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Part 1 of 2

A Journal of Her Own: The Rise and Fall of Annie Besant's Our Corner
by Carol Hanbery McKay
Victorian Periodicals Review, Volume 42, Number 4, Winter 2009, pp. 324-358
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
©2009 The Research Society for Victorian Periodicals

As founding editor and proprietor of the six-penny monthly journal Our Corner from 1883 through 1888, Annie Wood Besant (1847–1933) provided a Freethought public forum for an array of controversial and groundbreaking topics in politics, science, and the arts. Her impressive roster included Charles Bradlaugh, Moncure Conway, Ludwig Büchner, Edward Aveling, Thomas Huxley, Hubert Bland, Edith Nesbit, William Morris, Sidney Webb, and George Bernard Shaw, although she was a frequent contributor herself, producing a prodigious body of writing and serializing her own lifestory, Autobiographical Sketches, in the journal (January 1884– June 1885).1 She regularly reported on conditions in Ireland and commissioned articles on Afghanistan, Egypt, and India. Increasingly disenchanted with the state of society, she moved into and then beyond Socialism in search of more immediate answers. By 1888 Besant wrote in the January issue of Our Corner, “[W]e’re drifting into revolution” (“London,” OC 11.1.25), and the next month she urged her readership to join her in inaugurating a new humanistic religion: “Lately there has been dawning on the minds of men far apart in questions of theology, the idea of founding a new Brotherhood, in which service of Man should take place erstwhile given to the service of God” (“The Army of the Commonweal,” OC 11.2.117). William T. Stead answered her call, and together they launched a halfpenny weekly, The Link: A Journal for the Servants of Man, concurrent with the final year of her own Our Corner.2

Besant’s subsequent leadership role in the Theosophical Society brought with it the opportunity to edit two more monthly journals, Lucifer (1889– 1907) and The Theosophist (1907–present), but it also carried the onus of a marginalized religious movement. Our Corner is not well-known today less because of Besant’s Socialism than because becoming a Theosophist tainted her reputation in the eyes of many. The years that Besant published Our Corner are bracketed by her commitments to Secularism and Theosophy, but neither program seems to have claimed an abiding interest in those intermediate years. Moreover, Socialism saw the rise of a panoply of short-lived periodicals that contended with one another for attention in the 1880s, reflecting the inability of the ideology to unify its many components and leading to its relative failure in establishing a national agenda. Few studies of nineteenth-century British periodicals take note of Our Corner, and those that acknowledge it often fail to characterize it accurately. For example, Barbara Onslow cites Besant’s role as co-editor of the National Reformer and Link, as well as contributor to the Westminster and Pall Mall Gazette, but makes no mention of Our Corner, while James G. Coolsen incorrectly lumps the entire run of Our Corner together with Justice, Commonweal, and To-Day as Socialist periodicals.3

This relative inattention has compromised the availability of Our Corner in hard copy, although the 1965 edition of the Union List of Serials in Libraries of the United States and Canada boasted seven complete sets available in American university and public libraries (there were no listings for Canada at that time), while in Britain the holdings in the British Museum and Bodleian Library have long been accessible to their readership, and we can count on two microform sources available for purchase or through interlibrary loan.4 Sadly, circulation figures and other publication records have fallen through the cracks, again probably due to the absence of interest in this phase of Besant’s career by the various causes for which she so fervently fought. Based on annual reports published in the National Reformer, Paul Thompson estimates membership in the National Secular Society in 1889 at about 7,000, over half of whom had been recruited in the previous four years. Initially, Our Corner’s readership would have been predominantly drawn from this pool (the journal was regularly advertised in the NR during the first half of its run), but as a six-penny monthly it was not likely to have had an annual circulation of more than about 500.5

Very much self-identified with its editor, Our Corner: A Monthly Magazine of Fiction, Poetry, Politics, Science, Art, Literature featured Besant’s name at the masthead of each issue, and the title page for each of the twelve bound volumes containing six numbers apiece prominently displayed the editor’s name above the Freethought symbol (figure 1). The journal was printed by the Freethought Publishing Company, which she had co-founded with Bradlaugh in 1877 in order for them to take legal responsibility for the circulation of the infamous Knowlton pamphlet, and up until the last twenty numbers of Our Corner they listed both their names and the publishing house address at 63 Fleet St., E.C., at the end of each of the 64-page issues. Bradlaugh clearly operated as a major contributor and participant in the enterprise for four of its six years, and Besant did not claim the usual editor’s prerogative of producing signed editorials. Nonetheless, her editorial voice emerges in the introductory commentary to unsigned entries, and she underwrote most of the first year’s expenses with proceeds from her lecture circuit for the National Secular Society. From the outset, she limited the journal’s advertisements to publications by the Freethought Publishing Company and other radical concerns, and this relative lack of advertising revenue could not sustain the initial lavish use of illustrations beyond the journal’s inaugural year. At the same time, however, Besant’s articles in Our Corner also functioned as the springboard for many of her pamphlets and other publications—as was the case for many of her other Freethought authors—in effect saving them all the cost of resetting type. Surely the rich resource of Besant’s contributions to Our Corner, coupled with those of its other contributors and the social history reflected by its six-year run in the mid-1880s, merits further analysis and critical discussion.

Fig. 1: Title Page for vol. 1, with Freethought Publishing logo

I. Establishing the Paradigm

A brief overview of Besant’s history up until 1883 will help establish the credentials she brought to her editorship of Our Corner. Rejecting Christianity five years into her marriage to an Anglican clergyman, she joined the National Secular Society in 1874, working closely with its president, Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91), and delivering her first public lecture on “The Political Status of Women.”6 In 1877 she became a co-defendant with Bradlaugh in the Knowlton pamphlet trial, during which the two argued in their own defense for the right to publish and disseminate birth control literature.7 Two years later, largely due to the notoriety of that trial and her openly-declared atheism, Besant (now legally separated from her husband) was deemed by the courts to be an unfit mother, and she lost custody of her daughter. Still working as sub-editor of Bradlaugh’s weekly National Reformer: Journal of Radicalism and Freethought (1860–93) and delivering lectures on the Freethought circuit, she began studying science under Dr. Edward Aveling at London University, the first British university to open its degrees to women. After matriculating at the university in 1879, Besant won “firsts” in both botany and animal physiology, and she taught courses in physiology with Aveling at the Hall of Science. (Her chemistry professor repeatedly refused to grant a pass to a woman, however, thus ensuring that she could not complete her degree.) During this period, she had also been writing articles advocating land reform for tenant farmers in Ireland as well as promoting legislation of the Married Woman’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882.8

In the course of its six-year run, Our Corner facilitated Besant’s own intellectual and ideological growth as well as that of her readers. She designed the journal to inform, teach, and entertain, and each issue operated like a mini-liberal education. Besant was quite the polymath. Of the half dozen or so regular departments, or “corners,” that appeared at the end of all but the last six issues, the “Science Corner” was primarily signed by her, while Bradlaugh served as her mainstay contributor to the “Political Corner.” Other customary corners were dedicated to the arts (drama, music, and painting), publishing, and gardening. For the first three years there was even a “Young Folks Corner” devoted to puzzles, games, and story-telling about foreign lands; appropriately, the first issue debuted with a Hindu legend. (In 1893 Besant would visit India for the first time, making it her permanent home the following year; having succeeded Mme. Blavatsky as leader of the Theosophical Society in Europe and India at Blavatsky’s death in 1891, Besant was elected worldwide president of the Society in 19079). The “Young Folks Corner” was almost obsessively, even militantly, didactic, yet there is an admirable wholesomeness to this earnest endeavor to raise up a more informed generation who might share her mission.

A recapitulation of Our Corner’s inaugural issue reveals the energy of Besant’s cauldron of creativity. The initial number established a template that allowed Besant to set up reader expectations with regular features while still introducing timely articles on current affairs, literature, and the sciences. Besant heads the first issue with the initial installment of Charles Victor Cherbuliez’s novel The Story of Ladislas Bolski (1869; the unascribed translation from the French may well be her own), propelling her readers into a serialization that would take some fifteen months to complete. “A Bull-Fight in Madrid” by Bradlaugh follows, culminating in the dramatic conclusion, “I left that bull-fight before it was over; I shall never see another” (OC 1.1.14). Next comes Ludwig Büchner’s “The Force of Heredity; And its Influence on the Moral and Mental Progress of Mankind” (the first of three installments),10 succeeded by the first of five parts of C.G. Compton’s novella, Love’s Champion. Three articles then round out the main body of the issue—Besant’s unsigned “Copernicus” (illustrated with a fine steel engraving), A. Sinclair’s “On the Way to Egypt: Ten Days in and about Gibraltar” (accompanied by a scenic photograveure), and the first entry of Besant’s year-long feature, “Peeps through a Microscope” (supplied with three line drawings of Infusoria “after” Ernst Haeckel and Friedrich Stein).

Besant devoted over a third of the remainder of each monthly issue to recurring “corners” that were covered by regular contributors (for the recurring logos of the “corners” established in the first issue, see figure 2). Primacy of place was always granted to Bradlaugh. His “Political Corner” pulls no punches, berating the Government for its failures to enact reforms at home and to act responsibly abroad; his inaugural corner observes, “1883 has, politically, much of menace for England” (OC 1.1.40). Besant’s own reporting in her “Science Corner” in this issue runs the gamut of subjects from comets, a solar eclipse, the last transit of Venus, the Horticultural Society, the Royal Society, dust (pollution), an electrical storm, and an ordinance survey, to canine articulation, beetroot, corn, a Physiology Professorship, and university correspondence classes. Initially, Aveling was in charge of the “Art Corner,” which variously featured art, music, and drama reviews, depending on the seasonal openings (and the columnist’s proclivities). For the first issue, Aveling highlighted three concerts and then briefly reviewed plays mounted at Drury Lane, the Globe, and the Lyceum in London, while noting a performance of Sophocles’s Ajax at Cambridge (coincidentally, “Ajax” had been Besant’s nom de guerre when she was writing anonymously for the National Reformer). Next debuted the “Chess Corner” by C.H. Coster (it lasted only a year) and the “Gardening Corner” by W. Elder (a regular fixture through 1886). Besant’s unsigned “Publishers Corner” followed, for which she provided six mini-reviews of topical publications on a wide array of subjects—vaccination, Freethought invectives, superstitions about witchcraft, the property rights of women, sermons in support of “service to humanity,” and a temperance tale.11 Two “corners” addressed primarily to adolescent readers wrap up the first number and subsequent issues through 1885; unsigned, they can be either attributed to Besant herself or presumed to be written to her general directive. These two “corners” and their contests for prizes show Besant providing a forum competitive with some of the boys’ and girls’ magazines of the period, most of which were conservative and even imperialist in their (albeit covert) politics. The “Inquisitive Corner” (subsumed under “Young Folks” after 1883) sets the stage with “Queries” (answers to which would receive prizes announced in succeeding issues) and “Notes” (letters to the editor). For the inaugural issue, letters to the editor were clearly a setup, but even these “exchanges” provide useful information about implied subscribers and their families. They reveal that Besant was obviously interested in creating an outreach to working-class as well as middle-class children, although at 6 d. apiece, the journal’s cost might well have been prohibitive. As the rules and regulations about solving problems evolved, points could be accumulated in different age categories and counted toward prizes, which usually took the form of books, awarded on a quarterly basis to first-time winners in a given calendar year.

Fig. 2: Logos for recurring “Corners” (not including “Chess Corner,” which only lasted a year; “Inquisitive Corner” subsumed under “Young Folks Corner” in 1885; see Fig. 3 for “Young Folks Corner” logo

All this is prelude to the “Young Folks Corner,” which constitutes the last ten pages of the issue. Signed by Besant, “A Hindu Legend” heads the section this time, its penultimate paragraph affirming the humanistic principles that she would later seek to project on a global scale: “So the life that was given became the source of life throughout the great Hindu land; and as she rolls ever towards the sea Ganga murmurs to herself: ‘To give oneself for others is duty: to spread happiness around one’s steps for others to gather up is truest joy’” (OC 1.1.57–58; see figure 3). This month’s legend was followed by the first of three installments of the biography of Thomas Paine. Listed under the category of “Real Heroes,” the entries on Paine were signed with the initial “J,” undoubtedly the work of John Robertson, who would increasingly contribute to the journal and serve as a kind of sub-editor to Besant when her working relationship with Bradlaugh waned over the course of the decade. This final “corner” concludes with “Our Roll of Honor,” consisting of five sets of puzzles (see figure 4 for a “Picture Puzzle”), one of which is entitled “Nuts for Sharp Little Teeth to Crack.” One can easily imagine the adult reader testing his or her ability to solve the puzzles in this and the preceding “Inquisitive Corner,” reacting with self-congratulation when the solution is readily forthcoming and looking ahead to the next issue for the answers to unsolved problems.

Fig. 3: “A Hindu Legend,” by Annie Besant (“Young Folks Corner” for January issue of vol. 1, pages 55–59)

A Hindu Legend.
Women of the Himalayas Seeking Water
Far away, in the vast range of mountains that close Hindustan against the barbarians of Thibet, the great god Siva lay asleep. Around him rose the sky-piercing, snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalays; and as he slept his tangled hair, storm-tossed, wind-driven, was played with by King Frost, and the snow-

The remaining five numbers of the first volume of Our Corner closely replicate the pattern established by the inaugural issue. The two serialized fictions by Cherbuliez and Compton continued to run their course, as did the installments of scientific and biographical articles authored by Büchner, Besant, and Robertson (Canadian banker and railroad executive George Stephenson constituted the next subject of the “Real Heroes” category; see figure 5). Additional articles by Bradlaugh appeared, titles such as “Angling Memories of the Lea” and “Leaves and Trees” suggesting that he relished an opportunity to explore topics in natural science for which he likely had no other public outlet. Meanwhile, Moncure Conway initiated a two-part article in February on the theme of principled choice in the “Three Caskets,” while Aveling began a four-part study in March of “Shakespeare the Dramatist.”12 Each issue also included a poem (intriguingly, January featured Chunder Labul’s poem entitled “A Hindu Poet to Alfred Tennyson”). Although Besant’s subsequent contributions to this first volume were limited to installments for “Peeps through a Microscope” and the “corners” devoted to “Science” and “Publishers,” she also provided a new “legend” for the “Young Folks Corner” each month, encompassing Greek, Christian, and Jewish legends and turning to another Hindu legend, this one designated as “after” eighteenth-century Orientalist and philologist Sir William Jones (OC 1.4.247–49).

The contents of this first volume of Our Corner project ahead in telling ways to Besant’s own engagement with the issues of her day and the direction her life would take. Ironically, given her conversion to Theosophy some six years later, she published in her third issue a tongue-in-cheek article entitled “Clairvoyance,” by Alter Brown, who concluded, “May we not find other beliefs equally unworthy of acceptance if we scrutinise the evidence on which they rest?” (OC 1.3.157). Two months later, she included an article by James Leigh Joynes on “Leading Socialistic Theories,” which articulated a conviction that she would endorse for the remainder of her days: “We recognise in theory the brotherhood of the whole human race. Let us, each for himself, try to reduce his theory to practice” (OC 1.5.272).13 The last issue of the first volume provided Besant with an occasion to highlight sentiments that she shared with renowned scientist Thomas Huxley. Quoting his recent remarks at a banquet of the Royal Academy, she writes, “It is not usual in a monthly magazine to print a casual speech, but the rare perfection of this is our justification” (OC 1.6.354). Huxley’s message is clearly one she recommends to her readership: “I am unable to understand how any one [sic] with a knowledge of mankind can imagine that the growth of science can threaten the development of art in any of its forms. If I understand the matter at all, science and art are the obverse and reverse of nature’s medal, the one expressing the eternal order of things in terms of feeling, the other in terms of thought” (354–55).

Fig. 4: “Picture Puzzle” for “Puzzle List of Birds” for January issue of vol. 1 (“Young Folks Corner,” page 63)

Fig. 5: Illustration for biography of George Stephenson (“Real Heroes,” page 250, by J., in three parts: OC 1.4.249–52, 1.5.312–16, 1.6.377–80)

On just the one occasion—marking an end to 1883—Besant added an extra issue to her twelve-month regimen. By publishing “The Christmas Number of Our Corner,” the atheist editor actually discloses a great deal about both her financial standing and her willingness to work within the system that she is otherwise critiquing. Although a Christmas number might well be hoped to generate additional income, it was not made more attractive as a possible gift item through what Besant now probably recognized as the extravagant use of illustrations. Lacking the journal’s signature “corners,” this issue was nonetheless geared toward entertainment, for its contents primarily consist of short fiction and poetry. However, reflecting its presumed secular readership, the number also includes two pieces that challenge the traditional Christian narrative, namely, Aveling’s “The Dream of the Boy Jesus” and Besant’s own “The Child Christ: A Solar Myth.” There is, moreover, an even more telling element to this publication: its 26-page advertiser. Over the course of its six-year run, Our Corner never included more than eight or nine pages of advertisements. But at this first year’s end, Besant clearly wanted—perhaps needed—to take advantage of the holiday season’s gift-giving potential. The advertiser is replete with lists of the Freethought Publishing Company’s inventory of books in print as well as remainders at bargain prices, and in a double exception to the journal’s general practice, a commercial advertisement (for S. Davis & Company’s sewing machines) appears on the usually blank back cover.

Unfortunately, scholars today are not likely to be in a position to speculate about the implications of either the Christmas number or advertising in Our Corner. Besant’s standard mode of publishing six months per bound volume did not include this seventh issue at the end of volume two nor did she republish any of the monthly covers or advertisements, and most libraries eliminated individual covers and advertising if they instituted their own bi-annual in-house binding. Thus the full story the journal’s history has continued to further escape our scrutiny.

II. Her Story, Her Stories

Within that first year of launching Our Corner, Besant found her subscribers and colleagues in the National Secular Society calling for a public recounting of her lifestory, and the pages of her own journal seemed the logical choice. She opened the January issue of 1884 with the following words: “I have resolved to pen a few brief autobiographical sketches, which may avail to satisfy friendly questioners, and to serve, in some measure, as defence against unfair attack (OC 3.1.1). For the next eighteen months, Besant reviewed the events of her childhood, early marriage, and legal struggles, examining them for their disparate influences on the woman she had become (for the December 1884 cover, with its table of contents listing the twelfth installment of Autobiographical Sketches as well as highlighting the change in the “Science Corner” logo, see figure 6). In particular, she examined her early instruction under the tutelage of Ellen Marryat, who had imbued in her a love of learning by direct observation as well as fueled religious zeal. Reflecting on her false hopes in her marriage partner, Besant details the path of her disillusionment with Christianity, while displaying the depth of her knowledge about the Bible and the history of the early Church Fathers. The replaying of the two key trials in her life thus far forms the core of Autobiographical Sketches. Her account of the Knowlton trial demonstrates her legal skills and scientific expertise, while the trial for custody of her daughter exhibits her commitment to Freethought, even at the expense of her personal life. Happily, both Besant’s daughter Mabel and her son Digby reunited with her when they reached their majority, and both of them worked with her within the ranks of the Theosophical Society for the rest of her life.

With the subsequent book publication of Autobiographical Sketches by the Freethought Press at the end of 1885, Besant’s general readership had the opportunity to join her subscribers in knowing about the rationale behind the outline of her public history. The book was not widely reviewed, probably because members of the National Secular Society constituted its primary audience and most of them had already been reading it as it was serialized in Our Corner, and for those whose subscriptions did not overlap, it was sufficient that Bradlaugh had been advertising the forthcoming book publication in the National Reformer. The paragraph-long review of Autobiographical Sketches in the Westminster Review begins on the following sympathetic note, “A touching account of the life of a singularly ill-used woman,” and proceeds to editorialize about Besant’s roles as “a tender mother and a spotless wife”: “[L]et us hope that her sufferings have not been in vain, and that she will be the last in our own or any future generation to incur such a penalty for a matter of opinion” (n.s. 70.1 [July 1886]: 275–76). This endorsement did not significantly impact book sales, however, and for most readers of her own and our time, it has been her second (and last) attempt at self-writing, An Autobiography (1893), with its more controversial conversion narrative, that stands as the definitive autobiographical account. The Freethought Publishing Company continued to advertise Autobiographical Sketches through 1890, the year after Besant had converted to Theosophy, but she chose not to keep it in print thereafter, presumably because she, too, considered the second story to have eclipsed the first.14

Fig. 6: Cover for December 1884 issue of vol. 4
December 1, 1884
No. 6, Vol. IV.
Edited by Annie Besant.
Our Corner
A Monthly Magazine
Fiction, Poetry, Politics, sSience, Art, Literature
Autobiographical Sketches. By Annie Besant
Army Mismanagement. By Charles Bradlaugh.
Shelley and Poetry. By John Robertson
"Progress and Poverty": A Review of the Theories and Proposals of Mr. Henry George. By "D."
Some Advanced Women of the Past. By J.M. Wheeler.
True Women. (A Play.) By Mrs. Anne C. Edgren.
A Birthday Dirge. By M.J.R.
Political Corner. By Charles Bradlaugh
YOUNG FOLKS' CORNER: How the World was Made, by Hypatia Bradlaugh; Puzzles, etc.
Price Sixpence.

The year Autobiographical Sketches concluded its serialization also witnessed Besant’s admission to the Fabian Society and her unequivocal endorsement of Socialism, distancing her from Bradlaugh and the individualism that marked the tenets of the National Secular Society. In the second half of its run, Our Corner reflects her increasing involvement with Socialism, signalled by the regular feature she initially entitled “Fabian Society and Socialist Notes” (figure 7); she would later refer to this section as “a record of Socialist progress in all lands” (Autobiography 314).15 During 1886 Besant herself contributed two articles on the subject, “Modern Socialism” (in four parts, February–May) and “Why I am a Socialist” (OC 8.3.157–63), while opening her pages to other Socialist proponents. By then fellow Secularist G.W. Foote was more than ready to tackle Socialism in general and Besant’s interpretation of it in particular. His ad hominem attacks are sprinkled throughout his so-called review of Modern Socialism, which was printed as a book by the Freethought Publishing Company a month after its serialization. Entitled “The Latest Apostle of Socialism,” this review appeared in his own journal, Progress: A Monthly Magazine of Advanced Thought (6.6. 266–73), and was followed by a heated exchange between him and Besant the following month (7.1.290–300). Nonetheless, as a measure of both her own open mind and her desire to retain some degree of camaraderie with Bradlaugh, the two of them engaged in a friendly exchange of viewpoints about Socialism in the first half of 1887. Beginning with his “Socialism: Its Fallacies and Dangers” (OC 9.3.129–36), the debate continued through her “Socialism: Its Truths and Its Hopes” (9.4.193–200), followed by his “Rejoinder” (9.6.321–24), and ending with her last word in “Final Reply” (9.6.324–27). This exchange was later reprinted in book form, joining a number of other public debates on the subject of Socialism that were published throughout the 1880s.16

By the end of 1887, Besant could conclude her article entitled “The Nottingham Programme” by making the following proclamation: “The Socialist Programme . . . aims directly at the privileges of the few for the sake of the many, and seeks to destroy the horrible inequality which is the curse of modern civilisation” (OC 10.6.361). Earlier that year she had featured an article by W.H. Utley on “Scientific Aspects of Socialism” (OC 9.2.82–86) as well as “Facts for Socialists” (OC 9.3.136–49), which reprinted a series of extended quotations “drawn from” John Stuart Mill, R. Griffen, J.E. Cairnes, Mulhall, Leone Levi, J.S. Jeans, Henry Fawcett, Frederic Harrison, and J.K. Ingram. As Besant approached the end of her tenure as editor and proprietor of Our Corner, she increasingly turned to other periodicals to air her views on Socialism; in 1889 alone, she would publish twelve articles on the subject in Justice (1884–99), most notably “Socialists as Administrators” (2 February), “Socialists and Radicals” (13 April), “Our Duty to Socialism” (6 July), “Women and Socialism” (12 October), and “The Advantages of Socialism” (16 November). When she had been admitted to the year-old Fabian Society in 1885, she joined forces with Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, H.G. Wells, Hubert Bland, and Edith Nesbit, but within just two years she and fellow Secularist Herbert Burrows became frustrated by the Fabians’ more gradual approach to reform through permeation, or progressive legislation.

Fig. 7: Fabian Society logo and motto (first appearance in March 1886: OC 7.3.187)
The Fabian Society and Socialist Notes.
"For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless."
BASIS. The members of the Fabian Society assert that the system of production for profit instead of production for use ensures the comfort and happiness of the few at the expense of the sufferings of the many, and that society must ...

Besides editing and writing for Our Corner, Besant put herself physically at risk by participating in open-air meetings in autumn of 1887 that led to “Bloody Sunday” in Trafalgar Square, the subject of one of her articles the following year, “The Story of Trafalgar Square” (Link; rpt. OC 11.4.224– 33). Recent years had seen her coverage of the 3rd Reform Bill (1884; she authored a six-part series of articles on all three reform bills, under the general title “The Redistribution of Political Power”) and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act (1886), and the next year would see her working with Burrows to help the Match-Girls’ Union win its strike against Bryant and May (see “Revolt of the Matchmakers” [14 July 1888] and “The Late Strike” [4 August], both co-authored with Burrows in the Link), as well as heralding the passage of the Affirmation Act that finally allowed Bradlaugh to take his seat as Member of Parliament for Northhampton (Bradlaugh had five times previously been denied his right to represent his district because he refused to take an oath of office invoking God). Now Besant seemed to be taking stock of her engagement with social and political causes in addition to reviewing the efficacy of her own publication record. No longer sub-editor of the National Reformer (that alliance with Bradlaugh had ended in October 1887), she published no freestanding pamphlets in 1888; the previous year had seen publication of only Radicalism and Socialism (itself a reprint of OC 8.4/5) and Why I Do Not Believe in God, revealing a considerable drop in her rate of production.

III. Bricolage, or, The Miscellany Writ Large

With the intertwined goals of educating and entertaining its readership, Our Corner regularly included literary entries, especially featuring serialized fiction. George Bernard Shaw entered the lists of Our Corner in April 1885 with the first of 23 serial installments of his novel The Irrational Knot, Being the Second Novel of His Nonage, announced as “by the author of ‘The Unsocial Socialist’, etc.” even though there was no “and so on” to cite and The Unsocial Socialist (Swan, Sonnenschein, Lowry) did not appear until 1887, when Love Among the Artists began its concurrent run in Our Corner.17 (Shaw’s second novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession, was serialized in To-Day [1883–89] during 1885, receiving a rather mixed review in Our Corner from fellow staffer John Robertson the following year [OC 7.5.301–05].) Within two months of his first novel’s first installment, Shaw had taken over the “Art Corner” from Elizabeth Cracknell (Aveling’s successor), converting it largely into an opportunity to showcase his drama criticism. Even after giving up the “Art Corner,” Shaw was heavily invested in production of the last volume of Our Corner, contributing not only the conclusion to his three-part “A Refutation of Anarchism” but also two other articles, “The Transition to Social Democracy” and “The Economic Aspect of Socialism.” His working relationship with Besant remained perplexing to both of them, however. Years later he would falsely claim responsibility for assigning her to review The Secret Doctrine, and after her death he tried to dissuade suffragist Elizabeth Robins from writing Besant’s biography. All this equivocation seems astounding in light of Besant’s having underwritten first-time publication of two of Shaw’s five novels.18

In addition to serialized fiction by Cherbuliez, Compton, and Shaw, Our Corner published short stories, poetry, and literary translations. Some of the shorter fiction was reprinted from other periodicals, for example, “Sam Lovel’s Thanksgiving” (OC 9.5. 276–82) and “Sam Lovel’s Bee Hunting “ (OC 9.6.358–68), both by Roland Evan Robinson and taken from Field and Stream, while others were original to Our Corner, most notably Bland’s “Mr. Orlestone’s Manager” (June–September 1887). The poetry was usually signed with initials that are not readily recognizable today; James Thompson’s “The Naked Goddess” (March–April 1883) and William Morris’s “In Memoriam” (dedicated to Alfred Linnell; OC 11.1.52) are two exceptions. One frequent contributor, whose “M.J.R.” remains unidentified, provided two poems that deserve attention in terms of Besant’s personal predilections, namely “To Science” (OC 4.3.151) and “Storm and Calm” (OC 5.1.38), the latter prefiguring some of her key terminology in the last chapter of An Autobiography. Translations from the Russian began to appear during the last two years of Our Corner’s publication, perhaps reflecting an interest in Russia that had prompted several articles on political upheavals in 1886. The preeminent example is Ivan Turgenieff’s Poems in Prose (1878), translated from Russian to German by William Lange (the English translator goes unacknowledged) and published in the last three monthly issues of 1887. The last Russian translation to appear in the pages of Our Corner was N.P. Vagner’s fairy tale “The Cake King,” translated by N. Tchaykowski for the June and July issues of the journal’s final year.

Because some of the contributions are either anonymous or signed by names or initials that are not recognizably female, it is hard to gauge how many of the entries in Our Corner are women-authored, but a number of women writers can be identified and the journal clearly advocates gender equity. Of particular note are Mrs. Anne C. Edgren’s play, True Women, translated from the Swedish by H.L.B. for the last three issues of 1884, and four contributions by Edith Nesbit—the poems “A Choice” (OC 7.6.351), “Under Convoy” (OC 9.2.114), “Night and Morning” (OC 10.1.51), and the short fiction “A Looking Glass Story” (Mar.–April 1886). Equally intriguing is Hypatia Bradlaugh’s short story entitled “Dr. Valery Vernon, Q.C,” which begins, “I am a woman and a law student.” During the course of the tale, the protagonist-narrator marries, but her final words sum up her combined personal and professional status, “I still continue to describe myself as a ‘law student’” (OC 4.2.103–11).19 Two of the four department heads of the “Art Corner” were women; Elizabeth Cracknell succeeded Aveling, while Mary Reed followed Shaw in that capacity. Both women commanded substantial columns—Cracknell maintained an enviable balance among the arts, while Reed became a prominent voice critical of the Royal Academy.20 Moreover, numerous male contributors specifically address women’s issues and the question of equality between the sexes. Noteworthy are J.M. Wheeler’s two articles, “Some Advanced Women of the Past” (November–December 1884) and “Some Advanced Women” (May 1885), the latter primarily about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as Leopold Katscher’s four-part review essay on George Sand (April–July 1885).

