George Holyoake, the second of thirteen children and eldest son of George Holyoake (1790–1853), a whitesmith, and Catherine Groves (1792–1867), a horn-button maker, was born in Birmingham on 13th April 1817. He later wrote: "My mother... was a Puritan-minded woman, of clear, decided ideas, and had, later in life, a grave, impressive face. Of what she knew she was confident, and never had any doubts. She wished her children to be honest, truthful, and pious, and always set them the example. It never occurred to her to do otherwise than what she said. The contrary never entered into her mind. In those days horn buttons were made in Birmingham, and my mother had a workshop attached to the house, in which she conducted a business herself, employing several hands. She had the business before her marriage. She received the orders; made the purchases of materials; superintended the making of the goods; made out the accounts; and received the money; besides taking care of her growing family."
Holyoake also enjoyed a good relationship with his father: "My father was in his sixty-third year at the time of his death. He was tall and comely. He had an honest voice and an expression which told you he could be trusted. His manners were free without familiarity. Some men, rise to what rank they may, always retain plebeian habits; this was not so with my father, although he spent so large a portion of his life as a workman. His associates and also his employers showed him respect in their speech. He owed some of this deference to his mechanical ability. I passed thirteen years by his side in the workshop, and never saw him addressed as other men around him often were. What laws of etiquette he had were his own. When summoned by his employers he always walked up (unless into office or a private room) without uncovering his head, as was usual with others. His not doing so seemed natural to him. It was not disrespect, it was self-respect.... He went when a youth to the Eagle Foundry, where he spent more than forty years. Holidays in manufactories were not so much a custom then as now. I never heard that during that long period he was absent through illness or pleasure. If a vacation time occurred at a fair or Christmas time, he spent it at some ideal invention of his own. Though entirely without self-assertion, he had a quiet implacable will."
Holyoake received a basic education at a dame school. At the age of eight George began working at the Eagle Foundry with his father: "At length he consented to take me, when the afternoon school was over, to work through the evening soldering the handles on lanterns. I was a small boy then, and though I often burned my fingers with the soldering iron, I earned in time as much as 3s. 6d. per week piece-work. Afterwards I persuaded my father to take me with him to the Eagle Foundry, from a desire to be at work. I must have been very young then, as I remember asking my father to let me hold his hand as I went along by his side in the early morning; and his hand, enclosing mine, was a new sensation of pleasure, and seemed to put fresh life into me. The time of being at the foundry was six o'clock, and I was often half asleep as we went up Suffolk Street on the way to Broad Street, where the foundry was, and where I was taught to be a whitesmith, working in white iron and burnished steel."
In 1836 Holyoake started attending evening classes at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute. It was at this time that he first heard about the socialist ideas of Robert Owen. The following year Holyoake joined Robert Owen's Association of All Classes of All Nations. In his autobiography, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) Holyoake explained why he became a follower of Owen: "Just as Thomas Paine was the founder of political ideas among the people of England, Robert Owen was also the founder of social ideas among them. He who first conceives a new idea has merit and distinction; but he is the founder of it who puts it into the minds of men by proving its practicability. Mr. Owen did this at New Lanark, and convinced numerous persons that the improvement of society was possible by wise material means. There were social ideas in England before the days of Owen, as there were political ideas before the days of Paine; but Owen gave social ideas form and force. His passion was the organization of labour, and to cover the land with self-supporting cities of industry, in which well-devised material condition should render ethical life possible, in which labour should be, as far as possible, done by machinery, and education, recreation, and competence should be enjoyed by all. Instead of communities working for the world, they should work for themselves, and keep in their own hands the fruit of their labour; and commerce should be an exchange of surplus wealth, and not a necessity of existence. All this Owen believed to be practicable."
