The 19th century saw a ferment among working class radicals around freedom from religion and ‘freethinking’. Throughout the Victorian age, religion was a dominant force in the lives of the vast majority of the UK population. The Church of England exerted a powerful influence; the parson dominated the village. Until 1836 parsons received a tithe from residents of the parish. Social life for millions of people revolved around choir and Sunday School outings; employers insisted that their employees go to church and sacked those that didn’t, or would only hire orthodox believers. Most people were members of the Anglican or Presbyterian Church, although there were some Catholics and increasing numbers of Non-conformists, Quakers and Methodists. Until 1829, anybody holding public office had to make a public oath denying Catholic doctrines, which meant that Catholics could not be civil servants, Justices of the Peace or judges. No university would even admit a non-Anglican, let alone a non-believer.
On the one hand, religious ‘revivalism’ was massive – John Wesley’s Methodist Church and other newer strands of protestantism attracted many among the exploding urban centres, where millions dislocated by industrialisation were ripe for conversion…
On the other hand, doubt and questioning were filtering through society. The industrial revolution had broken numerous bonds that bound classes together, and a ferment of political and social subversion was spreading, especially among working class people radicalised by the naked exploitation of capitalism in its most voracious phrase. Belief in a supreme being was on the wane, particularly where people were already questioning belief in supremacy of the powers above them on earth…
A provocative and courageous tradition runs through the nineteenth century, influenced by Thomas Paine, but finding a solid focus around Richard Carlile, and from him spiralling out through the unstamped press agitation, cross-fertilising and feeding into the Owenite co-operative movement and the political movements it helped to germinate. Carlile’s bookshops around Fleet Street, and the lectures that took place at his Rotunda in Blackfriars Road (early on featuring the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’, Robert Taylor) were hugely influential in spreading the questioning of religion… Carlile acted as mentor to other ‘blasphemous’ writers and speakers, including the pioneering female secularist Eliza Sharples, who herself helped to form the ideas of the later titan of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh. As Chartism waned and economic prosperity led to a (temporary) decline in the movement for political reform, many old Chartists and radicals formed the backbone of a network of working men’s clubs, sprouting through the 1860s-70s, dedicated to discussion of ideas, self-education, through lectures, debate, sharing of publications and spreading knowledge. Many were infused with ideas from the co-operative and early trade union movements; motivating ideas ranged from liberalism through to a class-conscious revolutionary proto-socialism. The clubs formed part of a transition from Chartism to a radical/liberal milieu from which the earliest recruits to Marxism and anarchism later emerged, (eg the Social Democratic Federation). And a vocal questioning of religion formed an important strand in this tradition.
Below we repost an article on the secularist movement in just one area of South East London, written by Terry Liddle, a long time socialist activist and writer on the history of secularism and radicalism. This kind of agitation was mirrored all around the capital and other cities, especially in the 1860s-1890s.
THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS
This is not a concise history. Rather it is a thumbnail sketch of secularism and related radicalisms in South London and nearby areas of North Kent in the 1870s. This was the period between the decline of Chartism as a national movement and the rise of socialism. It was also the period of a short but intense republican agitation triggered by the fall of Napoleon le petit and the restoration of a French Republic.
The area has a long radical tradition. A Chartist organisation was formed in Greenwich in the 1830s. In the 1840s mass Chartist rallies on Blackheath were addressed by Fergus O’Connor and in the 1850s Chartist activities in the area were regularly reported in Deptford man George Harney‘s Red Republican.
As Chartism declined, many Chartists, freethinkers already, moved into secularism. (Note 1) The first secular society was formed in 1854 by Augustus Dinmore, a rope maker and Advanced Liberal. And in 1865 Le Lubez formed the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society (DGSS) to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed. In the 1860s the Deptford United Irishmen held a march in support of the Fenians while Woolwich and Plumstead secularists held a tea party and soiree to celebrate Thomas Paine. In March 1870 a Mr Babbs called on members of DGSS to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed.
In 1873 a branch of the First International was formed in Woolwich, its secretary was H. Maddox. It stopped German workers scabbing on a strike by engineers at the Siemens factory.