Neither articles nor literary entries were pitched solely to male or female readers, and the “Young Folks Corner” was gender-free, never providing problems or stories specific to either a male or female readership. Besant’s own contributions exemplified the potential breadth of a woman’s interests and expertise, regularly ranging from politics to science to international relations and comparative religion, and she always seemed quick to accept articles that exposed gender inequity or endorsed specific reforms regarding limitations imposed upon women. Besant explicitly stepped to the fore herself on numerous occasions, utilizing her position as editor, department head, and contributor. The “Publisher’s Corner” provided ample opportunity to editorialize about books concerning the Woman Question, as the following excerpt demonstrates: “We receive from the publishers a set of Suffrage Stories, which very usefully illustrate the practical disadvantages under which women suffer from not having a vote. They are admirably adapted for distribution among women who will not read sustained argument, but who will glance over a brief tale when the day’s work is over” (OC 5.3.179). If her assessment betrays some degree of condescension, it also conveys a realistic understanding of the restricted time and energy working women could allow for the activity of reading. One of her articles, “The Law of Population and Its Relation to Socialism,” specifically addresses her female readership at its conclusion, however. Having looked ahead to a future when there will be women who are great musicians, artists, scientists, and writers, she apostrophizes, “[T]he realisation of these possibilities, O women my sisters, depends on the triumph of Socialism which will give us equality and independence, and the practice of conjugal prudence which will give us physical freedom” (OC 7.6.332).21
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Besides Besant and Bradlaugh, several other department heads for Our Corner became regular contributors, at least for a time. Propelled by the “Art Corner,” Aveling entered the lists with multi-part articles on literature and science, although his break with Bradlaugh over financial irregularities in the National Secular Society led to his complete departure from the journal’s pages by the end of its second year.22 For both Shaw and Reed, too, the “Art Corner” served as a launching pad to independent articles. The same can be said for Utley with respect to the “Science Corner” after he inherited it from Besant, and both J. Horner and W. Mawer moved back and forth between established scientific series and entries of their own devising. Robertson was a mainstay throughout the entirety of Our Corner. Besides filling in the gaps in the “Young Folks Corner,” particularly with respect to biographies of “Real Heroes,” he displayed his own range of expertise, whether supplying a quotidian entry like “On Diary Keeping” (July 1883) or developing substantial critical articles on the poetry of Browning and Tennyson. Politically aligned with both Besant and Bradlaugh when the journal was first established, he wrote articles like “Thoughts on Home Rule” (October–November 1883) during its first year, and even though Besant’s increasing involvement with Socialism began to distance him (like Bradlaugh) from the journal’s Socialist affiliation during its last two years, he still found opportunities to publish authentic pieces like “England Before and Since the French Revolution” (May–June 1888) and “Comptism from a Secularist Point of View” (November 1888) alongside Socialist polemics.23

Meanwhile, Besant’s involvement with the “Science Corner” had ceased by the end of 1886, with Utley assuming its responsibilities from 1887 through the first half of 1888; throughout 1885, her “Peeps through a Microscope” had given way to Horner’s “Work for the Microscope.” The timing of these turnovers corresponds to a combination of Besant’s growing concerns about the evictions of tenant farmers in Ireland and her introduction of “Socialist Notes” as a regular feature. By then, she had paved the way for the many physical and natural science articles by E.D. Fryer (domestic pets), Joseph Symes (the telescope), Horner (glaciers and household pests), Aveling (insects and flowers), Laurence Small (nebular theory), and Mawer (rocks, mountains, and shells). Hypatia Bradlaugh (now Bonner) figures as well into this accounting with her series, “Chats about Chemistry” (1885–86). After all, she had taken science classes with Besant at London University in the late 1870s, and they had both been denied access to the Botanical Gardens on the grounds that they might be bad influences on the daughters of the professors who frequented them. Even Huxley had contributed to this expulsion, choosing to interpret Fruits of Philosophy as recommending birth control methods that might be equally applied to extra-marital sexual relations.24 Either Besant never knew about his alliance with her persecutors or she rose above their petty politics, for she continued to endorse his every measure. At the end of her first year’s entries to the “Science Corner,” she writes, “Professor Huxley delivered a brilliant and characteristic address at the opening of the London Hospital Medical School, on the relations of the State to the medical profession. . . . It is pleasant to hear the voice of any eminent man speaking against the tendency to grandmotherly legislation which is now so common” (OC 2.5.297).

The “Young Folks Corner” retained its prominent role in each issue for the first three years but then disappeared for the remaining three. Besant’s contributions had pride of place during the first year, when she produced one legend (or its continuation) at the head of the department for each issue. She published her final legend, “The Story of Hypatia” (OC 3.1.55–59), at the outset of 1884, following it with a six-part serialization of the life of Giordano Bruno during the remainder of that year.25 Bruno’s biography appeared in tandem with those of the last three “Real Heroes” authored by Robertson; after Paine and Stephenson in the first volume, the next three volumes included multi-part biographies of Isaac Newton, John Milton, Benjamin Franklin, Galileo, Michael Faraday, and Martin Luther. Starting with the third volume, Hypatia Bradlaugh became a more frequent contributor to the journal as a whole, publishing not only biographies of Wendell Phillips and Alexander Kourbanoff but also articles like “Witches and Witchcraft” (September 1884) and short adult fiction. For the last three months of 1884, she provided the lead entry for the “Young Folks Corner” (“How the World Was Made,” stipulated as “translated from the Latin of P. Ovidius Naso”), and she held that lead position through the first nine months of 1885, producing a series of short stories and retelling some Russian fables. When the “Young Folks Corner” concluded its run at the end of 1885, its final entries included the four-part “Story of Garibaldi,” by Jessie Taylor. By then Besant had finished serializing her autobiography and was turning her attention to Ireland and Socialism, and both she and Hypatia had the satisfaction of collecting their legends and other stories for book publication by the Freethought Publishing Company.26

Besides featuring mythology, biography, fiction, and puzzles, the “Young Folks Corner” also sponsored a regular section during its first year entitled “Domestic Pets.” Usually written by E.D. Fryer, these entries conveyed both a scientific and humane attitude toward animals: the full roster included the guinea pig, the rat, the rabbit, the squirrel, the Scotch Terrier, dormice, and the St. Bernard (all but the latter two illustrated with a woodcut). Going back to Bradlaugh’s entry on bullfighting in the first issue, the journal had endorsed respect for the animal kingdom and an abhorrence of violence, but outside the realm of the “Young Folks Corner,” the second year witnessed a series with a different tenor. Entitled “Our Household Pests,” this series was entirely scientific and provided practical information about avoidance and extermination; this listing included the flea, the bug, the clothes’ moth, the housefly, the cricket, the spider, and the cockroach (again all but the latter two illustrated with a woodcut). After she became a Theosophist, Besant joined the ranks of the anti-vivisectionists, but during the secularist years that encompassed her tenure as editor of Our Corner, she is likely to have concurred with the opinions expressed by Robertson in his article, “The Ethics of Vivisection” (OC 6.2.84–94). After refuting Frances Cobbe’s viewpoints as expressed in “The Moral Aspects of Vivisection,” he asserts, “Those of us who have no fixed prejudice against legislation as such can see there is a good deal to be said for the present arrangement of licenses, which puts a check on mere experiments in torture and leaves a possibility of conscientious research” (90). Presumably, such legislation was not of the “grandmotherly” type.

By now it should be clear that the “Young Folks Corner” in particular had lent itself to being illustrated, and Besant began publication of Our Corner with generous instances of engravings, photograveures, and woodcuts throughout the journal. Portraits of biographical subjects that first year seemed to establish a standard, as did the various woodcuts for the legends, domestic pets, picture puzzles, and chess positions, but as the year wore on fewer and fewer illustrations appeared, and the last issue of 1883 did not have a single illustration. During the first half of the following year, the sole depictions were those accompanying scientific articles; never more than three or four figures per article, these illustrations were simple line drawings that could not have been expensive to reproduce. After that, only one more article—”A Southern Shell” (January 1885), with its pair of line drawings—merited pictorial accompaniment for the remainder of the journal’s publication. No longer including illustrations must have affected Besant’s original conception of the “Young Folks Corner,” and undoubtedly it also influenced her decision to bring her “Peeps though a Microscope” to a close. Moreover, the Socialistic program of the second half of her editorship called more for argument than vignette.

IV. Winding Down and Winding Up

In retrospect, it is not hard to recognize that Besant’s commitment to Our Corner was winding down in 1888. All “corners” (except for two installments of the “Art Corner”) disappeared from the journal’s final volume (its subtitle had been shortened to “A Monthly Magazine” at the beginning of the year), and Besant turned over a disproportionate number of its pages to the last six installments of Shaw’s novel Love Among the Artists. This shift in ratio suggests that she had recognized at least six months before the journal’s last issue that it might cease publication, and she would surely have wanted to see the novel through to completion (the June 1888 number barely acknowledges the “Art Corner” and “Publisher’s Corner” by burying them in the background of its cover design). As for the demise of the two “corners” associated with Bradlaugh and Besant, the first half of 1888 saw installments of Bradlaugh’s “Political Corner” only three times, while the “Publishers Corner” appeared in only four of six monthly numbers. By then the increasing role of Robertson as a reviewer would suggest that he was primarily in charge of the final entries about recent publications.

Bradlaugh’s withdrawal is hardly surprising, given his break with Besant over Socialism in general and her participation in the events leading to Bloody Sunday in particular. As head of the National Secular Society he had urged its membership to withdraw, while Besant’s leadership in the Social Democratic Foundation put her at the forefront of the demonstrations. (Nonetheless, they were still on public record in support of the National Secular Society at the end of 1888; for the advertisement for the NSS’s Almanack for 1889 in the final issue of Our Corner, see figure 8.) Prior to their printed exchange about Socialism in 1887, Bradlaugh had willingly argued his opposing position on the subject in a five-part article in 1884, and he continued to average eight or nine contributions to Our Corner per year in addition to his “Political Corner” up until 1888, when he submitted only two articles, one on “The Real High Tory Programme” and the other entitled “My Parliamentary Work This Session.” Throughout the run of Our Corner, Bradlaugh served as a watchdog on Parliament, and when he concluded his summary article, he could honestly attest, “I have taken part in most of the important debates, during the Session, my chief speeches having been made on Ireland and India, but several of importance have been made on questions affecting labor” (OC 12.4.196). Often called the “Member for India,” Bradlaugh wrote two articles on India for Our Corner, “India and the Ibert Bill” (February 1884) and “Our Empire in India” (August–September 1885). He shared Besant’s views on the deplorable conditions in Ireland, making their division over Bloody Sunday all the more painful—given that it had escalated from a demonstration against coercion in Ireland.27

Fig. 8: Advertisement for The National Secular Society’s Almanack for 1889 (Advertiser for vol. 12, December 1888)
The National Secular Society's
Almanack for 1889.
The Story of the Year 1887-8. By Charles Bradlaugh.
Secular Education. By Annie Besant.
Mother's Religion. By G.W. Foote.
Jarjaille at the Good God's. (A Provencal Legend. By Alphonse Daudet.) Translated by H. Bradlaugh Bonner.
Opinion. By J.M. Robertson
Going Gloriously. By George Standring.
Freethought in Australia. By Wallace Nelson.
Land Law Reform League; National Association for the Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws; The Malthusian League; Freethought Organisation: Progress of Foreign Trade of the United Kingdom and other Countries in Recent Years; India and China -- exports and Imports during Seventeen Years; Pauperism in England and Wales; Local Debt; Religions in China; What Museums or Public Galleries are open on Sundays; Two Hundred Years' Cost of War to the British Taxpayers 1688-1886; Societies and Organisations; etc., etc.
Price Sixpence.

Bradlaugh’s last monthly contribution to Our Corner in October 1888 coincided as well with the timetable of Besant’s last entry. Entitled “Reaction and Education,” hers was a review of the report issued by the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Elementary Education Acts for England and Wales, a fitting subject for the woman who was elected that year to a three-year term on the London School Board. Women had been permitted to stand for the London School Board since 1870, while 1888 marked the first year that they could vote in local elections. Appealing to the working class, Besant’s last article concluded on a fiery note: “The ‘middle class’ has the money, but the ‘lower class’ has the voting power, and it will indeed be shortsighted and foolish if, pending the great change which will make the workers and the nation synonyms, it does not use its voting strength to recover the use of some of the wealth which is ever being made by it and ever slipping from its hands” (OC 12.4.204). Educational reform, especially for women and girls, would remain at the forefront of Besant’s goals as she went on to address the problems faced by India in the twentieth century.28

While the first four months of 1888 had witnessed publication of four articles authored by Besant, this review article was her sole contribution to the journal’s final volume. Five years later, in her post-Theosophical-conversion reassessment of her lifestory, An Autobiography, she wrote that Our Corner merely “served as a useful mouthpiece in my Socialist and Labour propagandist work” (286). This dismissive accounting of the value of Our Corner misrepresents its overall goals and accomplishments, but it does indicate the degree to which the journal had become an outlet for her political views and her frustration that her social initiatives were not resulting in immediate action. Like a number of other social visionaries of her day (Foote with both the Freethinker and Progress [1883–87] and William Morris with the Commonweal [1885–94] especially come to mind), Besant had needed the voice of her own periodical. And when neither it nor the Link fully sufficed for her aspirations, she was primed for the transformation that would occur when she acceded to the 1889 request of her coeditor, William Stead, that she review the two volumes of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine for his Pall Mall Gazette. Not only did Besant review Blavatsky’s tome for the Pall Mall Gazette (under the title “Among the Adepts” [23 April 1889]), but she also reviewed it for the National Reformer (this time as “The Evolution of the Universe” [23 June 1889]). In the interim, she wrote a two-part article for editor H.W. Massingham’s the Star entitled “Sic Itur ad Astr [thus do we reach the stars]; or, Why I Became a Theosophist” (May 1889), which acknowledged her membership in the Theosophical Society earlier that month. Seeing the proofs for this article reportedly caused Shaw to declare her “quite mad.”29

Annie Besant’s desire to foster intellectual growth and knowledge in others prompted her to seek out ingenious ways to break down boundaries between the liberal arts and sciences, to promote rationalism, and to champion Freethought. Her journal constituted an international platform as she utilized science, literature, comparative religion, and the tenets of Socialism to expose colonialism, imperialism, and fascism. From the outset, she evinced concern about conditions in Ireland. Proudly claiming her Irish heritage on the opening page of Autobiographical Sketches—”full three quarters of my blood are Irish” (OC 3.1.1)—she made it clear to her readership that exposure to anti-Irish sentiment via the mentorship of William P. Roberts, solicitor and trades-union advocate, was significant in first raising her political consciousness. As a young woman of twenty in the autumn of 1867, just a few months short of her marriage, she had stayed with Roberts and his family in Manchester immediately prior to his participation in the defense of the Fenian Five, which resulted in three public executions (OC 3.5.257–67). Our Corner became a forum where she could speak out against the land laws in Ireland that favored absentee English landlords, and in October of 1886 she initiated a column entitled “Evictions in Ireland”: “Outrages may come, and I am anxious that any whom I can influence may clearly understand the connextion between evictions and outrages, and may see how landlord oppression leads to peasant revenge” (OC 8.4.245). The following year she retitled the column “The War in Ireland,” regularly including editorial commentary and argument in addition to providing key statistics; these columns ran concurrent with the first six months of “Fabian and Socialist Notes.”30 Besant continued to be critical of the British Empire for the rest of her life, although her brand of independence for India favored its inclusion in the federation of former British colonies that constituted the Commonwealth.

Fig. 9: Advertisement for The Link, co-edited by Annie Besant and W. T. Stead (Advertiser for vol. 11, June 1888)
A Journal for the Servants of Man.
Among the articles are:
No. 1. To our Fellow Servants. By Annie Besant and W.T. Stead.
No. 1. How to Organise London. An Interview with Michael Davitt.
No. 2. The Prisons of England. By Josephine E. Butler.
No. 2. Our Duty to our M.P.'s.
No. 3. The Ground of our Hope.
No. 3. How it Strikes a Wife. By Mrs. Cunninghame Graham.
No. 4. Speeches by W. O'Brien, Michael Davitt, Prof. Stuart, Annie Besant, W.T. Stead, and others.
No. 5. How each one can help all.
No. 5. How Criminals are created.
No. 6. The battle of the Square in Parliament.
No. 7. Inquiry into the Poor Law.
No. 8. The Control of the Police.
No. 9. The Duties and Dangers of Democracy.
No. 10. Labor Candidates.
No. 10. The Saints of the Service of Man.
No. 11. Utilisation of City Churches.
No. 11. The Service of Man. A lecutre by Annie Besant.
No. 12. Civic Duty.
No. 12. Matthew Arnold's Saviors of Society.
No. 13. Open-air Meetings.
No. 13. How to Register.
No. 14. For Pope or Poor.
No. 14. Confiscation.
[Nos. 12, 13, 14, post free for 2d., contain a full report of the Lancet Commission of Enquiry into the Sweating Dens of Manchester and Liverpool]
No. 15. The Help of the Poor against the Mighty.
No. 16. Cheap Goods.
No. 16. Justice Insulted from the Bench.
Yearly Subscription, 2/2; post free. 4/4.
One quire (26 copies), 9d.; post free, 1s.

Introducing a recurring “Socialist Notes” section to Our Corner had made Besant’s radical Socialism more conspicuous, and she became much less in demand as a lecturer for the National Secular Society. Without the remuneration from her lectures, and because she eschewed the revenue she might have gleaned from external advertising, neither Our Corner nor the Link was solvent (for an example of how Besant advertised the Link in Our Corner, see figure 9). All along, Besant was unusual in paying her contributors up front, but now she was out of funds. Fellow Socialist Edward Carpenter reported that when he had submitted an article to Our Corner in July 1888, she replied, “[ b]efore accepting I must say that my poor Corner is on its last legs and is not able to pay contributors. I am out of pocket every month and have spent on it all I could spare.”31 When both Our Corner and the Link stopped publishing at the end of 1888, Besant found herself not working in an editorial capacity for any periodical publication for the first time in almost fifteen years. Invigorated by the experience of being at the helm of such a stalwart vehicle as Our Corner for six years, Annie Besant was nonetheless disheartened not to win over more adherents to the Socialist causes she espoused. Yet once she began to explore the promise of comparative religion—a topic unleashed during her editorship of Our Corner—she was poised to make the quantum leap to Theosophy the following year.

The University of Texas at Austin



1. Before the end of 1885, Autobiographical Sketches was republished in book form by the Freethought Publishing Company (London). This volume has long been out of print, but that omission has been rectified by the critical edition edited by Carol Hanbery MacKay (Petersborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2009); this edition also reproduces the cabinet photograph of Besant that appeared as frontispiece to the book edition. In 1893, four years after converting to Theosophy, Besant rewrote her lifestory as An Autobiography (London: T. Fisher Unwin), and the Theosophical Society has kept that volume in reprint ever since. In the interim, Besant penned one other selfaccounting, “1875 to 1891: An Autobiographical Fragment” (Theosophical Publishing Society), in an effort to reestablish a dialogue with her by then alienated Secularist constituency. Our Corner was issued in twelve volumes, with six numbers for each half of the calendar year; parenthetical citations within the body of the text refer to volume and issue number, followed by the designated pagination.

2. Journalist William Thomas Stead (1849–1912) had founded and edited the Northern Echo in 1871, and he assisted John Morley in editing the Pall Mall Gazette for three years before assuming its sole editorship (1883–90). Three years after co-founding the Link with Besant (see their co-authored article, “To Our Fellow Servants,” Link [4 Feb. 1888]), he published “A Character Sketch” of her in his own journal, in which he predicted that she would one day take her seat in the House of Commons alongside Mrs. Fawcett; see Review of Reviews 3 (Oct. 1891): 349–67; rpt. Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1946, 100 pp.

3. See Onslow, Women of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Macmillan, 2000), 216, and Coolsen’s History dissertation, “The Evolution of Selected Major English Socialist Periodicals, 1883–1889” (American University, 1973). In this respect, Deborah Mutch is correct not to include Our Corner in her recent book, English Socialist Periodicals, 1880–1900: A Reference Source (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); she does, however, provide listings of Besant’s articles on Socialism in other journals, as well as citations to her various letters to the editor on the subject.

4. We can track this increased availability by way of the British Library Catalogue of Microfilm of Newspapers and Journals Sale for 1983–1984. For the two microform resources, see University Microfilms, Early British Periodicals Series (Ann Arbor: Xerox Company, 1979), reels 225–26; and Rare Radical and Labour Periodicals of Great Britain, Part II: Marxism and the Machine Age, 1867–1914 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1983), 2 reels. The entries for each volume are indexed according to title or department (the index is always found at the head of each volume, thus serving as a table of contents), but digital search mode would, of course, be ideal. Working toward this end, Google Books have recently digitalized several volumes from the originals at the New York Public Library and Princeton University Library. See standard descriptive listing no. 17,080 in John S. North (ed.), Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800–1900, phase 2, vol. 5 (University of Waterloo: North Waterloo Academic Press, 1997), 3661–63. For further information that is regularly updated, see The Nineteenth Century Index, online at <C19index.chadwyck. com/marketing/index.jsp>.

5. See Thompson, Socialists, Liberals, and Labour: The Struggle for London, 1885–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), 32. It is still possible, however, that some of the publication records for Our Corner exist among the Besant Papers, Theosophical Society, Adyar, India, and I am hopeful that further archival study will bring them to light.

6. This lecture first appeared in print as an article in the National Reformer in 1874; later that year, it was published as a freestanding pamphlet (12 pp.) by the National Secular Society; Watts republished it in 1877; and then in 1885, Besant and Bradlaugh reprinted it under the auspices of their Freethought Publishing Company. It is republished in its entirety in Appendix D of the Broadview edition of Autobiographical Sketches (330–40). Bradlaugh’s younger daughter Hypatia recalls his saying that it was the best speech he ever heard; see “Personal Reminiscences,” Bradlaugh Family Papers, Bishopsgate Institute, London.

7. Bradlaugh and Besant republished American physician Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People (1832) as a test case of the English obscenity laws. Through their edition, now subtitled An Essay on the Population Question, they sought to establish the right to publish contraceptive information. For the circumstances surrounding the Knowlton Trial, as well as for the pertinent documentation authored by Besant, see S. Chandrasekhar, A Dirty, Filthy Book: The Writings of Charles Knowlton and Annie Besant on Reproductive Physiology and Birth Control and an Account of the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981). For the full transcript of the trial, see The Queen v. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant (Specially Reported by the Queen’s Bench Division, June 18th, 1877), published by the Freethought Publishing Company immediately after its resolution.

8. The Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870 came too late to assist Besant in her effort to retain payment for her first publication. Her husband, the Reverend Frank Besant, immediately laid claim to the thirty shillings she earned from the short story entitled “Sunshine and Shade—A Tale Founded on Fact,” published under the initials of her maiden name (“A.W.”) in The Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine 26.300 (2 May 1868): 6–8.

9. Besides co-founding the Central Hindu College in Benares in 1898, Besant actively engaged in Indian politics and was elected the first female President of India’s National Congress in 1917. In 1914 she founded two newspapers in India, the weekly Commonweal and the daily New India. In general, Besant’s Indian biographers have been much less judgmental than Westerners in recounting her life; see, for example, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, Annie Besant (Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1963), as well as In Honour of Dr. Annie Besant: Lectures by Eminent Persons, 1952–1988 (Kamachha: Indian Section of the Theosophical Society, 1990).

10. The Freethought Publishing Company had previously printed Büchner’s freestanding pamphlet, The Influence of Heredity on Free Will, in 1880, and Besant published another article by him in 1886, “The Origin and Progress of Religion” (OC 7.1.14–21). See also Besant’s review of his Force and Matter (1855; trans. 1887; OC 10.1.39–44). Büchner’s last appearance in the pages of Our Corner occurred in 1887 with the publication of “Freethought and Philosophic Doctrines: Considerations on Spiritualism, Materialism, and Positivism.” Read for him at the London International Freethought Conference in a French translation by Dr. De Paepe, it concludes with the following question: “For to what purpose are the most subtly thought-out philosophical systems, if they do not put us in a position to add to the well-being and happiness of mankind?” (OC 10.4.218).

11. Although Besant had already begun to make G.W. Foote jealous because of her close association with Bradlaugh and her rapid rise within the ranks of the National Secular Society, her comments about his “barbed” Arrows of Freethought (London: H.A. Kemp) in this issue undoubtedly contributed to his animosity; she writes, “It always seems to me a sorry amusement to burlesque other people’s deities” (OC 1.1.51). The Freethought Publishing Company catalogue for 1904 lists 52 titles by Foote, including “Mrs. Besant’s Theosophy,” “The New Cagliostro” (an open letter to Blavatsky), and “Is Socialism Sound?” (his four-night debate with Besant). The Freethinker, founded in 1881 and edited by Foote, is still in print today; it is the longest running Freethought publication.

12. Named after the American abolitionist and liberal clergyman Moncure Conway (1832–1907), Conway Hall Humanist Centre in Red Lion Square (founded in 1929) is the present home of the Ethical Society, originally headquartered at South Place Chapel, Finsbury, London, where Conway served as minister before his conversion to humanistic Freethought. Its library houses the records of the National Secular Society, including a complete run of Our Corner; see also the ongoing publications of the Ethical Record and the National Secular Society Bulletin for occasional references to and articles about Besant. Other holdings of the NSS, most notably the Bradlaugh Papers, are on deposit at the Workingman’s Library, Bishopsgate. Conway Hall is currently the site of monthly meetings of The Shaw Society.

13. Joynes’s use of the masculine pronoun would continue to be reflected in the rhetoric of the Theosophical Society about “brotherhood” and the longterm future of “mankind.” Despite her feminism and her genuine support of women’s suffrage, Besant participated in this same rhetoric, although Joy Dixson makes an excellent case for Besant transcending gender considerations; see “Sexology and the Occult: Sexuality and Subjectivity in Theosophy’s New Age,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7.3 (1997): 409–33. See also Robert Ellwood and Catherine Wessinger, “The Feminism of ‘Universal Brotherhood’: Women in the Theosophical Movement,” Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations Outside the Mainstream, ed. Wessinger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 68–87, for elaboration of this topic.

14. Part of the rationale for the Broadview edition of Autobiographical Sketches has been to make available ready comparison of these two instances of self-writing; it is especially instructive to examine Besant’s first autobiographical undertaking in terms of selectivity and emphasis. Besant did not think that being a Theosophist and a Secularist (or, for that matter, a Socialist) were incompatible. The Freethought Publishing Company continued to list her “Why I Became a Theosophist” (1890), along with her cabinet photograph, while Bradlaugh was still alive, and after his death in 1891 many of their co-authored publications stayed on the roster. For an archive specific to Freethought, see the collection acquired in 1976 from Pickering & Chatto (London) by the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington IN (BL 2747; 11 boxes of circa 400 pamphlets, broadsheets, and other ephemera).

15. This “Notes” section is fronted by a full-page Fabian Society logo and motto, first introduced in the March 1886 issue of Our Corner (187–92); besides the cover designs, it is the sole interior pictorial representation— with the single exception noted in the upcoming discussion on illustrations— after June 1884. The section’s regular subdivisions are headed as follows: Basis (of Socialism), Aim, Methods, Branches (in London), England, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and America. Interestingly, the last four numbers of the journal no longer include any Socialist section.

16. Another popular debate—“Will Socialism Benefit the English People?”— had been conducted between Bradlaugh and Henry Mayers Hyndman, editor of Justice, on 17 April 1884 at St. James’s Hall; the verbatim record was printed two days later in Justice and then reprinted as a freestanding booklet by Arthur Bonner.

17. Strangely enough, the issue for April 1885 in which Besant launched Shaw’s career as a novelist is also the only one not to include an installment of her own Autobiographical Sketches during its year-and-a-half run. A brief entry in the National Reformer, undoubtedly written by Bradlaugh, announced that she was ill that month, thereby also explaining the hiatus of her regular NR column, “Day-break.”

18. The last of Shaw’s novels to be published, Immaturity (Constable, 1931), was actually the first written (in 1879). None of the publication dates of his novels followed the order of their writing, and in general they have been adjudged as failures. Most bibliographies do not acknowledge the first appearance of The Irrational Knot and Love Among the Artists in Our Corner, citing instead their first book publications, both occurring after the turn of the century.

19. Bradlaugh’s daughter was a prolific contributor to Our Corner, as will be noted in subsequent mention of her scientific and biographical articles as well as her tales for the “Young Folks Corner.” Her relations with Besant would always be delicate, however, as both she and her sister Alice resented the long hours Bradlaugh spent working with Besant. Hypatia married Freethought printer Arthur Bonner in mid-1885; later that autumn she published another article noteworthy for its feminist argument, “Anti-Slavery Women” (OC 6.3.167–70).

20. As Shaw’s successor, Mary Reed would remake the “Art Corner” into a forum for reviewing art gallery openings and discussing the reputation of painting worldwide. She also wrote an extended review of the play Ariane, about the still-controversial subject of divorce (OC 11.4.261–62). During the last six months of Our Corner, she came increasingly to the fore in her own right as a critic of the realistic school of painting; see especially her two independent articles, “Some Minor Variations in Realism” (OC 12.5.291– 95) and “Realism Once More” (OC 12.6.376–83). For more information featuring Reed’s and Cracknell’s contributions, see Virginia Clark, “The Freethought Lens: The Arts Commentaries in Annie Besant’s Our Corner, Her Freethought/Fabian Socialist Monthly, 1883–1886,” Journal of Freethought History 1.2 (2004): 1–4.

21. See also Besant’s review essay of August Bebel’s Women in the Past, Present, and Future (OC 6.2.94–98), as well as her article “The Economic Position of Women” (OC 10.2.95–99).

22. Aveling’s personal and financial affairs came under increased critical scrutiny by his former colleagues. While separated from his wife (whom he had deserted), he lived for over a decade with Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, and while Our Corner was still in publication, he co-authored two books with Eleanor, The Factory Hell (1885) and The Woman Question (1886). Upon his wife’s death in 1897, however, he married someone else, and shortly thereafter Eleanor committed suicide.

23. Already a frequent contributor to both the National Reformer and Our Corner, Robertson was persuaded by Besant to move from Edinburgh to London in 1884. Like Besant, he did not find Secularism and Socialism incompatible, although by the time he succeeded Bradlaugh to the editorship of NR, his Socialism had tempered. After Bradlaugh’s death, he assisted Hypatia Bonner with her publication of Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work by His Daughter, With an Account of His Parliamentary Struggle, Politics, and Teachings by John M. Robertson, 2 vols. (London: T.F. Unwin, 1895). His open mind made him less dismissive of Besant than many of his compatriots when she converted to Theosophy. He was elected to Parliament 1906–18.

24. Besant would have been dismayed to learn of Huxley’s participation in the debate about denying her right to pursue botany studies at the Benthamite Foundation. Although he acknowledged to Aveling that she “was once a student—and a very hard-working student of my class at South Kensington” (30 May 1883; Bradlaugh Papers), he later wrote to solicitor Henry Crompton, “I have no objection to her exclusion” (16 July 1883; private possession of Gustavo Duran); see citation to the latter quotation in David Tribe, President Charles Bradlaugh, M.P. (London: Elek Books, 1971), 359.

25. By telling the story of Hypatia, the Neo-Platonist scholar and martyr, Besant seemingly draws unsettling attention to Bradlaugh’s daughter of the same name. The conclusion of Besant’s biography of Bruno quotes his epitaph: “To know how to die in one’s century is to live for all centuries to come” (OC 4.3.185).

26. These two collections are Besant’s Legends and Tales (1885) and Hypatia’s Princess Vera and Other Stories (1886), both published as part of the Young Folks Library; if they had plans for extending the series, they did not come to fruition.

27. Throughout publication of Our Corner, Bradlaugh was clearly much appreciated and honored. For an unusual example of this recognition, see the (unacknowledged) acrostic poem that spells out his name in rather affectionate terms (OC 4.2.87). See also the article on Bradlaugh by S. Van Houten, Member of the Dutch Parliament, written for an entry in the series entitled “Contemporary Men of Note”: “A clear and firm foreign policy I have during the last few years only noticed in the Radical prints [press]” (OC 5.6.368). Even after Besant converted to Theosophy, they managed to retain a guarded friendship. For Besant, Bradlaugh would always hold a special place; of their first meeting, she later wrote, “As friends, not as strangers, we met—swift recognition, as it were, leaping from eye to eye” (Autobiography 137).

28. Besant was instrumental in leading the fight to create free public education, as well as to introduce the concept of free lunches for those who needed them. For a detailed discussion of her role on the London School Board, see Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865– 1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 110–22 especially. See also Besant, Education as a National Duty (1903) and The Education of Indian Girls (1904), both published by the Theosophical Publishing Company (London, Benares, and Adyar).