After his marriage on 10th March 1839 to Eleanor Williams (1819–1884), daughter of Thomas Williams, a small farmer from Kingswinford, he decided on a teaching career According to his biographer, Edward Royle: "Despite his experience as an assistant at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, he found promotion there and elsewhere blocked by his association with Robert Owen, to whom he had been attracted in 1836.... The couple's first child, Madeline, was born in May 1840, and a second daughter, Helen (Eveline), followed in December 1841."
Owenite Social Missionary
In 1840 Holyoake applied to become a teacher at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute. Holyoake believed that he was rejected because of his socialist and atheistic views. Upset by his failure to become a teacher, Holyoake applied and was accepted as an Owenite Social Missionary. His first post was in Worcester and the following year he was transferred to a more important position in Sheffield.
Holyoake promoted Owen's experiments at New Lanark: "At New Lanark he virtually or indirectly supplied to his workpeople, with splendid munificence and practical judgment, all the conditions which gave dignity to labour.... Co-operation as a form of social amelioration and of profit existed in an intermittent way before New Lanark; but it was the advantages of the stores Owen incited that was the beginning of working-class co-operation. His followers intended the store to be a means of raising the industrious class, but many think of it now merely as a means of serving themselves. Still, the nobler portion are true to the earlier ideal of dividing profits in store and workshop, of rendering the members self-helping, intelligent, honest, and generous, and abating, if not superseding competition and meanness."
Convicted of Blasphemy
As well as giving lectures to adults, Holyoake also established a day school for children in the city. Holyoake began contributing articles to Oracle of Reason, a journal highly critical of Christianity. In January 1842, Charles Southwell, the journal's editor, was arrested and convicted of blasphemy. While Southwell was in prison, Holyoake became the journal's new editor. Six months later Holyoake was also charged with "condemning Christianity" in a speech he made at Cheltenham. In August 1842 he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. The death of his daughter Madeline in October 1842 put an emotional seal on his intellectual conversion to atheism.
After Holyoake was released from prison he started a new weekly journal called The Movement. The journal appeared for three years and was then replaced by The Reasoner. Published for over fifteen years, The Reasoner became one of the most important working class journals of the 19th century. Holyoake used his journal to campaign on a wide variety of different social and political issues.
Holyoake became a member of the Birmingham Chartists. Holyoake was a Moral Force Chartist and in 1839 he refused to become involved in the Birmingham rioting which followed the rejection by Parliament of the Chartist petition. The Reasoner was a loyal supporter of non-violent Moral Chartism and Holyoake eventually became a member of the Chartist executive. He was highly critical of Feargus O'Connor and his Physical Force campaign. In one speech he Argued: "My lecture on Imperial Chartism which has excited the suspicion of the Northern Star, is an argument against physical force reformation on the three-fold ground of Morality, Policy and Progress. In what respect do I differ from Mr O'Connor?...I will take this opportunity of repeating that personally I have great respect for Mr O'Connor. He has displayed more energy than all the Chartist politicians put together.. .yet I must be permitted to dissent from that incoherence and injustice of diatribe which is hurled at all who question his infallibility or differ from his opinions."
Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge
In 1835 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man's Guardian, and The Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000. In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners had their first success when the 4d. tax on newspapers was reduced to 1d. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. The campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by George Holyoak and Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. In 1851 Holyoake helped Hetherington and James Watson form the Association for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge.
Founder of Secularism
By 1853 Holyoake's The Reasoner was selling 5,000 copies a week. In his journal Holyoake criticised Christianity and suggested that it should be replaced by a belief system based on reason and science. Holyoake called this new theory Secularism and by the middle of the 1850s there were over forty Secular Societies in Britain. Holyoake explained: "Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life - which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible - which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service"
Edward Royle has argued: "Although still an atheist, he wished secularism neither to deny nor assert the existence of God. Those who believed religion a barrier to progress thought this a betrayal of principle. For Holyoake the sole principle was individual freedom of thought and expression without interference from state, church, or society." Holyoake remained the leader of the Secular movement until he was replaced by the more militant Charles Bradlaugh in 1858.