By 1871 the National Reformer, a weekly edited by Charles Bradlaugh had a number of agents in Deptford including a Mr Laverick in Friendly Street. It also had three agents in Woolwich including one near the Dockyard gate. That year John Joseph of Woolwich was listed as an active member of the National Secular Society. 2
At a meeting held in March of that year G. French of 6, Naval Place, Amersham Vale, New Cross, was elected secretary. At the meeting there followed an “animated conversation” on PA Taylor opposing the dowry of Princess Louise. 3
In May of that year the Southwark Republican Club, secretary Belliston, held a public meeting. 4
In June 1871 the Greenwich Advanced Liberal Association (GALA) issued an invitation to a conference to be held in October to members of the Radical Party in and out of Parliament. The secretary was T S Floyd of East Street Greenwich. 5
The GALA, formed in 1869 at a public meeting of 500, wanted independent working class representation in Parliament, and so found itself in conflict with mainstream liberalism. A leading member the secularist William McCurly stated : “It was now time for the working classes to think for themselves and manage their own affairs.” Another leading secularist was E W Balbin who secretary of the Greenwich Reform League which agitated for the vote for adult male workers. In the Beehive of April 14, 1865 he wrote “Numbers of slaves (slaves of capital) and hungry bellies are the millionaires joy.”
Following a local agitation in support of farm labourers, members of GALA formed the Deptford Radical Association.
At the time the main form of propaganda was the open air public meeting. The Greenwich and Deptford secularists held these at Deptford Broadway. The National Reformer reported that on June 18, 1871 Mr Antill had spoken, giving his reasons why the gospel should be rejected. In July that year at a meeting in the Duke of Cambridge, Deptford High Street, a Mr Bishop lectured the Advanced Liberal Association on taxation and expenditure. 6 Also in July Mr Wade lectured on the Broadway on Republicanism and the Bible. The following Sunday at 7pm on Blackheath Mr Mesh lectured on the atonement. In August Mr Bishop was speaking on prophecies of the Bible. “There was a deal of opposition at the close”. 7
On August 28, 1871 Charles Bradlaugh spoke in Deptford Town Hall on the impeachment of the house of Brunswick, the title of his Republican pamphlet.“The lecture was loudly cheered at the close.” The following Sunday Robert Forder was speaking on the Broadway on gentlemen of the Bible. 8
In September Thomas Motteshead was speaking to South London Secular Society on the Commune and its mission. 9
By now the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society was holding three open air meetings on Sundays at Deptford, Blackheath and Woolwich. Subjects included Dr Bate on the prophets, Kirby on moral evidence of Christianity and Forder on external evidence of the existence of Jesus. At the conference of the National Secular Society, G. French was elected a member of the council.
In January 1872 several members journeyed to Northfleet where they met the secular friends of that neighbourhood. The owner of the Royal Charlotte Music Hall had put a room holding 150 for a meeting. Soon after a Northfleet Republican Club was formed. 10
The National Reformer of May 26, 1872 reported a meeting in Camberwell of the Universal Republican League where ‘Citizen Chatterton’ spoke on ‘land and money lords’. Could this have been Dan Chatterton whose paper Chatterton’s Commune was filled with his Chartist memoirs and challenges to the clergy, usually not accepted, to debate?
Camberwell Republican meetings were held on Sunday morning in Church Street and in the evenings in the Rose and Crown in Acorn Street. 11
In July at a meeting of the Advanced Liberal Association Thomas Mooney lectured on the structure of the Swiss and American Republics. In Camberwell a Mr McAra was speaking on the necessity of the direct representation of the working class in parliament. 12
At meetings of the Kent Secular Union W Ramsey spoke in Rochester in the afternoon on ‘Hell and damnation’ and that evening in Chatharn on ‘God’s chosen people’. These were followed by meetings in Chatham where G W Foote spoke on Cromwell and John De Morgan spoke on the International. 13
By January, 1873 the National Reformer had two agents in Greenwich, three in Deptford, and one each in Plumstead and New Cross Gate.
On March 23 a Mr Riddle spoke to the Camberwell Discussion Society on land nationalisation and the following week G W Foote spoke to South London Secular Society on Napoleon. 14
At the Republican conference held in Birmingham on May 12 Le Lubez represented Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society. At a meeting of this body to be held in the Lecture Hall, Deptford the speaker was to be Harriet Law.
Come 1874 the National Reformer was advertising meetings of Deptford Radical Association in the Duke of Cambridge. At a meeting of the South London Secular Society held on January 11 a Mr Wood spoke on ‘was Christ an historical figure’.