29. Long after the fact, Shaw recalls confronting Besant about the astonishing news that she had converted to Theosophy and being even more astounded by her jocular response: “She said she supposed that since she had, as a Theosophist, become a vegetarian, her mind may have been affected”; see “Annie Besant and the ‘Secret Doctrine,’” The Freethinker 67 (14 Dec. 1947): 450. They had become estranged over his failure to participate in the Trafalgar Square demonstrations, although she still contributed a chapter on “Industry under Socialism” for his edited collection, Fabian Essays in Socialism (London: Walter Scott, 1889), 150–69.

30. For an early example of how Besant recognized that the farmers in England constituted natural allies of the working class, see her article entitled “Landlords, Tenant Farmers, and Laborers” (National Reformer 1877; rpt. Freethought Publishing Company); see Appendix D of the 2009 edition of Autobiographical Sketches (344–52).

31. The article in question is Carpenter’s “Democracy” (OC 12.3.208–10). Besant’s letter to Carpenter is dated 7 July 1889; see the Carpenter Papers, City of Sheffield Central Library, MSS 386. I am indebted to Anne Taylor for drawing my attention to this correspondence; see Annie Besant: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 220. Taylor also highlights Carpenter’s ‘more detached and generous assessment of [Besant’s] contribution” (183): “She helped to batter down the ruins of the stupefied old Anglican Church; she gave the general mind a wholesome shock on the Malthusian question; she dotted out clearly the main lines of the socialist movement” (Carpenter, My Days and Dreams [London: Allen & Unwin, 1916], 221). But neither Taylor nor Besant’s other substantive biographer, Arthur H. Nethercot, provides an impartial account of her life; note the mocking titles of his two-volume biography, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960 and 1963).

Works Consulted

Beetham, Margaret. A Magazine of Her Own?: Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800–1914. London: Routledge, 1996.

Brake, Laurel, and Julie F. Codell, eds. Encounters in the Victorian Press: Editors, Authors, Readers. London: Palgrave, 2005.

Brake, Laurel, Aled Jones, and Lionel Madden, eds. Investigating Victorian Journalism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Brake, Laurel, Bill Bell and David Finkelstein, eds. Nineteenth-Century Media and the Construction of Identities. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000.

Brown, Lucy. Victorian News and Newspapers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Cantor, Geoffrey, Gowan Dawson, Graeme Gooday, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttlesworth, and Jonathan R. Topham. Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Fraser, Hilary, Stephanie Green, and Judith Johnston. Gender and the Victorian Periodical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Harris, Janice. “Not Suffering and Not Still: Women Writers at the Cornhill Magazine, 1860–1900.” Modern Language Quarterly 47.4 (1986): 382–92.

Harris, Michael, and Alan Lee, eds. The Press in English Society from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries. London: Associated University Presses, 1986.

Hughes, Linda. “Turbulence in the ‘Golden Stream’: Chaos Theory and the Study of Periodicals.” Victorian Periodicals Review 22.3 (1989): 117–25.

King, Andrew, and John Plunkett, eds. Victorian Print Media: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lacey, Colin, and David Longman. The Press as Public Educator: Cultures of Understanding, Cultures of Ignorance. Luton: University of Luton Press, 1997.

MacKenzie, Norman and Jeanne. The First Fabians. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1977.

Madden, Lionel, and Diana Dixon. The Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press in Great Britain: A Bibliography of Modern Studies, 1901–1971. New York: Garland, 1975.

Palmegiano, E.M. “Mid-Victorian Periodicals and Careers for Women.” Journal of Newspaper and Periodical History 6.2 (1990): 15–19 .

Shattock, Joanne, and Michael Wolff, eds. The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1982.

Turner, Mark W. “Toward a Cultural Critique of Victorian Periodicals.” Studies in Newspaper and Periodical History. 1995 Annual. Ed. Michael Harris and Tom O’Malley. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 111–25.

Vann, J. Don, and Rosemary T. VanArsdel, eds. Victorian Periodicals: A Guide to Research. 2 vols. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978 and 1989.

Wiener, Joel H., ed. Innovators and Preachers: The Role of the Editor in Victorian England. Contributions to the Study of Mass Media and Communication, no. 5. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Wolff, Michael. “Charting the Golden Stream: Thoughts on a Directory of Victorian Periodicals.” Victorian Periodicals Newsletter no. 13 (1971): 23–38.
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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#2)

Postby admin » Sun Apr 12, 2020 1:05 am

Fruits of Philosophy trial
by National Secular Society
Accessed: 4/11/20

The Bradlaugh and Besant edition of Knowlton's 'Fruits of Philosophy'.

The Fruits of Philosophy was a relatively obscure publication which provided elementary (but not entirely accurate) contraceptive information. It was originally published by a New England doctor named Dr Charles Knowlton in 1832.

In 1834 James Watson brought out the first English edition. It achieved steady if unspectacular sales in the years that followed. In 1875 the plates were purchased by Charles Watts, who had helped Bradlaugh found the NSS [National Secular Society]. Watts became the new publisher.

The pamphlet was propelled into the public eye in 1876 when a Bristol bookseller, Henry Cook, was sentenced to two years' hard labour for selling it.

Types of Punishment: Hard Labour. Hard Labour within Prisons
by Victorian Crime & Punishment
Accessed: 4/11/20

As an element of segregation became part of a prison sentence, for both petty and serious crimes, hard labour was often carried out in a prisoner's cell or under guard in silence.

Most prisons had a treadmill or tread wheel installed, where the prisoner simply walked the wheel. In some prisons, such as Bedford in the earlier part of the 19th century, the treadmill provided flour to make money for the gaol, from which the prisoners earned enough to pay for their keep. However, in later times, there was no end product and the treadmill was walked just for punishment. It became loathed by the prisoners.

Another equally pointless device was the Crank. This was a large handle, in their cell, that a prisoner would have to turn, thousands of times a day. This could be tightened by the warders, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of 'screws'. These punishments were not abolished until 1898.

The little procession started towards the Police Station winding its way back through narrow brick-paved gulleys of the village. The shopkeepers came to the door of their shops, with their hands folded in greeting. The women crowded on the flat roofs to see us go, and sighed in the doorways. A few young men and boys began to attach themselves to the little group and shouted wildly 'Freedom for India. Long live Gandhiji. Long live Jawaharlal Nehru. Long live Comrade Bedi. Release the detenues.' We reached the elegant grey Amritsar car parked under the peepul tree near the only pucca road. Garlands were thrown over the radiator of the car, through the windows. They were removed immediately: 'garlands not allowed'.

At the village police station, Freda was questioned by the police officer she had nicknamed Old Bill, who she later discovered had 'Irish blood and a kind heart' -- though the interrogation was limited to questions along the lines of 'What colour would you call your hair?' Under the wartime regulations, trials under the Defence of India Act could be held straightaway and without any legal formality or indeed representation. Freda was taken from the police station to the dak bungalow, the guest house where visiting officials stayed, and that's where her trial took place that same morning:

It was finished in fifteen minutes. The man on the other side of the table was quite young still, and looked as though he had been to Oxford. His face was red.

'I find this as unpleasant as you do,' he murmured.

'Don't worry. I don't find it unpleasant at all.'

'Do you want the privileges granted to an Englishwoman?'

'Treat me as an Indian woman and I shall be quite content.'

... The room was deserted but there was a noise, and two Congressmen walked in. They had been allowed at the last minute to attend the 'public trial'. They carried a round shining brass tray filled with flowers and sweetmeats.

Wait until you have heard my judgment, perhaps you will not want to give them then.'

Six months Rigorous Imprisonment.

'She cannot have the garlands. Give her one or two of the sweets.'

Freda had expected the jail sentence, but not the specification of rigorous imprisonment. 'Hard labour was the point,' she said many years later, 'and none of the Indians arrested got hard labour in the Punjab except myself. None of the women at least. Whether it was the ignorance of the young civil servant, Englishman, who gave the sentence, very regretfully and with many apologies .... Or whether it was that they wanted to make an example of me because I was the first, maybe, western woman to offer satyagraha at that time.' Once the sentence was pronounced, Freda was put back in the car which was mobbed by well-wishers, many of them members of the Bedi clan, as it set off to Lahore jail....

Freda shared a cell with 'two very lovely women of the old type', as she described them -- both were brahmins and vegetarians as well as political campaigners. She gave them English lessons, and in return was helped in her Hindi. 'Both Lakshmi and Savitri remain for me an example of beautiful Indian womanhood: self-sacrificing, simple, cheerful. Naturally pure. And it was a great privilege to spend three months sharing a room with them. I shall never forget it. They both excelled in simple Indian cookery, making maize cakes and vegetables, and insisted on doing this little service for me. And I found time in the early mornings to meditate, at dawn under the trees in the jail compound, before my labour started -- which took the form of gardening.'

She was fortunate that her hard labour consisted of running the prison gardens
-- a much more congenial option than the laundry or picking ropes or other punishment labour. 'It's still delirious with young leaves and the scent of orange blossom, the cooing of doves, the screech of parrots, an early owl hooting,' she wrote in mid-March. In a replication inside jail of the class hierarchy outside, she was put in charge of a group of 'criminal' prisoners in tending to the flowers and vegetables in the small prison grounds. Freda liked the work, which brought to mind the huts in Model Town, and she relished the opportunity to get to know the other inmates and something of the circumstances that led to their jailing.

-- The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi, by Andrew Whitehead

To Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant's consternation, Watts -– their close associate -– agreed to the destruction of the printer's plates and his stock. Confronted with the prospect of a prison sentence, he argued that the pamphlet was not worth fighting over.

Bradlaugh and Besant responded by founding their own Freethought Publishing Company at 28 Stonecutter Street (near Fleet Street). This publishing works and radical booksellers was to become the NSS headquarters for the rest of the century. Bradlaugh and Besant republished the pamphlet, modified the text a little, and attempted to bring it up to date with medical footnotes by Dr George Drysdale. From the outset they were determined to test the law.

There was nothing in the pamphlet that was unknown to medical practitioners or which had not been published before. The issue was that it was being published at a price (sixpence) that made it available to ordinary working people.

Annie Besant at the time of the Knowlton pamphlet trial

At 4 p.m. Saturday 24 March the new edition went on sale and 500 copies were sold in the first twenty minutes, including some to the police.

On Thursday 5 April 1877, Bradlaugh and Besant were arrested and charged for breaching the Obscene Publications Act 1857. They were committed to trial at the Old Bailey and the case was brought before the Queen's Bench on 18 June amidst great publicity. The case was tried by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn. The Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, led the prosecution. This highlighted the importance of the case.

Both Bradlaugh and Besant conducted their own defence; this was unusual in any event, but remarkable for a woman in the 1870's. The trial lasted four days before a divided jury returned a qualified guilty verdict. However, the story did not end there because Bradlaugh then managed to have the judgment set aside on a technicality concerning the wording of the original indictment.

'We wrote a letter to the district magistrate,' Freda recalled, 'saying that we would break the law by asking the people not to support the military effort until India became democratic and that India must get her elected government first. But since we sent the letter, we effectively prevented ourselves from speaking because on the day we were supposed to speak we were naturally arrested before this happened.'....Her intention was to shout anti-war slogans in Punjabi in the village streets. She heard that the local inspector had summoned an English officer from Amritsar, thinking it best to have an Englishman to hand when an Englishwoman was placed under arrest. 'At eight-thirty they arrived. In the centre was the local Inspector with a beard. He came forward politely, "regretting that it is my duty but I must arrest you." The turbanned police-officer on his left had a half-smile. To the right was the European Inspector from Amritsar in an unwieldy topee [hat]. He was surprisingly small and had a walrus moustache. He looked like Old Bill: I wanted to laugh, and the corners of my mouth twitched. "Yes, I am quite ready. Take me along with you.'"...

In mid-May 1941, word began to circulate in the jail that some of the women were to be released, because of a ruling that an intention to challenge the wartime regulations was not a sufficient basis for conviction. If activists had not publicly challenged India's involvement in the war, then they had not broken the law. The rumours turned out to be true.

-- The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi, by Andrew Whitehead

Another veteran freethought bookseller was not so fortunate. Edward Truelove received a sentence of four months in prison and a fine of £50.

Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant had become household names. In the eyes of some they were notorious. To others they were heroes.

During the last 20 years of the 19th century the birth rate began to decline. The Fruits of Philosophy was replaced by more modern birth control pamphlets such as Annie Besant's own The Law of Population and Henry Allbutt's The Wife's Handbook. These were widely sold and distributed in their hundreds of thousands by booksellers and publishers associated with the NSS.

There had been a cost, because not all secularists had agreed with the stance taken by Bradlaugh and Besant. But by 1880 all that changed: secularists reunited behind Bradlaugh over his struggle to enter parliament.

A book by Roger Manwell documented the trial of Besant and Bradlaugh
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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#2)

Postby admin » Sun Apr 12, 2020 2:22 am

Part 1 of 3

Our story: 150 years of the National Secular Society: The NSS has been on the forefront of campaigning for a fairer, secular society for over 150 years. We have gone from being prosecuted for blasphemy to being instrumental in its abolition.
by National Secular Society
Accessed: 4/11/20


Our story began in 1866 when a large number of secularist groups from around the UK came together to strengthen their campaigns. Their leader was Charles Bradlaugh. Since those early days the National Secular Society has pioneered many important social reforms and society has changed a lot.

For centuries, religion-based laws forbade entry for non-believers into parliament. They banned abortion, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, blasphemy and even cremation. Those laws have now been dismantled; human rights and equality for minorities are broadly accepted and protected by law.

In the struggles to bring about these reforms, the NSS has always played a prominent role and sometimes a decisive one.

To mark our 150th anniversary in 2016 the National Secular Society commissioned a portrait bust of Charles Bradlaugh which is now on display in the Palace of Westminster as part of the Parliamentary Art Collection. We also produced an anniversary brochure giving a potted history of our first 150 years.

Read on to find out more about our story, and some of the significant historical events and people that illustrate the NSS's rich history.

Explore our story

Our archives

Following a collaborative archival project between Bishopsgate Institute and the Conway Hall Ethical Society, the National Secular Society's historical archives are now available to the public at Conway Hall.

The National Secular Society: The First 150 Years 1866 – 2016  


Like any organisation that has campaigned to make radical changes to the constitutional structure of our country, the National Secular Society has encountered much resistance, and this has been true throughout its 150 year history.

Founded in 1866 by Charles Bradlaugh, a brilliant orator and self-taught lawyer and later to become a radical politician, the ambitions of the NSS have met with successes and defeats in almost equal measure. On the credit side, religion-based laws that for centuries forbade entry for non-believers into Parliament and had banned abortion, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, blasphemy — and even cremation — have been dismantled. Human rights and equality for minorities are now accepted and protected by law. In the struggles to bring about these reforms, the NSS has always played a prominent role and sometimes a decisive one.

On the debit side, the Anglican and Catholic Churches still have a disproportionate hold on our education system, and despite its diminishing size and reduced influence among the population, the Church of England remains established by law, a status that brings with it many unjustified privileges – including representation as of right in Parliament.

Bradlaugh, as you will see from the following pages, was denied a seat in Parliament — despite being repeatedly reelected — simply because he was an atheist. At that time, the swearing of a religious oath by parliamentarians was mandatory. Through dogged determination, Bradlaugh overcame religious objections and his Oaths Act made it possible for MPs to have a choice to affirm rather than take an oath.

Bradlaugh’s attacks on religion, particularly on the outrageous privileges of the Established Church, were brilliant, scorching and necessary. More recently, though, as the Church of England and its influence has dramatically withered away, the NSS has changed its focus to one that is neutral on religion.

Today the Society’s focus is on the struggle to build a more equal, inclusive and just society based on secularism and on the application of universal human rights.Basing our activities on our Secular Charter, we continue to oppose religious privilege and to propose a society that is far more suited to the diverse nation that Britain has become in the 21st century.

Of course, secularism alone cannot stop religious conflicts, but it can prevent the power of the state being used by any particular religion to persecute others.

Secularism only works when it is an adjunct of democracy, when it is willingly accepted by the majority. It is the job of the National Secular Society now to persuade Britain that secularism is a friend and not an enemy. We must put a convincing case that the time has come to formulate a new secular constitution that is fair to all, and gives privilege to none.

In other parts of the world where secularism has been established constitutionally – such as in Turkey – we have seen how fragile it can be when faced by determined theocrats. In many other parts of the world we can see how religion can be recruited so easily to support the political ambitions of tyrants and demagogues. Throughout the Middle East and to a degree in Russia, religion has become a tool of manipulation and division. Even in the USA, where the establishment of religion is forbidden by the constitution, theocrats are finding ingenious ways of undermining and damaging the first amendment. In France, where state and church were strictly separated in 1905, the rise of Islam has posed grave threats to the traditional concept of laïcité.

I am proud to be the twelfth President of the National Secular Society and I value being part of its long tradition and history. It continues to evolve to meet the changes in society. We all still have much to do. The need for secularism has never been more pressing. The fight must continue.

Terry Sanderson

'Secularism' to Mean a Positive Alternative to Atheism: 1851 Secularism Defined
by George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906)

Secularism Defined
George Jacob Holyoake

George Jacob Holyoake, a British secularist and newspaper editor who was prosecuted for blasphemy in 1842, adopted the word ‘secularism’ to mean a positive alternative to atheism – ‘the province of the real’. Secularist groups formed under the influence of Owenite socialist groups.

Civil Marriages Introduced

The Church of England’s stranglehold on marriage was broken by the Marriage Act which created the possibility of civil marriages for Roman Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, non-conformists and atheists. It was fiercely resisted by the Church of England, with the Bishop of Exeter calling it “a disgrace to British legislation”. Until that time, the only legally recognised marriages were those conducted on Church of England premises by Anglican clergy. Eventually registry offices were established to facilitate civil marriages with no religious character.

The Church of England’s stranglehold on marriage… and atheists

The young Charles Bradlaugh adopted the pseudonym ‘Iconoclast’ to protect his employer’s reputation (1861)

NSS Founded by
Charles Bradlaugh

As an avowed atheist, republican, promoter of the right of women to vote and advocate of birth control, Charles Bradlaugh became one of Victorian England’s most detested and, at the same time, admired men. He was a great orator and filled venues of many thousands throughout the UK (which then included all of Ireland). He founded the NSS in 1866. In the same year, the periodical The National Reformer was started in Sheffield and became a kind of diary of the organisation. The founding principles of the NSS were: “to promote human happiness, to fight religion as an obstruction, to attack the legal barriers to Freethought” and its objects were “Freethought propaganda, parliamentary action to remove disabilities, secular schools and instruction classes, mutual help and a fund for the distressed. “

The NSS was formed as a national society, a federation of the numerous local secular societies throughout Britain.

Bradlaugh The Republican

A Trafalgar Square meeting to protest against grants to the royal family was banned. Bradlaugh defiantly reconvened it and warned the Home Secretary that his threat of force would be resisted. The Government backed down and rescinded the ban half an hour before the start of the demonstration. Bradlaugh stepped down temporarily from the Presidency of the NSS.

Bradlaugh Resists the Ban on Public Meetings of Secularists

After some attendees at a secularist rally in Hyde Park had been convicted in court, Bradlaugh together with the Reform League called a mass protest meeting. Although the military was on standby to confront the demonstrators, they were allowed to pass without interference, thereby establishing the right to peaceful assembly. The regulations banning such gatherings were annulled, and the Home Secretary Walpole resigned. Bradlaugh resumed his presidency of the NSS, after calling for the Royal Family to be impeached.

No 5 Bacchus Walk, Hoxton – Bradlaugh’s birthplace in 1833

Principles of Secularism, an early version of the Secular Charter

Principles of Secularism.

1. Secularism is a name given to a series of principles of Positivism, intended for the guidance of those who find Theology indefinite, or inadequate, or deem it unreliable.

2. A Secularist is one who gives special attention to those speculations the impact of which can be tested by the experience of this life.

3. Secularism seeks to discern what is in nature; studies what ought to be in morals, and selects the affirmative in exposition. It concerns itself with the real, the right, and the constructive.

4. Its moral basis is, that justification by sincerity is a higher and nobler truth than justification by faith.

5. Its province of study is the order rather than the origin of Nature, the study of the laws or oeprations of Nature being the most fruitful for human guidance.

6. Its theory of morals; that there exists guarantees of pure morality in human nature -- utility, experience, and intelligence; that conduct is the true source of acceptability; that human service is the noblest prayer, and work the highest worship.

7. Secularism teaches that science is the available providence of man.

8. Secularism teaches that conscience is higher than consequences.

9. Secularism teaches that the methods of mind are as uniform and as calculable as the methods of nature, and that whoever masters the process of human affairs may come to control the results.

10. Secularism teaches that human nature is improveable under well-understood conditions.

11. Secularism teaches that the dependence or the well-being of one depends upon all, that care for others is a matter of well-understood self-defence.

12. Secularism teaches the moral innocence of all sincere opinion, that sincerity, though not errorless, involves the least chance of error and is without moral guilt.

13. Secularism teaches that service and endurance are the chief personal duties of man.

14. Secularism teaches that no man or woman is accountable to others for any conduct by which others are not injured or damaged.

15. Its sphere of controversy: the criticism of sacred books and existing religions, only in those respects in which they seem to contradict ascertained moral truths and are impediments to a rational progress.

16. Its objects are to develop those sentiments which have their sources in human nature -- which impel and ennoble all morality -- which are grounded upon intelligent personal conviction, and which manifest themselves in worthy and noble actions, especially in the promotion of Truth, Justice, and Love.

17. Secularism teaches that retribution ought to be immediate, proportionate, and corrective, in contrast to being remote, eternal, and vindictive.

18. As to authority: Secularism recognizes no authority but that of Nature; adopts no methods but those of science and philosophy and respects in practice no rule but that of conscience, illustrated by the common sense of mankind. It values the lessons of the past, and looks to tradition as presenting a storehouse of raw materials to thought, and in many cases results of high wisdom for our reverence; but it utterly disowns traditions as a ground of belief, whether miracles and supernaturalism be claimed or not claimed on its side. So sacred Scripture or ancient church can be made a basis of belief, for the obvious reason that their claims always need to be proved, and cannot without absurdity be assumed. The Association leaves to its individual members to yield whatever respect their own good sense judges to be due to the opinion of great men, living or dead, spoken or written; but it disowns all appeal to such authority as final tests of truth.

19. Secularism concerns itself with four rights -- the right to Think, Speak, Differ, and Criticize.

20. The distinctive peculiarity of the Secularist is that he seeks good which is dictated by Nature, which is attainable by material means, and which is of immediate service to humanity -- a peculiarity to which the idea of God is not essential, nor the denial of the idea necessary.

"Mean well, and act well, and you will deserve well, both here and hereafter."

"You can't BURN Truth."

"In whatsoever state you find yourself, endeavour to improve it."

Annie Besant Joins the NSS

Annie Besant, the divorced wife of a clergyman, joined the NSS and was soon a formidable ally to Bradlaugh. She excelled as a lecturer, public speaker and agitator. She rapidly became a vicepresident of the NSS. She wrote widely in opposition to religion and in support of euthanasia. She was abused and stones were thrown at her at a meeting promoting Darwinism.

The First Prosecution of Knowlton’s Birth Control Pamphlet

Charles Watts was arrested for publishing The Fruits of Philosophy, a pamphlet by an American doctor, Charles Knowlton, explaining birth control. The pamphlet was described in court as obscene and Watts pleaded guilty. He was released and his sentence suspended. Condemned for not carrying the case through, Watts resigned from the NSS. Some secularists at the time hesitated to champion birth control. Some even opposed it, and they followed Watts and Holyoake out of the Society to found the British Secular Union. Charles Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant started their own Freethought Publishing Co. and published the Knowlton pamphlet.

Annie Besant

The Fruits of Philosophy

Bradlaugh and Besant Prosecuted for Publishing an ‘Obscene Libel’

The publication and distribution of The Fruits of Philosophy; or the Private Companion of Young Married Couples by Charles Knowlton resulted in Bradlaugh and Besant being prosecuted for publishing an ‘obscene libel’. The case became a cause célèbre that revealed the full scale of Victorian prejudice. The jury were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals. Bradlaugh and Besant, however, escaped imprisonment on a technicality. The overall effect of the trial was to make large numbers of people aware of the potential available for better planning of the size of their families. The new Knowlton edition sold 100,000 in three months, and another birth control pamphlet by Mrs. Besant sold 150,000. Edward Truelove was then jailed for four months for selling birth control pamphlets. Secularists raised funds for his defence and petitioned the government, unsuccessfully, regarding his 7-month sentence. Mrs. Besant was deprived of the custody of her child because of her views. When, much later, she became a theosophist, she rejected birth control.

Bradlaugh elected in Northampton, rejected in Parliament

After being elected as MP for Northampton, Bradlaugh was prevented from taking his seat. His request to affirm instead of taking the religious oath was refused by the Commons; and a committee recommendation that he affirm at his legal peril was rejected by the House. Nevertheless, he presented himself to be sworn in and was faced with fierce hostility from MPs and parliamentary officials. Refusing to withdraw he was removed to the Clock Tower under Big Ben and there detained.

NSS membership reached 6,000 and there was an untold increase in outside support. Secular funerals were legalised.

Bradlaugh denied his seat again, despite repeated attempts to claim it

There was a nationwide controversy over Bradlaugh who, on one occasion, was forcibly ejected from the House of Commons by ten policemen and others in a brutal struggle. Mrs. Besant had to restrain Bradlaugh’s assembled supporters from reacting violently. Gladstone moved that if Bradlaugh tried to vote in parliament, he would be prosecuted. Bradlaugh voted and was taken to court. His Northampton seat was declared vacant. This gave new strength and impetus to the secularist campaign for affirmation rights. The NSS acquired the support of a new organ, The Freethinker, edited by G. W. Foote. Among the speakers at the opening of the Leicester Secular Hall (which is still extant) were Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant.

Bradlaugh and the Bigots – a cartoon in support of Bradlaugh, 1881

Bradlaugh re-elected and still debarred

Bradlaugh was again returned for Northampton but was again denied his parliamentary seat. He was, at the time, vigorously opposing grants to the royal family.

After much religion-baiting and deliberate provocations, The Freethinker was prosecuted for blasphemy. Its editor G.W. Foote was imprisoned for 12 months. Foote’s famous reply to the judge as he passed sentence was: “My lord, the sentence is worthy of your creed.” Bradlaugh foiled an attempt to implicate him. He gained a separate trial and was acquitted; a conviction would have quashed his ability to stand for Parliament. There was now an even greater agitation by secularists for the abolition of the blasphemy laws. There was also a petition for Foote, signed by many eminent scientists and literary men and even some clergymen. Foote was to later become a notable president of the NSS.

Bradlaugh at the Bar of the House of Commons

Bradlaugh elected again as NSS grows

Bradlaugh was elected again as MP by the voters of Northampton. In his non-stop activity he was urging votes for women, drawing up a radical programme, and serving as Vice- President of the Sunday League, which was being materially aided by the NSS. Bradlaugh’s fame was growing and he was addressing overflowing meetings around the country, speaking on one occasion to 3,000 at Leicester. NSS membership hit a new peak; there were 102 branches and five independent secular societies, and regular outdoor stations at 20 places in London alone. Mrs. Besant was now in the Fabian Society, combining secularist with socialist activity.

Protest Meeting against Affirmations Bill
1st. That this Meeting protests against the straining of the Law in favour of an avowed ATHEIST, who has made the most infamous attacks upon Religion.
2nd. That this Meeting protests against the way in which Mr. Bradlaugh has been forced upon the House of Commons by Mr. Gladstone, in defiance of Statute Law, and contrary to precedent.

Bradlaugh finally takes his seat in Parliament

Bradlaugh was finally allowed to takes his parliamentary seat on oath, and being busily engaged in Parliament, allowed much of the NSS leadership to devolve on GW Foote. A bill for the abolition of the blasphemy laws failed. There was also increased agitation for disestablishment.

“I had never heard of Mr Bradlaugh before. He is a massive man, physically and intellectually, and after listening to one or two of his speeches I was not surprised at the influence he has acquired here. A more effective speaker at electioneering meetings I have never come across in America or England. After calmly replying in detail to some of the trash that forms the staple of Conservative oratory, he raises his voice until the very walls echo with it and winds up with a fierce appeal to the electors to do their duty.”

-- Henry Labouchere, fellow Northampton MP

Bradlaugh arrested for refusing to leave the Chamber of Commons

If you wish to be truly Represents in Parliament
Who has the ability and courage to plead your cause in the House of Commons, and this for the following reasons:
1. He knows your wants, and has been for twenty years prominent in every Radical movement.
2. His ability as a speaker has been admitted in both the Old and New Worlds.
3. His determination has been shown by his successful and peaceful assertion of the right of meeting against the Government of Mr. Disraeli as well as against the Government of Mr. Gladstone.
4. His legal tact has been proved by the fact that he has personally defeated two Government prosecutions against the journal he edits.
5. His reputation is shown by the fact that every true politician has refused to oppose him at this election, and that the late John Stuart Mill endorsed his candidature.
6. The Federal Union of the Agricultural Labourers say they wish him elected.
7. The Northumberland and Durham Miners wish him elected.
8. The majority of Working Men's Societies spread through the country wish his election.
9. Because the working men, by voting for Mr. BRADLAUGH will vote for themselves, and further their own interests.
10. Because Mr. Fowler, known in Cambridge, should contest the Cambridgeshire vacancy.

Bradlaugh triumphs with the passing of the Oaths Act in 1888

Oaths Act

After a six year struggle and four byelection victories, Bradlaugh became very active in parliament. He was instrumental in bringing about a change in the law, giving all MPs the right to affirm rather than swear a religious oath. Today, any MP or Member of the House of Lords who objects to swearing an oath can make a solemn affirmation instead. Punch (the Private Eye of its day) wrote: “Not many years ago members crowded the lobbies to see Bradlaugh kicked downstairs. Now they throng the benches to hear him.”

Bradlaugh tries to abolish the blasphemy law

Despite having Prime Ministerial support, Bradlaugh’s blasphemy bill failed at the second reading. He was suffering kidney disease and his health was failing. Despite this he travelled to speak to the fifth Indian National Congress in Bombay. He became known as “the member for India”, being ahead of his time in advocating Indian self-determination. Annie Besant then converted to the mystical religion of theosophy and gradually moved away from secularism.

Bradlaugh resigns as NSS president

Bradlaugh resigned as president of the NSS in 1890 due to ill-health and G. W. Foote was unanimously acclaimed as the new president. At the same time, a young man of 22 from Leicester called Chapman Cohen was lecturing in public spaces for the NSS. By 1890 there were four independent secular societies, 57 NSS branches in London and district, 20 in the south (one in Jersey), 33 in the Midlands, and 115 in the northern counties, with heavy concentrations in Lancashire, the West Riding and Durham. There were also 12 in Scotland, four in Ireland and seven in Wales.

NSS members pay their respects to Bradlaugh at his grave in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking

Bradlaugh dies

Ironically, Charles Bradlaugh died just as the House of Commons expunged the resolutions that had forbidden him from taking his seat for so long. He was buried at Brookwood Cemetery in the presence of thousands of his admirers. One of them was Mahatma Gandhi, then aged 21.

Attempt to legalise bequests to secular organisations

The NSS supported a bill which would legalise freethought bequests, but it failed.

Unveiling of a statue commemorating Bradlaugh in Northampton, June 25 1894

NSS calls for end of hereditary House of Lords

The NSS joined the agitation for the abolition of the hereditary House of Lords.

Hypatia Bradlaugh’s life of her father was published.

Secular education again

The NSS issued a manifesto on secular education. It also sued the publishers of a pamphlet alleging that a class was conducted at the Hall of Science (the NSS Headquarters) “teaching boys unnatural vice”.

Attempt to protect bequests

The Secular Society Ltd. was formed by GW Foote to safeguard bequests to freethought organisations.

