Spotlight on London’s radicals: The Deptford Infidels

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.

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THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS
Terry Liddle

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

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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

here

and here’s a short notice which includes Terry’s self-penned ‘Death Song’:

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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…

Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London secular history: GW Foote, WJ Ramsay and Henry Kempe tried for blasphemy, 1883.

George William Foote was born in Plymouth, England on 11 January 1850. In his youth he became a freethinker through reading and independent thought. When he came to London in 1868 he joined the freethought organisations that were flourishing at the time.

In his Reminiscences of Charles Bradlaugh he recalls coming to London in January 1868 with “plenty of health and very little religion”. He was taken to Cleveland Hall by a friend, and “heard Mrs. [Harriet] Law knock the Bible about delightfully. She was not what would be called a woman of culture, but she had what some devotees of ‘culchaw’ do not posses—a great deal of natural ability…” A few weeks later Foote heard Charles Bradlaugh speaking at the hall, and joined the secularist movement.

Foote was soon lecturing at freethought meetings. Charles Bradlaugh, then the leader of the secularist movement, soon recognised Foote’s abilities and allowed him to play an increasingly important role in the British freeethought movement. Foote contributed many articles to Bradlaugh’s National Reformer and in 1876 founded his own magazine, The Secularist.

In 1877 Foote joined the anti-Bradlaughites in the breakaway British Secular Union. The split was caused by several factors: Bradlaugh’s alleged autocratic style; Bradlaugh’s association with Annie Besant; and Bradlaugh and Besant’s involvement in promoting birth control and Neo-Malthusianism. The BSU was however relatively short-lived, and Foote himself was reconciled to Bradlaugh within a few years, becoming an NSS vice-president from 1882.

The Secularist: A Liberal Weekly Review (1876-1877), Foote’s first attempt to launch his own publication, in collaboration with George Jacob Holyoake, did not last long. In May, 1881, Foote started a serial publication called The Freethinker, which is still published today.

He set out his stall in the first issue: “The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular”.

His primary weapons were parody and satire. From an early stage he introduced a weekly Bible cartoon which was particularly hard-hitting and incensed the religious. Such tactics seemed popular because although The Freethinker was launched as a monthly it was soon being printed each week.

In 1882 Foote was charged with blasphemy for having published a number of biblical cartoons in The Freethinker. These had been modelled after a series of French cartoons that had appeared earlier.

Two blasphemy prosecutions were brought, against the issues of 28 May 1882 (in which a cartoon of The Martyrdom of St. Labre and had proved particularly controversial) and the special Christmas number that year.

After a series of trials, beginning on February 26th 1883, (which continued for several hearings over a number of weeks) Foote was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment by Justice North, a Catholic judge. (“The sentence is worthy of your creed,” Foote responded.)  The Freethinker carried the banner headline “Prosecuted for Blasphemy” during this period, probably increasing its sales.

As a result of contents of this journal, Foote was charged with blasphemy, and eventually imprisoned for one year with hard labour. On receiving his sentence from Mr Justice North (a devout Catholic), Foote said “with great deliberation” to the Judge “My Lord, I thank you; it is worthy of your creed”
His description of this experience was published in 1886 as Prisoner for Blasphemy.

Here’s an account of the initial blasphemy trial on February 26th, from the Old Bailey Ordinary’s Account:

“GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, WILLIAM JAMES RAMSAY , and HENRY ARTHUR KEMP, Unlawfully printing and publishing certain blasphemous libels. (See page 557.)

SIR HARDINGE S. GIFFARD, Q. C., with MESSRS. POLAND and LITTLETON Prosecuted; MR. CLUER appeared for Foote and Ramsay (only to argue any legal points); MR. HORACE AVORY for Kemp.

Before the defendants were given in charge MR. CLUER applied that the indictment might be quashed, on the ground that it was bad, in charging the three defendants together with committing one offence, whereas in fact the offence alleged was distinct in each; that it was contrary to the usual course, and that it prevented each from being a witness for the others. He relied principally on the case of Reg. v. Bolton and Parke, 12 Cox, p. 87, and also on Reg. v. Tucker, 4 Burrows, 2046, reported in Archbold, p. 47.

  1. JUSTICE NORTH could not accede to the application; the present offence was one in respect of which the defendants might very properly be jointly charged, without being prejudiced by being so charged.

FREDERICK GEORGE FRAYLING . I am a clerk in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions—I produce his allowance for this prosecution, under the Statute, signed by him (read).

ROBERT SAGAR . I am an officer in the Detective Department of the City Police—on 16th December last I went to the shop, 28, Stonecutter Street, Farringdon Street, City—it is an ordinary bookseller’s shop—

“The Freethinker” was over the shop facia—I went in and purchased two copies of the Christmas number of the Freethinker—the defendant Kemp was serving—I paid him 6d. for the two numbers—these produced (marked A and B) are the numbers—I went to the shop again on 20th January and purchased two more numbers of Kemp, for which I paid him 6d.—on 31st January I went again to the shop and saw him behind the counter serving—I produce two certificates of the registration of the Freethinker. (The first was dated 2nd August, 1882, presented for registration by H.A. Kemp, 15, Harp Alley, Farringdon Street, proprietor; W. J. Ramsay, publisher, 20, Brownlow Street, Dalston; printer and publisher, H.A. Kemp. The second was dated 7th February, 1883; proprietor, G.W. Foote, 28, Stonecutter Street, journalist, residing at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, The Christmas number of the Freethinker (A) was put in, on the front page of which the name “G. W. Foote” appeared as editor; at the back, “Printed and published by H A. Kemp, 28, Stonecutter Street,” &c. &c. Among a list of Foote’s publications appeared “Blasphemy no Crime: the whole question fully treated, with special reference to the prosecution of the Freethinker.”