After the decline of Chartism, Holyoake became one of the leaders of the National Reform League. During this period he was a friend of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau. In 1859 Holyoake wrote and published The Workman and the Suffrage where he argued that members of the working class could be trusted to vote wisely. In The Liberal Situation (1865) he supported the views of Samuel Smiles that the franchise should be based upon educational rather than property qualifications.
George Holyoake had been deeply influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen. This included Owen's views on co-operation. Holyoake had supported the co-operative movement in his journal The Reasoner and in in 1858 wrote Self-Help by the People, a book on the history of the Rochdale Pioneers. Holyoake continued to campaign for the movement and in 1870 was one of the founders of the Co-operative Union. In 1877 Holyoake completed his two-volume The History of Co-operation in England.
In the late 1880s George Holyoake began work on his autobiography. The book Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) was not only an account of Holyoake's life but a history of radicalism in the the 19th century. George Holyoake died in 1906. The Co-operative Union recognized the great contribution that he had made by erecting Holyoake House in Manchester, the main offices and library of the movement in England.
(1) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892)
My mother's maiden name was Catherine Groves, and as she took the name of Holy-oak we had a woodland pedigree. She was a Puritan-minded woman, of clear, decided ideas, and had, later in life, a grave, impressive face. Of what she knew she was confident, and never had any doubts. She wished her children to be honest, truthful, and pious, and always set them the example. It never occurred to her to do otherwise than what she said. The contrary never entered into her mind. In those days horn buttons were made in Birmingham, and my mother had a workshop attached to the house, in which she conducted a business herself, employing several hands. She had the business before her marriage. She received the orders; made the purchases of materials; superintended the making of the goods; made out the accounts; and received the money; besides taking care of her growing family. There were no "Rights of Women" thought of in her day, but she was an entirely self-acting, managing mistress. There were feasts in the house at that time. I remember stealing out of bed one night to survey from the top of the stairs the well-spread table upon which was the first roasted sucking-pig I saw. The button business died out while I was young, and from the remarks which came from merchants, I learned that my mother was the last maker of that kind of button in the town. It was always a peculiarity of Birmingham that numerous small household trades existed, which gave the inmates independence, and often led - if the trade continued good - to competence or fortune. I recite these particulars, as they denote a state of industry and society which has long passed away.
My first recollection of my father was seeing him on Sunday and festive days, in drab cloth breeches and boots with white tops, such as are worn now only in the hunting-field, and a brown overcoat, called a "top-coat" then, which looked very rich in my eyes.
My father was in his sixty-third year at the time of his death. He was tall and comely. He had an honest voice and an expression which told you he could be trusted. His manners were free without familiarity. Some men, rise to what rank they may, always retain plebeian habits; this was not so with my father, although he spent so large a portion of his life as a workman. His associates and also his employers showed him respect in their speech. He owed some of this deference to his mechanical ability. I passed thirteen years by his side in the workshop, and never saw him addressed as other men around him often were. What laws of etiquette he had were his own. When summoned by his employers he always walked up (unless into office or a private room) without uncovering his head, as was usual with others. His not doing so seemed natural to him. It was not disrespect, it was self-respect.
Had the opportunities of learning existed in his youth which exist in our day, his lot in life would have been very different. Mechanics' Institutions were not invented then, and the acquirements of a middle-class boy in 1800 were not many, and his were limited by the early disappearance of his father, whose loss his mother survived but a short time; and my father was left an orphan, and head of the family, at an early age. He went when a youth to the Eagle Foundry, where he spent more than forty years. Holidays in manufactories were not so much a custom then as now. I never heard that during that long period he was absent through illness or pleasure. If a vacation time occurred at a fair or Christmas time, he spent it at some ideal invention of his own. Though entirely without self-assertion, he had a quiet implacable will. His self-respect once outraged, he never forgot it, and I cannot say he ever forgave it. Wanting the resources which men acquire in good society, or the power which culture gives, he had no means of protecting himself save by reserve; and his resolution once taken, time did not wear it out. His resentment became part of his nature. Though inheriting this implacable faculty myself, it has long been clear to me that it is wasted pertinacity. An offence which may arise in thoughtlessness, haste, or necessity, is not worth remembering a day, and an intentional offence is sufficiently despised in less time.
