Sunday, 10 June 2012

William James Kennedy


William James Kennedy,  the youngest of Rann Kennedy’s sons,  was unlucky not to emulate his brothers in their scholastic achievements.  He was sufficiently well-regarded to be appointed a master at Shrewsbury School after leaving University, but left after only a few years and joined the activist wing of the Church of England in Preston and Manchester.  Little more than a village at the mid 1700s, by the mid 1800s it was a colossal and filthy slum with a massive population largely enslaved to great cotton mills.  This grim citadel of England’s new prosperity managed to combine squalid ghettoes populated by largely Irish immigrants – Manchester’s ‘suburbs’ of ‘Irishtown’ and ‘New Ireland’ were bywords for utter deprivation.  The Irish fled the poverty and starvation of their countryside – where British Imperial policy had prevented any development of local industries and forced the southern Irish to be consumers of British manufactured goods whilst extorting Irish raw materials for their own factories.  In truth the desperate circumstances of the people of Ireland had stemmed from centuries of military occupation, subjugation and colonisation.  The alien religion of the Irish meant that many English people felt no sympathy for them during their terrible sufferings.  Ireland was the early model for the British Empire,  and they made all the biggest mistakes there first.


The mass arrival of the suffering Irish was a disaster for the living standards of the British working classes.  They would accept much lower rates of pay and thus undercut the livelihoods of British workers already on low incomes.  They would live in the vilest accommodation according to many commentators at the time,  including the German Friederich Engels, apparently without concern.  They died in droves due to poor health and bad conditions but so many more came to take their place.  They poured off the boats in Liverpool and flooded in in their hundreds of thousands during the Famine years of the 1840s.  The response of some of the indigenous working class people was to associate with the Orange Lodges, organisations dedicated to upholding the Tory Party, the imposition of the evangelist wing of the Church of England and the suppression of the Catholic Church by force.  The Orange Order was particularly strong in Liverpool where marches and demonstrations were conducted throughout the 19th century and beyond,  typically through Catholic Irish areas and featuring the firing of guns and attacks launched at any bystanders seeming to express opposition and their property. There were vicious anti Irish riots all around Britain including Manchester and Stockport but Liverpool saw horrendous sectarian conflict leading to deaths on both sides.  The Irish were warned not to retaliate by their priests but many were eager to fight back or even to go on the offensive.  As the arguments about Ireland’s political future began to grow,  so the conflict on the streets of the North West increased.  The police struggled vainly to keep control of the streets and were frequently,  and with reason,  accused of siding with the Orangemen.  The physical conflict in Ireland itself inevitably carried itself across the Irish Sea and Fenianism had a large reserve of support amongst the ghettoes such as Scotland Road in Liverpool.

The leaders and fomentors of the Orangemen targeted not only what they saw as rampant Catholicism associated with Irish immigrants,  but also any evidence of “ritualism” amongst the Anglican clergy.  Ritualism or Tractarianism had appeared in the middle years of the century in the writings of mainly Oxford University graduates who had explored the historical origins of the Church in Tudor times and recognised that Anglicanism was rooted in Catholicism.  They favoured a return to more demonstrative,  mediaeval forms of worship.  Some of these men actually converted to Catholicism – for example Manning and Newman who became Cardinals.  The churches where some of the ritualists who remained in the fold were liable to be invaded at times by certain noisy agressive preachers accompanied by a rabble of Orangemen.  Ugly scenes then took place. 

Moderate-minded churchmen realised that the zealots’ aim of driving Tractarianism out of the Church would reduce yet further the flow of young men wishing to serve as clergy.  Already Anglican churches were far less full on Sunday than those of the Catholics and the dissenters and a split in the Church was a nightmare to those who saw it as the religion of the whole nation.  The Orangemen and their Evangelical leaders had a mob mentality that brooked no discussion.  They were the stormtroopers of the Tories in Liverpool and their physical force ensured that party was to maintain hegemony throughout the century in the seaport.  Much as the Tory leadership disliked the crudity and brutality of their footsoldiers,  like Wellington they were happy to use them to hold onto power.

This was the toughest period yet to be a member of the clergy in the Church of England.  The industrial forces driving Britain forward were a far cry from the complexities of theology.  The Church of England had too many roles to play.  On the one hand it was the State Religion,  its mission being to underpin England’s dominant role in the world and unify the disparate peoples in the mother country and the white parts of the Empire.  It also had to present a satisfactory intellectual vehicle for the denizens of the ancient Universities and the thinking middle and upper classes.  Finally and most confoundingly it had to fulfil the role of comforter and spiritual beacon to the masses oppressed in the stricken inner cities and the often poverty-stricken countryside. 

A photograph of William James Kennedy during the middle of the century shows the reverend gentleman with a perplexed expression on his face.  The backers of his organisation were rich and powerful but they could not make the divided Church appeal to an indifferent or hostile working class.  William was of a slim build and very different facially to his father and to his eldest brother.  He had less of brother Benjamin’s abstract academia in his appearance,  looking more of a man of action.

William had married his cousin Sarah Caroline Bannister Kennedy, the daughter of wealthy Maltster George Kennedy of Lichfield. George was a prominent local business figure. In 1805 for instance he had bought the Lichfield pub The Shoulder of Mutton for £400. George is listed at various addresses in Kings Bromley and Lichfield throughout the 1820s and in the 1830s he moved to neighbouring Tamworth.  

William spoke of the troubled period of the 1840s later at a conference of educationalists.  He spoke of visiting many depressed working class areas in the North West.  He said he admired the Catholic Schools for the way in which they had tamed what he saw as a ‘dangerous’ population.  Whether or not the Catholic Schools had done this,  the conflict on the streets of Liverpool between Orange and Green was set to continue well into the 20th Century. 