In the spring of that year meetings continued on Deptford Broadway. Mr Hale spoke on the teachings of Christ to a “numerous and attentive audience”. Forder spoke on the improbability of the gospel history. 15
On June 14 1874, the Secularist Mr Antill visited Blackheath to find a temperance advocate holding forth. Antill suggested Jesus had manufactured wine at a wedding and a considerable debate followed in which Antill set out “at some length his objections to Christianity.” 16
In June a conference of Kentish Freethinkers was held in Northfleet, people travelling by river boat from Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. There followed a tea at 5pm. 17
In August the South London Secular Society had debated spiritualism. A Mr Law denounced spiritualism and called on the audience not to put any credence on a system so palpably absurd and ridiculous. 18
By September a Woolwich Freethought Association had been formed and a member of the Corresponding Council of the NSS was duly appointed for Woolwich. “The Freethinkers of Woolwich, Plumstead and Chariton are now organised and there is every probability of a strong society being the result.” Information could be had from R. Forder at 36 Taylor Street, Woolwich. 19
Bradlaugh spoke in Woolwich on ‘is the Bible true?’. “Judging from the repeated cheers of a crowded audience and the weakness of the replies of three opponents, the answer was a decided negative.”
This was followed on October 13 by Mrs Law lecturing on ‘is the Bible a good book?’
In the Lecture Hall in Nelson Street, Greenwich M McSweeny had lectured on ‘heathen mythology, the basis of Jewish and Christian theology’. 20
Forder was elected secretary of the new group, J. Sinclair its president and a Mr Roberts its treasurer. It had members over the river in North Woolwich and Silvertown as well as in Woolwich and Charlton. 21
The Kingston and Surbiton Progressive Society had lectures on phrenology, the Bible and science not in harmony, and GW Foote on the “impeachment of Christianity at the bar of history” The secretary, T Edwards, spoke on ‘why I reject Christianity’. At meetings in Kingston the National Reformer was on sale alongside the Secular Chronicle and Republican Chronicle. In May 6 a tea party attended by 45 people was held “Mr Godfrey presided most admirably on the pianoforte”. 22
On April 4, 1875 Mrs Besant lectured in Powis Street, Woolwich on civil and religious liberty. Several soldiers attended in uniform. “The lecture was admirably delivered and excited great enthusiasm.” 23 On June 1 Bradlaugh lectured in Woolwich on the French Revolution. Local freethinkers agreed to form a branch of the NSS, which would be represented on the NSS Council by Robert Forder. Bradlaugh returned on June 19 to lecture on ‘Washington and Cromwell’ and on September 5 was speaking in Deptford Lecture Hall on the limits of human thought. 24
The secularists now came under attack in the local press. The Kentish Mercury published an article signed “a friend of the working class” accused them of “flaunting their atheism” and complained that people who brought their children to listen to temperance and religious speakers were upset by this. Three weeks later an article signed “a Christian” attacked a lecture by Mrs Law on ‘how I became freethinker and why I remain one’ delivered in Woolwich on September 21. 25
The Deptford Broadway meetings now encountered considerable opposition, speakers having to be taken by the police to the station to escape the mob. The secularists rallied to defend their pitch and peace was soon restored.
All was not doom and gloom. After a meeting to arrange a lecture by Mrs Besant, Mr E J Lee entertained members by submitting for their examination various interesting objects through his very powerful microscope. Mrs Besant “lectured on the marriage question on a wet net night to an audience of 250.” 26
The next week Bradlaugh spoke on ‘is the Bible a revelation from God?’.
Open air meetings continued on the Broadway and on Blackheath. Forder had been arrested for allegedly destroying fences in a protest at attempts to enclose Plumstead Common. The demonstrations had been led by John De Morgan a veteran Republican, anti-vaccinationist and member of the Magna Carta Association, who had been brought to Plumstead by a young solicitor Edmund Kimble. In 1876 Dilke, an apostate Republican, had raised the issue of Plumstead Common in Parliament. De Morgan and Forder were to have a very acrimonious fallout, which ended in a highly disorderly meeting in a Plumstead pub. Matters were not helped by De Morgan having been a stern opponent of Bradlaugh in the Republican movement. 27
Forder who worked in Woolwich Arsenal in the shell foundry was described as an “intelligent mechanic with extreme views ill fitting with the views of society at large” (W T Vincent, The Records of the Woolwich District, Vol 11, 1887). He was associated with the Advanced Liberals. Eventually, he was brought to trial in Maidstone charged with riotous assembly and malicious damage. Robert Martin, treasurer of the Forder defence fund which raised £46, and Le Lubez were defence witnesses. Forder was acquited while De Morgan was imprisoned for a month with a £50 fine or a further month. 28 Despite collections in the Arsenal, he was determined to stay in prison.