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. 28, Stonecutter Street is an ordinary bookseller’s shop—there were many other publications of different kinds there—I did not give any idea of what purpose I wanted these things for either on the first or subsequent occasions.

Cross-examined by Foote. I had instructions from my superior, Detective Inspector McWilliam, to purchase the two numbers on the 16th December—I paid for them out of my own pocket—no one has repaid me yet; I expect to be repaid—the same gentleman sent me to make the second purchase—he did not give me the money—I had not been paid for them—I have had money for travelling expenses and serving subpoenas—I expect to be refunded for those two copies—I suppose the money will come from the City Solicitor, Sir Thomas Nelson, who is now in Court—I did not see you in the shop when I purchased the first two copies; I saw you in the shop after I purchased the second two copies, but not when I purchased them.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. You spoke to me about this case once or twice when I have seen you—I remember your remarking that the City were expending plenty of money in engaging Sir Hardinge Giffard, who would not come without a heavy fee—I don’t remember saying that the City had plenty of money and would not spare it; I don’t recollect it, I might have said so.

Re-examined. I was acting in this matter under Mr. McWilliam’s instructions—I saw a pile of these things in the shop—it was on 20th January, after I had purchased the second copies, that I saw Mr. Foote in the shop.

JOHN LOWE . I am collector of rates for the parish of St. Bride—28, Stonecutter Street is in that parish—I produce my rate-book, showing a rate dated 5th October last year—on 7th November last year I received this cheque for 2l. 1s. 3d. in respect of that rated house; it purports to be signed W.J. Ramsay—I paid it into my bankers and it has been credited to my account.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. The names on the rate-book were Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant—the same names are still there.

Re-examined. The persons rated are the occupiers—I received this cheque for that particular October rate; it was made for six months—the usual demand note was sent in—the 2l. 1s. 3d. was for the rate up to the end of March—when I get notice of a change of occupation I alter the rate-book.

WILLIAM JOHN NORRISH . I live at 20, Fowler Street, Camberwell Grove—I formerly lived at 28, Stonecutter Street, Farringdon Street, for about five years; it was the shop of the Freethought Publishing Company—at the commencement of October last that company was removed to Fleet Street—they vacated at the Michaelmas quarter—I was in the service of Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Annie Besant; they represented the Freethought Publishing Company—up to that time Mr. Ramsay had been the manager of that company, and he was from day to day at the shop 28, Stonecutter Street—the Freethinker was sold there, but not by the Freethought Publishing Company—I decline to answer whether I used to sell it, or whether I have seen it sold in the shop, in case it might lead to a criminal information against me—I was not employed at all by Mr. Ramsay—I ceased to live at 28, Stonecutter Street when the Freethought Publishing Company removed to Fleet Street—I know Mr. Foote, he called in occasionally at Stonecutter Street when I was living there—if Mr. Ramsay and I were there he has seen us—Mr. Ramsay would be there at times attending to the business—I did not know where Mr. Foote lived—I know Mr. Kemp slightly—I don’t know what he is by trade—I believe this cheque to be in the handwriting of Mr. Ramsay; I have no doubt of it—I should say this was his writing. (The name and address in the bank-book.) I should say the filling up of these registration forms are his writing—I am not sufficiently acquainted with Mr. Kemp’s handwriting to speak to it—I have known him eighteen months or two years—I meet him occasionally—this “H. A. Kemp, 15, Harp Alley, Farringdon Street,” on this second registration form may be his, I can’t say for certain, to the best of my belief it is.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. I was at Stonecutter Street as a weekly servant to the Freethought Publishing Company at a weekly salary—I simply acted as shopman, under orders in everything I did—there was no facility there for printing—no printing was done there.

Cross-examined by Foote. I have seen you at Stonecutter Street only occasionally—the Freethinker had been sold there for some considerable time before I shifted into the employment of the Freethought Publishing Company—I did not see you often there during the period it was so sold—I never saw you transact any business there; I had no reason whatever to suppose that you transacted business there.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. You were manager of the Freethought Publishing Company up to the time they left Stonecutter Street, and when they shifted to Fleet Street—you are manager there still—you removed to Fleet Street in consequence of requiring larger premises—you were not entirely employed at Fleet Street in managing the business of the company.

Re-examined. When Mr. Foote came to Stonecutter Street I fancy he would sometimes visit my own apartments—Mr. Ramsay would sometimes be in the shop, and sometimes in the other parts of the house.

JAMES BARBER . I am Assistant-Registrar in the Newspaper Registration Office, Somerset House—I produce the original registers of the proprietors of the Freethinker under the statute—this one of 7th February, 1883, was made in my presence by Mr. Foote and Mr. Ramsay together; they were both present—Mr. Foote wrote it; it is all the same writing; I saw him write it.

WILLIAM OLDHAMPSTEAD (City Detective). I know the shop 28, Stonecutter Street, and I know the present office of the Freethought Publishing Company in Fleet Street; they are not more than five minutes’ walk apart—on 16th February I purchased this weekly number of the Free-thinker, dated 18th February, at 28, Stonecutter Street, of defendant Kemp—I made a note of the date at the time I bought it—it is a Sunday newspaper; you can get them on the Thursday, dated up to the Sunday following. (This stated that the Christmas number of the Freethinker had had an unprecedented sale, that they had spent lavishly on the Christmas number in order to carry their views far and wide, and were out of pocket by it.) I served a notice to produce, of which this is a copy, on the defendant Foote, by leaving it at No. 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, on 27th February—at that time he had been admitted to bail by the Lord Mayor.

Cross-examined by Foote. I left the notice with the servant, Mary Finter, I did not see you at the time—I have been buying some numbers of the papers; I was told to do so by my inspector, Mr. McWilliam—he did not give me the money to purchase them, I don’t expect that he will; I expect to be repaid by the City Solicitor.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. I have no idea where the funds for this prosecution are coming from, no further than from the City Solicitor—I cannot say whether he is finding it out of his own pocket, I have no idea.