He did not think that education could resolve the fundamental problems of bad housing and poor town planning but he was firm that the Church of England schools had been the main bulk of the new schools built in the past few decades for the urban poor.  He was also firmly of the opinion that parents should pay for their children’s education,  and that religious schools should never be replaced by secular institutions.

Thousands of the inhabitants of the North West at this time and long after crammed into tumbledown accommodation - often cellars - along with pigs and chickens.  They were prey to endemic diseases such as cholera,  typhus, diptheria.  Men, women and children shared sleeping space with strangers.  Drunkenness was the best way out in all probability.  After whatever sleep there was to be had,  the inhabitants would hurry to the mill before the gates were locked and their position lost to another desperate individual.  By the time that William had arrived in the North West,  men were losing their jobs in the region, to increased mechanisation and in particular to women and children.  Often the former breadwinner was forced to stay at home whilst their wife went out to work – at reduced rates from that which the husband had formerly earned.  Those who would not stand for this domestic situation went out in search of irregular money as street pedlars or took to a life of crime.

The rocketing crime levels in Britain at this time show clearly how the industrial revolution had created a subculture without a stake of any kind in the new status quo. 

The insanitary conditions in Manchester led to massive death rates among the ordinary population.  The ‘laissez faire’ philosophy of the liberal establishment of the city had certainly led to prosperity for a few mill owners and their shareholders – though they were subject to the ebb and flow of economics - but for the rest there was hunger and misery.  Skilled workers such as weavers who had been highly prosperous in the 1700s and at the start of the 1800s saw their trade mechanised in the mills and found themselves pauperised in a generation.

William James Kennedy was heavily involved in the lives of the poor throughout his career.  In 1845, the year he married, he was appointed Secretary of the National Society for the Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church.  The founding of this organisation in 1811, had followed by one year the founding of a similar but dissenting organisation,  in Lancashire.  The Manchester area was a hotbed of Dissenting Protestantism as it was a hotbed of social radicalism.  It was in Rochdale that the dissenters finally succeeded in ending the blanket levy of the church rate on the whole population,  which had up to that time been used to finance the local outpost of the Church of England.  Therefore William James Kennedy being sent to the North West signals his role in the defence of the Established Church.  The National Society (as it became known) had as its goal the building of a Church School in every parish in England and Wales.  This was the seed of the eventual national education policy that was forged by Gladstone’s great reforming Liberal government in the 1870s.  Gladstone was a staunch Church of England man and William James remained a Gladstone supporter for much of his life – until the fateful decision of the Grand Old Man to invest all his political capital in the cause of Irish Home Rule.

In the light of the struggle then in progress between the Established Church and the Nonconformists, this was a critical organisation and one of great influence.  William James Kennedy whilst a supporter of Gladstone, no doubt saw those nonconformists within Gladstone’s Liberal Party as the real opposition – and he would have been viewed likewise by them.  The progress that the nonconformists had made in converting working people was a serious threat to the principle of an Established Church.  The Church of England was organised by class- the various classes were seated separately and people took communion in order of social status,  the rich first then tradespeople followed by the masses.  This was not the case in nonconformist churches which were organised on more egalitarian principles. 

It was not an encouraging time to be a Church of England clergyman in the North West.  Churchmen were targets for derision on the part of the ordinary people who saw them as quislings of the factory bosses and the police.  The working people of the North West would hardly view the official state religion kindly when the state itself was the suppressor of the trades unions and mass activism for democracy.  The shock troops of the Church were scripture readers,  sent out to areas such as Irish ghettoes to try to convert the inhabitants.  Frequently they received a hostile response.

William James Kennedy was actually one of the central figures in a political movement of the highest importance in Victorian Britain. This was the establishment of the principle that schools were to provide education first and foremost, and religious instruction was not the primary purpose of schools - even though most schools before 1870 were built by the various churches.

This is especially surprising because William was a Church of England Clergyman and Secretary to the National Society which was the Church of England organisation which oversaw its schools.  In the National Society the Church of England had its own educational civil service.

This was a revolution that came from the top.  The Church of England and the other churches strongly objected to the move. The key step was the formation of the The Education Committee of The Privy Council which was a standing body entrusted with this mission.  Senior figures in the establishment had promoted the idea - Lord Brougham and Prime Minister Lord John Russell among them. William was one of the members of this body, and worked closely with its leader, James Kay a doctor who had been a pioneering campaigner for hygiene and healthcare in Manchester on the so called Minutes of 1846.  These minutes were to define education policy up to, and indeed foreshadow the Education Act of 1870. They stipulated that in order to qualify for government subsidy, a school had to submit to government inspections.  The reaction from the Church of England, and the other churches for that matter, was fury.

Lord Brougham had long campaigned for a national education system that was not governed by the church. The churches fought strenuously against any infringement of their power over the churches they were responsible for running,  objecting to inspectors and the idea that inspection of schools would be principally of secular knowledge - religion would be regarded as a mere portion of the education received at school. Queen Victoria herself let it be known that she backed the reform.

William James Kennedy went on to be appointed as Schools Inspector in the North West,  which would have raised hackles amongst the Dissenting School Communities. He lived in Ardwick Green, Manchester near some of the worst slums in the country.  His appointment showed the determination of the government to establish education for everyone in Britain. The quality of that education still needed to be raised substantially but the principle itself was established.

Thanks to Will Kennedy for assisting the work above with material made available from his archive.

No comments:

Post a comment