(2) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892)
The most remarkable Birmingham man of that day (1830) was Thomas Attwood. He was Royalist and Radical, not remarkable for intellectual strength, but had dignity of presence and a persuasive and orotund manner of speaking. He was the founder and moving spirit of the Birmingham Political Union. Being a banker, he imparted to it an air of monetary responsibility. He and Joshua Scholefield were the first members for Birmingham. Attwood was the member for the town who was most popular with women. When he was canvassing they were abundant in the courts and streets. He not only kissed the children - he kissed their mothers. At one election he was reputed to have kissed eight thousand women. Though a leader of the masses, he was no democrat, and would have induced the Political Union to accept a £20 franchise, but for the refusal of the more robust politicians of Newcastle-on-Tyne, who, like the late Sir Joseph Cowen, were followers of Lord Durham. They held a great meeting on the Town Moor, and declared for a £10 franchise. But for the Newcastle men, the electoral constituency of England would have been "confined to £20 householders." The Birmingham Political Union was the most conspicuous force which impelled the Reform Bill of 1832, such as it was. Attwood had a theory of currency which he thought would bring prosperity to the people, and he sought a Reformed House of Commons, mainly because he thought he could thereby carry his financial theory into law. Robert Owen, in like manner, resolved to appeal to the people to carry his social scheme of "Villages of Co-operation," when Lords Liverpool, Lauderdale, and Sidmouth failed him. Cobden and Bright, with a more genuine political sympathy with the people, were for a broader measure of electoral reform, as better calculated to carry and maintain free trade. All the £10 voters of Birmingham did was to send a banker and a wealthy merchant to Parliament. In doing this they had the justification of political gratitude. Yet George Edmonds was the man who had greater claims than either.
(3) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892)
The most famous of the oratorical visitors of the Political Union was Daniel O'Connell. In those days the voices of the great Irish leaders were always given to enlarge English freedom, as they have often been since. On one occasion a vast assembly beyond compute, met on Newhall Hill. Early in the morning a band of four hundred women had marched from Rowley Regis (locally called "Rowley Rags," which better described it), a place several miles from Birmingham, and had taken up a position in the hollow, near the platform. The tall form of O'Connell was conspicuous as he rose to speak. The moment his eye lighted on the unexpected mass of women in front of him, the quick instinct of the orator decided his first sentence, and he began, "Surrounded as I am by the fair, the gentle, and the good," which at once captivated his feminine hearers. Their occupation prevented them being very "fair," and holding a position amid 200,000 men - the number computed to be present - showed they were not very "gentle"; but they were "good," patriotic women, and they cheered the flattering allusion to themselves. The men behind cheered because the women cheered; and the crowd behind them, who were too far away to hear well, cheered because those before them cheered, and thus the fortune of the great oration was made...
O'Connell had three manners: a didactic tone in the Courts - dignified argument in the House of Commons - raciness on the platform, where he abandoned himself to himself, on the Yankee principle, "Fill yourself full of your subject as though you were a barrel, take out the bung, and let human nature caper." In London we have seen O'Connell take off his necktie and open his collar to give himself more freedom. On one occasion, referring to the births in Dublin having decreased 5,000 a year for four years, he exclaimed, "I charge the British Government with the murder of those 20,000 infants" (who never were born). It was said with so much raciness that the audience did not perceive the delightful absurdity. Mr. Sam Timmins told me that an Irish schoolmaster who was present remarked to him, "That's worthy of my country." In one sense, O'Connell was right - British misrule had caused the depopulation of Dublin.