SARAH CURLE . I am the wife of Alfred Curle, and live at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square—Mr. Foote has lodged with me about three years—my servant, Mary Finter, waits on him—I occasionally go into his room, very seldom—he has lived there down to the present time, and does so still—I could not swear that I have seen the Christmas number of the Freethinker in his room, I do not notice any particular book in his room—I may have seen it—I could not swear if I have seen a number of the Freethinker without the yellow cover; I have seen divers coloured books there; I could not swear to one book in particular—I have seen this cover, or the colour of it, not containing a number of the Freethinker to my knowlenge—I may have seen copies of the Freethinker in his room, I have no doubt that I have—I could not swear to one in particular; I never examined any books in his room.

MARY FINTER . I am in the service of Mrs. Curle at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, and have been for fifteen months; during that time Mr. Foote has lodged there—I used to wait upon him and do his rooms—I have not seen the Christmas number of the Freethinker in his room. (MR. POLAND, in accordance with the notice to produce, called for the production of all letters and papers addressed to Foote relating to the Freethinker, and all letters and envelopes describing him as the editor of the Freethinker.

  1. CLUER objected that the notice was not sufficient in itself and that the service of it was too late, and was not proved to have reached the defendant. MR. JUSTICE NORTH did not think the service proved was sufficient.) The defendant was living at this address last week—I can’t say that he slept there every night—he was there every day—when papers are left for him I take them up and put them in his room—I remember Oldhampstead giving me a paper last week—I took it up into Mr. Foote’s room—he slept at the house on the Wednesday night before the trial last week—I put the paper in his room directly it was given to me about half-past 5 in the afternoon—I don’t think he slept in the house on the Tuesday night. (MR. CLUER still objected to the evidence, butMR. JUSTICE NORTH considered it was now admissible, the witness being the person who waited upon him, and it not appearing that he had a Separate servant of his own.) There is a letter-box to the house—I generally take out the letters in the morning—letters addressed to Mr. Foote I put on the hall table—his rooms are at the top of the house, the third floor—some of the letters were addressed to Mr. G.W. Foote, 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, very seldom as editor of the Freethinker; some were, but very seldom; I have only seen letters addressed to him in that way since the first trial.

Cross-examined by Foote. I cannot say that I have seen more than one copy of the Christmas number of the Freethinker in your room, I don’t believe I have—I see papers of all shapes and all colours in your room—I never saw an envelope with the words “Editor of the Christmas number of the Freethinker” on it—I could not say that I saw any envelope or letter addressed as editor of the Freethinker between 16th November and 16th December—I have seen an envelope addressed “G. W. Foote, editor of the Freethinker,” but very seldom—I can’t say if I saw you between the time I received the notice paper and the following morning—you might have been there but I did not see you—I answer the door.

Re-examined. The lodgers have keys to let themselves in—Mr. Foote had a latch-key.

THOMAS WILLIAM JAMES ALFORD . I am a letter carrier—for the last eight years I have delivered letters at 9; South Crescent, Bedford Square—I have delivered letters there directed to G.W. Foote for the last year or two—some have been addressed G.W. Foote, Esq., editor of the Freethinker—I have here a memorandum which I made since Christmas—I can give no dates prior to that—I have seen letters so addressed before Christmas, I may say months before—I have also delivered newspapers so directed—I have delivered letters so addressed since Christmas, up to last Saturday week.

Cross-examined by Foote. I have no memorandum before Christmas—Oldhampstead served me with a subpoena—I had seen him before that—I had no conversation with him about this prosecution, not by himself, he called at our district post-office in Holborn, and I was called upstairs by the district postmaster, who asked me if I had had letters addressed to G.W. Foote, at 9, South Crescent—I don’t think he asked me if I had had letters addressed to the editor of the Freethinker—this interview took place about a month back—I had had no conversation with anybody about this prosecution before that—I was instructed by my superior officer to make a memorandum as to the delivery of letters about a month ago.

By the COURT. I have my memorandum book here—I made the first memorandum about 10th February.

THOMAS CAMPBELL . I am a letter-carrier, and live at 84, Gower Place, Gower Street—I have been in the habit of delivering letters at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square—I have been on duty there for 18 years—during the last year I have noticed how some of the letters I left there were addressed—some were addressed “G. W. Foote Esq., 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, some Mr. G.W. Foote, Editor of the Free-thinker, and some G.W. Foote Esq.—I noticed letters so addressed for several months past—I put them in the letter-box in the door—I remember on one occasion about three or four months ago, having a packet that was too big for the letter-box, and I rang the bell and gave it to the servant—that bore on it as part of the address “Editor of the Freethinker”—I don’t know whether it had Mr. Foote’s name on it or not.

Cross-examined by Foote. Since I saw the detective, Oldhampstead, I have made memorandums of the delivery of letters addressed to you—that was, I believe, on the 9th of last month; the first memorandum I took was on the 10th—I have often delivered letters addressed to the Editor of the Freethinker, but I can only recollect delivering one package, that was about three or four months ago, it might be longer—I cannot swear that I delivered any letter or package addressed to the Editor of the Freethinker between 16th November and 16th December; I should be surprised to learn I had not, because my belief is that I have delivered letters to you so addressed pretty well every week; I could not swear as to that interval—the 9th February was the first time I had any conversation on this subject—I have not been paid anything for coming here to-day—I expect to be paid my expenses, it has cost me 6s. a day to get off—I received half a crown on the night the subpoena was served, nothing else.

WILLIAM LOY (City Policeman 495). I know the three defendants—I last saw Kemp at 28, Stonecutter Street on Wednesday last, Foote on 16th February, and Ramsay on Tuesday or Wednesday last—I have seen Kemp there for some months, Foote for four or five months, and Ramsay for the last two years.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. I have seen Kemp behind the counter acting as shopman and serving the customers—I have been on duty at 6 a.m. and have seen the shop opened—I never saw Kemp open it—I have seen a boy close it several times—no one slept there—I have seen persons served with papers and books—it is four or five months since I first saw Kemp there.

