages of the Tablet, Lucas took matters into his own hands in June with the establishment of the Westminister Association of St. Thomas of Canterbury for the Vindication of Catholic Rights. The new group promised to transcend party politics in an effort to educate Catholics on the education issue, and mobilize support for any political candidate who supported the Catholic cause. English Catholic bishops, in turn, announced the formation of yet another committee under their control to pursue educational ends—what became known as the Catholic Poor School Committee (predecessor of today’s Catholic Education Service), which effectively replaced the Catholic Institute in November 1847. By that time, both the Church-controlled Poor School Committee (headed by the clerical-appointed Charles Langdale), and the St. Thomas Association (which included churchmen, and prominent lay leaders, including even Langdale, on its board, but which remained very much a Frederick Lucas inspired venture) pursued contrasting strategies for the promotion of Catholic education. The combination of Church-controlled political negotiation, and lay-led popular agitation, succeeded in forcing the government’s hand, and on December 18, 1847, the Committee of Council on Education issued minutes authorizing the first public grants for Catholic schools.

Catholic social and political divisions were surmounted, and contrasting strategies united, by a common acceptance of an underlying philosophy of education. At a mass meeting of Catholics in July 1839, arguments were made that English education policy violated the fundamental tenets of English tradition—the equality of all subjects, and the right to partake in the benefits of government. The liberal champion, O’Connell, insisted that denying the Catholic community its inherent political equality amounted to “swindling and robbery,” insomuch as Catholic taxes contributed to public funds.7 Beyond this assertion of basic political equality, however, Catholics united in their underlying assumption that education was, first and foremost, the primary responsibility of parents, whose ideas and values should be reflected in any formal educational program. Education was a moral and spiritual, as well as a civic, enterprise. Schools should contribute to the formation of character, and should inculcate moral virtues, a task largely dependent on some element of religious faith. “State education,” in the words of an anonymous Catholic priest in an 1852 issue of The Rambler, “is tuition without guardianship.”8 Religious and, even, catechetical instruction, was key to the development of a moral sense, and provided a stout defense against the secular impulses of a modernizing society.9 These common beliefs underlie the otherwise diverse Catholic campaign for receipt of state education grants, and proved irresistible in a Victorian society that treasured both liberal and moral values.

Catholic arguments resonated with the English political establishment, despite its traditional anti-Catholicism, and evidence of continued popular anti-popery activities. James Kay-Shuttleworth, secretary of the Committee of Council on Education, was influential in the development of English public education, and a noted champion of lay leadership in the education reform movement. He played a key role in reducing the influence of “a priestly class” from the new education committee, and even referred to his clerical opponents as “the medieval party.”10 Kay-Shuttleworth favored a neutral English educational system in which denominationalism was subordinated to public control. But even Kay-Shuttleworth agreed that education was both a parental prerogative, and a fundamentally moral enterprise, and that English schools were necessarily religious in character, given both those guiding principles, and the history of English education.11 He envisioned a public school system in which secular and religious education coexisted, with lay teachers in firm control, and inspectors charged with affirming standards throughout the system. While Catholic (and other Christian) leaders often disagreed about the structure and details of Kay-Shuttleworth’s scheme, most Englishmen accepted certain fundamental principles. “The idea of a Christian nation was still paramount, and the schools were the way to maintain it,” wrote a later historian, “By the 1850s, it was said, rather proudly, that the English were a religious people, and would be satisfied with nothing less than a sound religious education for their children.”12 Even the prevailing Victorian cultural prejudice against Catholics gave way to Catholic appeals for parent-driven, moral, and religious based education—especially when those appeals were voiced by Catholics from otherwise different political viewpoints, like Lucas and Langdale. The “rights of conscience” (a phrase initially used to favor secular interests in education) for all manners of Englishmen were upheld in the compromises over the development of education in the course of the 19th century.

English Catholic schools still faced obstacles in achieving parity with Anglican and secular schools. The historian, Eric Tenbus, in a revealing book entitled English Catholics and the Education of the Poor, 1847-1902 (Pickering and Chatto, 2010), argues that efforts to promote English Catholic schools helped form a more cohesive Catholic community in 19th century Britain. And Catholic schools have earned high regard in English educational circles, as evidenced by recent government attempts to require Catholic schools to register a higher number of non-Catholic students in an effort to “improve social cohesion” in the kingdom.13 What began as an apparently one-sided attempt of poor Catholic schools to share in the public largesse has evolved to the point that the broader English society recognizes (and covets) the values on which Catholic education rests.

Perhaps the historical example of the 19th century English Catholic educational campaign, mounted in a difficult and divisive era, and combining the best efforts of churchmen and laity, moderates and radicals, politicos and polemicists, might serve the current American Catholic community in good stead. While historical contexts differ, especially regarding the influence of secularism and public consensus over moral values, a more broadly defined “rights of conscience” remains a compelling argument for public support of religious schools.

  1. Eric Tenbus, English Catholics and the Education of the Poor, 1847-1902 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010): 13.
  2. Tenbus, 14.
  3. Mary Griset Holland, The British Catholic Press and the Educational Controversy, 1847-1865 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987): 72.
  4. Tablet (29 May 1847).
  5. Bernard Ward, The Sequel to Catholic Emancipation, Vol. II: 1840-1850 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1915): 148.
  6. Tablet (29 May 1847).
  7. Tenbus, 14.
  8. Tenbus, 20.
  9. Tenbus, 21-31.
  10. Holland, 25.
  11. James Kay-Shuttleworth, Public Education: As Affected by the Minutes of the Committee of the Privy Council (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853), 42.
  12. G.F.A. Best, “The Religious Difficulties of National Education in England, 1800-1870,” Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1956): 166-167.
  13. See Tablet (October 15, 2010).
Richard J. Janet, PhD About Richard J. Janet, PhD

Richard J. Janet is professor of history at Rockhurst University and former director of Rockhurst’s Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought and Culture.