(4) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892)
Just as Thomas Paine was the founder of political ideas among the people of England, Robert Owen was also the founder of social ideas among them. He who first conceives a new idea has merit and distinction; but he is the founder of it who puts it into the minds of men by proving its practicability. Mr. Owen did this at New Lanark, and convinced numerous persons that the improvement of society was possible by wise material means. There were social ideas in England before the days of Owen, as there were political ideas before the days of Paine; but Owen gave social ideas form and force. His passion was the organization of labour, and to cover the land with self-supporting cities of industry, in which well-devised material condition should render ethical life possible, in which labour should be, as far as possible, done by machinery, and education, recreation, and competence should be enjoyed by all. Instead of communities working for the world, they should work for themselves, and keep in their own hands the fruit of their labour; and commerce should be an exchange of surplus wealth, and not a necessity of existence. All this Owen believed to be practicable. At New Lanark he virtually or indirectly supplied to his workpeople, with splendid munificence and practical judgment, all the conditions which gave dignity to labour. Excepting by Godin of Guise, no workmen have ever been so well treated, instructed, and cared for as at New Lanark.
Co-operation as a form of social amelioration and of profit existed in an intermittent way before New Lanark; but it was the advantages of the stores Owen incited that was the beginning of working-class co-operation. His followers intended the store to be a means of raising the industrious class, but many think of it now merely as a means of serving themselves. Still, the nobler portion are true to the earlier ideal of dividing profits in store and workshop, of rendering the members self-helping, intelligent, honest, and generous, and abating, if not superseding competition and meanness.
During all the discussions upon Mr. Owen's views, I do not remember notice being taken of Thomas Holcroft, the actor, who might have been cited as a precursor of Mr. Owen. Holcroft, mostly self-taught, familiar with hardship, vicissitude, and adventure, became an author, actor, and playwriter of distinction. He expressed views of remarkable similarity to those of Owen. Holcroft was a friend of political and moral improvement, but he wished it to be gradual and rational, because he believed no other could be effectual. He deplored all provocation and invective. All that he wished was the free and dispassionate discussion of the great principles relating to human happiness, trusting to the power of reason to make itself heard, not doubting the result. He believed the truth had a natural superiority over error, if truth could only be stated; that if once discovered it must, being left to itself, soon spread and triumph. "Men," he said, "do not become what by nature they are meant to be, but what society makes them."
Actors, apart from their profession, are mostly idealess; and the few who are capable of interest in human affairs outside the stage, are mostly so timid of their popularity that they are acquiescent, often subservient, to conventional ideas. Not so Holcroft. When it was dangerous to have independent theological or social opinions, he was as bold as Owen at a later day. He did not conceal that he was a Necessarian. He was one of a few moralists who took a chapel in Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, with a view to found an Ethical Church. One of his sayings was this: "The only enemy I encounter is error, and that with no weapon but words. My constant theme has been, 'Let error be taught, not whipped.'" Owen but put this philosophy into a system, and based public agitation upon the Holcroft principle. Owen's habit of mind and principle are there expressed. Lord Brougham, in his famous address to the Glasgow University in 1825, declared the same principle when he said no man was any more answerable for his belief than for the height of his stature or the colour of his hair. Brougham, being a life-long friend of Owen, had often heard this from him. Holcroft was born 1745, died 1809.
Robert Owen was a remarkable instance of a man at once Tory and revolutionary. He held with the government of the few, but, being a philanthropist, he meant that the government of the few should be the government of the good. It cannot be said that he, like Burke, was incapable of conceiving the existence of good social arrangements apart from kings and courts. It may be said that he never thought upon the subject. He found power in their hands, and he went to them to exercise it in the interests of his "system." He was conservative as respected their power, but conservative of nothing else. He would revolutionize both religion and society—indeed, clear the world out of the way—to make room for his "new views." He visited the chief courts of Europe. Because nothing immediately came of it, it was said he was not believed in. But there is evidence that he was believed in. He was listened to because he proposed that crowned heads should introduce his system into their states, urging that it would ensure contentment and material comfort among their people, and by giving rulers the control and patronage of social life, would secure them in their dignity.