However, he was released after 17 days and returned to Woolwich where he addressed a crowd of over 20,000. Elected to the Leeds School Board in 1879, he failed to win the Liberal nomination in a by- election and emigrated to America. 29
Forder continued his career as a secularist speaker addressing meetings all over London. For example, he spoke on signs of the zodiac to South London Secular Society and to Walworth Association of Freethinkers on early witnesses to Christianity and their opinions. 30 He was also an auditor for the NSS and involved in the London Secular Tract Society which published several thousand pamphlets. Some meetings were held in the newly opened Deptford Secular Institute on Union Street. “Our hall is well filled every Sunday evening” reported Reynolds News (December 10, 1876) Christian hecklers who were thrown out were not readmitted. On Christmas Eve George Stranding spoke there on the French Revolution.
By 1878 Forder is listed as a member of the education committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. The RACS maintained reading rooms at its branches and moving in a socialist direction began to take such papers as Workman’s Times, Clarion and Labour Leader. In 1886 a branch of the Social Democratic Federation was formed in Deptford and slightly later Robert Banner formed branches of the Socialist League and then the ILP in Woolwich. Woolwich and Deptford were the first two constituencies in South London to elect Labour MPs.
This is not the end, rather it is only the beginning of a much larger study. It is hoped it will encourage readers to undertake studies of secularism in their areas.
This article was originally published in the Journal of Freethought History, bulletin of the Freethought History Research Group, no 1, Vol 1, 2003. They produced some fascinating glimpses into the history of secularists, atheists and freethinkers…
REFERENCES TO ‘THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS’
1 . Geoffrey Crossik, An Artisan Elite in London, Croom Helm, London, 1978.
2 . National Reformer, 1/8/1871
3 . National Reformer, 5/3/1871
4 . National Reformer, 12/5/1871
5 . National Reformer, 4/6/1871
6 . National Reformer, 16/6/1871
7 . National Reformer, 13/8/1871
8 . National Reformer, 3/9/1871
9 . National Reformer, 10/9/1871
10. National Reformer, 21/1/1872
11. National Reformer, 26/5/1872
12. National Reformer, 7/7/1872
13. National Reformer, 15/9/1872, 23/10/1872
14. National Reformer, 30/3/1873
15. National Reformer, 5/4/1874
16. National Reformer, 14/6/1874
17. National Reformer, 21/6/1874
18. National Reformer, 2/8/1874
19 . National Reformer, 6/9/1874
20. National Reformer, 23/10/1874
21. National Reformer, 6/12/1874, 10/1/1876, 16/5/1876
22. National Reformer, 16/5/1875
23. National Reformer, 7/7/1875
24. National Reformer, 5/4/1875
25. Kentish Mercury, 4/9/1875, 25/9/1875
26. National Reformer, 27/2/1876
27. Sylvester St Clair, Sketch of the Life and Labour of John De Morgan, Orator, Elocutionist and Tribune of the People, Leeds, 1880.
28. National Reformer, 29/10/1876
29 . Leeds Times, 17/4/1880
30. National Reformer, 12/11/1876
Terry Liddle, who originally wrote the above, died in 2012, after many decades of involvement in socialist, anarchist, green and secularist politics (among much more!)
There’s a couple of obituaries of Terry, here
and here’s a short notice which includes Terry’s self-penned ‘Death Song’:
Although Terry’s account above is fairly dry and factual – the street meetings he briefly mentions must have often been quite lively affairs. Secularist street speaking often took place on or around local ‘speakers corners’, use of which developed over decades. These local speaking pitches were often crowded or contested – with local churches, religious groups, evangelical cults as well as radicals, socialists, liberals and any amount of other factions vying for space and fighting to be heard. The term ‘marketplace of ideology’ is literally accurate in many cases, as speakers corners were sometimes on the edge of local markets; others on open spaces, or on the high street. Christians, cops and various authorities took a dim view of these godless plebs articulating dangerous and subversive ideas, and secularists often faced harassment, a tussle over speaking pitches, and sometimes arrest. Bystanders might come to listen, hackle, or just to enjoy what disorder might arise…
But the secularists formed the shock troops of a process that was taking place at various levels of society, a long, slow dissolution of the deadening and suffocating influence christianity had over people. The undermining, questioning and debate that secularists and radical clubs hosted and took part in in the latter half of the 19th century helped push an already tottering edifice into collapse…