NSS supports votes for women

Many secularists supported the suffragette cause and there was even a term for men who supported the campaigns: “suffra-gent”. The first of these to be sent to jail was Bayard Simmons.

Secular Education League

The Secular Education League set up by liberal Christians, ethicists, rationalists and secularists. The NSS was a leading member of this alliance with G. W. Foote and Chapman Cohen on the Executive. There was a Trafalgar Square demonstration under the auspices of the Social Democratic Federation, with the NSS strongly represented and Foote a main speaker. The League’s aim was to abolish sectarian schools and establish a secular education system – an ambition still being pursued by the NSS today. The League was wound up in 1964, with its aims unrealised. One of its leading lights, the Rev. J Hirst Hollowed, wrote in 1907: “The State school must be restricted to national and moral education, and religious teaching of all kinds must be thrown upon the Churches, in private hours, at their own cost, and by their own agents”.

Equal rights demanded in Birmingham

A campaign was launched in Birmingham demanding the right to hire the Town Hall for secularist meetings on the same basis as Christian bodies could for their purposes. Plans for secular meetings were often frustrated by refusals to hire halls; this was why so many of the secular societies around the country built their own halls.

Later that year, J. W. Gott was imprisoned for blasphemy.

New president for the NSS

After the death of G. W. Foote (b. 1850) many tributes were published in The Freethinker and other journals. Chapman Cohen took over as editor of The Freethinker and became President of the NSS.

Bowman v. Secular Society – a landmark legal case – was started. It became one of the most important religious legal cases in England. It concerned a bequest from Charles Bowman to the Secular Society Ltd that was disputed by Mr Bowman’s next of kin. They argued that the objects of the Society were unlawful insofar as they constituted a blasphemous libel and therefore the gift was contrary to public policy and invalid.

Religion in the armed forces

The NSS energetically protested against compulsory religious observances in the Army and Navy.

“The process of secularisation arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.”

-- Christopher Henry Dawson

Bowman case won

Judgment in the Bowman case was given in favour of the Secular Society Ltd. Mr. Justice Joyce, in a brief judgment, said the case must be decided by law, and he did not find anything in the Memorandum of the Secular Society subversive of morality or contrary to law. Consequently the bequest was good. The trial established that blasphemous libel existed only in scurrilous or profane attacks on Christianity, not in temperate or reasoned criticism and a denial of the truth of Christianity. It did not render a person or organisation unable to claim the benefit and protection of civil law.

Court papers for Bowman v The Secular Society

The right to sell literature in London parks

The NSS, along with other organisations, had endured a four-year struggle for the right to sell literature in the London parks. The collective protests were organised by Miss E. Vance, the NSS’s Secretary, supported by Harry (later Lord) Snell. The campaign succeeded. The NSS created a Trust Deed.

Married Love and Love in Marriage

First birth control clinic opened

Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in the world, in Holloway, north London. The Marie Stopes Foundation now supplies contraceptive advice and safe abortion in 38 countries around the world. It would not be until 1930 that the Anglican Church came grudgingly to accept contraception in certain circumstances.

The struggle against blasphemy laws continues

Chapman Cohen was on the Executive Committee of The Society for the Abolition of the Blasphemy Laws. J.W. Gott was imprisoned for blasphemy for the fourth time: he died shortly after his release from prison in 1923.

Agitation against blasphemy and creationism grows further

Secularists’ agitation for the repeal of the blasphemy laws gains support from some peers in the House of Lords. An anthropologist, Sir Arthur Keith, is welcomed by secularists as a spirited defender of Darwinism against Creationism.

Cohen causes a stir

Pressure by freethinkers induces the Manchester Evening News to invite Chapman Cohen’s participation in a feature “Have We Lost Faith?” and a long controversy ensues which further raises the NSS’s profile.

Bertrand Russell delivers his famous speech

Bertrand Russell lectured for the NSS at Battersea Town Hall on “Why I am not a Christian”. The lecture became very famous and was later published as a booklet and is still in print today.

"Why I am not a Christian"

BBC’s religious obsession causes resentment

Secularists strenuously protested to the BBC about the gross religious privileges on the air. Sir John Reith (later to be Lord Reith), a supposedly pious, fulminating Christian, was Director General. He was later revealed to be a Nazi sympathiser.

NSS lobbies election candidates

The NSS and the Rationalist Press Association (which still publishes the New Humanist) issued a joint circular containing a three-point questionnaire to election candidates on secular education, the blasphemy laws, and the BBC.

South Place Chapel was sold and Conway Hall erected in Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1 where the NSS still holds its AGMs. It is owned by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, formerly known as South Place Ethical Society, after its original location near London’s Moorgate.

The attempt to impose religious belief on children should be resisted. Religious doctrine is arbitrary and entirely the province of those who wish to maintain such views as they find adequate to their needs. It is entirely unacceptable, however, that doctrine should be foisted upon the young as a matter of duty in the course of their education. I welcome the campaign against compulsory chapel and religious coercion in our schools.

-- Bertand Russell


BBC dedicates itself to Almighty God

A plaque was unveiled at BBC Broadcasting House in London reading: “This temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first governors of broadcasting in the year 1931. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest and that all things hostile to peace and purity may be banished from this house and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.” Director General Lord Reith was puritanical in public but was later revealed by his daughter to have been in private an adulterer and a tyrant.

NSS rails against religion in schools and religious services in the BBC

Secularists condemned the political pandering to the churches over religious teaching in schools. They also pressed for the BBC to broadcast alternative programmes while religious services were on the air. They criticised, too, the government’s Sunday Performance Bill.

More struggles for equal access

With echoes of the 19th century, the NSS was refused the hire of a lecture hall in Birkenhead following religious pressure on the owners. A court challenge followed, but was unsuccessful. In Durham, following an anti-NSS demonstration by students, the police attempted to forbid further secularist meetings on the site; the attempt failed.

Charles Bradlaugh 1833-1891

Bradlaugh Centenary

The Bradlaugh Centenary was celebrated with meetings, a Commemoration Fund, a BBC talk (brief and unsatisfactory). A gramophone recording was made by Chapman Cohen of one of his lectures.

NSS has a full year of campaigning and lecturing

Secularists protested against the Incitement to Disaffection Bill that made it an offence to endeavour to seduce a member of HM Forces from his “duty or allegiance to His Majesty”, thus expanding the ambit of the law. There was also its now-annual attack on the BBC. During the year, the NSS executive sponsored some 500 lectures, mostly open-air; the Dublin Branch NSS was under severe pressure from the Catholic Church.

Another attempt to abolish blasphemy

Secularists condemned the new Sunday Trading Act. E. Thurtle, MP, attempted a blasphemy law repeal bill, which failed. Other bodies with which the NSS was then co-operating were the Society for the Abolition of Blasphemy Laws, the Secular Education League, the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, the League of Nations Union and the National Peace Council. The NSS executive sponsors 542 meetings in the year.

Catholic attempts to thwart Freethought congress fail

The NSS Annual Conference was given a civic reception by the Lord Provost and Corporation of Glasgow.

There was Catholic-inspired agitation to prevent the International Freethought Congress (later the World Union of Freethinkers) from meeting in London. There were petitions to the Home Secretary and questions were asked in the House. Despite all this, the event took place and was an enormous success. The NSS played a leading part.

Religious tests for teachers opposed

The NSS helped resist the clerical agitation for religious tests for teachers, and attacked the arbitrary war regulations regarding religious oaths, church parades and the status of army chaplains.

NSS hit during Blitz

The offices of the Freethinker, NSS and Secular Society Ltd. in Farringdon Street were destroyed by fire in an air raid. New offices were quickly established nearby at 2 Furnival Street, less than half a mile from the NSS’s offices today.

Butler Act

The blurring of the distinction between education and religious inculcation in UK schools today is largely the legacy of the Church’s historical role and influence in education. The Education Act 1944, the ‘Butler Act’, created the ‘dual system’ which brought religious schools into the state-maintained sector. The 1944 Act decreed that the school day of all publicly-funded schools must begin with an act of “collective worship” – a law still in place to this day, despite the objections of secularists and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Participants at the NSS National conference in Nottingham in 1945

Chapman Cohen resigns

Chapman Cohen resigned the NSS presidency after 34 years: as an octogenarian he no longer felt able to be as active as he would wish. R. H. Rosetti was then made acting president.

Marriage law reform supported

The NSS supported the Marriage Law Reform Society in an effort to rectify an anomaly in the Marriage Act: it exposed the Pope’s “mother or child” edict. Following the death of R. H. Rosetti (President), F. A. Ridley became acting President of the NSS and P. V. Morris its General Secretary.

Republicanism reaffirmed

The NSS reaffirmed its adherence to republicanism and drew attention to the superstitious nature of the Coronation ceremony. Wreaths were laid on the Bradlaugh monument at Northampton during a gathering of secularists and rationalists. There was a large rise in NSS membership in two years. The NSS, Rationalist Press Association and Ethical Societies got together to form a Humanist Council for bringing pressure to bear on the BBC for a fair share of broadcasting.

A bill to remove Sunday trading restrictions was defeated.

Chapman Cohen dies

Chapman Cohen (b. 1868) died. The NSS set about exposing the exploitative nature of the Billy Graham revivalist campaign that had arrived in London.

Chapman Cohen  


Margaret Knight smashes the barrier against atheists on the BBC

Broadcasting history was made when Mrs. Margaret Knight, of Aberdeen University, was allowed, in a series of talks on the BBC, to propose a Scientific Humanist, as opposed to a Christian, conception of morality. Her subsequent book took its title from her talks, Morals without Religion. There was enormous national publicity and controversy. Some national newspapers condemned Mrs Knight and defended Christian privilege in intemperate terms. She joined the NSS.

Colin McCall became NSS General Secretary.

NSS members protest against London Transport’s family planning poster Ban in 1961

NSS organise picket over family planing poster ban 1961
(Opposite St. Marylebone Town Hall, Nearest Underground Stations -- Baker Street and Edgware Road)
Saturday, March 11th, 1961 -- 11:30 a.m.
Telephone: HOP 2717

The NSS has been making the case for secular education since its inception

NSS Public Meeting Religion in Schools 1966[/i
PETER FRYER. AUTHOR Mr. Grundy -- Studies in English Prudery
JOHN MORTIMER. The Dock Brief, What Shall We Tell Caroline? The Wrong Side of the Park, Two Stars for Comfort, The Judge
PETER WATKINS. FILM DIRECTOR. The War Game, Privilege, Culloden
FRIDAY, 23 JUNE 1967, 7:30 p.m.
Organised by the

[i]Sexual Offences Act 1967, Chapter 60

NSS protest against religious rates privileges

Mrs. Knight was the distinguished Guest of Honour at the NSS Annual Dinner. The NSS General Secretary recorded a two-minute talk at the invitation of a TV programme inquiring into the state of religion, but the talk was edited out of the show. Vigorous protests from the NSS ensued. The NSS was also protesting against the exemption of vicarages, presbyteries and manses from rates, and rate relief for the clergy. Margaret Knight appeared on TV to debate three Christian representatives.

Wolfenden Report causes huge controversy

The Wolfenden Report, commissioned by the Government, called for homosexual acts to be decriminalised. Its publication caused a huge public reaction, but it took another decade before its recommendations were implemented. The NSS had long condemned the cruel anti-gay laws as one among many religion-based “injustices and abuses” and in its 1967 annual report the NSS said “homosexual toleration” would strengthen over time.

Suicide legalised

The NSS was prominent in campaigning for the passing of The Suicide Act. Until this reform, attempted suicide was treated in law as a misdemeanour. Until 1823 suicide victims were buried at the village crossroads with a stake through their heart. From 1823 to 1882 they were buried in a unconsecrated part of the churchyard at night.

David Tribe becomes president of the NSS, teaming up with Bill McIlroy

David Tribe, originally from Australia, was a very active NSS president from 1963 to 1971. He brought a new and modern approach to campaigning for secularism and was prominent in many of the major reform campaigns of the sixties. He was ably assisted by the redoubtable Bill McIlroy who was General Secretary 1963–77 (with a one-year break). Among Tribe’s many contributions was a pamphlet entitled Broadcasting, Brainwashing Conditioning – which continued, and enhanced, the long-running complaint about the disproportionate and deferential presence of religion on the BBC. This continues to the present, with a particular frustration at the continuance of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day as a purely religious preserve.

NSS organises secular education month

In November 1964, with the support of playwright Harold Pinter and philosopher Bertrand Russell, the NSS organised Secular Education Month with meetings held in London, Glasgow, Inverness, Leicester, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Reading. The NSS has remained steadfast in its opposition to publicly funded ‘faith schools’ and continues to campaign against compulsory worship and faith-based admissions, instead advocating for secular, inclusive schools that are equally open and welcoming to all children, regardless of their religious and philosophical backgrounds.


Challenge to theatre censorship

The Royal Court Theatre went ahead with performances of a play, Saved, by NSS Honorary Associate Edward Bond, despite it being banned by the theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain. The resultant furore led to the Theatres Act of 1968 which abolished the role of the Lord Chamberlain.

The NSS had joined campaigns over several years calling for the abolition of the death penalty, which came about in 1965 with the passage of the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act. The Race Relations Act was also passed in this year.

Homosexuality decriminalised

In the face of much religious resistance, and after decades of struggle, the Sexual Offences Act was finally passed in 1967. It decriminalised sex in private between men over the age of 21. The NSS had long objected to the legal persecution of homosexuals.

Contraceptives were made available on the NHS.

NSS enters right-to-die debate

An NSS working party produced a report “The Right to Die” aimed at reforming the law on assisted suicide. At that time those convicted of assisting a successful suicide could be charged with murder and jailed for 14 years. The many attempts at reforming the law had been thwarted by mainly religious opposition. NSS annual conference passed a resolution supporting voluntary euthanasia.

Rights of ‘illegitimate children’ recognised

The Family Law Reform Act allowed people born outside marriage to inherit on the intestacy of either parent. It was not until 1987 that all legal distinctions between children born to married and unmarried parents were removed. The NSS had campaigned for this for many years.

NSS members at an Easter Monday rally in Hyde Park c.1970

Should State Support Church Schools?
FRIDAY, 19 JUNE 1970, 7:30 p.m.
Public Forum
The Lord Bishop of Durham
DAVID TRIBE, President, National Secular Society
Admission free, reserved seats 5 p. from the Organisers
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Part 2 of 3

Barbara Smoker becomes NSS president

Barbara Smoker was at the helm of the NSS for 25 years during which she lectured, went on speaking tours, did radio and television interviews and debates. She was in demand to give addresses at secular funerals and eventually officiated at nonreligious funerals, wedding ceremonies, gay and lesbian commitments and baby-namings. She was active in various social campaigns, such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament and voluntary euthanasia. Her range of interests were wide and her writing prolific, and she was active in organisations throughout the secularist and humanist movements. In 1984 Barbara undertook a speaking tour of the United States; she produced a booklet Eggs Are Not People which was distributed to all members of parliament to dissuade them from voting for a ban on embryo research. In 1989 she was assaulted by demonstrators when standing beside the route of a huge Muslim march that demanded the death of Salman Rushdie. She was holding a home-made banner proclaiming “Free Speech”. In 1990 she undertook a speaking tour of India, visiting again in 1998 to inaugurate a mass atheist rally.

Protesters call for repeal of the blasphemy law during Gay Pride

Gay News blasphemy case

When a private prosecution for blasphemous libel was brought by the Christian activist Mrs Mary Whitehouse against the magazine Gay News, the NSS joined the campaign to defend the paper. Gay News had published a poem about a Roman centurion having sex with the dead body of Christ. Denis Lemon, the editor, was found guilty and given a suspended sentence. In advance of the case, the judge surmised that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to homosexuality. NSS General Secretary Bill McIlroy became chair of the Committee Against Blasphemy Law to protest against the conviction, gaining endorsement from an impressive array of prominent figures. The Committee was revived in 1989 to defend Salman Rushdie in the Satanic Verses controversy. Jim Herrick was NSS General Secretary for two years from 1977.

Bill Mcllroy, Barbara Smoker, Denis Lemon and Jim Herrick at the NSS’s annual dinner in 1977

Keith Porteous Wood becomes General Secretary

Keith Porteous Wood was appointed General Secretary (later Executive Director) and brought the NSS into the digital age. Soon after his appointment, the NSS had its first website. He has since brought the NSS back to national prominence with parliamentary lobbying and effective campaigning and media coverage. He soon expanded the NSS’s theatre of operations to include the EU, the Council of Europe and even the UN.

Bill McIlroy and Keith Porteous Wood

Daniel O’Hara becomes President

Denis Cobell becomes President

Together with Keith Porteous Wood, the NSS’s campaigning and profile was significantly increased over the forthcoming decade.

Denis Cobell

NSS opposes proposal for multi-faith replacement of Bishops Bench in House of Lords

NSS gave verbal and written evidence as expert witnesses to Royal Commission, dismissive of the expansion of the religious representation to other religions and calling for no ex officio religious representation.

Protest against blasphemy law

Members of the NSS and other organisations and supporters – including MPs, academics, musicians and activists – gathered on the steps of St Martin in the Fields Church in central London to read aloud the poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name that had got Gay News prosecuted in the 1970s. The poem was still technically illegal. Despite a large counter-protest by Christians, there were no arrests.

Religious offences re-examined in parliament

Keith Porteous Wood was cross-examined about the St Martin in the Field demonstration by Viscount Colville, chairing the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales. This brought him into contact with Lord Avebury, who was also on the Select Committee, and who would later become actively involved in the NSS’s campaigning.

NSS establishes Irwin Prize

With sponsorship from Dr Michael Irwin (hence The Irwin Prize), the NSS began awarding an annual £5,000 to its Secularist of the Year – an individual or organisation that has made a significant contribution to secularism over the previous year. The first winner was Maryam Namazie, a feminist of Iranian heritage, who formed the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The prize has been subsequently won by Peter Tatchell, Safak Pavey (Turkish MP), Prof Steve Jones, Mina Ahadi, former MP Dr Evan Harris, Lord Avebury, Southall Black Sisters. Sophie in’t Veld MEP, Plan UK (on behalf of Malala Yousafzai), the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and Educate Together, the Irishbased secular educational charity. Terry Sanderson has played a leading role in organising these events.

Free speech advocates counter a Christian protest in Leicester against Jerry Springer: The Opera, a musical written by Richard Thomas and NSS honorary associate Stewart Lee

Jerry Springer: The Opera controversy

The NSS became involved in defending a TV broadcast of a controversial theatre show Jerry Springer: The Opera. Christian Voice, a group of evangelicals, had decided that the show was blasphemous and was attempting to have BBC Director-General Mark Thompson prosecuted on these grounds. However, the courts refused to issue a summons, saying the blasphemy law was obsolete and unusable in the era of human rights.

Terry Sanderson becomes President

Terry Sanderson joined the Council of Management in 2000 and became a vice president in 2002. He was elected President in 2006, since when he has been a principal spokesperson.

NSS helps defeat Government legislation that threatened freedom of speech

The Government suffered a shock defeat when it tried to overturn vital free speech safeguards made in the House of Lords to its controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. The Bill was aimed at extending the concept of the UK’s race hate laws to cover religious beliefs. The NSS together with Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris (then an MP) led the cross party campaign which resulted in the Bill being accepted by Parliament, albeit by just one vote. The campaign included a march and rally for free expression in Trafalgar Square which was supported by comedians, including Rowan Atkinson, who feared the proposals would limit artistic freedom and might have stopped comedians making jokes about religion. The Government promised to look again at the blasphemy law as a quid quo pro.

NSS supports join the March for free expression 2006

NSS reports the abolition of the blasphemy law

Small concession on collective worship

The Education and Inspections Act permitted – after a proposal from the NSS – sixth form pupils to withdraw themselves from Collective Worship. The NSS had also pressed for much younger children to be able to withdraw themselves. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and more recently the United Nations have stated their objections to inadequate UK laws on pupil opt out. The UN has also advised the Government that the continuance of compulsory collective worship in schools is an abuse of a child’s human rights.

Blasphemy law abolished

The Society’s 150 year campaign to scrap the blasphemy law in England at last came to fruition in 2008 when the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished. It followed months of work by NSS Honorary Associates Dr Evan Harris and Lord Avebury, with the NSS providing extensive practical assistance to both. The Society organised a party to celebrate the abolition, attended by many people who had been affected by the blasphemy laws in some way. The offending poem was read out by Sir Ian McKellen. The NSS continues to vigorously defend everyone’s right to freedom of expression and campaigns to resist blasphemy laws in other parts of the world where in some places conviction can carry the death penalty.

Sir Ian McKellen at the National Secular Society’s party to mark the end of the blasphemy law in 2008


The NSS continues to vigorously defend everyone’s right to freedom of expression and campaigns to resist blasphemy laws in other parts of the world where in some places conviction can carry the death penalty.

Protest the Pope rally

As many as 20,000 secularists marched through the streets of London to protest against the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI, which had a cost of £20 million to the taxpayer. The NSS was one of the co-organisers of the event which was intended to highlight the Vatican’s role in the concealment of child abuse and its denial of justice for victims. There were also protests about the Vatican’s controversial and damaging stance on social issues, including its opposition to women’s reproductive rights. The Vatican later admitted that it had been the largest demonstration against a papal visit ever seen.

The Equality Act

The Equality Act brought together all existing anti-discrimination legislation under one umbrella and added religion and sexual orientation as new protected characteristics. The NSS fought hard to stop – or at least restrict – religious exemptions from this important legislation but was up against opposition from the highest levels in Government and religious bodies. The Equality Act is regarded by many as a major advance in the struggle for a secular society. Because some religious groups regard it as an attack on what they regard as “religious freedoms” (or, as the NSS sees them, “religious privileges”), it has been under much pressure since its passage, with many court cases seeking to extend the religious exemptions, particularly in employment rights.

NSS adopts Secular Charter

Following Terry Sanderson’s calls for the NSS to focus on equality and Human Rights rather than the “religion bashing” that had been so important in the early days of the organisation, the NSS adopted a new Secular Charter. This provided a new sharper focus for the Society’s work. Based on the defence of human rights the Charter positioned the NSS as a purely secularist organisation, open to anyone that supports its aims, irrespective of their religion or belief.

NSS intervenes at Human Rights Court

The NSS was given permission to intervene in an important court case at the European Court of Human Rights. The four cases being heard together concerned Christians who claimed they had been discriminated against at work on the grounds of their religion. The intervention was prepared for the NSS by leading Human Rights advocate Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC. We argued that no discrimination had occurred, the complainants had simply been required to abide by the same workplace rules as everyone else.

NSS wins High Court Challenge to council prayers

The High Court ruled that Bideford Town Council was not acting lawfully as the Local Government Act 1972 does not give them the power to include prayers in council meetings. Following the judgment, many councils conducting such prayers ceased doing so. The decision caused a huge controversy, and was particularly upsetting to an evangelical Christian Government Minister Eric Pickles. In 2015 legislation was brought in by other Christians in Parliament to reintroduce prayers into council meetings (and some other public meetings) if the councils wanted them, but few if any councils reintroduced prayers as a result.

NSS threatens court action over free parking for worshippers only

The NSS threatened to take Woking Council to court over its policy of providing free parking on Sundays exclusively for church-goers. The council eventually amended its policy to make parking free for members of other community groups that promote social inclusion and undertake voluntary work.


NSS offers evidence to UN Committee on Catholic child abuse

In June 2013, the NSS, together with two victims of Catholic sex abuse, gave evidence to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This followed interventions by the NSS’s executive director and written submissions (under the auspices of IHEU) over three years at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We repeatedly pointed out that the Holy See was in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The National Secular Society's Secular Charter
Principle 1: There is no established state religion.
Principle 2: Everyone is equal before the law, regardless of religion, belief or non-belief.
Principle 3: The judicial process is not hindered or replaced by religious codes or processes.
Principle 4: Freedom of expression is not restricted by religious considerations.
Principle 5: Religion plays no role in state-funded education, whether through religious affiliation of schools, curriculum setting, organised worship, religious instruction, pupil selection or employment practices.
Principle 6: The state does not express religious beliefs or preferences and does not intervene in the setting of religious doctrine.
Principle 7: The state does not engage in, fund or promote religious activities or practices.
Principle 8: There is freedom of belief, non-belief and to renounce or change religion.
Principle 9: Public and publicly-funded service provision does not discriminate on grounds of religion, belief or non-belief.
Principle 10: Individuals and groups are neither accorded privilege nor disadvantaged because of their religion, belief or non-belief.


In 2016 the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations awarded the National Secular Society Special Consultative NGO status. This follows decades of work by the NSS in areas of freedom, fairness and human rights and will provide the Society with a platform to address the UN Human Rights Council, ECOSOC, and the General Assembly on issues of concern to secularists in the arena of human rights.

European Human Rights Court rules in Christian cases

The European Court of Human Rights found against three of the four claims of discrimination by Christians. The fourth case, of a woman who claimed she had been ‘banned’ from wearing a cross at work at British Airways, was upheld on a technicality. The NSS’s intervention was influential and it is widely accepted that had the three cases been won by the claimants it would have placed religion at the top of a hierarchy of rights, seriously undermining European Equality jurisprudence.

UN slates Vatican over child abuse failures

After much pressure from the NSS and victim support groups, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a scathing report criticising the Catholic Church’s secrecy over child abuse and its obstruction of justice to victims worldwide. It also criticised the Church’s failure to pay compensation to those who had been abused by its priests. The report received huge publicity worldwide. The NSS had also given evidence to the UN Committee on Torture, which concluded that some of the clerical abuse amounted to torture. It too issued similarly scathing report.


Same-sex marriage legalised in UK

Same-sex marriage was introduced into England, Wales and Scotland, but Northern Ireland continues to refuse to change the law. Despite Church of England efforts to derail the legislation, it went through on a comfortable parliamentary majority. The Church did, however, manage to gain several important opt outs. Neither religious bodies nor clerics can be forced to conduct such marriages, but some are agreeing to do so, with the Anglican Church facing schism over the issue. The NSS kept a high profile during the long campaign to bring this legislation to fruition.

‘Insulting’ removed from Section 5 of Public Order Act

A draconian limitation on freedom of expression was removed in the face of opposition from both Conservative and Labour front benches. The NSS teamed up with the Christian Institute; the combination of their supporters in Parliament and the NSS’s was crucial in achieving this astonishing victory.

Our work continues

As this brief history shows, the National Secular Society has evolved over the past 150 years, always moving with the times. Some might imagine that that our work is almost complete. Society – at least in Western Europe – has secularised to an enormous degree.

Religion no longer dictates the direction of our lives and, more importantly, it does not hold its populations in thrall as it did for so many centuries past. Bradlaugh’s battle with the Established Church is now almost won – but not quite. His ambition to disestablish the Church of England has yet to be achieved. But we think it is now closer than it has been for a century.

And so the focus on Christian privileges will inevitably give way to the problems that come with the revival of Islamic fundamentalism. It surely has the potential to threaten us all, and brings with it new challenges and new urgency to implement the aims of the National Secular Society.

Bradlaugh’s special significance as a parliamentarian was recognised by the House of Commons in the 1950s when his name was added to the list of those deserving of representation in the Art Collection at the Houses of Parliament. The National Secular Society is delighted to sponsor this portrait bust for Parliament, sculpted by the artist Suzie Zamit, as part of the NSS’s 150th anniversary celebrations and to fill this historic gap in the Parliamentary Art Collection. This important commission allows Bradlaugh to take his place among other leading parliamentarians who are represented at the Houses of Parliament and who are recognised for the special contribution they have made to the political life of the United Kingdom.

National Secular Society
25 Red Lion Square
London WC1R 4RL
Tel: 020 7404 3126
Twitter: @NatSecSoc


Secularism before the NSS

Throughout history, different religious and political traditions have considered the relationship between individuals' personal conscience and ideology, between the divine and the secular. What today we might call the balance of freedom of and from religion.

During the 18th century, the Enlightenment movement, revolutions and the emergence of the nation state, all challenged the relationship between church and state. Secularist philosophers religious and non-religious alike, created the intellectual climate in which the National Secular Society was to emerge.

Inspiration came from early freethinkers. The most important of these was Thomas Paine, whose pioneering Rights of Man changed the way ordinary people thought about politics and their place in society. Also of importance was Richard Carlile, who went to jail for nine years for publishing Paine's The Age of Reason, a trenchant critique of the Bible. Later leading figures included Robert Owen, George Jacob Holyoake — who first coined the word 'secularism' — and our first President, Charles Bradlaugh. These freethinkers often stood at the forefront of radical and reformist movements, which gained strength in the 19th century.

Thomas Paine


The development of secularism cannot be understood without reference to Thomas Paine. Although the term itself was only coined by G.J. Holyoake 50 years after Paine's death, his role in developing and popularising the ideas that underpin it are of fundamental significance.

Paine was born in Thetford on 29 January 1737, the only son of a staymaker. He received an elementary education before entering his father's trade. He then tried various other occupations before settling in Lewes as an exciseman where he married a second time, his first wife having died a year after marrying him.

In 1774 Paine became involved in a campaign for better pay for excisemen which was unsuccessful and probably led to his dismissal, although the official reason was that he was absent from his post without permission. That year much else went wrong, including the failure of his marriage and a tobacco shop intended to supplement his income.

Paine moved to London – where he met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged him to emigrate to the American colonies on the eve of the American revolution.

At this point he had only ever written one pamphlet (supporting the excisemen's claim for better pay). But in January 1776 he published Common Sense, a clarion call for independence which crystallised support for the American insurrection. As the revolution gathered pace he published a series of pamphlets, entitled The American Crisis, which were designed to inspire Americans in their battles with the British. In one of these the first use of the term 'United States' occurs.


In 1787 Paine was back in London, trying to promote his ideas on the use of iron for bridge building. But he was soon engrossed in the cause of the French Revolution, leading him to publish the two-part Rights of Man in 1791-2. This was a refutation of Edmund Burke's counterrevolutionary blast, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Reformers received Rights of Man with jubilation but the government moved to have it suppressed. Rights of Man is an appeal for the recognition of human rights, a compassionate society and principles which we would describe today as secular. Paine was indicted for seditious libel but fled England to avoid trial.

He moved to France: he had been granted honorary French citizenship in honour of Rights of Man and elected to the National Convention. Unfortunately Paine made an enemy of Robespierre by speaking up for Louis XVI when plans for his execution were afoot. Paine objected to capital punishment. He was arrested and imprisoned for 10 months, narrowly escaping the guillotine.

On his way to the Luxembourg prison Paine managed to pass the manuscript of The Age of Reason to a friend, who arranged for its publication. It comprised an analysis of the Bible's claims which, he argued, were false:

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church."

Paine argued that revealed religion is harmful to humanity and should therefore be rejected. He has often been accused of being an atheist. He was a deist – but also a fervent opponent of Christianity.

The Age of Reason saw Paine create furious enemies and opponents. They were to besmirch his reputation, integrity and work in the following years.


He returned to the USA in 1802, but the last years of his life were sad as the role that he had played in the American revolution was forgotten and his unbelief provoked dislike and opposition among the religious.

In his writings Paine had set out the secularist case, which inspired the radicals and reformers who followed him. Many of his ideas were not new: they were found in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke.

Paine's contribution was to popularise and explain them in terms ordinary people could understand and relate to. Everything he wrote was deeply embedded with the ideas of republicanism; liberty; anti-slavery; democracy; human and women's rights; the separation of religion from the state; and the idea that government should serve the interests of ordinary people

Thomas Paine died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral. Today his best monument in the UK is in Thetford, where Sir Charles Wheeler's statue has stood on King Street since 1964.