Cross-examined by Foote. I have seen you there four or five times—the earliest day I can fix is January 21st, but I have seen you there for four or five months—I told the Magistrate four or five times; I may have said three or four—the last time was February 16th—I have not seen you transacting what looked like business, but I saw you go in and come out.

Cross-examined by Ramsey. A number of books and papers are sold there—I have seen you go in and out—Detective Sagar spoke to me three or four days before the first hearing, and said “Just take notice who you see going in and coming out of 28, Stonecutter Street”—he may have said that I was to take notice as to Ramsey going in and out, but I don’t remember, nor do I remember saying so before the Magistrate.

JOHN EDWARD KELLAND . I am a solicitor’s clerk, and live at 19, Peabody Square, Westminster—during the last year I have often been to 28, Stonecutter Street and bought the weekly numbers of the Freethinker—I have seen all three of the defendants there—I usually made the purchases of Ramsay up to July, when I gave evidence at the Mansion House against him and Foote and Charles Bradlaugh—all these numbers produced were bought of Ramsay and given in evidence, and attention was called to the fact that they are edited by G.W. Foote, and also to the fact of the heading for literary correspondence to be forward to the editor; and the statement at the end “Printed and published by W.J. Ramsay, 28, Stonecutter Street”—the first date of these is 24th March, 1882, and the last 18th June, 1882; some numbers are missing—after July I bought various other numbers there, most of them of Kemp—they run on every week, and early in December the Christmas number of the Freethinker is advertised—the earliest one is December 3rd: “Ready next week, the Christmas number of the Freethinker “—at the end of that here is “Printed and published by H. A. Kemp, 28, Stonecutter Street”—they have all Foote’s name on them as editor, 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square—the number of Dec. 30 has the advertisement of the Christmas number, “now ready”—I saw Foote at 28, Stonecutter Street, on 28th February, not before.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. I can’t say the earliest date I saw Foote there, but it was after the first prosecution at the Mansion House—my first purchase of Kemp was before the prosecution—I was conducting the prosecution in July and am now—I also asked Kemp for the National Reformer—I saw a number of other books and publications there.

Cross-examined by Foote. I did not buy this Christmas number in your presence—these numbers of the Freethinker have been in the custody of the solicitor for the prosecution—this is my signature on them; I put it on at the time of the purchase, not at the shop, but in the office—I am clerk to Messrs. Batten; they are solicitors to Sir Henry Tyler—the firm gave me the money to buy these numbers—I don’t know whether Sir Henry Tyler pays for them—my employers did not tender them to Mr. Poland; I was subpeonaed to produce them—Sir Thomas Nelson may have written to the firm—I don’t know whether I shall get any extra payment for this case—I expect to be treated liberally.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. I bought the copies in July, chiefly of you—you were in the habit of serving behind the counter—I don’t think I have bought any of you since July.

Re-examined. My examination in July related to some of the weekly numbers—my depositions were taken and I signed them—I was called more than once, and my depositions were taken each time—in each case I attended on subpoena, which was served in the regular way, and I was asked to produce these numbers.

  1. CLUER submitted that there was no evidence against Ramsay on any of the counts. It was not proved that he was the proprietor after7th February, 1882, so as to connect him with the Christmas number.

The COURT considered that there was ample evidence of publication.

  1. CLUER further contended that the prosecution must elect against which of the defendants they would proceed, as they ought to have been separately charged; the defendants being charged jointly, the offence must be proved jointly, and no joint offence against the three defendants had been proved.
  2. JUSTICE NORTH said that the case must go to the Jury, and declined to reserve the point.

Foote in his defence complained of the hardship of not having been admitted to bail on Thursday last, from which he had not only suffered considerably, but had been prevented from preparing his defence, which he had to do alone against three learned Counsel, backed by the wealth of the Corporation of London, who he thanked for the splendid advertisement which their prosecution of the Freethinker had given to it, and contended that there was no proof that he was the editor; and as to the publication itself no witness had been called to say that his feelings had been outraged by it; that it had not been forced on any one, and no one need have bought it who did not want it. He quoted largely from the works of Payne, Carlisle, Shelley, Byron, Professors Huxley and Tyndall, J.S. Mill, and others, whose works are still freely sold, and contended that if the Freethinker was blasphemous those works were blasphemous also, and that Christianity, like every other religion, ought to take its chance of success without having to depend, upon law and police.

Ramsey in his defence also complained of the harshness of his imprisonment, having hitherto surrendered to his bail. He begged the Jury by their verdict to render obsolete the barbarous laws of former times; he stated that the meaning of the word blasphemy had greatly changed during the last 250 years; at that time Quakers were blasphemers, and were flogged at the cart’s tail, but now one was allowed a seat in the Cabinet. He contended that the publication in question was only, as its name implied, a free expression of opinions.

GUILTY. FOOTE— Twelve Months’ Imprisonment . RAMSAY— Nine Months’ Imprisonment . KEMP— Three Months’ Imprisonment.

For case tried in New Court on Monday, see Essex Cases.

Before Mr. Justice North.”

Another blasphemy case came to trail in March 1883, against Foote, as Freethinker editor, was accompanied in the dock by William Ramsay (shop manager) and William Kemp (printer).

But despite the judge’s advice to the jury, they failed to convict and a retrial was ordered for the following week.

Foote and Ramsey were back in court for a third trial in April on the first charge relating to The Freethinker of 28 May 1882. This time the case was heard by Lord Justice Coleridge who, in contrast to North, treated the defendants with consideration and courtesy. The jury failed to reach a decision and although a retrial was expected it never occurred. The prosecution mysteriously dropped the case.