Owen's fine temper was owing to his principle. He always thought of the unseen chain which links every man to his destiny. His fine manners were owing to natural self-possession and to his observation. When a youth behind Mr. McGuffog's counter at Stamford, the chief draper's shop in the town, he "watched the manners and studied the characters of the nobility when they were under the least restraint." It ever fell to me to entertain many eminent men, even by accident; but the first was Robert Owen. His object was to meet a professor and some young students at the London University. Two of them were Mr. Percy Greg and Mr. Michael Foster, both of whom afterwards became eminent. There were some publicists present, and Mr. W. J. Birch, author of the "Philosophy and Religion of Shakspeare," all good conversationalists. Mr. Owen was the best talker of the party. Perhaps it was that they deferred to him, or submitted to him, because of his age and public career; but he displayed more variety and vivacity than they. He spoke naturally as one who had authority. But his courtesy was never suspended by his earnestness. Owen, being a Welshman, had all the fervour and pertinacity, without the impetuosity of his race. Though he had made his own fortune by insight and energy, his fine manners came by instinct. He was successively a draper's counterman, a clerk, a manager, a trader and manufacturer; but he kept himself free from the hurry and unrest of manner which the eagerness of gain and the solicitude of loss, impart to the commercial class, and which mark the difference between their manners and those of gentlemen. There are both sorts in the House of Commons. As a rule, you know on sight the members who have made their own fortunes. If you accost them, they are apt to start as though they were arrested. An interview is an encroachment. They do not conceal that they are thinking of their time as they answer you. They look at their minutes as though they were loans, and only part with them if they are likely to bear interest. There are business men in Parliament who are born with the instinct of progress without hurry. But they are the exception.
(5) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892)
Mr. Owen's sense of fame lay in his ideas. They formed a world in which he dwelt, and he thought others who saw them would be as enchanted as he was. But others did not see them, and he took no adequate means to enable them to see them. James Mill and Francis Place revised his famous "Essays on the Formation of Character," of which he sent a copy to the first Napoleon. Mr. Owen published nothing else so striking or vigorous. Yet he could speak on the platform impressively and with a dignity and force which commanded the admiration of cultivated adversaries.
Like Turner, Owen had an earlier and a later manner. His memoirs - never completed - were written apparently when Robert Fulton's death was recent. They have incident, historic surprises, and the charm of genuine autobiography; but when he wrote of his principles, he lacked altogether Cobbett's faculty of "talking with the pen," which is the source of literary engagingness. It was said of Montaigne that "his sentences were vascular and alive, and if you pricked them they bled." If you pricked Mr. Owen's, when he wrote on his "System," you lost your needle in the wool. He had the altruistic fervour as strongly as Comte, but Owen was without the artistic instinct of style, which sees an inapt word as a false tint in a picture or as an error in drawing.
His "Lectures on Marriage" he permitted to be printed in a note-taker's unskilful terms, and did not correct them, which subjected him and his adherents also to misapprehension. Everybody knows that love must always be free, and, if left to take its own course, is generally ready to accept the responsibility of its choice. People will put up with the ills they bring upon themselves, but will resent happiness proposed by others; just as a nation will be more content with the bad government of their own contriving than they will be under better laws imposed upon them by foreigners. Polygamous relations are inconsistent with delicacy or refinement. Miscellaneousness and love are incompatible terms. Love is an absolute preference. Mr. Owen regarded affection as essential to chastity; but his deprecation of priestly marriages set many against marriage itself. This was owing more to the newness of his doctrine in those days, which led to misconception on the part of some, and was wilfully perverted by others. He claimed for the poor facilities of divorce equal to those accorded to the rich. To some extent this has been conceded by law, which has tended to increase marriage by rendering it less a terror. The new liberty produced license, as all new liberty does; yet the license is not chargeable upon the liberty, nor upon those who advocated it: but upon the reaction from unlimited bondage.
