Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh, the son of a solicitor's clerk, was born in Hoxton, London on 26th September, 1833. At the age of twelve he became an office boy in the company where his father worked. As a young man he came under the influence of the ideas of Richard Carlile, the man who had been sent to prison for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1819. Like Carlile, Bradlaugh began to question the truth of Christianity and this led to arguments with his father.

In 1849 Bradlaugh left home due to religious differences with his family. The following year Bradlaugh enlisted in the Seventh Dragoon Guards. However, Bradlaugh disliked army life and in 1853 he obtained a discharge and found work in a law office. Bradlaugh was now a committed republican and freethinker and in 1860 joined Joseph Barker, a former Chartist from Sheffield, to establish the radical journal, The National Reformer.

Bradlaugh wrote a series of pamphlets on politics and religion and by the early 1860s was recognised as one of the leading freethinkers in Britain. In 1866 Bradlaugh helped to establish the National Secular Society, an organisation opposed to Christian dogma. Bradlaugh met Annie Besant and the two of them became close friends. Bradlaugh employed Besant on The National Reformer and over the next few years she wrote many articles on issues such as marriage and women's rights.

In 1877 Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant decided to publish The Fruits of Philosophy, written by Charles Knowlton, a book that advocated birth control. Besant and Bradlaugh were charged with publishing material that was "likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences". In court they argued that "we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing." Besant and Bradlaugh were both found guilty of publishing an "obscene libel" and sentenced to six months in prison. At the Court of Appeal the sentence was quashed.

Philip Snowden was one of those who saw Bradlaugh make speeches on the subject of birth control. He later recalled: In those early days I heard a number of famous people. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were at the height of their popularity. They had just been prosecuted for the publication of the Knowlton pamphlet on birth control. I heard Bradlaugh speak on the subject, and I can see him now as he stood on the platform. He was a massive figure, with a fine head and a powerful voice, and in declamation he was a tremendous force.

Henry Snell was another young man who was very impressed with Bradlaugh as a public speaker: "Bradlaugh was already speaking when I arrived, and I remember, as clearly as though it were only yesterday, the immediate and compelling impression made upon me by that extraordinary man. I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh. The commanding strength, the massive head, the imposing stature, and the ringing eloquence of the man fascinated me, and from that hour until the day of his death, ten years later, I was one of his humblest but most devoted of his followers. Taking him all in all - as man, orator, as leader of unpopular causes, and as an incorruptible public figure, he was the most imposing human being that I have ever known, and I do not expect to look upon his like again."

The authorities attempted to obstruct the activities of Bradlaugh and other freethinkers. Pamphlets on religion were seized by the Post Office and on several occasions they were excluded from using public buildings for their meetings. In 1882 the staff of the journal, The Freethinker, were prosecuted for blasphemy, and two of them were found guilty and sent to prison.

Bradlaugh had tried several times to be elected to represent Northampton in Parliament. He was eventually elected in 1880, but as he was not a Christian he asked for permission to affirm rather the oath of office. The Speaker of the House of Commons refused this request and Bradlaugh was expelled from Parliament. William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, supported Bradlaugh's right to affirm, but he had upset a lot of people with his views on Christianity, the monarchy and birth control and when the issue was put before Parliament, MPs voted to support the Speaker's decision to expel him.

Bradlaugh now mounted a national campaign in favour of atheists being allowed to sit in the House of Commons. Bradlaugh gained some support from some Nonconformists but he was strongly opposed by the Conservative Party and the leaders of the Anglican and Catholic clergy. When Bradlaugh attempted to take his seat in Parliament in June 1880, he was arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative Party, warned that Bradlaugh would become a martyr and it was decided to release him.

Drawing of Charles Bradlaugh beingevicted from the House of Commons in 1880
Drawing of Charles Bradlaugh being
evicted from the House of Commons in 1880

On 26th April, 1881, Charles Bradlaugh was once again refused permission to affirm. William Gladstone promised to bring in legislation to enable Bradlaugh to do this, but this would take time. Bradlaugh was unwilling to wait and when he attempted to take his seat on 2nd August he was once forcibly removed from the House of Commons. Bradlaugh and his supporters organised a national petition and on 7th February, 1882, he presented a list of 241,970 signatures calling for him to be allowed to take his seat. However, when he tried to take the Parliamentary oath, he was once again removed from Parliament.

As well as working with Bradlaugh, Annie Besant also became friends with socialists such as Walter Crane, Edward Aveling and George Bernard Shaw. This upset Bradlaugh, who regarded socialism as a disruptive foreign doctrine.

