Charles Bradlaugh: Freethinker, Activist, Republican

Born in Hoxton, on 26th September 1833, Charles Bradlaugh was an atheist, supporter of universal suffrage, a secularist, promoter of trade unions and a political activist. As president of the National Secular Society and editor of the secularist paper, the National Reformer, Bradlaugh promoted and gained supporters of his view that religion should be separated from the state. In 1876, Bradlaugh and his close confidant Annie Besant, a women’s rights advocate, republished a pamphlet that promoted birth control and in 1880 Bradlaugh was elected MP of Northampton.  Today Charles Bradlaugh’s life is commemorated in Hackney with a brown plaque.

Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891)

On 9th September 1866, Bradlaugh used the National Reformer of which he was editor, to layout the principles and proposed doctrine of the National Secular Society. An organisation that stood against religious privilege and demanded a secularized society, including an end to all political support for religious purposes and especially the disestablishment of the Church of England. Officially formed with a national conference in Bradford in November 1867, where Bradlaugh was named president, the group quickly gained members. One of these was Annie Besant, a feminist and brilliant speaker, who criticized religion as vehicle for keeping women subordinate. She joined the National Secular Society in August 1874 and became a trusted companion of Bradlaugh.

Annie Besant at the time of the Knowlton pamphlet trial

In 1877 Bradlaugh and Besant made the papers when they republished a pamphlet providing contraceptive information, The Fruits of Philosophy.  Originally  published in New England by Dr Charles Knowlton in 1832, the first English edition was released by James Watson in 1834, and in 1875 the plates were purchased by Charles Watts (who helped to found the National Secular Society), but after Henry Cook, a Bristolian bookseller, was sentenced to 2 years hard labour for selling the pamphlet, Watts agreed to destroy the printers plates in his stock. Much to the dismay of Bradlaugh and Besant who then  set up the Freethought Publishing Company at 28 Stonecutter Street and republished the pamphlet. On Saturday 24th March 1876 the new edition went on sale, with up to date medical footnotes by Dr George Drysdale. Published for a sixpence, The Fruits of Philosophy was now available to working people, so whilst the material wasn’t new, the access of everyday people to the information was. Five hundred copies of the pamphlet were sold in the first 20 minutes. However in April 1877, Besant and Bradlaugh were charged for breaking the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Their trial lasted four days with both defendants representing themselves (an uncommon event, even more significant for a woman in the 1870s) before the jury returned a guilty verdict. However upon appeal this was reversed on a technicality of wording on the original indictment. During the last twenty years of the 1800s there was a decline in birth rates, with Annie Besant’s, The Law of Population and Henry Allbutt’s The Wife’s Handbook, replacing The Fruits of Philosophy as the modern texts on contraception. However, the publication did cause some tension amongst secularists, as not all agreed with Bradlaugh and Besant’s position. However the movement united again in the 1880s behind Bradlaugh’s struggle to enter parliament.

The Bradlaugh and Besant edition of Knowlton’s ‘Fruits of Philosophy’

As a constitutionalist, Bradlaugh believed that the only way to transform society was via parliament and so the next logical step to pursue his goals of a secular society was to run as a member of parliament. Since 1870, non-religious believers had the right to make a secular affirmation in the Welsh and English courts. Consequently when Bradlaugh was elected as MP for Northampton in 1880, he was shocked to discover that his wish as a republican and atheist to not take an oath of allegiance to the Queen and God was denied and he was barred from taking his elected seat in the House of Commons. An infringement of not only on Bradlaugh’s democratic right, but those of his constituents. Bradlaugh was only permitted to speak to MP’s from behind the Bar, which marked the boundary of the house.

Charles Bradlaugh at the Bar of the House of Commons

Nevertheless, Bradlaugh didn’t give up and on one occasion he spent a night in the prison room of the Clock Tower after refusing to withdraw from the House of Commons when ordered to do so by the Speaker. As well as arriving to the House of Commons one day at the front of a vast crowd demanding that he be allowed to take his rightful place, only to be ejected by police and parliamentary officials. However, with the 1885 general election, Bradlaugh, six years after he was first elected, was allowed by the new Speaker to take his seat in parliament. This was confirmed by the Oaths Act passed in 1888, which extended civil rights to freethinkers and their right to affirm when taking their seat in parliament. Furthermore, in 27th January 1891 the House of Commons determined that their original position banning Bradlaugh from taking the oath was “subversive of the rights of the whole body of electors of this Kingdom.”

Charles Bradlaugh being arrested by the police in 1881 for refusing to take the oath as a Member of Parliament, and subsequently rejoicing at the passage of his Oaths Bill in 1888. Lithograph by Tom Merry, 1888

Three days after the House of Commons passed this resolution Charles Bradlaugh died of kidney disease at the age of 57, it is unknown whether he knew of the declaration. However his life and achievements have been honored by a statue in Abingdon Square, Northampton, the plaque in Hoxton and a portrait bust was that unveiled in 2016 within the Palace of Westminster during the National Secular Societies 150th year. Today it is displayed alongside other reformers and radicals. Additionally his surname is one of four options available in the naming of a new public square outside of Britannia Leisure Centre, Hackney (you can look at the options and vote here ). In the words of the National Secular Society: “Charles Bradlaugh’s heroism and self-sacrifice has not been forgotten. His example remains an inspiration to a new generation.”


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