Owen's philanthropy was owing to his principles. Whether wealth is acquired by chance or fraud - as a good deal of wealth is - or owing to inheritance without merit, or to greater capacity than other men have, it is alike the gift of destiny, and Mr. Owen held that those less fortunate should be assisted to improvement in their condition by the favourites of fate. Seeing that every man would be better than he is were his condition in life devised for his betterment, Owen's advice was not to hate men, but to change the system which makes them what they are or keeps them from moral advancement. For these reasons he was against all attempts at improvement by violence. Force was not reformation. In his mind reason and better social arrangements were the only remedy.
(6) George Holyoake, The Reasoner (August, 1848)
The Northern Star says I omit no opportunity of lauding the half Chartist Member for Oldham, or of having a slap at the whole Chartist Member for Nottingham... I am not the wholesale eulogist of the Member for Oldham, anymore than I am the wholesale censor of Mr O'Connor. So far from being disinclined to praise Mr O'Connor I wish I could always praise him, as he exercises great influence over the working classes... My lecture on "Imperial Chartism" which has excited the suspicion of the Northern Star, is an argument against physical force reformation on the three-fold ground of Morality, Policy and Progress. In what respect do I differ from Mr O'Connor?...I will take this opportunity of repeating that personally I have great respect for Mr O'Connor. He has displayed more energy than all the Chartist politicians put together... yet I must be permitted to dissent from that incoherence and injustice of diatribe which is hurled at all who question his infallibility or differ from his opinions."
(7) Keith Flett, Chartism After 1848 (2006)
The nub of Holyoake's scheme was that the "intelligent operative"; "by virtue of his intelligence" should be admitted to the franchise. This, of course, raised the question of how "intelligence" was to be proved. Holyoake had worked out a detailed scheme for this. He suggested that a test could be conducted around books such as Brougham's "Political Philosophy" and the Dean of Hereford's "Lessons on Industrial Phenomena". All those prepared to declare that they had read these books would then be eligible to undergo a formal examination supervised by the Society of Arts. This would consist of three evenings. On the first two, lecturers would explain the contents of the books and questions would be taken. On the third evening potential voters would be required to answer "verbally or otherwise" from three to six questions out of twelve. Those who successfully did so would receive a certificate which would give them eligibility to vote.
The test proposal appears, and no doubt appeared to many radical workers at the time, to be somewhat forbidding. However, in a sense the issue was not the severity of the test but the very possibility of its existence. Holyoake simply noted that "Probably a Majority of those who now actively seek the franchise would be content with it when they knew they could get it." In his Daily News article Holyoake was concerned specifically with the mechanism, the franchise of fitness, whereby he could extend the suffrage. However, in a series of open letters to Lord John Russell, published at the same time under the title The Workman and the Suffrage, Holyoake expanded on the reasons for his advocacy of the educational test. Holyoake was a constituent of Russell and, on obtaining the vote in 1857, had given it to Russell at the following election.
In his first letter Holyoake quoted from an article "Reform in Parliament" which had been published in the Westminster Review of 1 January 1859. The article suggested that "the real problem of which no real solution has perhaps yet been published is by what enactment can skilled artisans be admitted to vote without swamping them and us by an unintelligent mass whether of peasants or of town population?" This was undoubtedly the implicit theory behind Holyoake's proposals on the franchise, but he, of course, was very careful not to state so clearly or openly who he thought should be included or excluded from the suffrage. Indeed, at the beginning of his second letter, Holyoake simply noted that what is wanted is an expansive suffrage which shall be open to the worthy and shut out the unfit...
Who exactly the "extreme sections" were that Holyoake claimed to be speaking for remains unclear. They were not necessarily Chartists and indeed much of Holyoake's earlier position on universal adult suffrage can be seen in the statement. There is no evidence that the demand for colonial representatives in parliament was ever raised directly although, of course, it is entirely possible that it was an idea in common currency amongst radicals who were much exercised by issues of international politics. The general tactical purpose of the statement is clear. Holyoake held himself out as a model of reasonableness compared to the "extreme sections" but implied that, were his measure to be accepted, he had the power to persuade these sections to acquiesce in it.