Foote conducted his own defence throughout the trials. One of his main arguments was that his crime had been to peddle blasphemy cheaply to working people while polite agnostics and sceptics (such as T.H. Huxley and Aubrey Beardsley) were left to carry on undisturbed.

Foote, Ramsey and Kemp served their sentences at Holloway under the severe regime of a Victorian gaol. Foote was now a national figure; he received a hero’s welcome on his release.

When Foote was released from prison, he was a hero in freethought circles. He continued writing, lecturing, and editing magazines until Charles Bradlaugh died in 1891. At that time Foote was elected to lead the National Secular Society, founded by Bradlaugh. Foote continued in this role until his death on 17 October 1915.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: freethought pioneer James Watson dies, Norwood, 1874

James Watson (1799–1874) was an English radical publisher, activist and Chartist.

Born in Malton, North Yorkshire, on September 21, 1799, Watson’s father died when he was only a year old. His mother, a Sunday school teacher, taught him to read and write, but around 1811, she returned to domestic service in the household of a clergyman, who had paid for James’s schooling and tuitions for a brief period. Watson worked there as under-gardener, in the stables and as house-servant, and he read widely.

In 1818 Watson moved to Leeds where he found work as a warehouseman, and joined a group of men in Leeds who met weekly to read and discuss the writings of radicals such as Tom Paine, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile. The group made contact with Carlile and agreed to distribute his Republican newspaper in Leeds.

Watson was converted to freethought and radicalism through this group and what he read. He began to spread freethought literature and helped raise money for Carlile when he was sentenced in 1821 to three years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. Watson moved to London in September 1822 to serve as a volunteer assistant in Carlile’s Water Lane bookshop. As Carlile’s shop published and sold radical publications that challenged the Six Acts imposed by Lord Sidmouth in 1819, this was risky work, and many of those who worked there went to prison. James Watson also became involved with other publishers such as William Hone and Henry Hetherington in the struggle against the stamp duties on newspapers and pamphlets.

In January 1823 Carlile’s wife, having completed her own term of imprisonment, took a new shop at 201 Strand, and Watson moved there as a salesman. As their publications were unstamped on principle, government agents were constantly employed to seize papers and nick those distributing them. A game of cat and mouse between printers and informers/excisemen ensued, with regular smuggled shipments of radical papers being hunted and sometimes stopped. Salesman after salesman was arrested. In February 1823 Watson was charged with selling a copy of Elihu Palmer’s Principles of Nature to a police agent. He spoke in his own defence, but was convicted and sentenced to a year in Coldbath Fields Prison.

In prison he read David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Johann Lorenz von Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, and developed his anti-Christian and republican opinions. As he said later, “endeavouring to make the best use of the opportunity for study and investigation.”

After leaving prison in April 1824 James Watson was employed again by Richard Carlile who taught him the skills of the compositor and printer. In 1825 he was employed in printing Carlile’s The Republican; he was also hired as a printer by the radical publisher, Julian Hibbert. Soon after this he went into business on his own.

He lived in extreme poverty at times, and in 1826 caught cholera, nearly dying. Recovering, he became an Owenite, and in 1828 he was storekeeper of the “First Co-operative Trading Association” in London, in Red Lion Square.

In 1831 Watson set up as a printer and publisher in Finsbury. Julian Hibbert, his former employer, died in January 1834 and left him a legacy, allowing Watson to enlarge his printing plant. He started by printing the life and works of Tom Paine, and these volumes were followed by Mirabaud’s System of Nature and Volney’s Ruins. Later he printed Lord Byron’s Cain and The Vision of Judgment, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy, and Clark on the Miracles of Christ.

Watson printed, corrected, folded, and sewed the books by himself, taking great care for the appearance of his books, which he sold at one shilling or less per volume (effectively losing money on many).

At this time Watson also became a leading light in the National Union of the Working Classes, a working class radical group, strong in London. The NUWC was an alliance of more moderate elements working for an extension of the franchise for working men, and some more direct action–oriented wing, who felt the working class needed to take power, and would only win it by force. Like many NUWC members and other radicals the 1832 Reform Act bitterly disappointed him, and he denounced it: “The whole thing is from beginning to end humbuggery of the worst description. One thing self-evident is that there is not the slightest pretense to make an attempt at relieving the suffering millions from any part of their burden.”

Watson was arrested in 1832 for organising a NUWC procession and a feast on the day the government had ordained a “general fast” on account of the cholera epidemic. The government had stated that the cholera epidemic was God’s punishment on society, and that everyone should fast for the day to placate the Lord. The NUWC, enraged, announced that the poor were always hungry, that they would not fast but would march in anger and then have a slap-up feed to stick two fingers up to the authorities. The organisers were nicked.

However, Watson escaped imprisonment for this episode.

In the same year, Watson began publishing an unstamped radical newspaper, the Working Man’s Friend. This got him imprisoned between February and July 1833. He also served a further period in prison (August 1834 to January 1835) for selling Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, the leading radical unstamped paper of the day. This was his last imprisonment, though he continued to issue books banned by the government.

Watson’s shop was near Bunhill Fields; he then moved first to City Road, and in 1843 to 5 Paul’s Alley.

During his political life, he associated with many leading radical figures, including freethought and unstamped guru Henry Hetherington, Chartists Thomas Cooper and William Lovett, and the radical MPs Thomas Wakley, and Thomas Slingsby Duncombe.

Watson was active in the campaign in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six Dorchester labourers transported to Australia for forming a union branch; he was one of he committee which organised the great April 1834 meeting in Islington demanding the six be pardoned and returned home.

In June 1837 Watson was also on the committee appointed to draw up the bills embodying the Chartist demands. He was on the moral force wing of the Chartist movement, and was opposed to the violence of some of the agitators; however he was also resolutely opposed to alliances with middle class whigs and anti-corn law agitators, whom he denounced. He was averse to “peddling away the people’s birthright for any mess of cornlaw pottage”.