Richard Carlile


Richard Carlile was the first person to establish a permanent secularist and campaigning organisation in the UK. He was the most important campaigner for freedom of thought and expression in the first half of the 19th century.

Carlile was born in Ashburton, Devon on 9 December 1790 but moved to London as a young man and was soon involved in radical politics. His background is probably best described as lower middle class. He received a good education by the standards of the time.

In 1817 he took over a radical publishing business founded by William Sherwin. He was soon in trouble for reprinting parodies of church services originally published by William Hone but withdrawn under pressure from the authorities. For this Carlile was imprisoned for four months without trial.

In 1819 he witnessed the Peterloo massacre. He published furious denunciations of those responsible in the first editions of his weekly journal The Republican. He was again imprisoned for a week.

That year he was also prosecuted for publishing Paine's The Age of Reason. He was sentenced to three years in Dorchester prison and fined £1,500 – a huge sum at the time. The prison sentence was subsequently extended to six years because of his failure to pay the fine.

During this period Carlile achieved his greatest fame. Prison was very different then and during his incarceration Carlile continued to edit the Republican as well as many freethinking tracts by Paine, Shelley, Voltaire and others. Today, Carlile's desk from his time in Dorchester gaol is in the Conway Hall Library.


It was during this period that Carlile developed his own ideas. He moved from deism to atheism and became the first person in Britain to deny the existence of God openly in print during his own lifetime. Just as remarkably he published an essay entitled What is Love? (sometimes Every Woman's Book), describing and defending contraceptive techniques for the first time in the UK.

During his time in gaol, others continued his work distributing and selling his publications. For a time his sister and wife joined him and a child was conceived and born. No fewer than 150 others were also imprisoned for working in his Fleet Street premises and elsewhere.

In 1825 the authorities gave up the struggle and Carlile and his followers were released. However, Carlile was far from finished and now teamed up with the Rev. Robert Taylor whose deism was a strange mix of astrological and mythological theories.

In 1829 the two went on a tour (an 'infidel mission') to the provinces and in 1830 opened the Rotunda on Blackfriars Road making it a centre of radical theological and political discussion. By 1831 Carlile was back in prison, this time in London, for expressing sympathy for agricultural workers during the Swing riots.

He was released in 1833. He left his wife and was joined by his mistress Eliza Sharples, who had already given birth to their first child (conceived in prison) and went on to have two more. Sharples was an extraordinary character herself, becoming the first woman to give freethought lectures and edit a free thought journal. After Carlile's death, in 1849, she provided shelter for the 16-year-old Charles Bradlaugh after he left home in acrimonious circumstances.

Carlile lived for another 10 years. He was imprisoned once more, serving a couple of months for causing a public nuisance by refusing to pay church rates and displaying blasphemous effigies in his shop window.

Carlile's career marks a significant contribution to the development of the secularist tradition. His publishing business helped keep the works and ideas of Thomas Paine and others alive. His heroic defiance of the Church and state helped demarcate the boundaries between the secular and the religious. He dedicated his life to the freedom of the press and expression.

Richard Carlile died on Fleet Street on 10 February 1843. Nearly 10 years of his life were spent in prison.



George Jacob Holyoake


Holyoake was born on 13 April 1817 in Birmingham, where he followed his father into the whitesmithing trade.

As a young man he was much influenced by Robert Owen's socialist writings. He endeavoured to become a teacher but found it difficult to progress due to his socialist views.

He joined the Birmingham Reform League in 1831 and the Chartists in 1832. In 1840 Holyoake decided to become a 'socialist missionary' and follower of Robert Owen, moving to Worcester to become a full-time socialist lecturer. Among his fellow lecturers was Charles Southwell, who helped establish the atheist periodical The Oracle of Reason in 1841. As editor, Southwell was soon tried for blasphemy and sent to gaol in Bristol.

Holyoake was not an atheist at this time. But his friendship with Southwell and fury at the injustice he thought he had suffered led him to volunteer as editor of The Oracle during Southwell's absence. He soon lost whatever remnant of Christianity he had left.

In May 1842 Holyoake was on his way to visit Southwell in gaol when he stopped in Cheltenham to give a lecture. In reply to a question he suggested that "the deity should be put on half-pay" and added that "I flee the Bible as a viper, and revolt at the touch of a Christian." His reward was six months' imprisonment for blasphemy in Gloucester.

While in prison Holyoake was visited by Richard Carlile. This greatly amused him: the authorities had told him that Carlile had suffered a ghastly death and recanted all his principles before he died. The prison authorities made successive, unsuccessful attempts to convert Holyoake to Christianity.

The Reasoner: A Weekly Journal, Edited by G.J. Holyoake

Holyoake emerged from prison a radical hero. He settled in London and founded and edited various progressive newspapers, most notably the Reasoner (1846-50). He did much to secure the freedom of a cheap press, available to all – although during his struggles against "the taxes on knowledge", he paid a great price in fines.

In 1845 Holyoake presided at the opening of the Rochdale Co-operative Store. This served as a successful model imitated by subsequent co-operative societies and was a trigger to the rapid growth of the co-operative movement. He became a leading champion and authority of the co-operative movement. The Co-operative Union still occupies Holyoake House in Manchester, which was built in his memory and opened in 1911.

By 1851 Holyoake began to use the word "secularist" to describe himself and his followers. He defined secularism as "a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human". To Holyoake the term was more positive than atheism.

George Jacob Holyoke (13 April 1817 – 22 January 1906)

Holyoake continued to lecture throughout the country and as time passed his views began to mellow. By the late 1850s his leadership of the secularist movement was being challenged by the young and hugely energetic Charles Bradlaugh, who was more eloquent, more radical and a better organiser.

In 1858 Bradlaugh was elected president of the London Secular Society. Matters finally came to a head in 1877 when Holyoake opposed Bradlaugh and Besant's publication of Fruits of Philosophy and helped found the British Secular Union as a rival to the National Secular Society.

Holyoake later rejoined the National Secular Society after Bradlaugh's death and the demise of the British Secular Union. In his later years he also took a zealous part in the foundation of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) of which he was the first Chairman.

Holyoake died in Brighton on 22 January 1906. His contribution to the rise and success of secularism and progressive causes was immense. In his long life he saw the rise of the Chartists, the growth of co-operation, the years of struggle for a free press and Bradlaugh's campaigns to enter parliament.

He fought for the rights of women, political reform, arbitration, education and other reforms. Finally his promotion of secularism as a positive philosophy for life and political and social action is a rich and instructive legacy for the National Secular Society.

Who has just been liberated from Six Months Imprisonment in Gloucester Gaol for the alleged offence of BLASPHEMY, will deliver a Course of
SUBJECT: "An attempt to explain MORAL CHARITY -- a theme much talked of but little understood and practised."
"Christianity, as displayed in the recent Prosecution for Blasphemy -- or a SHORT and EASY METHOD with the SAINTS."
"The Formation and Publication of Opinions."
"The Character of CHRISTIANS and the Duty of INFIDELS."
Admission to each Lecture 1d.
N.B. -- A BALL will be held on TUESDAY, (SHROVE-TUESDAY EVENING,) at which Mr. H. Will be present, and deliver a short Address.

Blue plaque commemorating Holyoake

4 Woburn Walk in the Bloomsbury area of London

On Friday 17 September 2018, NSS CEO Stephen Evans and the deputy mayor of the London borough of Camden, Maryam Eslamdoust, unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Holyoake.

The plaque is part of the Marchmont Association's commemorative plaques scheme which raises awareness of the area's rich social history.


Reform in the 1800s

Secularists were on the frontlines of campaigns against the Church rates as can be seen in this illustration of 62 Fleet Street. The premises were once Richard Carlile's Temple of Reason and it was from here he sold Paine's works which he had republished "Every Woman's Book", the first publication in this country to advocate birth control and sexual liberation. Richard and Jane Carlile were pioneering feminists who thought the current Christian sexual morality repressed women. During their lives the Carlile's were both imprisoned for their efforts, along with many shop-workers who sold his publications.
"Thine own mouth condemneth thee, and not I: yea, thine own lips testify against thee." -- Job, Chap. 15, ver. 6
"And when he had made a Scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the Temple." -- Acts of Christ.
No. 9. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 1834. [Price One Penny.]

The 1800s saw an increase in religious dissent and a series of reforms which weakened the constitutional power of the established church. The emerging reform movement included non-believers, as well as religious minorities and liberal Christians.

• The Sacramental Test Act (1828) removed the requirement for public officials to be members of the Church of England.
• The Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829) codified the emancipation of Catholics, allowing (inter alia) members of the Catholic Church to take seats in the Westminster Parliament for the first time.
• The Tithe Commutation Act (1836) abolished the system of tithes under which the Church had claimed one-tenth of land produce as payment for its services.
• The Marriage Act (1836) and the Births and Deaths Registration Act (1836) introduced civil marriage and the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.
• The Bishopric of Manchester Act (1847) limited the number of Bishops entitled to sit in the House of Lords to 26 (its current figure).
• The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) took the issue of divorce away from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, making divorce more widely available and accessible (especially for women).
• The Court of Probate Act (1857) passed control of probate administration (including the collection of death duties) from the ecclesiastical courts to a newly established government department (the Court of Probate).
• The Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act (1860) further reduced the jurisdiction of church courts to those 'in Holy Orders'.
• The Compulsory Church Rate Abolition Act (1868) made the payment of church rates voluntary instead of compulsory.


Chartism: the Church and establishment

Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848 (public domain) Image By William Edward Kilburn.

Secularists and freethinkers (as they were generally called at this time) were at the forefront of many early nineteenth century reform and protest movements.

The Stamp Acts

In the years following the French Revolution British governments took highly repressive measures they considered necessary to curb the danger of revolution at home. Among the measures introduced were the Stamp Acts which imposed a punitive stamp duty on cheap, radical newspapers in an attempt to price them beyond the means of ordinary people.

Secularist publishers such as Henry Hetherington (1792-1849) with his Poor Man's Guardian and James Watson (1799-1874) with his Working Man's Friend defied the law and attempted a variety of ruses to get around it. In Hetherington's case this included the pretence that his newspaper was being loaned for the princely price of one penny, not sold. They were unsuccessful in that they both served prison sentences.

A Weekly Paper
No. 26. Saturday, December 17, 1831. Lent to Read, without deposit, for Six Months. CHARGE ONE PENNY.
Friends, Brethren, and Fellow-Countrymen,
The "not less efficient Bill" is now before the country, and our readers will find the speech of John Russell, who brought it forward, fully reported in our pages.
Our readers are as capable, as ourselves, of judging of its efficiency; and, we, for ourselves, are bound to confess that, as far as "the Bill" itself is concerned, certainly it is "not less efficient;" for, although in one respect it somewhat falls short, in some others it is rather an improvement than otherwise. With respect tot he 10 pound householders, the qualification is not so dependant, and the elective rights of resident freemen are not, as in the last "Bill," condemned to expire with the lives of those who at present possess them (whereby, it will be seen, ...


Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform that existed from 1838. Secularists, such as Henry Hetherington and James Watson and other followers of Thomas Paine, dominated its leadership. They were often particularly incensed by the opposition of the established church to their demands. To freethinkers the Church of England was nothing more than a prop to those who wielded political power which they had no intention of surrendering.

This led to many Christians who supported Chartism to oppose the Church of England, its leadership or establishment. The bishops', who then as now had seats in the House of Lords, were consistent in their opposition to reform.

Chartism took its name from the People's Charter of 1838 and was a national protest movement. Support was at its highest in 1839, 1842, and 1848, when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons. The strategy employed was to use the scale of support which these petitions and the accompanying mass meetings demonstrated to put pressure on politicians. Chartism thus relied primarily on peaceful and constitutional methods to secure its aims.

The Chartists demands can be summarised as follows.

1. Universal suffrage (the vote for all – later modified to universal manhood suffrage on the insistence of more cautious campaigners).
2. An end to property qualifications for voters and candidates.
3. Annual parliaments (general elections each year).
4. Equal representation (each constituency to be roughly the same size).
5. Payments of members (so ordinary people could become MPs).
6. Vote by ballot (secret voting, on paper).

In their own era, the Chartists failed and the movement suffered a serious blow in 1848 when a mass meeting held on Kennington Common was prevented from crossing the Thames and marching on Parliament. When examined, the petition itself was found to be far smaller than its organisers had claimed and carried many false names.

However, secularist aspirations for reform remained. In the 1860s electoral reform was again a key issue with the Reform League being established in 1865. Charles Bradlaugh was one of the League's founders and was ultimately to benefit from the extension of the franchise which it helped bring about when he was elected to Parliament in 1880.

See also: Peterloo's heroes represented the finest traditions of secular democracy.

Unknown. Signed by John Arnott (1799 - 1868) - Scanned from Rodney Mace, British Trade Union Posters: An Illustrated History - Public Domain
Fellow Men, -- The Press having misrepresented and vilified us and our intentions, the Demonstration Committee therefore consider it to be their duty to state that the grievances of us (the Working Classes) are deep and our demands just. We and our families are pining in misery, want, and starvation! We demand a fair day's wages for a fair day's work! We are the slaves of capital -- we demand protection to our labour. We are political serfs -- we demand to be free. We therefore invite all well disposed to join in our peaceful procession on
MONDAY NEXT, April 10,
As it is for the good of all that we seek to remove the evils under which we groan.
The following are the places of Meeting of THE CHARTISTS, THE TRADES, THE IRISH CONFEDERATE & REPEAL BODIES:
East Division on Stepney Green at 8 o'clock; City and Finsbury Division on Clerkenwell Green at 9 o'clock; West Division in Russell Square at 9 o'clock; West Division in Russell Square at 9 o'clock; and the South Division in Peckham Fields at 9 o'clock, and proceed from thence to Kennington Common.
Signed on behalf of the Committee, John Arnott, Sec.


The young Charles Bradlaugh


Charles Bradlaugh was born in Hoxton, East London on 26 September 1833, the eldest of six children. Today his birthplace is marked by a London Borough of Hackney brown plaque.

Bradlaugh's origins were humble, his father (also Charles) being a solicitor's clerk. He was always to think of himself as being of the poor and speaking on their behalf.

His upbringing was orthodox and as a youngster he attended Saint Peter's Church, Hackney Road. He was soon identified as one of the brightest pupils and appointed as a Sunday School teacher by the Reverend John Graham Packer.

During his studies of the four gospels the young Bradlaugh wrote to Packer for advice and explanation of biblical inconsistencies. He was met with an unexpected and unfriendly response. Packer condemned Bradlaugh to his parents and removed him from his post as a Sunday School teacher. Matters developed rapidly after this with Bradlaugh renouncing his religious beliefs.

The Reverend Packer persuaded Charles Senior to give his son three days to change his mind. Bradlaugh did not hesitate or compromise and at the age of 16 left home and took up lodgings with Eliza Sharples, the former mistress and co-worker of Richard Carlile. As such he had philosophically and physically joined the ranks of radical freethought.

In the years that followed he began to write and lecture although he struggled to make a living, eventually enlisting in the army for the bounty. He was sent to Ireland where the misery he saw made a lasting impact. However, army life did not suit him and he was bought out, returning to London and the editorship of freethought newspapers, eventually assuming control of the National Reformer which was to be his mouthpiece for the rest of his life. By now Bradlaugh was well-known as a popular, radical, republican and freethought speaker attracting large crowds wherever he spoke.

Find out more

Bradlaugh's founding of the NSS, his prosecution for publishing information on birth control, his long struggle to claim his duly elected seat in Parliament, as well as his great successes once in Parliament, and his early death are a remarkable part of the Society's history.

As well as exploring the other sections in our history pages, you may be interested in our review of Bryan Niblett's definitive biography, Dare To Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh.


The Society's early years

British secularism was essentially a working-class movement strongly influenced by the French revolution. In the mid Nineteenth Century the secularist movement was widespread, with many local society's being founded. However the radical and freethought leadership was fragmented and, in Bradlaugh's opinion, insufficiently positive.

This would change with the founding of the National Secular Society in 1866. However deep divisions would remain, between opponents and supporters of birth control, and between those dedicated to challenging the Church's abuse of temporal power, and those dedicated to challenging its very existence.

Founding the NSS

On 15 July 1866, The National Reformer announced plans 'to place the Secularists of Great Britain who, during the past few years have enormously increased in numerical strength, in more intimate communication with each other'. Bradlaugh's objectives were always political and were initially closely related to the radicals' attempts to broaden the franchise.

On 9 September Bradlaugh used the columns of his newspaper to proclaim the programme and principles of a new National Secular Society with him as temporary President pending a national conference. This eventually occurred in Bradford in November 1867 when Bradlaugh's presidency was confirmed.

Bradlaugh now had the backing of a network of loyalists and a national organisation to support him in the great struggles that were to follow.

Bradlaugh and Besant

Bradlaugh was helped by his close friend and colleague Annie Besant – a pioneering feminist – and hundreds of active supporters. His new national society emerged to play an important part in British politics. The NSS stood against religious privilege and demanded a secularised society, including an end to all political support for religious purposes and especially the disestablishment of the Church of England. Bradlaugh was a passionate republican who sought to bring about far-reaching changes by strictly constitutional means. This side of his work gave the secular movement a central position in English radical activity during the lean years of working-class history following the collapse of Chartism.

Bradlaugh's early struggles and his political and social work taught him the need for freedom of speech and publication. He was also a convinced neo-Malthusian who believed that grinding poverty could only be relieved if families were smaller. In 1877, when he and Annie Besant republished a pamphlet explaining contraceptive techniques, The Fruits of Philosophy, they were prosecuted and convicted. The two were arrested, tried and sentenced to six months' gaol, but appealed and won on a legal technicality. Although the trial divided secularists, it represented a crucial victory in the battle for free speech and a free press. The years after 1877 also saw a marked decline in the birth rate in the UK.


An early NSS membership certificate of the man who was to become the Society's first full-time paid secretary. Note the legend "We Seek for Truth" at the top and the portraits of Thomas Paine (top left) and Voltaire (top right)

The significance of 1866

Even apart from the founding of the NSS, 1866 was a significant year in the history of radical British politics, seeing the foundation of the Howard League and the Fawcett Society. Together these three are the oldest radical campaigning organisations in the UK, with a continuous history since their foundation.


Fruits of Philosophy trial

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Part 3 of 3

Bradlaugh’s struggle to enter Parliament


By 1880 Bradlaugh had emerged as undisputed leader of the secularist cause and the leading radical of his time. He was famous for his oratory and could attract audiences of thousands. His books and pamphlets on a variety of radical themes commanded huge sales and he was known nationally for his campaign to publish Charles Knowlton's birth control pamphlet.

As a constitutionalist Bradlaugh was convinced that the way to change society was through parliament. In 1868 he first stood for election for the Northampton constituency which was then a single constituency electing two MPs. He chose Northampton, a town of shoemakers, for the radical traditions associated with that trade.

In 1880 Bradlaugh was adopted as a Liberal candidate alongside Henry Labouchere. The timing was fortunate. In 1880 the Liberals achieved their biggest general election victory of all time and William Gladstone formed his second ministry. Bradlaugh and Henry Labouchere were returned as Northampton's MPs.


Since 1870 non-believers had had the legal right to make a secular affirmation in the English and Welsh courts. Bradlaugh believed this qualified him to affirm when taking his seat in the House of Commons and informed the Speaker of his intention. As an atheist and republican he preferred not to take an oath of allegiance to God and the Queen – although he would do so if it meant he could take his seat, the words of the oath being meaningless to him.

The House of Commons refused to allow his affirmation, so Bradlaugh applied to take the oath. Again he was refused. Bradlaugh was effectively barred from taking his hard-won seat. To Bradlaugh and many others this was a grievous breach of democratic rights. He was being refused his seat because of what others thought of his opinions and parliament was ignoring the wishes of his constituents.

At one time, and to further complicate matters, the House of Commons took the perverse position of allowing Bradlaugh to affirm, subject to penalty in the courts. There followed legal actions which sought to bankrupt him and disqualify him as an MP. Bradlaugh acted for himself, taking on the finest lawyers in the country, eventually emerging victorious. However, this was at a huge personal cost.

In the years that followed he continued his fight to take the oath. Four times in the early 1880s his constituents re-elected him; four times he made passionate speeches at the Bar of the House. The Bar marked the boundary of the House – he was allowed to speak to MPs there, because he was not strictly within the House of Commons.

Charles Bradlaugh at the Bar of the House of Commons

On one occasion he refused to withdraw from the Chamber when commanded to do so by the Speaker. He was taken into custody and confined to the prison room of the Clock Tower before being released the next day. On another, Bradlaugh came to the House of Commons at the head of a vast crowd demanding that he be allowed to take his rightful place. He was physically ejected by the police and parliamentary officials, suffering injuries in the process. Despite this provocation he used his power over the crowd to urge them to disperse peacefully.

Eventually the impasse was resolved after the General Election of 1885 when a new Speaker took the dramatic decision of allowing Bradlaugh to take the oath, which he did on 13 January 1886. Almost six years after being first elected Bradlaugh had won, but at immense personal financial and physical cost.

His victory was further underlined by Parliament passing an Oaths Act (1888) which extended the civil rights of freethinkers and secured the their right to affirm when taking their seat in parliament. Many MPs take advantage of this today.

Bradlaugh triumphs with the passing of the Oaths Act in 1888

In the years that remained to him, Bradlaugh championed much reformist legislation and received the accolade of becoming known as The Member for India for championing Indian people's interests. Charles Bradlaugh was always the underdog's friend.

Perhaps the greatest recognition of his victory and achievement occurred as he lay on his deathbed. On 27 January 1891 the House of Commons resolved that its original decision preventing him from taking the oath "be expunged from the journals of the House, as being subversive of the rights of the whole body of electors of this Kingdom".

Charles Bradlaugh died from kidney disease on 30 January 1891 aged 57 without knowing of the resolution. Today his achievements are commemorated by his statue in Abingdon Square, Northampton and by his grave in Brookwood Cemetery. Perhaps most poignantly, in 2016 Suzie Zamit's portrait bust was unveiled in the Palace of Westminster during the NSS's 150th year. Today it is displayed alongside other celebrated reformers and radicals. Charles Bradlaugh's heroism and self-sacrifice has not been forgotten. His example remains an inspiration to a new generation.

The portrait bust of Charles Bradlaugh as displayed in the Palace of Westminster. The bust was donated by the National Secular Society in 2016 to mark the Society's 150th anniversary.


G.W. Foote and the Freethinker blasphemy trials

Sentenced to Twelve Months' Imprisonment for Blasphemy.
Interim Editor, EDWARD B. AVELING, D.Sc., Fellow of University College, London
William James Ramsey, as Proprietor, sentenced to Nine Months' Imprisonment; and Henry Arthur Kemp, as Printer and Publisher, sentenced to Three Months' Imprisonment.
Vol. III, No. 43. October 28, 1883. [Price One Penny.
"My revenue is the silly cheat." -- Shakspere.
No. 116

George William Foote was born on 11 January 1850 in Plymouth. He was brought up in poor circumstances, as his father died when he was young. But he had a good education by the standards of the time which stimulated an interest in literature. He was brought up an Anglican but by the age of 15 was drawn to unitarianism.

In 1868 he moved to London, first working as a librarian. He soon encountered secularists and became active in the cause. He was mainly drawn to George Jacob Holyoake who offered a more moderate version of secularism than that of Charles Bradlaugh. This became sharply apparent in 1876, when Foote was expelled from the NSS, and in 1877 when he was one of Bradlaugh's most vocal critics over the republication of The Fruits of Philosophy.

G.W. Foote in 1883

This changed in 1880 when Bradlaugh was prevented from taking his rightful place in the House of Commons. Up to then Foote had favoured a quiet scholarly life but Bradlaugh's treatment enraged him. His solution was to fight fire with fire.

In 1881 Foote rejoined the NSS and in May issued the first number of his new newspaper The Freethinker. He set out his stall in the first issue:

"The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular".

He was as good as his word and his primary weapons were parody and satire. From an early stage he introduced a weekly Bible cartoon which was particularly hard-hitting and incensed the religious. Such tactics seemed popular because although The Freethinker was launched as a monthly it was soon being printed each week.

Two blasphemy prosecutions were brought, against the issues of 28 May 1882 (in which a cartoon of The Martyrdom of St. Labre and had proved particularly controversial) and the special Christmas number that year. The latter came to trial first in March 1883. Foote, as editor, was accompanied in the dock by William Ramsay (shop manager) and William Kemp (printer). They appeared before Lord Justice Sir Ford North, whose attitude towards the defendants was hostile throughout. Despite the judge's advice to the jury, they failed to convict and a retrial was ordered for the following week.

See p. 86

And it shall come to pass that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and I shall take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts -- EXODUS xxxiii., 23.

The second trial was again held before North and this time the jury convicted. Foote was sentenced to 12 months, Ramsey nine and Kemp three. The severity of the sentence came as a shock even to Foote's opponents. Foote's response has become famous: "My Lord, I thank you, it is worthy of your creed". He had become a martyr.

William Ramsay's account of his time in prison for blasphemy (blasphemy trials)
In Prison for Blasphemy.
by W.J. Ramsey.
[Reprinted from "Our Corner."]

Foote and Ramsey were back in court for a third trial in April on the first charge relating to The Freethinker of 28 May 1882. This time the case was heard by Lord Justice Coleridge who, in contrast to North, treated the defendants with consideration and courtesy. The jury failed to reach a decision and although a retrial was expected it never occurred. The prosecution mysteriously dropped the case.

Foote conducted his own defence throughout the trials. One of his main arguments was that his crime had been to peddle blasphemy cheaply to working people while polite agnostics and sceptics (such as T.H. Huxley and Aubrey Beardsley) were left to carry on undisturbed.

Foote, Ramsey and Kemp served their sentences at Holloway under the severe regime of a Victorian gaol. Foote was now a national figure; he received a hero's welcome on his release. When Bradlaugh stepped down as President of the NSS in 1890, Foote was his obvious successor.

He took over at a difficult time, as the NSS faced significant challenges. Progressive opinion was switching from radicalism to socialism. And opportunities for popular, heroic struggles had declined – partly because the secularists had been successful. The NSS lost some of its leading characters after Bradlaugh's death but Foote managed to hold it together.

G.W. Foote in later life

He also saw the organisation change from being an essentially political movement into a pressure group. Under his presidency The Freethinker emerged as the mouthpiece of the NSS. Foote's weekly editorial was usually interesting, provocative and written with style and panache. During his lifetime he signed his name to over 2,000 articles. He also gave the NSS financial security by forming the Secular Society Ltd, which took advantage of Lord Justice Coleridge's judgement of 1883 legalising bequests for free thought.

When Foote's health broke down in 1913 Chapmen Cohen took over the editorship of The Freethinker in everything but name. Foote died on 17 October 1915, amid a war that seemed to defy secularists' faith in human progress.

"Who burnt heretics? Who roasted or drowned millions of 'witches'? Who built dungeons and filled them? Who brought forth cries of agony from honest men and women that rang to the tingling stars? Who burnt Burno? Who spat filth over the graves of Paine and Voltaire? The answer is one word -- CHRISTIANS."
G.W. Foote
British secularist & Atheist speaker
"Are Atheists Wiked?," chapter from Flowers of Freethought (1894)


Annie Besant


Annie Wood was born into a London family of Irish origin on 1 October, 1847. By the standards of the time she had an excellent education and was able to travel widely in Europe.

As a young woman she was religiously minded and at the age of 20 married a 26-year-old clergyman, Frank Besant. The union was soon to produce two children, Arthur and Mabel. However, the marriage was anything but a success and the couple disagreed on a host of social and political issues. Annie always supported the radical and progressive side, Frank the conservative. Matters came to a head when Annie began to have doubts about her faith and refused to attend Communion. In 1873 they separated and Annie moved to live with her daughter in London.

On 9 August ,1874 Annie attended the Old Street Hall of Science for the first time, joined the NSS and met Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh was immediately struck by the young firebrand who was soon contributing to Bradlaugh's journal The National Reformer. On 25 August she delivered her first lecture on The Political Status of Women in which she denounced religion for keeping women subordinate. Like Bradlaugh, she was a brilliant speaker and was soon criss-crossing the country, speaking on all the most important issues of the day demanding improvement, reform and freedom.

Annie Besant was a forceful woman who quickly established herself as Bradlaugh's trusted companion. It was she who in 1877 helped persuade Bradlaugh to republish Charles Knowlton's birth control pamphlet, The Fruits of Philosophy. Although this venture was successful it had a tragic outcome for Besant. In the wake of the trial that followed publication she lost custody of her daughter Mabel.

The years that followed demonstrated Annie's extraordinary talents and energy. She was founding secretary of the Malthusian League (a forerunner of the Family Planning Association) and wrote numerous pamphlets and books on progressive themes. Her own birth control pamphlet, The Law of Population, sold 175,000 copies. She could write about historical topics, science, religion, women's rights and philosophy all from a freethinking perspective. She founded her own journal, Our Corner, as well as contributing to others. She loyally supported Bradlaugh throughout his parliamentary struggle.

Annie Besant and the Matchgirls Strike Committee

By the mid-1880s she was increasing influenced by the growth of socialist ideas and joined the Fabian Society in 1885. Besant hoped that she could blend the outdoor activism of the secularists with the armchair socialism of the Fabians. Although her stance was popular with some secularists it created tensions with Charles Bradlaugh and G.W. Foote, whose perspectives were individualistic rather than collectivistic.

However Annie remained a member of the NSS for a few more years. On 13 November 1887 she was a speaker at a protest meeting in Trafalgar Square which became known as "Bloody Sunday". In 1888 she played an important role in the successful London matchgirls' strike and was also involved with the successful London dock strike of 1890.

Nevertheless, by the late 1880s Besant was moving away from secularism. In 1889 she started taking an interest in theosophy, and it was clear that her time as a secularist was over. In 1893 she moved to India and devoted the rest of her life to theosophy and the cause of Indian nationalism.

Many secularists were both bewildered and disappointed by these developments. They remembered the young firebrand speaker and writer who inspired their struggle for a better world, they mourned their loss particularly as it occurred as Bradlaugh's health declined.

Annie Besant died on 30 September 1933, a few days before the NSS met to celebrate the centenary of Bradlaugh's birth. Those who remembered Bradlaugh remembered her too and her contribution to the secularists' cause.

Indian commemorative stamp featuring Annie Besant 1847-1933


Passing the gavel: the Society’s second president

On 16 February 1889 a special NSS conference was called. An ailing Charles Bradlaugh had made the decision to resign as President and to propose George William Foote as his successor.

When the moment came Bradlaugh presented a small gavel to Foote and said:

I tender the only emblem of office we have. This hammer, presented to us by the widow of James Watson, was used in the old Rotunda, in days when such freedom as we now enjoy was impossible. Carlile often used it. I give it to you joyfully, Foote, and trust you will hand it to your successor.

-- Bradlaugh

Foote was Bradlaugh's obvious replacement. He had achieved notoriety when he was so appalled by Bradlaugh's treatment that he founded The Freethinker in 1881. He decided to take the battle to the Christian establishment using the weapons of parody and satire: he published a weekly 'Bible cartoon'. Blasphemy prosecutions were brought in 1883 and Foote was sentenced to 12 months in Holloway gaol.

After Bradlaugh's death with the rise of modern party politics, the secular movement was no longer such a significant political force, though established itself as a pressure group. Foote, who continued as editor of The Freethinker and President until 1915, said the 'heroic age' of freethought had passed.

The gavel which remains in the possession of the National Secular Society reminds us of our long history of radical campaigning against religious privilege and of the sacrifices of our brave pioneers.

Names on the gavel

The first owner was Richard Carlile, who spent more than 10 of his 53 years in gaol. His main crime was to publish and sell the works of Thomas Paine work during the early 19th Century and the years of repression.

