The Gun in the Liberal Armoury
NETTIE WAS DAY-DREAMING. At Liverpool in 1870, she was riding in the Mayor's 'great gilded swinging coach', amid the glitz and pomp. Beside her was Hal, the city's guest of honour, lionized as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Suddenly she went cold, fearing that she would wake up and 'see the whole affair transformed into rats mice & a pumpkin as Cinderella did'.
But the bubble was not to burst, nor would she return to rags. Thomas Henry Huxley's rise from slum doctoring to Prime Minister of Science was real. Potent forces had created a new phenomenon, a star spokesman, a cultural critic who took Nature as his text. Huxley was the celebrity of the moment whose 'noble phiz' graced Vanity Fair and the Illustrated London News.1
Those sweeping forces were religious as much as secular. Huxley's Darwinian naturalism welled up with a rising radical Dissent. The Northern industrialists, muddy-booted chapel-goers, swore by science and technological progress. Theirs was a wheeze-and-snort Dissent to undermine the miraculous props under the Anglican throne. While Dissenters talked of the 'sin of conformity', Huxley stretched it to the 'sin of faith'. 2 He took Dissent to its 'agnostic' limit, discarding the last idolatrous trace.
Dissent was still eating away at the Church's State privileges. Even Oxford and Cambridge, so long the symbols of wealth and rank (a tassled cap had remained a sign of noble birth at Oxford until 1870), were losing their Anglican monopoly. On 16 June 1871 Gladstone finally repealed the hated Tests Acts, letting non-Anglicans take degrees at the ancient universities. Here was all that Dissenters had demanded for 50 years - with the exception of disestablishing the