Watson corresponded with Giuseppe Mazzini, and in 1847 joined his Peoples’ International League. In 1848 he was one of the conveners of the first public meeting to congratulate the French Revolution of 1848.

An untaxed and absolutely free press became his main object in later years. He died at Burns College, Hamilton Road, Lower Norwood, on 29 November 1874, and was buried in Norwood cemetery. A grey granite obelisk erected by friends commemorated his “brave efforts to secure the rights of free speech”. A photographic portrait was in the Memoir by William James Linton.

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As the printer, publisher and layout artist at past tense I feel an affinity with Watson, across the century and a half that separate us. Not just because like Watson I have spent several decades sweating and swearing over printing machines; also losing money because we try to produce our publications to be cheap and relatively accessible, while attempting to make them look interesting and presentable… Was his back knackered like mine, partly from hefting massive quires of paper from shelf to guillotine? Was his printshop pile with skyscraper piles of half printed tracts, through which you have to weave…? half-finished projects put on one side gathering dust, corners turning up from the cold? Dreading another rent rise, or the jamming screech of a snarlup in the press?

Watson came to printing and publishing through the unstamped and freethought movements; I came to it through the anti-poll tax agitation… Admittedly times have changed, and it takes more than publishing political tracts get yourself jailed. Part of the credit for this goes to Watson and many others like him who struggled against blasphemy laws and defied the government spies in the 1820s.

But Watson I also feel connected to because there’s a tangible link between us. In his old age, Watson was a formative influence on a young Ambrose Barker, who became a secularist, then a socialist in the London Emancipation League and the Socialist League, and would go on to write a biography of Henry Hetherington. Barker would live to a ripe old age, and himself in the 1930s would work politically with another young man, the anarchist Albert Meltzer. Who in his turn I later knew, and worked with briefly in the Anarchist Black Cross, before his death in 1996… Over 200 years of radical connections in four individuals. A small example of how ideas pass on through generations.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in mystic socialist history: the Fellowship of the New Life formally founded, 1882.

The Fellowship of the New Life was formally founded in 1882. It would go on to produce a much more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Founded by Thomas Davidson ( in 1882-3, as a “society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform”, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland.

Davidson, a talented and brilliant scot from poor background, was a terminal wanderer, who founded other similar societies, (eg in New York); but couldn’t settle anywhere. He had difficult relations with people, was inspiring but hard to communicate with him, and seems to have had little time for anyone who disagreed with him…

An interesting character, among other ideas he thought virtue should be evaluated and celebrated; that anyone who hadn’t educated themselves to be a profound thinker “is still a slave to authority and convention, a mere play actor in life, bound to play a traditional, unreal part, without any of the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

He basically believed in the essential divinity of all things, including human life. These ideas seem to echo 17th century ideas more than anything, especially the ranters: Davidson even fixes on the same phrase ‘glorious liberty’ (originally from the Bible, Romans 8:21) as the ranter Jacob Bauthumley: “God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the Sons of God’

The Fellowship was founded in his Chelsea rooms around September/October 1882,

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” On top of this, aims were further clarified:

“Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.

Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.”

Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

From its birth, though, the group was divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: would it be practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Edward Carpenter, author, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, teetotaller, and campaigner for homosexual equality, came to be associated with the Fellowship.

From 1888 to 1889 Carpenter lived with Cecil Reddie, a Ruskin-inspired educationalist; they and the Fellowship planned the pioneering and progressive Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire, which opened in 1889.

According to Edward Carpenter: “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’, ‘Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Anarchism over breakfast

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house at no. 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury: ‘Fellowship House’ set up around 1890.

A leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union and the radical feminist Freewoman discussion circle.

One of the most active and vigorous of [the Fellowship]”, she helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment.”

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening. Sounds like fun ????!!! Discussions over Vita Nuova had though caused much internal dispute among the New Lifers in 1882-3, to the point that it was not formally adopted as the manifesto.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and an “elderly and quixotic” Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks… She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.”  
However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Despite Edith’s ideal, did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Author Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In her story Attainment, Lees portrayed life at Doughty Street in fictional form, as ‘Brotherhood House’. Despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.”

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living. In reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’, she afterwards asserted that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment’ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: “I dare now,” she says, “to live out what is real within me.”) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women. (Ellis himself was largely impotent until the age of 60, when he discovered that only the sight of a woman pissing turned him on. Better late than never. )

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (according to Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

The Fabian Society

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (Its not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, its easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians, although Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks, and that the Fabians have created a mythology around themselves and their history which inflates their impact…

The original Fellowship, changing its name to just the New Fellowship, enjoyed a new lease of life around 1889/ 1890. In 1889 they issued a journal, ‘The Sower’, later ‘Seed Time’, printed by a ‘saintly’ Tolstoyan ‘anarchist’ William Frey (Originally Vladimir Geins), a Russian former aristo and general! who later emigrated to New York, becoming a leader of the ‘New Odessa colony’. Frey was a veggie humanist who influenced communal living ideals in New York and possibly founded a Russian commune in Kansas.

According to Seed Time the group was holding lectures weekly, (at Doughty St?) alternately theoretical and practical (still never nailed that dual nature eh?).. examples of the subjects being ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’. The Fellowship was still in existence until at least 1896.

Both Seed Time and the groups activities could not have survived if not supported (presumably financially) by William Morris, Ramsay MacDonald, and other luminaries. Morris was a huge influence on the Fellowship, as he was on the early Fabians.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s blasphemous history: Peter Annet, freethinker, dies, 1769.