A second name on the gavel is James Watson, like Carlile a publisher, bookseller, freethinker and London Chartist.

Other names include Bradlaugh's own and those of G.W. Foote and Chapman Cohen, subsequent long-serving NSS presidents.


The 20th century

Momentum for constitutional disestablishment – at least in England – declined in the twentieth century. While social changes undermined religious privilege, religious organisations played an increasing role in the expanding state.

The Society's third president - Chapmen Cohen introduced a new generation to the secular cause. By the end of WWII life in Britain had become increasingly secularised, but there was still a pressing need for existing religious privileges to be challenged. Playwright Harold Pinter wrote in the 1966 NSS centenary brochure:

"The fact remains that children are still indoctrinated in schools at public expense…and many humane and rational reforms remain opposed…The work of the National Secular Society remains highly important".

These words remain as true today as when they were written; in some ways they are even truer. For example, the role of religion in state education has probably grown rather than declined.

David Tribe and Barbara Smoker were notable Presidents in the second half of the twentieth century. They greatly increased the society's use of the media to express its views.


Chapman Cohen


Cohen was born on 1 September 1868, in Leicester, to a Jewish family. His upbringing was remarkably free of religious influence. As he put it, "In sober truth I cannot recall a time when I had any religion to give up".

From an early age he was a voracious reader and as a teenager was already reading philosophers such as Spinoza, Locke, Hume and Berkeley. His route to atheism was different from his predecessors. Fierce rejection of religion and criticism of the absurdities and contradictions of the Bible were not for him. His objections to religion were analytical, sociological and philosophical and this was the starting point for his lecturing, debating and writing for the rest of his life.

In 1889 Cohen moved to London and was walking in Victoria Park, then a venue for open air meetings and speakers, when he witnessed a speaker being opposed by an old man who suffered from a speech impediment. The lecturer replied by mimicking the old man's speech. When he was finished he asked for more opposition. Cohen accepted the invitation.

Soon afterwards he joined the NSS and became a lecturer. He briefly became the editor of the Bradford Truth-seeker. By 1897 he was writing for Foote's Freethinker. He soon became its assistant editor and, as Foote's health declined, took on increasing responsibility for the newspaper. When Foote died in 1915 it was inevitable that Cohen would succeed him as President of the NSS and Freethinker editor.

Under Cohen The Freethinker changed its style. As it was the mouthpiece of the NSS at the time, this had implications for the organisation. Cohen was a gifted writer with a talent for explaining complicated philosophical ideas and their implications for religion and life in general to ordinary people. Although he might not have described himself as a sociologist, he had a talent for understanding and explaining social forces too. His 18 Pamphlets for the People have probably never been bettered as statements of the position of unbelievers. Cohen never gave voice to party political views.

Cohen's happy and comfortable family life was marred only by his daughter Daisy's death from tuberculosis aged 28. It is perhaps no coincidence that his son, Raymond, became a hospital consultant specialising in lung disease.

Cohen played a vital role between the two world wars. He put NSS finances on a sound footing by encouraging contributions and by securing a number of legacies.

By 1945 his powers were on the wane and his writings were inclined to become repetitive. He struggled to adapt to a changing world and changing fashions. For example, he found adoption of the term "humanism" difficult. Following a stormy NSS Annual Conference he reluctantly resigned as the society's President in 1949. Two years later, he resigned as editor of The Freethinker at the age of 83. Officially he had held the position for 36 years; unofficially he had been doing the job for longer.

Chapman Cohen died on 4 February 1954. In tribute F.A. Ridley, his successor as editor, wrote in The Freethinker: "As the eloquent and acute spokesman of the advanced minority upon whom progress always ultimately depends, Mr Cohen will be long held in honour. His fearless, razor-edged intellect dispelled the dark clouds of superstition wherever it turned its penetrating light."


Notable NSS Presidents since Chapman Cohen

F.A. Ridley (22 February 1897 – 27 March 1994)

R.H. Rosetti took over the NSS presidency when Chapman Cohen retired. But his health rapidly deteriorated and he died two years later. F.A.Ridley, who succeeded him in 1951, served until 1963.

Frank Ridley was born into a comfortable middle class family; educated at the famous public school Sedburgh; and obtained a licentiate from Durham University. He then broke with Christianity and moved to London.

He differed from his predecessors – he was a revolutionary socialist with links to many left-wing movements, particularly the Independent Labour Party.

His greatest contribution to secularism lay in his writings, including The Papacy and Fascism, 1937 (one of the first pieces of work to link the two); The Jesuits (1932) and The Evolution and the Papacy (1949). A theme running through all these works was the relationship between politics and religion.

Ridley also edited The Freethinker from 1951 to 1954. He frequently wrote on a range of subjects, but he was a particularly well-informed and cogent critic of the Roman Catholic Church.

David Tribe (1931 - 2017)

Tribe was born in Sydney, Australia and brought up in Brisbane. He studied medicine at the University of Queensland but did not enjoy hospital work. He travelled to the UK soon after leaving university, working principally as a lecturer.

Tribe was President of the NSS from 1963 to 1971 and edited The Freethinker for a brief period in 1966.

His presidency coincided with a period of vigorous campaigning on the society's behalf. The 1960s saw progress on a number of fronts including gay rights, women's rights, abortion, contraception and divorce law reform. Tribe, in particular, wrote and campaigned on the subjects of religion and schools.

He wrote two major pieces of scholarship of great significance to the NSS. In 1967, shortly after the society's centenary, he published 100 Years of Freethought. Four years later he wrote President Charles Bradlaugh MP, a work of outstanding scholarship which helped rekindle interest in the society's founder.

David Tribe died in Australia in 2017, at the age of 86.

Barbara Smoker (2 June 1923 - 7 April 2020)

Smoker was born in London into a Roman Catholic family. In her 20s she became an atheist.

She first became involved in the secular movement when she joined the South Place Ethical Society. She was elected President of the NSS in 1972, continuing in that role until 1996. As such the length of her term of office rivalled that of G.W. Foote and Charles Bradlaugh.

As President she represented the Society in print, on lecture platforms, speaking tours and on radio and television. She was also in demand as a celebrant at funerals, weddings, gay commitments and naming ceremonies.

She supported campaigns for causes such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, legalisation of abortion and voluntary euthanasia.

Among the other offices she has held is as a former Chair of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now Dignity in Dying).

In 2005 Smoker received the Distinguished Humanist Service Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Barbara Smoker's autobiography (My Godforsaken Life: Memoir of a Maverick) was published in December 2018 and reviewed by the NSS.

Denis Cobell (1931 - )

Denis Cobell was born in Hove, East Sussex. His parents were strict evangelical Christians and his father was a lay preacher.

Cobell's secularism was triggered by the books he read in Hove Public Library, including those of Bertrand Russell.

He worked as an NHS nurse for 48 years. In 1960 he moved to London and took up a position at Guy's Hospital, where he remained until he retired.

He joined the Council of the NSS in 1976 and became President in 1997. He held the post until 2006. During his presidency he forged a close working relationship with Keith Porteous Wood (Executive Director).

The NSS was brought into the digital age. As a result parliamentary lobbying and effective campaigning have become hallmarks of the society. And its theatre of operations has been extended to include the European Union, the Council of Europe and United Nations.


Disestablishment in Wales

"An Act to terminate the establishment of the Church of England in Wales and Monmouthshire, and to make provision in respect of the Temporalities thereof, and for other purposes in connection with the matters aforesaid."

The 1914 Welsh Church Act provided for the disestablishment of the Church of England within Wales, and the creation of an independent but non-established Church of Wales. Due to the first world war, the Act did not take effect until 1920.

Previous Bills had been defeated in 1886, 1892, 1894, 1909 and 1912 contributing to increased opposition to the Conservative party.

The Act was a result of campaigning by secularists and nonconformists who objected to Wales having a state sponsored church and to paying tithes to the Church of England. The Act – sponsored by the Liberal party and opposed by the Conservative party – required the use of the Parliament Act to overcome opposition in the House of Lords.

The Church in Wales no longer received tithe money, but kept all of the properties that money had previously funded.


Social liberalism

Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s the NSS was on the forefront of many movements for social change. Mass immigration, the black, women's and LGBT liberation movements all undermined the case for regressive religious morality to be enforced by the state.

Some key milestones from this period

• 1951 Marriage law reform supported: The NSS supported the Marriage Law Reform Society in an effort to rectify an anomaly in the Marriage Act: it exposed the Pope's "mother or child" edict. Following the death of R. H. Rosetti (President), F. A. Ridley became acting President of the NSS and P. V. Morris its General Secretary.
• 1953 Republicanism reaffirmed: The NSS reaffirmed its adherence to republicanism and drew attention to the superstitious nature of the Coronation ceremony. Wreaths were laid on the Bradlaugh monument at Northampton during a gathering of secularists and rationalists. There was a large rise in NSS membership in two years. The NSS, Rationalist Press Association and Ethical Societies got together to form a Humanist Council for bringing pressure to bear on the BBC for a fair share of broadcasting. A bill to remove Sunday trading restrictions was defeated.
• 1955 Margaret Knight smashes the barrier against atheists on the BBC: Broadcasting history was made when Mrs. Margaret Knight, of Aberdeen University, was allowed, in a series of talks on the BBC, to propose a Scientific Humanist, as opposed to a Christian, conception of morality. Her subsequent book took its title from her talks, Morals without Religion. There was enormous national publicity and controversy. Some national newspapers condemned Mrs Knight and defended Christian privilege in intemperate terms. She joined the NSS. Colin McCall became NSS General Secretary.
• 1956 NSS protest against religious rates privileges: Mrs. Knight was the distinguished Guest of Honour at the NSS Annual Dinner. The NSS General Secretary recorded a two-minute talk at the invitation of a TV programme inquiring into the state of religion, but the talk was edited out of the show. Vigorous protests from the NSS ensued. The NSS was also protesting against the exemption of vicarages, presbyteries and manses from rates, and rate relief for the clergy. Margaret Knight appeared on TV to debate three Christian representatives
• 1957 Wolfenden Report causes huge controversy: The Wolfenden Report, commissioned by the Government, called for homosexual acts to be decriminalised. Its publication caused a huge public reaction, but it took another decade before its recommendations were implemented. The NSS had long condemned the cruel anti-gay laws as one among many religion-based "injustices and abuses" and in its 1967 annual report the NSS said "homosexual toleration" would strengthen over time.
• 1961 Suicide legalised: The NSS was prominent in campaigning for the passing of The Suicide Act. Until this reform, attempted suicide was treated in law as a misdemeanour. Until 1823 suicide victims were buried at the village crossroads with a stake through their heart. From 1823 to 1882 they were buried in an unconsecrated part of the churchyard at night.
• 1963 David Tribe becomes president of the NSS, teaming up with Bill McIlroy: David Tribe, originally from Australia, was a very active NSS president from 1963 to 1971. He brought a new and modern approach to campaigning for secularism and was prominent in many of the major reform campaigns of the sixties. He was ably assisted by the redoubtable Bill McIlroy who was General Secretary 1963–77 (with a one-year break). Among Tribe's many contributions was a pamphlet entitled Broadcasting, Brainwashing Conditioning – which continued, and enhanced, the long-running complaint about the disproportionate and deferential presence of religion on the BBC. This continues to the present, with a particular frustration at the continuance of Radio 4's Thought for the Day as a purely religious preserve.
• 1964 NSS organises secular education month: In November 1964, with the support of playwright Harold Pinter and philosopher Bertrand Russell, the NSS organised Secular Education Month with meetings held in London, Glasgow, Inverness, Leicester, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Reading. The NSS has remained steadfast in its opposition to publicly funded 'faith schools' and continues to campaign against compulsory worship and faithbased admissions, instead advocating for secular, inclusive schools that are equally open and welcoming to all children, regardless of their religious and philosophical backgrounds.
• 1965 Challenge to theatre censorship: The Royal Court Theatre went ahead with performances of a play, Saved, by NSS Honorary Associate Edward Bond, despite it being banned by the theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain. The resultant furore led to the Theatres Act of 1968 which abolished the role of the Lord Chamberlain. The NSS had joined campaigns over several years calling for the abolition of the death penalty, which came about in 1965 with the passage of the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act. The Race Relations Act was also passed in this year.
• 1967 Homosexuality decriminalised: In the face of much religious resistance, and after decades of struggle, the Sexual Offences Act was finally passed in 1967. It decriminalised sex in private between men over the age of 21. The NSS had long objected to the legal persecution of homosexuals. Contraceptives were made available on the NHS.
• 1968 NSS enters right-to-die debate: An NSS working party produced a report "The Right to Die" aimed at reforming the law on assisted suicide. At that time those convicted of assisting a successful suicide could be charged with murder and jailed for 14 years. The many attempts at reforming the law had been thwarted by mainly religious opposition. NSS annual conference passed a resolution supporting voluntary euthanasia.
• 1969 Rights of 'illegitimate children' recognised: The Family Law Reform Act allowed people born outside marriage to inherit on the intestacy of either parent. It was not until 1987 that all legal distinctions between children born to married and unmarried parents were removed. The NSS had campaigned for this for many years.
• 1971 Barbara Smoker becomes NSS president: Barbara Smoker was at the helm of the NSS for 25 years during which she lectured, went on speaking tours, did radio and television interviews and debates. She was in demand to give addresses at secular funerals and eventually officiated at nonreligious funerals, wedding ceremonies, gay and lesbian commitments and baby-namings. She was active in various social campaigns, such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament and voluntary euthanasia. Her range of interests were wide and her writing prolific, and she was active in organisations throughout the secularist and humanist movements. In 1984 Barbara undertook a speaking tour of the United States; she produced a booklet Eggs Are Not People which was distributed to all members of parliament to dissuade them from voting for a ban on embryo research. In 1989 she was assaulted by demonstrators when standing beside the route of a huge Muslim march that demanded the death of Salman Rushdie. She was holding a home-made banner proclaiming "Free Speech". In 1990 she undertook a speaking tour of India, visiting again in 1998 to inaugurate a mass atheist rally.
• 1977 Gay News blasphemy case: When a private prosecution for blasphemous libel was brought by the Christian activist Mrs Mary Whitehouse against the magazine Gay News, the NSS joined the campaign to defend the paper. Gay News had published a poem about a Roman centurion having sex with the dead body of Christ. Denis Lemon, the editor, was found guilty and given a suspended sentence. In advance of the case, the judge surmised that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to homosexuality. NSS General Secretary Bill McIlroy became chair of the Committee Against Blasphemy Law to protest against the conviction, gaining endorsement from an impressive array of prominent figures. The Committee was revived in 1989 to defend Salman Rushdie in the Satanic Verses controversy. Jim Herrick was NSS General Secretary for two years from 1977.


The 21st century

The 21st century has seen a drastic decline in religious observance in the UK. At the same time there has been a rise of religious diversity and increasingly personalised religion, where religious leaders' and institutions' hold over public opinion – even among the religious – has vastly diminished. Despite this era of secularisation, religion has remained politically influential and privileged. Religious fundamentalism has remerged as a political force. Global conflicts between capitalism and communism have been replaced in places with a conflict between secular democracy and theocracy.

New, often contentious, model of both secularism and religious privilege have emerged. And secularism is increasingly being seen as a human rights issue in which people of all faiths as well as none have a stake.


Blasphemy laws abolished

In 2008, the blasphemy laws were finally abolished. The culmination of 140 years of NSS campaigning provided an excuse for its 'Bye Bye Blasphemy' party! The historic change followed a letter written to The Daily Telegraph by Dr Evan Harris MP and the NSS, and was signed by several major figures, including senior leaders of the Church of England.

Lords approve abolition of blasphemy
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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#2)

Postby admin » Tue Apr 14, 2020 4:02 am

Funding the vision – Henry Hunt Hutchinson and his will: How did the will of a Derby lawyer lead to the foundation of the London School of Economics and Political Science?
by Sue Donnelly, LSE Archivist
London School of Economics and Political Science
Accessed: 4/13/20

On 2 August 1894 a Derby attorney, William Harvey Whiston, wrote to Sidney Webb. The letter enclosed the will of Derby lawyer Henry Hutchinson and stated that the value of the estate was likely to be around £14,000 – £17,000 in the bank and a further £6-7,000 in shares.

An obituary for Henry Hunt Hutchinson in the Derby Daily Telegraph reported that on 26 July 1894 Hutchinson died “under distressing circumstances”. He had taken his own life after a long illness. Hutchinson was a solicitor who was the consulting clerk to the Derby magistrates. He retired in 1877 and with his wife and daughters visited his sons in California intending to settle there, but after two years returned to Derby, visiting California again in 1892-1893. Hutchinson had also been a member and donor to the Fabian Society, but he had also been a frequent complainer – mainly about George Bernard Shaw.

Henry Hunt Hutchinson

Sidney Webb was named as executor of the will and after some bequests to his family Hutchinson left his money not to the Fabian Society, but to a group of trustees, including his daughter Constance Hutchinson and Fabian Society secretary Edward Pease:

“That they may apply the same at once, gradually, and at all events within ten years to the propaganda and other purposes of the said Society and its Socialism, and towards advancing its objects in any way they deem advisable”.

Sidney Webb was to be President for the first year and to have a casting vote on any of its decisions.

Sidney Webb, 1893

The will was far from straightforward. Hutchinson’s death from suicide raised the question of whether he had been of sound mind when the will was written, although it was dated October 1893 some months before his death. Secondly his provision for his wife, an annuity of £100 per year, was distinctly niggardly.

In September 1894 his wife wrote to the trustees protesting against the will and providing examples of her husband depriving her of money while giving it away to others. At their first meeting on 26 September the Trustees agreed to double Mrs Hutchinson’s annuity to £200 and to make no claim on Hutchinson’s furniture or personal effects.

Perhaps fearing a questioning of the will and the role of the trustees, which was to happen on several occasions, the trustees sought the opinion of the barrister R B Haldane, later a supporter of the School. Haldane’s opinion advised that the Trustees could act without consultation with the Fabian Society as long as their objectives fell within the Society’s objectives and secondly that the provision of public instruction in economic and political science (among other things) was a proper use of the Trust funds.

Of course Sidney had a big idea as Beatrice Webb reported in her diary in September 1894:

Beatrice Webb, c1900

“So Sidney has been planning to persuade the other trustees to devote the greater part of the money to encouraging research and economic study. His vision is to found, slowly and quietly, a “London School of Economics and Political Science” – a centre not only of lectures on special subjects but an association of students who would be directed and supported in doing original work.”

Sidney entrusted Edward Pease, as Secretary of the Fabian Society, with ensuring that the Fabian Executive Committee understood that the bequest was to the Trustees and not the Society. A letter from Shaw, who attended the Executive Committee meeting, indicates that there was some discussion about how far the Society should question the use of the money but in the end they agreed not to interfere with Sidney’s proposals. On 27 November Sidney sent out a letter, asking for suggestions on the use of the money but urging strongly that the use should be educational in character. At the trustees meeting on 8 February 1895 Sidney presented a memorandum recommending that £500 be spent on starting “experimentally” a London School of Economics and Political Science. £150 would be spent on organising Fabian Society lectures throughout the country in 1895-1896. The trustees agreed the proposal.

How important was Hutchinson’s money in the establishment of LSE? It certainly gave Sidney and his collaborators the confidence and financial backing to seek further funding. In fact the wording of Sidney’s February memorandum indicated he was planning to approach the Technical and Education Board of the London County Council (of which he was Chairman) for support for the provision of teaching of commercial courses at the Chamber of Commerce in Eastcheap.

In May 1895 the Board agreed to grant £500 for the year 1895-1896. In the early years of the School this grant was the largest item of income, increasing to £1,200 in 1897-1898. In addition there were a number of donations from individuals – Sidney estimated that the School had received £5,000 from Charlotte Shaw in the first several years – not least her rental of the upper floors of 10 Adelphi Terrace.

Charlotte Shaw, 1904

Sidney was determined to found his centre of research in the social sciences and he expressed his passion in a letter to Charlotte:

“…only in this path of scientific study lies any hope of remedying social evils, or relieving individual misery. I am furious when I read of bequests to the Poor Box, or the Lifeboat Society, or the Hospitals – it is worth more to discover one tiny improvement that will permanently change conditions ever so little for the better than to assuage momentarily the woes of thousands.

I am thoroughly satisfied that if the experiment is successful; that this is the way and the only one I know, to build up a great research institution.”
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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#2)

Postby admin » Tue Apr 14, 2020 6:28 am

Part 1 of 2

Ramsay MacDonald
by Wikipedia
Accessed: 4/13/20

The Right Honourable Ramsay MacDonald, FRS
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office: 5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Monarch: George V
Preceded by: Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by: Stanley Baldwin
In office: 22 January 1924 – 4 November 1924
Monarch: George V
Preceded by: Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by: Stanley Baldwin
Leader of the Opposition
In office: 4 November 1924 – 5 June 1929
Monarch: George V
Prime Minister: Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by: Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by: Stanley Baldwin
In office: 21 November 1922 – 22 January 1924
Monarch: George V
Prime Minister: Bonar Law; Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by: H. H. Asquith
Succeeded by: Stanley Baldwin
Leader of the Labour Party
In office: 22 November 1922 – 1 September 1931
Deputy: J. R. Clynes
Preceded by: J. R. Clynes
Succeeded by: Arthur Henderson
In office: 6 February 1911 – 5 August 1914
Chief Whip: George Roberts; Arthur Henderson
Preceded by: George Barnes
Succeeded by: Arthur Henderson
Lord President of the Council
In office: 7 June 1935 – 28 May 1937
Prime Minister: Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by: Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by: The Viscount Halifax
Leader of the House of Commons
In office: 5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Preceded by: Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by: Stanley Baldwin
In office: 22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Preceded by: Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by: Stanley Baldwin
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office: 22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Preceded by: The Marquess Curzon
Succeeded by: Austen Chamberlain
Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities
In office: 31 January 1936 – 9 November 1937
Preceded by: Noel Skelton
Succeeded by: Sir John Anderson
Member of Parliament for Seaham
In office: 30 May 1929 – 25 October 1935
Preceded by: Sidney Webb
Succeeded by: Manny Shinwell
Member of Parliament for Aberavon
In office: 15 November 1922 – 10 May 1929
Preceded by: Jack Edwards
Succeeded by: William Cove
Member of Parliament for Leicester
In office: 8 February 1906 – 25 November 1918
Serving with Henry Broadhurst Franklin Thomasson Eliot Crawshay-Williams Sir Gordon Hewart
Preceded by: John Rolleston; Henry Broadhurst
Succeeded by: Constituency abolished
Personal details
Born: James MacDonald Ramsay, 12 October 1866, Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland
Died: 9 November 1937 (aged 71), Atlantic Ocean (on holiday aboard the ocean liner Reina del Pacifico)
Nationality: British
Political party: Labour (until 1931); National Labour (from 1931)
Spouse(s): Margaret Gladstone (m. 1896; died 1911)
Children: 6, including Malcolm and Ishbel
Alma mater: Birkbeck, University of London
Profession: Politician

James Ramsay MacDonald FRS (né James McDonald Ramsay; 12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937) was a British statesman who was the first Labour Party politician to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leading minority Labour governments for nine months in 1924 and then in 1929–31. From 1931 to 1935, he headed a National Government dominated by the Conservative Party and supported by only a few Labour members. MacDonald was later vehemently denounced by and expelled from the party he had helped to found.

MacDonald, along with Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, was one of the three principal founders of the Labour Party. He was chairman of the Labour MPs before 1914 and, after an eclipse in his career caused by his opposition to the First World War, he was Leader of the Labour Party from 1922. The second Labour Government (1929–31) was dominated by the Great Depression. He formed the National Government to carry out spending cuts to defend the gold standard, but it had to be abandoned after the Invergordon Mutiny, and he called a general election in 1931 seeking a "doctor's mandate" to fix the economy. The National coalition won an overwhelming landslide and the Labour Party was reduced to a rump of around 50 seats in the House of Commons. His health deteriorated and he stood down as Prime Minister in 1935, remaining as Lord President of the Council until retiring in 1937. He died later that year.

MacDonald's speeches, pamphlets and books made him an important theoretician. Historian John Shepherd states that "MacDonald's natural gifts of an imposing presence, handsome features and a persuasive oratory delivered with an arresting Highlands accent made him the iconic Labour leader". After 1931, MacDonald was repeatedly and bitterly denounced by the Labour movement as a traitor to its cause. Since the 1960s, historians have defended his reputation, emphasising his earlier role in building up the Labour Party, dealing with the Great Depression, and as a putative forerunner of the political realignments of the 1990s and 2000s.[1]

Early life


MacDonald was born at Gregory Place, Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid.[2] Registered at birth as James McDonald (sic) Ramsay, he was known as Jaimie MacDonald. Illegitimacy could be a serious handicap in 19th-century Presbyterian Scotland, but in the north and northeast farming communities this was less of a problem; in 1868 a report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women in Agriculture noted that the illegitimacy rate was around 15%—nearly every sixth person was born out of wedlock.[3] MacDonald's mother had worked as a domestic servant at Claydale farm, near Alves, where his father was also employed. They were to have been married, but the wedding never took place, either because the couple quarrelled and chose not to marry, or because Anne's mother, Isabella Ramsay, stepped in to prevent her daughter from marrying a man she deemed unsuitable.[4]

Bloody Sunday.

Ramsay MacDonald received an elementary education at the Free Church of Scotland school in Lossiemouth from 1872 to 1875, and then at Drainie parish school. He left school at the end of the summer term in 1881, at the age of 15, and began work on a nearby farm. In December 1881, he was appointed a pupil teacher at Drainie parish school.[5] In 1885, he left to take up a position as an assistant to Mordaunt Crofton, a clergyman in Bristol who was attempting to establish a Boys' and Young Men's Guild at St Stephen's Church.[6] In Bristol Ramsay MacDonald joined the Democratic Federation, a Radical organisation, which changed its name a few months later to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).[7][8] He remained in the group when it left the SDF to become the Bristol Socialist Society. In early 1886 he moved to London.[9]

Young semi-socialist in London

Following a short period of work addressing envelopes at the National Cyclists' Union in Fleet Street, he found himself unemployed and forced to live on the small amount of money he had saved from his time in Bristol. MacDonald eventually found employment as an invoice clerk in the warehouse of Cooper, Box and Co.[10] During this time he was deepening his socialist credentials, and engaged himself energetically in C. L. Fitzgerald's Socialist Union which, unlike the SDF, aimed to progress socialist ideals through the parliamentary system.[11] MacDonald witnessed the Bloody Sunday of 13 November 1887 in Trafalgar Square, and in response, had a pamphlet published by the Pall Mall Gazette, entitled Remember Trafalgar Square: Tory Terrorism in 1887.[12]

MacDonald retained an interest in Scottish politics. Gladstone's first Irish Home Rule Bill inspired the setting-up of a Scottish Home Rule Association in Edinburgh. On 6 March 1888, MacDonald took part in a meeting of London-based Scots, who, upon his motion, formed the London General Committee of the Scottish Home Rule Association.[13] For a while he supported home rule for Scotland, but found little support among London's Scots.[14] However, MacDonald never lost his interest in Scottish politics and home rule, and in Socialism: critical and constructive, published in 1921, he wrote: "The Anglification of Scotland has been proceeding apace to the damage of its education, its music, its literature, its genius, and the generation that is growing up under this influence is uprooted from its past."[15]

Politics in the 1880s was still of less importance to MacDonald than furthering his education. He took evening classes in science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution but his health suddenly failed him due to exhaustion one week before his examinations, which put an end to any thought of a scientific career.[16] In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician.[17] Lough was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for West Islington, in 1892. Many doors now opened to MacDonald: he had access to the National Liberal Club as well as the editorial offices of Liberal and Radical newspapers; he made himself known to various London Radical clubs among Radical and labour politicians. MacDonald gained valuable experience in the workings of electioneering. At the same time he left Lough's employment to branch out as a freelance journalist. Elsewhere, as a member of the Fabian Society for some time, MacDonald toured and lectured on its behalf at the London School of Economics and elsewhere.[18]

Active politics

The Trades Union Congress had created the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) and entered into an unsatisfactory alliance with the Liberal Party in 1886.[19] In 1892, MacDonald was in Dover to give support to the candidate for the LEA in the General Election, who was well beaten. MacDonald impressed the local press[20] and the Association and was adopted as its candidate, announcing that his candidature would be under a Labour Party banner.[21] He denied the Labour Party was a wing of the Liberal Party but saw merit in a working political relationship. In May 1894, the local Southampton Liberal Association was trying to find a labour-minded candidate for the constituency. Two others joined MacDonald to address the Liberal Council: one was offered but turned down the invitation, while MacDonald failed to secure the nomination despite strong support among Liberals.[22]

In 1893, Keir Hardie had formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which had established itself as a mass movement. In May 1894 MacDonald applied for membership, and was accepted. He was officially adopted as the ILP candidate for one of the Southampton seats on 17 July 1894[23] but was heavily defeated at the election of 1895. MacDonald stood for Parliament again in 1900 for one of the two Leicester seats and although he lost was generously accused of splitting the Liberal vote to allow the Conservative candidate to win.[24] That same year he became Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the forerunner of the Labour Party, allegedly in part because many delegates confused him with prominent London trade unionist Jimmie MacDonald when they voted for "Mr. James R. MacDonald".[25] MacDonald retained membership of the ILP; while it was not a Marxist organisation it was more rigorously socialist than the once and future Labour Party in which the ILP members would operate as a "ginger group" for many years.[26]

As Party Secretary, MacDonald negotiated an agreement with the leading Liberal politician Herbert Gladstone (son of the late Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone), which allowed Labour to contest a number of working class seats without Liberal opposition,[27] thus giving Labour its first breakthrough into the House of Commons. He married Margaret Ethel Gladstone, who was unrelated to the Gladstones of the Liberal Party, in 1896. Although not wealthy, Margaret MacDonald was comfortably off,[28] and this allowed them to indulge in foreign travel, visiting Canada and the United States in 1897, South Africa in 1902, Australia and New Zealand in 1906 and India several times.

It was during this period that MacDonald and his wife began a long friendship with the social investigator and reforming civil servant Clara Collet[29][30] with whom he discussed women's issues. She was an influence on MacDonald and other politicians in their attitudes towards women's rights. In 1901, he was elected to the London County Council for Finsbury Central as a joint Labour–Progressive Party candidate, but he was disqualified from the register in 1904 due to his absences abroad.[31]

Macdonald (third from left) in 1906, with other leading figures in the party

In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party", amalgamating with the ILP.[32] In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others,[33] and became one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. These Labour MPs undoubtedly owed their election to the 'Progressive Alliance' between the Liberals and Labour, a minor party supporting the Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H. H. Asquith. MacDonald became the leader of the left wing of the party, arguing that Labour must seek to displace the Liberals as the main party of the left.[34]

Party leader

Hoist with his own petard.

