Charles Bradlaugh & free thought

The blue plaque on the wall of 29 Turner Street, E1 states simply that ‘Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), advocate of free thought, lived here 1870-1877.’

It seems a curious epitaph today, when most of us expect the right to think as we want, and argue our case. Bradlaugh thought the world would be a better place if the London poor were provided with methods of birth control. He believed in extending the vote and thought there should be a redistribution of land and wealth. He was also an atheist and a Republican and bitterly attacked the generous pensions paid to members of the Royal Family.
Bradlaugh in Tower of London

Fair enough you might think, but these radical views led to imprisonment in the Tower of London and one of the great stand-offs of parliamentary history.

In 1876, Bradlaugh and Annie Besant published Charles Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy. Feminist social reformer Besant was to play a pivotal role in the match girls’ strike at Bryant and May’s Fairfield Works in Bow a dozen years later.
Bradlaugh and Annie Besant

The booklet argued that disease, poverty and overcrowding in poor areas were exacerbated by women having no birth control, and the publishers had no trouble relating that to the awful conditions of families in London’s East End. But Bradlaugh and Besant were rewarded for their forward thinking with six months in jail. They were released on appeal.

It wasn’t Bradlaugh’s first conflict with authority. The son of a solicitor’s clerk, he had been born in Hoxton in 1833, and at 12 went to work in his father’s office. He was already absorbing radical political ideas, particularly those of the atheist and Republican Richard Carlile, who had been jailed for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1819.
Bradlaugh in the Dragoon Guards

By 16, Bradlaugh’s arguments with his father about religion had become so bitter that he had to leave home. He enlisted in the Seventh Dragoon Guards but found it impossible to subject himself to army authority. Leaving the service in 1853 he went to work in a law firm.

But journalism and the dissemination of new ideas started to interest him more. In 1860, Bradlaugh hooked up with a Sheffield Chartist named Joseph Barker to set up The National Reformer, a radical journal. Secularism, women’s rights, republicanism … all were grist to the Reformer’s mill. Annie Besant was employed as a journalist and penned pieces on women’s rights, and the inequable Victorian laws on marriage.
Bradlaugh and National Secular Society

In 1866 Bradlaugh helped set up the National Secular Society, an organisation opposed to the rule and role of the Church in British society. And in 1877 came The Fruits of Philosophy and the first of his incarcerations. In between, the publishers and their staff had to contend with continual harassment, libel actions and seizing of literature by an establishment determined to shut them up.

The Royal Mail was used as an agent of state censorship, as pamphlets on religion were seized and destroyed by the Post Office. Bradlaugh found public buildings mysteriously unavailable when he tried to book them for meetings. And in 1882 the staff of The Freethinker would be prosecuted, en masse, for blasphemy. Two were sent to prison.
Bradlaugh as MP for Northampton

By then, Bradlaugh had taken another route to the public ear. For years he had tried and failed to get elected as MP for Northampton. But in 1880 he succeeded (which indicates what the people, if not the authorities, were starting to believe).

Bradlaugh went to take his seat but there was just one problem. Every MP had to swear a religious oath of allegiance. Atheist Bradlaugh refused, and was turned out of the Commons. The humiliation was compounded with the Republican being thrown into the Tower of London … where for centuries the Monarchy had imprisoned challengers.
Bradlaugh and Disraeli

The Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli was no friend to the Radical. But he was canny enough to realise such medieval treatment would only create a martyr, and successfully argued for the MP’s release.

Now began a farcical process which was to go on for six years. The Northampton MP would enter the chamber and try to take his seat. There would be abuse and catcalls from his fellow MPs and the Sergeant-at-Arms would eject Bradlaugh.
Bradlaugh and Gladstone

It was a ridiculous situation. Bradlaugh offered to affirm rather than swear his oath, and prime minister William Gladstone supported him. But Bradlaugh’s views on women, the Crown, land reform and God had united a formidable battery of enemies against him. When it came to the vote MPs always upheld the Speaker’s decision. The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, leaders of the Anglican and Catholic Churches argued against the very idea of atheists serving as MPs.

It was a remarkable denial of democracy. On 7 February 1882, Bradlaugh presented Parliament with a petition of 241,970 signatures, demanding he be allowed to take his seat. He was refused access.
Bradlaugh and Home Rule for Ireland

Finally, in 1886, a new Speaker was appointed. Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel declared that an MP’s oath was his own business and Bradlaugh was allowed to merely affirm his allegiance to the House.

Bradlaugh took his seat and became an active member, enthusiastically supported causes both unpopular and unlikely to make him friends of win him votes. But he held his seat while propounding Home Rule for Ireland and the redistribution of land. He battled for Republicanism and against the casual disbursement of funds to members of the Royal family. He criticised Britain’s foreign policy and imperial adventures in South Africa, Sudan, Afghanistan and Egypt.

When he died on 30 January, 1891, Bradlaugh’s funeral (on unconsecrated ground of course) was attended by 3000 people. He had gone out on several limbs yet won enormous popular support. Most of all his free thinking and willingness to say the unsayable paved the way for the democratic reforms of the following century.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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