“PETER ANNET, a deist, upwards of seventy years of age, was indicted in the Court of King’s Bench, at Westminster, in 1762, for being the author of divers blasphemous remarks on the five books of Moses. The charge being fully proved, he was sentenced to be imprisoned one month in Newgate, and within that time to stand twice in and upon the pillory, once at Charing Cross and once at the Royal Exchange; to pay a fine to the King of six shillings and eightpence; then to be sent to Bridewell and kept to hard labour one year, and at the expiration thereof to find securities for his good behaviour during the remainder of his life, himself in one hundred pounds, and the sureties in fifty pounds each.”
(The Newgate Calendar)

Deism as a philosophy holds that God (or gods) does not interfere directly with human affairs, rejects revelation as a source of religious knowledge, basing their belief in a creator on reason and observation of the natural world.

Deism was popular during the Age of Enlightenment—especially in Britain, France, Germany and the United States— among intellectuals who, raised as Christians, believed in one God but had become disenchanted with organised religion. Many Deists publicly doubted traditional pillars of Christian belief like the Trinity, the truth of everything in the Bible, and the supernatural interpretation of miracles. Many of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions and radicals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries identified themselves as Deists. Deism acted as a staging post for many towards atheism and rejection of religion.

In Britain in the mid-18th century, a number of groups grew up in London to discuss religion, which attracted repression and notoriety as being ‘blasphemous societies’. The best known was the Robin Hood Club, of which Peter Annet was a ‘leading spirit’. Annet bridges a gap between earlier philosophic deists and later propagandists like Thomas Paine and those inspired by him. Annet seems to have been the first freethought lecturer.

Born in Liverpool, Peter Annet trained for the ministry in a non-conformist church, then became a schoolmaster.

Annet was very hostile to the clergy, being a thoroughgoing deist, and his arguments are said to be forcible but to lack refinement. In 1738 he delivered two lectures in London, which contained Deistic assertions, and challenged what he saw as the bigotry of the Methodists and other Christian revivalists. In 1739 he wrote and published a pamphlet, Judging for Ourselves, or Freethinking the Great Duty of Religion, a strong criticism of Christianity, specifically criticising contemporary Christian bishops. For writing this and similar pamphlets, he lost his teaching position, and moved to London.

In London, he spoke as a radical deist and freethinker in a debating society that met at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn, in Essex Street, the Strand. As such he appears in a play, The Robin Hood Society, A Satire, by Richard Lewis (a sometime member of the Society himself), in 1756. But it was his writings, often published anonymously or under false names, that were to get him into trouble…

Peter Annet’s periodical The Free Inquirer which ran for at least nine issues is reckoned to be the first freethought journal. It was later published in book form as A Collection of the Tracts of a certain Free Enquirer.

Annet liked to take on Christian apologists, whether basing their creed on belief in miracles, from personal witness or on the historicity of Biblical evidence. In his Resurrection of Jesus (1744), Annet assailed the validity of such evidence, and first advanced the hypothesis of the illusory death of Jesus, suggesting that Saint Paul should be regarded as the founder of Christianity. In Supernaturals Examined (1747) Annet denied the possibility of miracles.

Annet was fond of publishing critical biographies of biblical figures, examining their lives, moral behaviour and character as recorded in the scriptures. Which given the blood, gore and viciousness of much of the Bible, provided him with plenty of material. He was particularly critical of the character and reputation of King David. A work called A History of the Man after God’s own Heart (1761) is attributed to him [also to John Noorthook]. In it he argued that a comparison of King George II with King David should be interpreted as an insult. The book is said to have inspired Voltaire’s Saul.

Annet also specialised in examining the contradictions and inconsistencies in the bible and asking repeatedly, how could anyone rely on the scriptures when they speak with such double tongues?

Peter Annet is one among seven people listed in the Newgate Calendar as utterers of blasphemy and sedition. In the 1760s, freethinkers were subjected to a campaign of prosecution by the authorities, and Annet’s career had marked him out for attention…

At the age of 68 or 69, he was convicted in 1762 at the King’s Bench, Westminster, of blasphemous libel, specifically ridiculing the holy scriptures. This was related to articles printed in his Free Inquirer in October-December 1761, particularly ’A Review of the Life and Doctrines of Moses, the Celebrated legislator of the Hebrews’. Annet was sentenced to Newgate prison for one month, and to be put in the pillories at Charing Cross and at the Royal Exchange, as well as being fined and sent to Bridewell Prison for one year’s hard labour, and to pay further sureties for future good behaviour.

He was put in the pillory on December 14th 1762, despite being 70. His imprisonment broke his physical health, unsurprisingly, though “his mind [was] as clear, alert and active as ever.”

Some of his associates thought he had gone a but too far in his writings: Oliver Goldsmith, sometime attendee of Robin Hood Club meetings, described him as Having engaged in a “fanatic crusade against the Bible…”

After his release he kept a small school in St George’s Gardens, Lambeth, but his few pupils were eventually removed from his school; due to his notoriety. He also invented a system of shorthand and corresponded with non-conformist radicals like Joseph Priestley.

He died on January 18th, 1769.

Some writings by Peter Annet on Google Books

and at Project Gutenberg

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s religious history: Salvation Army pelted with mud & rotten fruit by Skeleton Army, Whitechapel, 1881.

Sick of religious fundamentalism leading to murder, rape and war? Feel rage at god-botherers preying on the poor and vulnerable? Infuriated by the vast wealth milked from millions by churches of all denominations… Think the world would be better off without superstition of all kinds…?

…then let’s revive the Skeleton Army!