Mr. Ramsay MacDonald (Champion of Independent Labour). "Of course I'm all for peaceful picketing—on principle. But it must be applied to the proper parties."
Cartoon from Punch 20 June 1917
In 1911 MacDonald became "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party", the leader of the party. He was the chief intellectual leader of the party, paying little attention to class warfare and much more to the emergence of a powerful state as it exemplified the Darwinian evolution of an ever more complex society. He was an Orthodox Edwardian progressive, keen on intellectual discussion, and averse to agitation.[35]

Within a short period, his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This deeply and permanently affected MacDonald.[36]

MacDonald had always taken a keen interest in foreign affairs and knew from his visit to South Africa, just after the Boer War had ended, what the effects of modern conflict would be. Although the Parliamentary Labour Party generally held an anti-war opinion, when war was declared in August 1914, patriotism came to the fore.[37] After the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, warned the House of Commons on 3 August that war with Germany was likely, MacDonald responded by declaring that "this country ought to have remained neutral".[38][39] In the Labour Leader he claimed that the real cause of the war was the "policy of the balance of power through alliance".[40]

The Party supported the government in its request for £100,000,000 of war credits and, as MacDonald could not, he resigned from the party Chairmanship. Arthur Henderson became the new leader, while MacDonald took the party Treasurer's post.[41] Despite his opposition to the war, MacDonald visited the Western Front in December 1914 with the approval of Lord Kitchener. MacDonald and General Seeley set off for the front at Ypres and soon found themselves in the thick of an action in which both behaved with the utmost coolness. Later, MacDonald was received by the Commander-in-Chief at St Omer and made an extensive tour of the front. Returning home, he paid a public tribute to the courage of the French troops, but said nothing then or later of having been under fire himself.[42]

During the early part of the war, he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice. Former Liberal Party MP and publisher Horatio Bottomley attacked him through his magazine John Bull in September 1915, by publishing an article carrying details of MacDonald's birth and his so-called deceit in not disclosing his real name.[43][44] His illegitimacy was no secret and he had not seemed to have suffered by it, but, according to the journal he had, by using a false name, gained access to parliament falsely and should suffer heavy penalties and have his election declared void. MacDonald received much internal support, but the way in which the disclosures were made public had affected him.[45] He wrote in his diary:

...I spent hours of terrible mental pain. Letters of sympathy began to pour in upon me. ... Never before did I know that I had been registered under the name of Ramsay, and cannot understand it now. From my earliest years, my name has been entered in lists, like the school register, etc. as MacDonald.

Election poster produced for the 1923 election

In August 1916 the Moray Golf Club passed a resolution declaring that MacDonald's anti-war activities "had endangered the character and interests of the club" and that he had forfeited his right to membership.[46] In January 1917 MacDonald published National Defence, in which he argued that open diplomacy and disarmament were necessary to prevent future wars.[47]

As the war dragged on, his reputation recovered but he still lost his seat in the 1918 "Coupon Election", which saw the Liberal David Lloyd George's coalition government win a large majority. The election campaign in Leicester West focused on MacDonald's opposition to the war, with MacDonald writing after his defeat: "I have become a kind of mythological demon in the minds of the people".[48]

MacDonald denounced the Treaty of Versailles: "We are beholding an act of madness unparalleled in history".[49]


MacDonald stood for Parliament in the 1921 Woolwich East by-election and lost. His opponent, Captain Robert Gee, had been awarded the Victoria Cross at Cambrai; MacDonald tried to counter this by having ex-soldiers appear on his platforms. MacDonald also promised to pressure the government into converting the Woolwich Arsenal to civilian use.[50] Horatio Bottomley intervened in the by-election, opposing MacDonald's election because of his anti-war record.[51] Bottomley's influence may have been decisive in MacDonald's failure to be elected as there were under 700 votes difference between Gee and MacDonald.[52]

In 1922, MacDonald was returned to the House as MP for Aberavon in Wales, with a vote of 14,318 against 11,111 and 5,328 for his main opponents. His rehabilitation was complete; the Labour New Leader magazine opined that his election was, "enough in itself to transform our position in the House. We have once more a voice which must be heard."[53] By now, the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan examines his newfound stature:

as dissolution set in with the Lloyd George coalition in 1921–22, and unemployment mounted, MacDonald stood out as the leader of a new kind of broad-based left. His opposition to the war had given him a new charisma. More than anyone else in public life, he symbolised peace and internationalism, decency and social change.... [He] had become The voice of conscience.[54]

At the 1922 election, Labour replaced the Liberals as the main opposition party to the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin, making MacDonald Leader of the Opposition. By now, he had moved away from the Labour left and abandoned the socialism of his youth: he strongly opposed the wave of radicalism that swept through the labour movement in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and became a determined enemy of Communism. Unlike the French Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Labour Party did not split and the Communist Party of Great Britain remained small and isolated.

In 1922, MacDonald visited Palestine.[55] In a later account of his visit, he contrasted Zionist pioneers with 'the rich plutocratic Jew'.[55] MacDonald believed the latter "was the true economic materialist. He is the person whose views upon life make one anti-Semitic. He has no country, no kindred. Whether as a sweater or a financier, he is an exploiter of everything he can squeeze. He is behind every evil that Governments do, and his political authority, always exercised in the dark, is greater than that of Parliamentary majorities. He is the keenest of brains and the bluntest of consciences. He detests Zionism because it revives the idealism of his race, and has political implications which threaten his economic interests"[55]

MacDonald became noted for "woolly" rhetoric such as the occasion at the Labour Party Conference of 1930 at Llandudno when he appeared to imply unemployment could be solved by encouraging the jobless to return to the fields "where they till and they grow and they sow and they harvest". Equally, there were times when it was unclear what his policies were. There was already some unease in the party about what he would do if Labour was able to form a government.[56]

At the 1923 election, the Conservatives had lost their majority, and when they lost a vote of confidence in the House in January 1924, King George V called on MacDonald to form a minority Labour government, with the tacit support of the Liberals under Asquith from the corner benches. He became the first Labour Prime Minister,[57] the first from a working-class background[57] and one of the very few without a university education.[58]

First government (1924)

Further information: First MacDonald ministry

Ramsay MacDonald by Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1911

MacDonald had never held office but demonstrated energy, executive ability, and political astuteness. He consulted widely within his party, making the Liberal Lord Haldane the Lord Chancellor, and Philip Snowden Chancellor of the Exchequer. He took the foreign office himself. Besides himself, ten other cabinet members came from working class origins, a dramatic breakthrough in British history.[59] His first priority was to undo the perceived damage caused by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, by settling the reparations issue and coming to terms with Germany. The king noted in his diary, "He wishes to do the right thing.... Today, 23 years ago, dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government!"[60]

While there were no major labour strikes during his term, MacDonald acted swiftly to end those that did erupt. When the Labour Party executive criticised the government, he replied that, "public doles, Poplarism [local defiance of the national government], strikes for increased wages, limitation of output, not only are not Socialism, but may mislead the spirit and policy of the Socialist movement".[61] The Government lasted only nine months and did not have a majority in either House of the Parliament, but it was still able to support the unemployed with the extension of benefits and amendments to the Insurance Acts. In a personal triumph for John Wheatley, Minister for Health, a Housing Act was passed, which greatly expanded municipal housing for low paid workers.[62]

Foreign affairs

Further information: International relations (1919–1939), History of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom, and Interwar Britain

MacDonald had long been a leading spokesman for internationalism in the Labour movement; at first, he verged on pacifism. He founded the Union of Democratic Control in early 1914 to promote international socialist aims, but it was overwhelmed by the war. His 1916 book, National Defence, revealed his own long-term vision for peace. Although disappointed at the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, he supported the League of Nations – but, by 1930, he felt that the internal cohesion of the British Empire and a strong, independent British defence programme might turn out to be the wisest British government policy.[63]

MacDonald moved in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base, despite strong opposition from the Admiralty. He believed the building of the base would endanger the disarmament conference; the First Sea Lord Lord Beatty considered the absence of such a base as dangerously imperilling British trade and territories East of Aden and could mean the security of the British Empire in the Far East being dependent on the goodwill of Japan.[64]

In June 1924, MacDonald convened a conference in London of the wartime Allies and achieved an agreement on a new plan for settling the reparations issue and French occupation of the Ruhr. German delegates joined the meeting, and the London Settlement was signed. It was followed by an Anglo-German commercial treaty. Another major triumph for MacDonald was the conference held in London in July and August 1924 to deal with the implementation of the Dawes Plan.[65] MacDonald, who accepted the popular view of the economist John Maynard Keynes of German reparations as impossible to pay, pressured French Premier Édouard Herriot until many concessions were made to Germany.[65]

Ramsay MacDonald and Christian Rakovsky, Head of the Soviet diplomatic delegation. Feb 1924.

A British onlooker commented, "The London Conference was for the French 'man in the street' one long Calvary ... as he saw M. Herriot abandoning one by one the cherished possessions of French preponderance on the Reparations Commission, the right of sanctions in the event of German default, the economic occupation of the Ruhr, the French-Belgian railroad Régie, and finally, the military occupation of the Ruhr within a year."[66] MacDonald was proud of what had been achieved, which was the pinnacle of his short-lived administration's achievements.[67] In September, he made a speech to the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, the main thrust of which was for general European disarmament, which was received with great acclaim.[68]

MacDonald recognised the Soviet Union and MacDonald informed Parliament in February 1924 that negotiations would begin to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union.[69] The treaty was to cover Anglo-Soviet trade and the repayment of the British bondholders, who had lent billions to the pre-revolutionary Russian government and been rejected by the Bolsheviks. There were, in fact, two proposed treaties: one would cover commercial matters, and the other would cover a fairly vague future discussion on the problem of the bondholders. If the treaties were signed, the British government would conclude a further treaty and guarantee a loan to the Bolsheviks. The treaties were popular neither with the Conservatives nor with the Liberals, who, in September, criticised the loan so vehemently that negotiation with them seemed impossible.[70]

However, the government's fate was determined by the "Campbell Case", the abrogation of prosecuting the left-wing newspaper the Workers' Weekly for inciting servicemen to mutiny. The Conservatives put down a censure motion, to which the Liberals added an amendment. MacDonald's Cabinet resolved to treat both motions as matters of confidence. The Liberal amendment was carried, and the King granted MacDonald a dissolution of Parliament the following day. The issues that dominated the election campaign were the Campbell Case and the Russian treaties, which soon combined into the single issue of the Bolshevik threat.[71]

Zinoviev letter

Main article: Zinoviev letter

On 25 October 1924, just four days before the election, the Daily Mail reported that a letter had come into its possession which purported to be a letter sent from Grigory Zinoviev, the President of the Communist International, to the British representative on the Comintern Executive. The letter was dated 15 September and so before the dissolution of parliament: it stated that it was imperative for the agreed treaties between Britain and the Bolsheviks to be ratified urgently. The letter said that those Labour members who could apply pressure on the government should do so. It went on to say that a resolution of the relationship between the two countries would "assist in the revolutionising of the international and British proletariat ... make it possible for us to extend and develop the ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies".

The government had received the letter before the publication in the newspapers. It had protested to the Bolsheviks' London chargé d'affaires and had already decided to make public the contents of the letter with details of the official protest. But it had not been swift-footed enough.[72]

Historians mostly agree the letter was a forgery, but it closely reflected attitudes current in the Comintern. In any case, it had little impact on the Labour vote, which actually increased. It was the collapse of the Liberal Party that led to the Conservative landslide. However, many Labourites for years blamed their defeat on the Letter by misunderstanding the political forces at work.[73][74]

Despite all that had gone on, the result of the election was not disastrous for Labour. The Conservatives were returned decisively, gaining 155 seats for a total of 413 members of parliament. Labour lost 40 seats, but held on to 151. The Liberals lost 118 seats (leaving them with only 40) and their vote fell by over a million. The real significance of the election was that the Liberal Party, which Labour had displaced as the second largest political party in 1922, was now clearly the third party.

Second government and National government (1929–1935)

Further information: Second MacDonald ministry

Second Labour government (1929–1931)

The strong majority held by the Conservatives gave Baldwin a full term during which the government had to deal with the 1926 General Strike. Unemployment remained high but relatively stable at just over 10% and, apart from 1926, strikes were at a low level.[75] At the May 1929 election, Labour won 288 seats to the Conservatives' 260, with 59 Liberals under Lloyd George holding the balance of power. MacDonald was increasingly out of touch with his supposedly safe Welsh seat at Aberavon; he largely ignored the district, and had little time or energy to help with its increasingly difficult problems regarding coal disputes, strikes, unemployment and poverty. The miners expected a wealthy man who would fund party operations, but he had no money. He disagreed with the increasingly radical activism of party leaders in the district, as well as the permanent agent, and the South Wales Mineworkers' Federation. He moved to Seaham Harbour in County Durham, a safer seat, to avoid a highly embarrassing defeat.[76][77]

MacDonald at Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Washington, DC, 9 October 1929

Baldwin resigned and MacDonald again formed a minority government, at first with Lloyd George's cordial support. This time, MacDonald knew he had to concentrate on domestic matters. Arthur Henderson became Foreign Secretary, with Snowden again at the Exchequer. JH Thomas became Lord Privy Seal with a mandate to tackle unemployment, assisted by the young radical Oswald Mosley. MacDonald appointed the first-ever woman cabinet minister Margaret Bondfield as Minister of Labour.[78][79]

MacDonald's second government was in a stronger parliamentary position than his first, and in 1930 he was able to raise unemployment pay, pass an act to improve wages and conditions in the coal industry (i.e. the issues behind the General Strike) and pass a housing act which focused on slum clearances. However, an attempt by the Education Minister Charles Trevelyan to introduce an act to raise the school-leaving age to 15 was defeated by opposition from Roman Catholic Labour MPs, who feared that the costs would lead to increasing local authority control over faith schools.[62]

In international affairs he also convened the Round Table conferences in London with the political leaders of India, at which he offered them responsible government, but not independence or even Dominion status. In April 1930 he negotiated the London Naval Treaty, limiting naval armaments, with France, Italy, Japan, and the United States.[62]

MacDonald c. 1929
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Great Depression

Main article: Great Depression in the United Kingdom

MacDonald's government had no effective response to the economic crisis which followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Philip Snowden was a rigid exponent of orthodox finance and would not permit any deficit spending to stimulate the economy, despite the urgings of Oswald Mosley, David Lloyd George and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Mosley put forward a memorandum in January 1930, calling for the public control of imports and banking as well as an increase in pensions to boost spending power. When this was repeatedly turned down, Mosley resigned from the government in February 1931 and formed the New Party. He later converted to Fascism.

By the end of 1930, unemployment had doubled to over two and a half million.[80] The government struggled to cope with the crisis and found itself attempting to reconcile two contradictory aims: achieving a balanced budget to maintain sterling on the gold standard, and maintaining assistance to the poor and unemployed, at a time when tax revenues were falling. During 1931, the economic situation deteriorated, and pressure from orthodox economists for sharp cuts in government spending increased. Under pressure from its Liberal allies, as well as the Conservative opposition who feared that the budget was unbalanced, Snowden appointed a committee headed by Sir George May to review the state of public finances. The May Report of July 1931, urged large public-sector wage cuts and large cuts in public spending, notably in payments to the unemployed, to avoid a budget deficit.[81]

Formation of the National Government

Further information: National Government (1931)

Although there was a narrow majority in the Cabinet for drastic reductions in spending, the minority included senior ministers such as Arthur Henderson who made it clear they would resign rather than acquiesce in the cuts. With this unworkable split, on 24 August 1931, MacDonald submitted his resignation and then agreed, on the urging of King George V, to form a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. With Henderson taking the lead, MacDonald, Snowden, and Thomas were quickly expelled from the Labour Party.[82] They responded by forming a new National Labour group, which provided a nominal party base for the expelled MPs, but received little support in the country or the unions. Great anger in the labour movement greeted MacDonald's move. Riots took place in protest in Glasgow and Manchester. Many in the Labour Party viewed this as a cynical move by MacDonald to rescue his career, and accused him of 'betrayal'. MacDonald, however, argued that the sacrifice was for the common good.[83][84]

1931 general election

In the 1931 general election, the National Government won 554 seats, comprising 473 Conservatives, 13 National Labour, 68 Liberals (Liberal National and Liberal) and various others, while Labour, now led by Arthur Henderson won only 52 and the Lloyd George Liberals four. Henderson and his deputy J. R. Clynes both lost their seats in Labour's worst-ever rout. Labour's disastrous performance at the 1931 election greatly increased the bitterness felt by MacDonald's former colleagues towards him. MacDonald was genuinely upset to see the Labour Party so badly defeated at the election. He had regarded the National Government as a temporary measure, and had hoped to return to the Labour Party.[80]

Premiership of the National Government (1931–1935)

Further information: National Government (1931–1935)

The National Government's huge majority left MacDonald with the largest mandate ever won by a British Prime Minister at a democratic election, but MacDonald had only a small following of National Labour men in Parliament. He was ageing rapidly, and was increasingly a figurehead. In control of domestic policy were Conservatives Stanley Baldwin as Lord President and Neville Chamberlain the chancellor of the exchequer, together with National Liberal Walter Runciman at the Board of Trade.[85] MacDonald, Chamberlain and Runciman devised a compromise tariff policy, which stopped short of protectionism while ending free trade and, at the 1932 Ottawa Conference, cementing commercial relations within the Commonwealth.[86]

Besides his preference for a cohesive British Empire and a protective tariff, he felt an independent British defence programme would be the wisest policy. However, budget pressures and a strong popular pacifist sentiment, forced a reduction in the military and naval budgets.[87] MacDonald involved himself heavily in foreign policy. Assisted by the National Liberal leader and Foreign Secretary John Simon, he continued to lead British delegations to international conferences, including the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference in 1932, and the Stresa Conference in 1935.[88] He went to Rome in March 1933 to facilitate Nazi Germany's return to the concert of European powers and to continue the policy of appeasement.[89] On 16 August 1932 he granted the Communal Award upon India, partitioning it into separate electorates for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Untouchables. Most important of all, he presided at the world economic conference in London in June 1933. Nearly every nation was represented, but no agreement was possible. The American president torpedoed the conference with a bombshell message that the US would not stabilise the depreciating dollar. The failure marked the end of international economic co-operation for another decade.[90]

MacDonald was deeply affected by the anger and bitterness caused by the fall of the Labour government. He continued to regard himself as a true Labour man, but the rupturing of virtually all his old friendships left him an isolated figure. One of the only other leading Labour figures to join the government, Philip Snowden, was a firm believer in free trade and resigned from the government in 1932 following the introduction of tariffs after the Ottawa agreement.[91]


By 1933 MacDonald's health was so poor that his doctor had to personally supervise his trip to Geneva. By 1934 MacDonald's mental and physical health declined further, and he became an increasingly ineffective leader as the international situation grew more threatening. His speeches in Commons and at international meetings became incoherent. One observer noted how "Things ... got to the stage where nobody knew what the Prime Minister was going to say in the House of Commons, and, when he did say it, nobody understood it". Newspapers did not report MacDonald denying to reporters that he was seriously ill because he only had "loss of memory".[62][25] His pacifism, which had been widely admired in the 1920s, led Winston Churchill and others to accuse him of failure to stand up to the threat of Adolf Hitler. His government began the negotiations for the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.

In these years he was irritated by the attacks of Lucy, Lady Houston, the strongly nationalistic proprietor of the Saturday Review. Lady Houston believed that MacDonald was under the control of the Soviets and amused the nation by giving MacDonald such epithets as the 'Spider of Lossiemouth,' and hanging a large sign in electric lights from the rigging of her luxury yacht, the Liberty. According to some versions it read 'Down the Ramsay MacDonald,' and to others 'To Hell with Ramsay MacDonald.' Lady Houston also sent agents to disrupt his election campaigns. In 2020 new research revealed how she purchased three letters, supposedly written by Ramsay MacDonald to Soviet officials but actually the work of an American forger. In 1935 Lady Houston stated that she intended to publish them but eventually handed them over to Special Branch, and MacDonald's solicitors entered a legal battle with her.[92]

MacDonald was aware of his fading powers, and in 1935 he agreed to a timetable with Baldwin to stand down as Prime Minister after King George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations in May 1935. He resigned on 7 June in favour of Baldwin, and remained in the cabinet, taking the largely honorary post of Lord President vacated by Baldwin.[62]

After Hitler's re-militarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, MacDonald declared that he was "pleased" that the Treaty of Versailles was "vanishing", expressing his hope that the French had been taught a "severe lesson".[93]

Last years and death

At the 1935 election MacDonald was defeated at Seaham by Emanuel Shinwell. Shortly after he was elected at a by-election in January 1936 for the Combined Scottish Universities seat, but his physical and mental health collapsed in 1936. King George V died a week before voting began in the Scottish by-election, and MacDonald deeply mourned his death,[94][95] paying tribute to him in his diary as "a gracious and kingly friend whom I have served with all my heart".[94][95] There had been a genuine mutual affection between the two; the King is said to have regarded MacDonald as his favourite prime minister.[96][97]

A sea voyage was recommended to restore MacDonald's health, but he died on board the liner MV Reina del Pacifico at sea on 9 November 1937, aged 71 with his youngest daughter Sheila. His funeral was in Westminster Abbey on 26 November. After cremation, his ashes were buried alongside his wife Margaret at Spynie in his native Morayshire.[62]


For half a century, MacDonald was demonised by the Labour Party as a turncoat who consorted with the enemy and drove the Labour Party to its nadir. Later, however, scholarly opinion raised his status as an important founder and leader of the Labour Party, and a man who held Britain together during its darkest economic times.[98][99]

MacDonald's expulsion from Labour along with his National Labour Party's coalition with the Conservatives, combined with the decline in his physical and mental powers after 1931, left him a discredited figure at the time of his death, destined to receive years of unsympathetic treatment from generations of Labour-inclined British historians. The events of 1931, with the downfall of the Labour government and his coalition with the Conservatives, led to MacDonald becoming one of the most reviled figures in the history of the Labour Party, with many of his former supporters accusing him of betraying the party he had helped create.[100][101][102] MacNeill Weir, MacDonald's former parliamentary private secretary, published the first major biography The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald in 1938. Weir demonised MacDonald for obnoxious careerism, class betrayal and treachery.[103] Clement Attlee in his autobiography As it Happened (1954) called MacDonald's decision to abandon the Labour government in 1931 "the greatest betrayal in the political history of the country".[104] The coming of war in 1939 led to a search for the politicians who had appeased Hitler and failed to prepare Britain; MacDonald was grouped among the "Guilty Men".

By the 1960s, while union activists maintained their hostile attitude, scholars wrote with more appreciation of his challenges and successes.[105] Finally in 1977 he received a long scholarly biography that historians have judged to be "definitive."[106] Labour MP David Marquand, a trained historian who later became a professor of politics, wrote Ramsay MacDonald with the stated intention of giving MacDonald his due for his work in founding and building the Labour Party, and in trying to preserve peace in the years between the two world wars. He argued also to place MacDonald's fateful decision in 1931 in the context of the crisis of the times and the limited choices open to him. Marquand praised the prime minister's decision to place national interests before that of party in 1931. He also emphasised MacDonald's lasting intellectual contribution to socialism and his pivotal role in transforming Labour from an outside protest group to an inside party of government.[107]

Scholarly analysis about the economic decisions taken in the inter-war period such as the return to the Gold Standard in 1925, and MacDonald's desperate efforts to defend it in 1931, has changed. Robert Skidelsky, in his classic account of the 1929–31 government, Politicians and the Slump (1967), compared the orthodox policies advocated by leading politicians of both parties unfavourably with the more radical, proto-Keynesian measures proposed by David Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley. But in the preface to the 1994 edition Skidelsky argued that recent experience of currency crises and capital flight made it hard to be critical of politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting so-called "labour costs" and defending the value of the currency.[108] In 2004 Marquand advanced a similar argument:

In the harsher world of the 1980s and 1990s it was no longer obvious that Keynes was right in 1931 and the bankers wrong. Pre-Keynesian orthodoxy had come in from the cold. Politicians and publics had learned anew that confidence crises feed on themselves; that currencies can collapse; that the public credit can be exhausted; that a plummeting currency can be even more painful than deflationary expenditure cuts; and that governments which try to defy the foreign exchange markets are apt to get their—and their countries'—fingers burnt. Against that background MacDonald's response to the 1931 crisis increasingly seemed not just honourable and consistent, but right ... he was the unacknowledged precursor of the Blairs, the Schröders, and the Clintons of the 1990s and 2000s.[109]

Cultural depictions

Further information: Cultural depictions of British prime ministers § Ramsay MacDonald

Personal life

MacDonald c. 1900s

Ramsay MacDonald married Margaret Ethel Gladstone (no relation to Prime Minister William Gladstone) in 1896. The marriage was a very happy one, and they had six children, including Malcolm MacDonald (1901–81), who had a distinguished career as a politician, colonial governor and diplomat, and Ishbel MacDonald (1903–82), who was very close to her father. Another son, Alister Gladstone MacDonald (1898–1993) was a conscientious objector in the First World War, serving in the Friends' Ambulance Unit; he became a prominent architect who worked on promoting the planning policies of his father's government, and specialised in cinema design.[110] MacDonald was devastated by Margaret's death from blood poisoning in 1911, and had few significant personal relationships after that time, apart from with Ishbel, who acted as his consort while he was Prime Minister and cared for him for the rest of his life. Following his wife's death, MacDonald commenced a relationship with Lady Margaret Sackville.[111]

In the 1920s and 1930s he was frequently entertained by the society hostess Lady Londonderry, which was much disapproved of in the Labour Party since her husband was a Conservative cabinet minister.[112]

Ramsay MacDonald's religious life was varied, starting as a devout Christian and incrementally moving across his life into organised humanism, particularly the British Ethical movement. MacDonald's father held firm Calvinist beliefs, but as an adult Ramsay would join the Church of Scotland. Subsequently, he became interested in the Unitarian movement during his time in London, and led Unitarian worship sessions. His interest in Unitarianism led him to discover the Ethical Church, an early humanist association affiliated with the Union of Ethical Societies (today known as Humanists UK), which he joined as a member.[113][114] He regularly attended services at the South Place Ethical Society (now Conway Hall),[115] and became intensely involved in Union of Ethical Societies, and friends with its founder, Stanton Coit. Ramsay would write regularly in Stanton Coit's Ethical World, a humanist publication.[116] On more than one occasion, he had been elected chair of the Union at its annual meeting, evidencing the significance of his commitment to organised humanism.[117]

MacDonald's unpopularity in the country following his stance against Britain's involvement in the First World War spilled over into his private life. In 1916, he was expelled from Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth for being deemed to bring the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views.[118] The manner of his expulsion was regretted by some members but an attempt to re-instate him by a vote in 1924 failed. However, a Special General Meeting held in 1929 finally voted for his reinstatement. By this time, MacDonald was Prime Minister for the second time. He felt the initial expulsion very deeply and refused to take up the final offer of membership, which he had framed and mounted.[119]


In 1930, MacDonald was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) under Statute 12.[120] He was awarded honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degrees by the universities of Wales, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford and McGill and George Washington University.[121]

In popular culture

The novel Fame is the Spur (1940) by Howard Spring is thought to be based on the life of MacDonald.[122]


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100. "Labour History". Archived from the original on 30 September 2008. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
101. Blair makes moral case for war BBC News, 15 February 2003
102. "Nick Clegg and the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald", The Guardian, 9 May 2010
103. David E. Martin, "MacDonald, (James) Ramsay" in David Loades, ed. Reader's Guide to British History (2003) 2:836-37.
104. Attlee, Clement. As it Happened. Heinemann: 1954
105. Martin, pp 836–37.
106. David Dutton (2008). Liberals in Schism: A History of the National Liberal Party. I.B.Tauris. p. 88. ISBN 9780857737113.
107. Martin (2003) p 837.
108. Robert Skidelsky (1994). Politicians and the slump: The Labour Government of 1929–1931. Papermac. ISBN 9780333605929.
109. Marquand (2004)
110. David Goold (2008). "Alister Gladstone MacDonald (or Alistair Gladstone MacDonald)". Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
111. Fenton, Ben (2 November 2006). "Secret love affair of Labour Prime Minister and Lady Margaret is revealed 80 years on". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
112. Morgan 1987, p. 124.
113. Turner, Jacqueline (2018). The Labour Church: Religion and Politics in Britain 1890–1914. I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.
114. Hunt, James D. (2005). An American Looks at Gandhi: Essays in Satyagraha, Civil Rights, and Peace. Promilla & Co Publishers Ltd.
115. Marquand, p. 24
116. Roger E Blackhouse, Tamotsu Nishizawa, eds. (2010). No Wealth But Life: Welfare Economics and the Welfare State in Britain, 1880–1945. Cambridge University Press. p. 118.
117. Lord Godfrey Elton (1939). The Life of James Ramsay Macdonald (1866–1919). Collins. p. 94.
118. Marquand, pp 190, 191
119. McConnachie, John. The Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth, 1988
120. Gregory, R. A. (1939). "James Ramsay MacDonald. 1866–1937". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 2 (7): 475–482. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1939.0007.
121. "MacDonald, Rt Hon. James Ramsay, (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937), JP Morayshire; MP (Lab.) Aberavon Division of Glamorganshire, 1922–29, Seaham Division Co. Durham, 1929–31, (Nat. Lab.) 1931–35, Scottish Universities since 1936". MacDonald, Rt Hon. James Ramsay. Who Was Who. Oxford University Press. 1 December 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U213229.
122. Accessed 6 November 2014


• Carlton, David. MacDonald versus Henderson: The Foreign Policy of the Second Labour Government (2014).
• Heppell, Timothy, and Kevin Theakston, eds. How Labour Governments Fall: From Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
• Hinks, John Ramsay MacDonald: the Leicester years (1906–1918), Leicester, 1996
• Howell, David MacDonald's Party. Labour Identities and Crisis, 1922–1931, Oxford: OUP 2002; ISBN 0-19-820304-7
• Jennings, Ivor (1962). Party Politics: Volume 3, The Stuff of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521054348.
• Kitching, Carolyn J. "Prime minister and foreign secretary: the dual role of James Ramsay MacDonald in 1924." Review of International Studies 37#3 (2011): 1403–1422.
• Lloyd, Trevor. "Ramsay MacDonald: Socialist or Gentleman?." Canadian Journal of History/Annales Canadiennes d'Histoire 15#3 (1980) online.
• Lyman, Richard W. The First Labour Government, 1924 (Chapman & Hall, 1957).
• Lyman, Richard W. "James Ramsay MacDonald and the Leadership of the Labour Party, 1918–22." Journal of British Studies 2#1 (1962): 132–160.
• Marquand, David Ramsay MacDonald, (London: Jonathan Cape 1977); ISBN 0-224-01295-9; 902pp; the standard scholarly biography; favourable
• McKibbin, Ross I. "James Ramsay MacDonald and the Problem of the Independence of the Labour Party, 1910–1914." Journal of Modern History 42#2 (1970): 216–235. in JSTOR
• Marquand, David. Ramsay MacDonald (Jonathan Cape, 1977); The most comprehensive scholarly biography; it launched his rehabilitation.
• Marquand, David. "MacDonald, (James) Ramsay (1866–1937)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 accessed 9 Sept 2012; doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34704
• Morgan, Austen (1987). J. Ramsay MacDonald. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0719021688.
• Morgan, Kevin. Ramsay MacDonald (2006)excerpt and text search
• Morgan, Kenneth O. Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants Hardy to Kinnock (1987) pp 39–53.
• Mowat, C. L. "Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party," in Essays in Labour History 1886–1923, edited by Asa Briggs, and John Saville, (1971)
• Mowat, C. L.Britain Between the Wars, 1918–1940 (1955).
• Owen, Nicholas (2007). "MacDonald's Parties: The Labour Party and the 'Aristocratic Embrace' 1922–31". Twentieth Century British History. 18 (1): 1–53. doi:10.1093/tcbh/hwl043.
• Phillips, Gordon: The Rise of the Labour Party 1893–1931, (Routledge 1992).
• Riddell, Neil. Labour in Crisis: The Second Labour Government, 1929-31 (1999).
• Robbins, Keith (1994). Politicians, Diplomacy and War in Modern British History. A&C Black. pp. 239–72. ISBN 9780826460479.
• Rosen, Greg (ed.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, London: Politicos Publishing 2001; ISBN 978-1-902301-18-1
• Rosen, Greg (ed.) Old Labour to New. The Dreams That Inspired, the Battles That Divided (London: Politicos Publishing 2005; ISBN 978-1-84275-045-2).
• Sacks, Benjamin. J. Ramsay MacDonald in Thought and Action (University of New Mexico Press, 1952), favourable biography by American scholar
• Shepherd, John and Keith Laybourn. Britain's First Labour Government (2006).
• Shepherd, John. The Second Labour Government: A reappraisal (2012).
• Skidelsky, Robert. Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929–1931 (1967).
• Taylor, A.J.P. English History: 1914–1945 (1965)
• Thorpe, Andrew. "Arthur Henderson and the British political crisis of 1931." Historical Journal 31#1 (1988): 117–139, On the expulsion of MacDonald from the Labour Party.
• Thorpe, Andrew Britain in the 1930s. The Deceptive Decade (Blackwell 1992; ISBN 0-631-17411-7)
• Ward, Stephen R. James Ramsay MacDonald: Low Born among the High Brows (1990).
• Weir, L. MacNeill. The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald: A Political Biography (1938). Highly influential and extremely negative account by a former aide. online
• Williamson, Philip : National Crisis and National Government. British Politics, the Economy and the Empire, 1926–1932, Cambridge: CUP 1992; ISBN 0-521-36137-0
• Wrigley, Chris. "James Ramsay MacDonald 1922–1931," in Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair, edited by Kevin Jefferys, (1999)


• Callaghan, John, et al. eds., Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History (2003) online; also online free
• Loades, David, ed. Reader's Guide to British History (2003) 2:836-37.
• Shepherd, John. "The Lad from Lossiemouth," History Today (Nov 2007) 57#11 pp 31–33, historiography

Primary sources

• Barker, Bernard (ed.) Ramsay MacDonald's Political Writings (Allen Lane, 1972).
• Cox, Jane A Singular Marriage: A Labour Love Story in Letters and Diaries (of Ramsay and Margaret MacDonald), London: Harrap 1988; ISBN 978-0-245-54676-1
• MacDonald, Ramsay The Socialist Movement (1911) online; free copy
• MacDonald, Ramsay Socialism and Society (1914) online
• MacDonald, Ramsay. Labour and Peace, Labour Party 1912
• MacDonald, Ramsay. Parliament and Revolution, Labour Party 1919
• MacDonald, Ramsay. Parliament and revolution (1920) online
• MacDonald, Ramsay. Foreign Policy of the Labour Party, Labour Party 1923
• MacDonald, Ramsay. Margaret Ethel MacDonald (1924) online
• MacDonald, Ramsay. Socialism: critical and constructive (1924) online

External links

Ramsay MacDonaldat Wikipedia's sister projects

• Definitions from Wiktionary
• Media from Wikimedia Commons
• News from Wikinews
• Quotations from Wikiquote
• Texts from Wikisource
• Textbooks from Wikibooks
• Resources from Wikiversity
• Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Ramsay MacDonald
• A left-wing criticism of Macdonald's career Socialist Review
• More about Ramsay MacDonald Prime Minister's Office
• Ramsay MacDonald Papers, 1893–1937
• Portraits of Ramsay MacDonald at the National Portrait Gallery, London
• "Archival material relating to Ramsay MacDonald". UK National Archives.
• Newspaper clippings about Ramsay MacDonald in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW
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Brook Farm
by Wikipedia
Accessed: 4/13/20

Brook Farm
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Historic Landmark
Brook Farm is located in MassachusettsBrook Farm
Location 670 Baker Street, Boston, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°17′28.90″N 71°10′26.71″WCoordinates: 42°17′28.90″N 71°10′26.71″W
Area: 188 acres (0.76 km2)[2]
Built: 1841
Architect: Brook Farm Community
NRHP reference # 66000141[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Designated NHL July 23, 1965[3]

Brook Farm, also called the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education[4] or the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education,[5] was a utopian experiment in communal living in the United States in the 1840s. It was founded by former Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia Ripley at the Ellis Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (9 miles outside of downtown Boston) in 1841 and was inspired in part by the ideals of Transcendentalism, a religious and cultural philosophy based in New England. Founded as a joint stock company, it promised its participants a portion of the profits from the farm in exchange for performing an equal share of the work. Brook Farmers believed that by sharing the workload, ample time would be available for leisure activities and intellectual pursuits.