Above all for Holyoake the issue of the franchise based on fitness was a question of balance. On the one hand he had to reassure the middle classes that an extension of the suffrage would be useful and would have the support even of the"`extreme sections". On the other, he had to sell the franchise to radicals as an idea fully in line with radical thought. For this latter reason he went on to discuss the "advantages of the kind of self-acquired suffrage I would suggest". The concept of self-acquisition focused on the franchise as something that radicals could win for themselves, rather than being conceded from above by the State. Holyoake provided numerous reasons in support of his scheme. He began by facing the issue of what the radical "extremes" would say about the measure. His first reason, therefore, was that "all demagogues, advocates and agitators would accept it because they are all in favour of popular knowledge." He followed this with the point that "all persons and partisans likely to give the government trouble if excluded would be satisfied with the opportunity of an intelligence franchise, cease agitating in a discontented spirit and commence to study and qualify themselves". Holyoake here gambled that the possibility of a stake inside the system which the franchise offered would reduce the appeal of opposing the system from the outside.
He then moved on to look at more specifically educational reasons for the franchise. He felt that "teachers instructors, lecturers and clergy of all denominations" would "probably be in favour" because it would provide a recognition of their efforts in the field of popular education. At the same time Holyoake noted that it would give political importance to educational mechanisms such as Mechanics' institutions, Working Mens' Colleges and improvement classes.
Finally, Holyoake returned to his earlier arguments. The franchise would, he suggested, "shut out the mob" without offence. It would be a select franchise without insulting exclusiveness... properly could not be endangered by it, hereditary timidity need not be afraid of it. This was Holyoake's message to the middle class namely that his franchise would certainly not threaten their current position and, indeed, might on balance strengthen it. To reinforce the point further, he noted that "There is hardly any probability with the widest extension of the franchise that any working man would be elected this generation". Once such statements are considered it becomes easier to see why radicals like Adams were prepared to attack Holyoake so forcefully and why, correspondingly, Holyoake began to find favour with advanced liberals.
Holyoake himself agreed in his Daily News article that his franchise was aimed at "an intelligent portion" of "the people". Who were these people? Holyoake suggested that they consisted of all those who work for a weekly wage while he noted that Bright referred to those who "dwelt in a cottage". Holyoake had gone a long way towards radical liberalism in his proposals on the suffrage. Even so, he remained more radical than the most radical of the liberal leaders such as Bright and Mill. It was in this context that two weeks later, on 7 March 1860, Holyoake reviewed Adams's pamphlet. It was not, of course, an argument that Mill or Bright would have engaged themselves in. He declared that it was "thoughtful, well written". Holyoake argued that Adams had confused his desire to move towards manhood suffrage, with the aid of an educational franchise, as an attempt to replace manhood suffrage with an educational test. Holyoake resented this suggestion and noted instead that Adams appeared to "sneer at education". Holyoake argued that "deep and wide cultivation is still the glory and the best security of public liberty."
(8) George Holyoake, letter to the Westminster Review (1st January, 1859)
My reason for thinking some such arrangement as this would be acceptable to the people generally is that it would be unsatisfactory to extreme sections on whose behalf I write who go farther than any other party in politics. To them the "six points of the charter" seem tame and restricted. They hold principles of democracy which imply that womanhood as well as manhood is included in humanity. They would not stop at the establishment of the aristocracy of men (which is all that the charter proposes) as the final effort of political justice. They admit the reasonableness of women being ultimately admitted to some direct voice in the affairs of the state. They do not see why parliament should not include colonial representatives... But they are not so mad as they seem: while they would advocate the principle they think intrinsically right they would go with the strongest party likely to carry the most practical measure in that direction - holding that conviction is not honesty but obstinacy when it becomes an obstruction and that it is fanaticism when it refuses instalments of its own truth.