Gladstone's Affirmation Bill was discussed by Parliament in the spring of 1883. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Manning, head of the Catholic Church, argued against the right of atheists to be MPs and when the vote was taken in May 1883, the Affirmation Bill was defeated. In 1884 Bradlaugh was once again elected to represent Northampton in the House of Commons. He took his seat and voted three times before he was excluded. He was later fined £1,500 for voting illegally.

Bradlaugh decided to try again to take the oath on 13th January, 1886. The new Speaker, Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel, did not object, arguing that he had to authority to interfere with the oath-taking. Bradlaugh now had the right to speak and vote in the House of Commons, and over the next few years he supported Irish Home Rule and the redistribution of land. He continued to argue for republicanism and was a fierce critic of pensions, such as the £4,000 a year to the Duke of Marlborough, being paid to members of the royal family. Bradlaugh was also a strong critic of Britain's foreign policy and opposed the military involvement in South Africa, Sudan, Afghanistan and Egypt.

Charles Bradlaugh died on 30th January, 1891. His funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners who saw him buried in unconsecrated ground.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh attempted to publish The Fruits of Philosophy in Britain. The couple were immediately arrested and charged with publishing an 'obscene' book. Hardinge Gifford, the public prosecutor, explained why Besant and Bradlaugh were on trial.

I say that this is a dirty, filthy book, and the test of it is that no human being would allow that book on his table, no decently educated English husband would allow even his wife to have it…the object of it is to enable a person to have sexual intercourse, and not to have that which in the order of providence is the natural result of that sexual intercourse. That is the only purpose of the book and all the instruction in the other parts of the book leads up to that proposition.

(2) Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were both found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment, and fined £200. However in February 1878, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgement and the sentence was quashed. Annie Besant responded to this decision by writing her own book on birth control. She explained in her autobiography her reasons for this.

I wrote a pamphlet entitled The Law of Population giving the arguments which had convinced me of its truth, the terrible distress and degradation entailed on families by overcrowding and the lack of necessaries of life, pleading for early marriages that prostitution might be destroyed, and limitation of the family that pauperism might be avoided, finally giving the information which rendered early marriage without these evils possible. This pamphlet was put in circulation as representing our views on the subject.

We continued the sale of Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy for some time until we received an intimation that no further prosecution would be attempted, and on this we at once dropped its publication, substituting for it my Law of Population.

(3) Charles Bradlaugh, The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick (1880)

Her Majesty is now enormously rich, and - as she is like her Royal grandmother - grows richer daily. She is also generous, and has recently given not quite half a day's income to the starving poor of India.

(4) Charles Bradlaugh, The Land, the People, and the Coming Struggle (1877)

The enormous estates of the few landed proprietors must not only be prevented from growing larger, they must be broken up. If they claim that in this we are unfair, our answer is ready. You have monopolized the land, and while you have got each year a wider and firmer grip, you have cast its burdens on others; you have made labour pay the taxes which land could more easily have bourne. You have been intolerant in your power, driving your tenants to the poll like cattle, keeping your labourers ignorant and demoralized.

(5) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

In those early days I heard a number of famous people. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were at the height of their popularity. They had just been prosecuted for the publication of the Knowlton pamphlet on birth control. I heard Bradlaugh speak on the subject, and I can see him now as he stood on the platform. He was a massive figure, with a fine head and a powerful voice, and in declamation he was a tremendous force.

(6) Henry Snell, Men Movements and Myself (1936)

The controversy which had arisen over the question of Charles Bradlaugh's claim to be admitted to Parliament had made his name a household word throughout the country, and when it was announced that he would shortly visit Nottingham I determined that I would try and see him and hear him speak. The subject of his lecture was Ireland. Bradlaugh was already speaking when I arrived, and I remember, as clearly as though it were only yesterday, the immediate and compelling impression made upon me by that extraordinary man. I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh. The commanding strength, the massive head, the imposing stature, and the ringing eloquence of the man fascinated me, and from that hour until the day of his death, ten years later, I was one of his humblest but most devoted of his followers.

Taking him all in all - as man, orator, as leader of unpopular causes, and as an incorruptible public figure, he was the most imposing human being that I have ever known, and I do not expect to look upon his like again. I have seen strong men, under the storm of his passion, rise from their seats, and sometimes weep with emotion. Like a prodigal he threw away with both hands the energies of a precious life, and he died, exhausted, by the early age of fifty-seven.