Life on Brook Farm was based on balancing labor and leisure while working together for the benefit of the greater community. Each member could choose to do whatever work they found most appealing and all were paid equally, including women. Revenue for the community came from farming and from selling handmade products like clothing as well as through fees paid by the many visitors to Brook Farm. The main source of income was the school, which was overseen by Mrs. Ripley. A pre-school, primary school, and a college preparatory school attracted children internationally and each child was charged for his or her education. Adult education was also offered.

The community was never financially stable and had difficulty profiting from its agricultural pursuits. By 1844, the Brook Farmers adopted a societal model based on the socialist concepts of Charles Fourier and began publishing The Harbinger as an unofficial journal promoting Fourierism. Following his vision, the community members began building an ambitious structure called the Phalanstery. When the uninsured building was destroyed in a fire, the community was financially devastated and never recovered. It was fully closed by 1847. Despite the experimental commune's failure, many Brook Farmers looked back on their experience positively. Critics of the commune included Charles Lane, founder of another utopian community called Fruitlands. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a founding member of Brook Farm, though he was not a strong adherent of the community's ideals. He later fictionalized his experience in his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852).

After the community's failure, the property was operated for most of the next 130 years by a Lutheran organization as first an orphanage, and then a treatment center and school. The buildings of the Transcendentalists were destroyed by fire over the years. In 1988 the State of Massachusetts acquired 148 acres (60 ha) of the farm, which is now operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation as a historic site. Brook Farm was one of the first sites in Massachusetts to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and be designated a National Historic Site. In 1977, the Boston Landmarks Commission designated Brook Farm a Landmark, the city's highest recognition for historic sites.


Planning and background

George Ripley founded Brook Farm based on Transcendental ideals.

In October 1840, George Ripley announced to the Transcendental Club that he was planning to form a Utopian community.[6] Brook Farm, as it would be called, was based on the ideals of Transcendentalism; its founders believed that by pooling labor they could sustain the community and still have time for literary and scientific pursuits.[7] The experiment was meant to serve as an example for the rest of the world, based on the principles of "industry without drudgery, and true equality without its vulgarity".[8] At Brook Farm, as in other communities, physical labor was perceived as a condition of mental well-being and health. Brook Farm was one of at least 80 communal experiments active in the United States throughout the 1840s, though it was the first to be secular.[9] Ripley believed his experiment would be a model for the rest of society. He predicted: "If wisely executed, it will be a light over this country and this age. If not the sunrise, it will be the morning star."[4] As more interested people began to take part in planning, Ripley relocated meetings from his home to the West Street bookshop operated by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.[10]


Ripley and his wife Sophia formed a joint stock company in 1841 along with 10 other initial investors.[7] He sold shares of the company $500 apiece with a promise of five percent of the profits to each investor.[6] Shareholders were also allowed a single vote in decision-making and several held director positions.[4] The Ripleys chose to begin their experiment at a dairy farm owned by Charles and Maria Mayo Ellis in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, near the home of Theodore Parker.[11] They began raising money, including holding a meeting at Peabody's bookshop to raise $10,000 for the farm's initial purchase.[12] The site was eventually purchased on October 11, 1841, for $10,500.[13] though participants had begun moving in as early as April.[14] The 170-acre (0.69 km2) farm about eight miles (13 km) from Boston was described in a pamphlet as a "place of great natural beauty, combining a convenient nearness to the city with a degree of retirement and freedom from unfavorable influences unusual even in the country".[11] The purchase also covered a neighboring Keith farm, approximately 22 acres (89,000 m2), "consisting altogether of a farm with dwelling house, barn, and outbuildings thereon situated".[13]

The first major public notice of the community was published in August 1841. "The Community at West Roxbury, Mass." was likely written by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.[15] Though they began with 10 investors, eventually some 32 people would become Brook Farmers.[7][16] Writer and editor Margaret Fuller was invited to Brook Farm[17] and, though she never officially joined the community, she was a frequent visitor, often spending New Year's Eve there.[18] Ripley received many applications to join the community, especially from people who had little money or those in poor health, but full-fledged membership was granted only to individuals who could afford the $500 share of the joint stock company.[19]

One of the initial founders of Brook Farm was author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne did not particularly agree with the ideals of the experiment, hoping only that it would help him raise enough money to begin his life with his wife-to-be Sophia Peabody.[8] She considered moving there as well and even visited in May 1841, though Hawthorne sent her away.[20] Ripley was aware of Hawthorne's motivations, and tried to convince him to get involved more fully by appointing him as one of four trustees, specifically overseeing "Direction of Finance".[13] After requesting his initial investment be returned, Hawthorne officially resigned from Brook Farm on October 17, 1842.[21] He wrote of his displeasure with the community: "even my Custom House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness; my mind and heart were freer ...Thank God, my soul is not utterly buried under a dung-heap."[22]

Fourier inspiration

Brook Farm was reorganized to follow the work of Charles Fourier.

In the late 1830s Ripley became increasingly engaged in "Associationism", an early socialist movement based on the work of Charles Fourier. Horace Greeley, a New York newspaper editor, and others began to pressure the Brook Farm experiment to follow more closely the pattern of Charles Fourier[23] at a time when the community was struggling to be self-sufficient.[19] Albert Brisbane, whose book The Social Destiny of Man (1840) had been an inspiration to Ripley,[24] paid Greeley $500 for permission to publish a front-page column in the New York Tribune which ran in several parts from March 1842 to September 1843. Brisbane argued in the series, titled "Association: or, Principles of a True Organization of Society", how Fourier's theories could be applied in the United States.[19] Brisbane published similar articles in 1842 in The Dial, the journal of the Transcendentalists.[25] Fourier's societal vision included elaborate plans for specific structures and highly organized roles of its members.[23] He called this system for an ideal community a "Phalanx".[26]

To meet this vision, now under the name "Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education",[5] Brook Farmers committed themselves to constructing an ambitious communal building known as the Phalanstery. Construction began in the summer of 1844 and the structure would provide accommodations for 14 families and single people as well.[27] It was planned to be 175 feet (53 m) by 40 feet (12 m) and include, as Ripley described, "a large and commodious kitchen, a dining-hall capable of seating from three to four hundred persons, two public saloons, and a spacious hall or lecture room".[28]

Ripley and two associates created a new constitution for Brook Farm in 1844, beginning the experiment's attempts to follow closely Fourier's Phalanx system.[29] Many Brook Farmers supported the transition; at a dinner in honor of Fourier's birthday, one member of the group proposed a toast to "Fourier, the second coming of Christ".[30] Others, however, did not share in the enthusiasm and some left the commune altogether.[30] One of those who left was Isaac Hecker, who converted to Catholicism and went on to become the founder of the first American-based order of priests, the Paulist Fathers, in 1858.[31] In particular, many Brook Farmers thought the new model was too rigid and structured and too different from the carefree aspects that they had been attracted to.[32] Both supporters and detractors referred to the early part of Brook Farm's history as the "Transcendental days".[30] Ripley himself became a celebrity proponent of Fourierism and organized conventions throughout New England to discuss the community.[33]

November 7, 1846, issue of The Harbinger, printed at Brook Farm

In the last few months of 1844, Brook Farmers were offered the possibility of taking over two Associationism-inspired publications, Brisbane's The Phalanx and John Allen's The Social Reformer. Four printers were part of Brook Farm at the time and members of the community believed it would elevate their status as leaders of the movement as well as provide additional income.[34] Ultimately, the Brook Farmers published a new journal combining the two, The Harbinger.[27] The journal's first issue was published June 14, 1845, and was continuously printed, originally weekly, until October 1847, when it was relocated to New York City, still under the oversight of George Ripley and fellow Brook Farmer Charles Anderson Dana.[35] Naming the publication, however, turned out to be a difficult task. Parke Godwin offered advice when it was suggested to keep the name The Phalanx:

Call it the Pilot, the Harbinger, the Halycon, the Harmonist, The Worker, the Architect, The Zodiac, The Pleiad, the Iris, the Examiner, The Aurora, the Crown, the Imperial, the Independent, the Synthesist, the Light, the Truth, the Hope, the Teacher, the Reconciler, the Wedge, the Pirate, the Seer, the Indicator, the Tailor, the Babe in the Manger, the Universe, the Apocalypse, the Red Dragon, the Plant, Beelzebub—the Devil or anything rather than the meaningless name Phalanx.[36]

Decline and dissolution

Brook Farm began to decline rapidly after its restructuring. In October 1844, Orestes Brownson visited the site and sensed that "the atmosphere of the place is horrible".[37] To save money, "retrenchments", or sacrifices, were called for, particularly at the dinner table.[38] Meat, coffee, tea, and butter were no longer offered, though it was agreed that a separate table with meat be allowed in December 1844.[37] That Thanksgiving, a neighbor had donated a turkey.[27] Many Brook Farmers applied for exceptions to these rules and soon it was agreed that "members of the Association who sit at the meat table shall be charged extra for their board".[39] Life on Brook Farm was further worsened by an outbreak of smallpox in November 1845; though no one died, 26 Brook Farmers were infected.[27] Ripley attempted to quell the financial difficulties by negotiating with creditors and stockholders, who agreed to cancel $7,000 of debts.[40]

Construction on the Phalanstery was progressing well[27] until the evening of March 3, 1846, when it was discovered that the Phalanstery had caught fire. Within two hours, the structure had completely burned down;[41] firefighters from Boston arrived too late.[42] The fire was likely caused by a defective chimney. One participant noted, "Ere long the flames were chasing one another in a mad riot over the structure; running across long corridors and up and down the supporting columns of wood, until the huge edifice was a mass of firework".[43] The financial blow from the loss of the uninsured building was $7,000 and it marked the beginning of the end of Brook Farm.[42]

George Ripley, who had begun the experiment, made an unofficial break with Brook Farm in May 1846.[44] Many others began to leave as well, though the dissolution of the farm was slow. As one Brook Farmer said, the slow decline of the community was like apple petals drifting slowly to the ground, making it seem "dreamy and unreal".[42] On November 5, 1846, Ripley's book collection, which had served as Brook Farm's library, was auctioned to help cover the association's debts.[45] By the end, Brook Farm had a total debt of $17,445.[46] Ripley told a friend, "I can now understand how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral".[45] He took a job with the New York Tribune and it took him 13 years to pay off the Brook Farm debt, which he did in 1862.[47]

After Brook Farm

The Print Shop, constructed in about 1890, is the last remaining historic building at Brook Farm, though it is not associated with the Transcendentalist Utopian community. It was built by the Lutheran Church, which operated the Martin Luther Orphan's Home on the property from 1871 to 1944.[48]

A man named John Plummer purchased the land that was Brook Farm in 1849 before selling it six years later to James Freeman Clarke, who intended to establish another community there. Instead, Clarke offered it to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War and the Second Massachusetts Regiment used it for training as Camp Andrew.[49]

Clarke sold the property in 1868 to two brothers, who used it as a summer boarding house. In 1870 Gottlieb F. Burckhardt purchased the property, after which he formed the Association of the Evangelical Lutheran Church for Works of Mercy to operate an orphanage in The Hive, as the main house on the property was known. The orphanage opened in 1872 and operated until 1943. In 1948 the Lutherans converted it into a treatment center and school, which closed in 1977.[50] Parts of the farm were separated in 1873 for use as a cemetery, a use that continues today as a non-denominational cemetery known as the Gardens of Gethsemene (as part of St. Joseph's Cemetery and the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries). During the period of Lutheran ownership the only now extant building, a c. 1890 print shop, was built on the land; the buildings associated with the Transcendentalists, most recently the Margaret Fuller Cottage, had burned down by the 1980s.[49][50]

In 1988 the Metropolitan District Commission (since merged with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR) purchased 148 acres (0.60 km2) of the original land.[51] The farm was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965, a Boston Landmark in 1977, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[2][3] The DCR now operate the state-owned portion as a historic site; the West Roxbury Historical Society periodically offers tours.[50]

Landscape and facilities

Brook Farm was named for the brook that ran near the roadside and that eventually went to the Charles River.[52] It was surrounded by low hills and its meadows and sunny slopes were diversified by orchard, quiet groves and denser pine woods. The land, however, turned out to be difficult to farm.[53]

The land on the Keith lot that was purchased along with the Ellis farm included a functional farmhouse, which Brook Farmers immediately began calling "The Hive".[13] The Hive became the center for social activities and was where the people of the community went to eat three meals a day. The Hive's dining room held fifty people and its library was stocked with George Ripley's personal book collection which was made available for all community members.[54]

As the community grew, it became necessary to add more buildings for lodgings and various activities. The first building constructed was "The Nest", where school lessons took place and where guests of the farm would stay. Mr. and Mrs. Ripley's house, later to be called the Eyrie, was built during the second year. The next building to be built was the Margaret Fuller Cottage; though named after Fuller, she never spent a night there.[55] A participant at Brook Farm named Ichabod Morton built the Pilgrim House, named in honor of his home town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The ​2 1⁄2-story building was the third structure built that year and cost nearly $5,000 to build.[56] Morton stayed there only two weeks before moving out, after which the building was used for general lodging and also held the laundry facilities.[55] The many constructions, including greenhouses and small craft shops, quickly reduced their treasury.[53]

Community life

Work and finances

Participants at Brook Farm were also shareholders and were promised five percent of the annual profits or free tuition for one student. In exchange for 300 days of work per year, they were granted free room and board.[4] Members performed whatever work most appealed to them and all, including women, were paid equal wages.[57] The philosophy of labor, according to Ripley, was "to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual."[58]

The organization of work in Brook Farm changed over time because of both financial troubles and changes in ideologies. Members of Brook Farm initially participated in an "attractive industry" system where each individual could pick his or her work assignments based on their own preferences.[59] This method did not have any specific authority making sure that essential tasks were getting done. After initial leniency, some sensed that not all members were doing their fair share of the labor, so in 1841 the community adopted required standards for work: ten hours of work were required per day during the summer, and eight hours during winter.[32] When Brook Farm first started adopting Fourierist notions, they created a more structured work environment with a system that consisted of three series of industry, which were agriculture, mechanical, and domestic, and within each series there were a number of groups that handled more specific tasks.[60] Each group had a chief whose duty it was to keep a record of the work done. While this system did create a new work hierarchy, the members still had the flexibility to move between groups easily.[60] These new measures caused Brook Farm to achieve a profit in 1844 which was a feat that had not been accomplished in its first few years of the community's existence.[60]

Typical work duties at Brook Farm included chopping wood, bringing in firewood, milking cows, turning a grindstone, and other farming chores.[43] Not all were farmers, however. Some worked in the trades, including making shoes, and others were teachers. Regardless of the job, all were considered equal and because of the job distribution, as Elizabeth Peabody wrote, "no one has any great weight in any one thing".[61] In exchange for their work, participants were granted several "guarantees", including "medical attendance, nursing, education in all departments, amusements".[62] There were some occasional conflicts between different workers, partly because those who were educators believed themselves more aristocratic; overall, however, as historian Charles Crowe wrote, "indeed all aspects of communal life operated with surprisingly little friction" in general.[63]

Visitors to Brook Farm came frequently, totaling an estimated 1,150 each year, though each was charged for their visit. Between November 1844 and October 1845, surviving records show that $425 was collected from visitor fees.[64] The list of visitors included theologian Henry James, Sr., sculptor William Wetmore Story, artist John Sartain, and British social reformer Robert Owen.[65]

Despite multiple sources of income, the community was in constant debt almost immediately after it began.[46] The community, including Ripley, had difficulty with the farming aspects of the community, in particular because of poor soil and not enough labor. The major crop was hay, though it was sold at low grade prices; vegetables, milk, and fruit were not produced in high enough numbers to be profitable.[66] The property was mortgaged four times between 1841 and 1845.[46] Brook Farm got into the habit of spending money before they had raised it. As one Brook Farmer wrote, "I think here lies the difficulty,—we have not had business men to conduct our affairs ... those among us who have some business talents, see this error".[27]


On September 29, 1841, the "Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education" was organized. The school was the most immediate (and at times the only) source of income for Brook Farm and attracted students as far away as Cuba and the Philippines.[19] Children under twelve were charged three-and-a-half dollars per week and, at first, boys over twelve were charged four dollars a week and girls were charged five; by August 1842, the rates were made identical, regardless of gender.[62] Adult education was also available in the evenings. The schedule for adults included courses on moral philosophy, German language, and modern European history.[67]

Within the school there was an infant school for children under six, a primary school for children under ten, and there was a preparatory school that prepared children for college in six years.[67] When entering the school, each pupil under high school age was assigned a woman of the community who was in charge of his/her wardrobe, personal habits, and exercise.[68] The teachers included three graduates of Harvard Divinity School (George Ripley, George Bradford, John Sullivan Dwight) as well as several women (Ripley's wife Sophia, his sister Marianne, and his cousin Hannah, as well as Georgianna Bruce and Abby Morton).[69] Ripley was in charge of teaching English and was known to be relaxed in his class. Dana taught languages, being able to speak ten himself. Dwight taught music[70] as well as Latin.[12] Students studied European languages and literature and, at no extra cost, pupils could also indulge in the fine arts.[68] The primary school was overseen by Sophia Ripley and Marianne Ripley, using a progressive child-centered pedagogy that has been compared to the later reforms of John Dewey.[67] Sophia Ripley's dedication to the school was remarked upon by many; she only missed two classes in six years.[71]


The people of Brook Farm spent most of their time either studying or working the farm, but they always set aside time in the day for play. In their free time, the members of Brook Farm enjoyed music, dancing, card games, drama, costume parties, sledding, and skating.[7][72] Every week everyone in the community would gather at The Hive for a dance of the young ladies of the community. They would wear wreaths of wild daisies on top of their heads, and each week a special wreath, bought from a florist, would be given to the best dressed girl.[73] At the end of every day, many performed a "symbol of Universal Unity", in which they stood in a circle and joined hands and vowed for "truth to the cause of God and Humanity".[74]

Spirits remained high throughout the experiment, regardless of the community's financial standing.[6] Their social structure demanded selflessness[71] and individuals rarely failed to fulfill their duties,[63] a requirement to earn leisure time. Leisure time was important to the Brook Farm philosophy. As Elizabeth Palmer Peabody wrote for The Dial in January 1842, "none will be engaged merely in bodily labor ... This community aims to be rich, not in the metallic representative of wealth, but in ... leisure to live in all the faculties of the soul".[75]

Role of women

At Brook Farm, women had the opportunity to expand beyond their typical sphere of tasks and their labor was highly valued.[76] They did have tasks that were typical of other women at the time such as simple food preparation, and shared housekeeping. However, during the harvest time women were allowed to work in the fields and men even helped out with laundry during the cold weather. Because no single religion could impose its beliefs on the community, women were safe from the typical patriarchy associated with religion at the time.[76] Because of the community's focus on individual freedom, women were autonomous from their husbands and were also allowed to become stockholders.[71] Women also played an important role in providing sources of income to the community. Many devoted time to making, as Brook Farmer Marianne Dwight described, "elegant and tasteful caps, capes, collars, undersleeves, etc., etc.," for sale at shops in Boston.[76] Others painted screens and lamp shades for sale.[63] Women were allowed to go to school and, because of the well-known education of women at Brook Farm, many female writers and performers visited the farm. George Ripley's wife Sophia, who had written an outspoken feminist essay for The Dial on "Woman" before moving to Brook Farm,[77] was very educated and was able to teach history and foreign languages at the farm.


Many people in the community wrote of how much they enjoyed their experience and, in particular, the light-hearted atmosphere.[72] One participant, a man named John Codman, joined the community at the age of 27 in 1843. He wrote, "It was for the meanest a life above humdrum, and for the greatest something far, infinitely far beyond. They looked into the gates of life and saw beyond charming visions, and hopes springing up for all".[78] The idealism of the community sometimes was not met, however. Because the community was officially secular, a variety of religions were represented, though not always amicably. When Isaac Hecker and, later, Sophia Ripley converted to Catholicism, a Protestant Brook Farmer complained, "We are beginning to see wooden crosses around and pictures of saints ... and I suspect that rosaries are rattling under aprons."[79]

Nathaniel Hawthorne, eventually elected treasurer of the community, did not enjoy his experience. Initially, he praised the work he was doing, boasting of "what a great, broad-shouldered, elephantine personage I shall become by and by!"[80] Later, he wrote to his wife-to-be Sophia Peabody, "labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified".[81] After disassociating with the community Hawthorne demanded the return of his initial investment, though he never held any ill will with Ripley, to whom he wrote he would "heartily rejoice at your success—of which I can see no reasonable doubt".[21]

Many outside the community were critical of Brook Farm, especially in the press. The New York Observer, for example, suggested that, "The Associationists, under the pretense of a desire to promote order and morals, design to overthrow the marriage institution, and in the place of the divine law, to substitute the 'passions' as the proper regulator of the intercourse of the sexes", concluding that they were "secretly and industriously aiming to destroy the foundation of society".[82] Critic Edgar Allan Poe expressed his opinions on the community in an article titled "Brook Farm" in the December 13, 1845, issue of the Broadway Journal. He wrote that he had "sincere respect" for the group and that its journal, The Harbinger, was "conducted by an assemblage of well-read persons who mean no harm—and who, perhaps, can do no less".[83] Despite many critics, none suggested George Ripley be replaced as Brook Farm's leader.[40]

Ralph Waldo Emerson never joined the Brook Farm community, despite several invitations. He wrote to Ripley on December 15, 1840, of his "conviction that the Community is not good for me".[53] He also questioned the idealism of the community, particularly its optimism that all members would equally share responsibility and workload. As he wrote, "The country members naturally were surprised to observe that one man ploughed all day and one looked out of a window all day ... and both received at night the same wages".[32] Twenty years later, Emerson publicly denounced the experiment in his collection of essays titled The Conduct of Life. Charles Lane, one of the founders of another community called Fruitlands, thought the Brook Farmers lived a lifestyle that did not sacrifice enough. As he said, they were "playing away their youth and day-time in a miserably joyous frivolous manner".[84] Like other communities, Brook Farm was criticized for its potential to break up the nuclear family because of its focus on working as a larger community.[85] After its conversion to Fourierism, the Transcendentalists showed less support for the experiment.[86] Henry David Thoreau questioned the community members' idealism and wrote in his journal, "As for these communities, I think I had rather keep bachelor's hall in hell than go to board in heaven".[23] Even Sophia Ripley later questioned their original optimism, referring to it as "childish, empty, & sad".[87]

In fiction

A founding member, Hawthorne later fictionalized his experience at Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, though a founding member, was unhappy during his tenure as a Brook Farmer, partly because he was unable to write while living there. "I have no quiet at all", he complained, and his hands were covered "with a new crop of blisters—the effect of raking hay".[75] He later presented a fictionalized portrait of his experience in his 1852 novel, The Blithedale Romance.[88] He acknowledged the resemblance in his introduction, saying "in the 'Blithedale' of this volume, many readers will probably suspect a faint and not very faithful shadowing of Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, which (now a little more than ten years ago) was occupied and cultivated by a company of socialists." The chapter called "The Masqueraders", for example, was based on a picnic held one September to celebrate the harvest season.[89] George Ripley, who reviewed the book for the New York Tribune, said that former Brook Farmers would only notice the resemblance in the humorous parts of the story.[42] Some have also seen a resemblance between Margaret Fuller and Hawthorne's fictional character Zenobia.[18] In the novel, a visitor—a writer like Hawthorne—finds that hard farm labor is not conducive to intellectual creativity. In his introduction, Hawthorne insisted that, although his experience with Brook Farm undoubtedly influenced his concept of a Utopian community, that the characters in his novel in no way represented any of the Brook Farm residents specifically.[90]

See also

• National Register of Historic Places listings in southern Boston, Massachusetts


1. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
2. Polly M. Rettig and S. Sydney Bradford (April 3, 1976) National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Brook Farm, National Park Service and Accompanying five photos, from 1975
3. "Brook Farm". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2009-06-06. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
4. Felton, 124
5. Rose, 140
6. Packer, 133
7. Hankins, 34
8. McFarland, 83
9. Delano, 52
10. Marshall, 398
11. Delano, 39
12. Marshall, 415
13. Delano, 71
14. Marshall, 407
15. Delano, 63
16. Rose, 132
17. Gura, 156
18. Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1987: 187. ISBN 0-201-10458-X
19. Packer, 155
20. Marshall, 408–409
21. Delano, 97
22. Marshall, 417
23. Hankins, 35
24. Felton, 123
25. Delano, 91
26. Delano, 90
27. Packer, 161
28. Delano, 255
29. Packer, 157
30. Packer, 158
31. Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007: 300–301. ISBN 978-0-19-507894-7
32. Felton, 127
33. Crowe, 170
34. Delano, 190–191
35. Delano, 217
36. Delano, 222
37. Delano, 192
38. Packer, 160
39. Delano, 193
40. Crowe, 187
41. Delano, 254
42. Packer, 162
43. Felton, 128
44. Delano, 269
45. Delano, 283
46. Rose, 136
47. Rose, 209
48. [1]
49. Felton, 129
50. "Brooks Farm Brochure" (PDF). Massachusetts DCR. Retrieved 2013-06-19.
51. Delano, 326
52. Myerson, 299–300
53. Packer, 134
54. Felton, 124–125
55. Felton, 125
56. Delano, 96
57. Delano, 65–66
58. Marshall, 407–408
59. McKanan, Dan (September 2006). "Self-Unfolding as Communitarian Vision: Brook Farm's Challenge to Contemporary Communities". Communal Societies. 26 (2): 4–5.
60. Francis, Richard (1977). "The Ideology of Brook Farm". Studies in the American Renaissance: 14–15.
61. Rose, 135
62. Delano, 67
63. Crowe, 178
64. Delano, 53
65. Delano, 54
66. Crow, 161
67. Felton, 126
68. Myerson, 82
69. Delano, 79
70. Myerson, 305
71. Rose, 186
72. Rose, 131
73. Myerson, 302–303
74. Felton, 125–126
75. Marshall, 416
76. Packer, 159
77. Rose, 185
78. Packer, 135
79. Rose, Ann C. Beloved Strangers: Interfaith Families in Nineteenth-century America Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001: 94–95. ISBN 0-674-00640-2
80. Marshall, 409
81. McFarland, 84
82. Delano, 275–276
83. Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 35. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
84. Delano, 119
85. Rose, 189
86. Crowe, 179
87. Rose, 196
88. McFarland, 149
89. Delano, 102
90. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Blithedale Romance, Oxford University Press


• Crowe, Charles. George Ripley: Transcendentalist and Utopian Socialist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967.
• Delano, Sterling F. Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01160-0
• Felton, R. Todd. A Journey into the Transcendentalists' New England. Berkeley, California: Roaring Forties Press, 2006. ISBN 0-9766706-4-X
• Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
• Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004. ISBN 0-313-31848-4
• Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. Boston: Mariner Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-618-71169-7
• McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
• Myerson, Joel (ed). The Brook Farm Book: A Collection of First-Hand Accounts of the Community. New York: Garland, 1987. ISBN 0-8240-8507-8
• Packer, Barbara L. The Transcendentalists. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8203-2958-1
• Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981. ISBN 0-300-02587-4

External links

• Brook Farm at Massachusetts DCR
• Brook Farm Study Report from Boston Landmarks Commission, City of Boston
• American Communities and Co-operative Colonies, (1908) by William Alfred Hinds
• "Transcendental ideas: social reform" at Virginia Commonwealth University
• Brook Farm at, provides several links to primary source accounts of Brook Farm
• Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs at Project Gutenberg
• Brook Farm Historic Site at Newton Conservators
• Texts on Wikisource:
o "Brook Farm" . Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.
o "Brook Farm". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
o "Brook Farm". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
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