In the 1880s the growing influence and offensive puritanism of the Christian sect the Salvation Army provoked the birth of the Skeleton Army – locally organized bands of rowdies who disrupted Salvationist crusades, abused and humiliated their preaching and parades, and physically attacked them…

In the 1880s the Salvation Army were regularly attacked when they marched to preach, harass and attempt to convert drinkers in working class areas. Their mission was openly to draw working class people away from the disorderly popular culture that revolved around drinking, singing, smoking, and riotous entertainment and resistance to the police and other arms of the state… towards godliness, respect for authority and sobriety… Like most religious sects of the 19th century, the Salvationists held that the poverty and squalor afflicting the lower classes was largely their own fault, for giving in to drink and gambling and other vices…

An attitude shared by many of the upper and middle class do-gooders, as well as large sections of the more respectable working class – including the chartist and socialist movements…

… as if class divisions, property, the power of the rich and the hierarchies imposed on us all have nothing to do with it…

The original Skeleton Army was organised at Weston-super-Mare, towards the end of 1881. The same year, a Sally Army march to Stoke Newington led to them being attacked outside the Shakespeare pub. According to the Daily Telegraph: “Yesterday morning… the bands issued forth in the afternoon… the largest marched to the Shakespeare… Here the division of about 20 persons, male and female, began to sing but before the end of the first verse a crowd of roughs had gathered round and began a counter chant. At the third verse someone issued forth from the tavern with a can of beer in his hand, and making use of foul expression, offered it to the Salvationists. This was a signal for a general riot, and in a few moments the members of the Army were attacked, knocked down, and shamefully used. Acting under the orders of their captain, the and gave no blow in return but avoiding their brutal assailants as best they could, covered the retreat of the women. There were over five hundred persons present, but not a single hand was raised in defence of the band… One young girl yesterday was seriously injured, two of the men were much hurt, and nearly every member of the band had been robbed of some article of property. All of this took place within a stone’s throw of two large police stations.”

On New Years Eve 1881, the local Skeleton Army assaulted a Salvation Army parade outside the Blind Beggar pub, in Whitechapel, pelting them with rotten fruit and mud. Now that’s the way to usher in a New Year…

As the location of William Booth’s first sermon, which led to the creation of The Salvation Army, this was a very symbolic spot for the god-botherers.

Colonel George Holmes of The Salvation Army, who was a boy Salvationist in 1881, later recalled:

“It was very rough. I remember attending an Open-Air Meeting one Sunday night outside ‘The Blind Beggar.’ Afterwards we marched to our Hall in Whitechapel Road. The ‘skeletons’, directed by Jeffries, headed our procession, proceeding at a snail’s pace and compelling us to do so. Thus handicapped, we were jostled and pelted with decayed fruit and mud. I was only a boy, and for safety was placed in the middle of the ranks.

An enthusiastic Salvationist in our front rank wore a high hat with a Salvation Army band round the crown. Slipping behind him, Jeffries leant upon his shoulders and deftly pushed the high hat over his eyes, whilst wriggling into the desired position. Then, using the top hat as a drum and his legs as a goad, he ‘drove’ his victim in the procession to the Hall. The Salvationists could have dismounted Jeffries only by rolling their comrade in the mud.”

Charles Henry Jeffries, describer here, sadly succumbed himself to the lure of the Salvationists, after this, however, and rose to become a high-ranking officer… His former allies targeted him repeatedly, as you should…

“In the Open-Airs my old mates gave me many a blow and kick – but I stuck fast. At times they would follow me home singing, ‘Jeffries will help to roll the old chariot along’ – and, thank God, I am doing it.”

The ‘Bethnal Green Eastern Post’ described the Skeleton Army “a genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated… These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… the collector told me that the object of the skeleton army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… 

Amongst the skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…”

The skeleton armies usually carried flags bearing a skull and crossbones; sometimes with additions such as two coffins and the motto “blood and thunder! Others decorated theirs with monkeys, a devil, and rats. Another had a yellow banner with three B’s-” beef beer and ‘bacca !

Some of the local Skeleton bands produced “gazettes” – ribald, obscene, blasphemous and slanderous news-sheets. Favourite ammunition for showering the preachers and marchers included flour, red and yellow ochre, rotten eggs, stones, brickbats…

The organisation of skeleton armies in London and the publicity this received inspired the growth of other similar groups throughout the country. Serious fighting and conflicts with the police eventually resulted in drastic repression being introduced to deal with the rowdies in the capital, bringing organised trouble there to an end.

The Skeleton Army however, thrived in other parts of the country until 1892. During those years the corps officer’s wife at Guildford was kicked into insensibility, not ten yards from the police station, a woman soldier was so injured that she died within a week, At Shoreham, a woman captain died through being hit by a flying stone.

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As austerity bites, and poverty increases for many; as religious wars multiply, disillusionment and uncertainty, fear and superstition are on the rise… Religious bigots both powerful and powerless try to push back against the freedoms won by hundreds of years of struggle against church, mosque and temple…

But religion by its very nature belongs in the middle ages. Organised faith continues to play a huge role in violence against women, the support of war and of hierarchies and power relations that keep us poor and divided, in the worldwide assault on people’s ability to determine their own sexuality and gender…

Isn’t it time to bring back the Skeleton Army… Not just to harass the modern religious parasites like the United Church of the Kingdom of God…

…but to also oppose the building of new places of worship of whatever religion, to fight religious control over the vulnerable, to support rebels resisting religious control from within.

For a future free from fear, bigotry and hate… from Syria to Tottenham..

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s legal history: William Hone acquitted for writing parodies of religious liturgies, 1817.

Journalist and writer William Hone briefly became a popular hero in December 1817, when he defended himself against government prosecution for blasphemy and sedition, specifically for parodying the forms of church liturgy to attack self-serving government corruption.

Brought up in a strictly religious family, Hone had come into contact with political radicals while working as a “factotum” and legal copyist in the early 1790s, and began to doubt the religious foundations of his upbringing. He became affiliated with a branch of the radical London Corresponding Society (LCS). After an attempt by his father to divert him from this scene (by sending him to work in Chatham for a couple of years), he tried his hand at the book publishing and selling trade.

Together with LCS activist John Bone, Hone set up a book and print shop (after the two had tried and failed to launch a a savings bank/annuity company). Although not a financial success, it did gain Hone a experience in antiquarian books and prints, which stood him in good stead for the future… through thee shop, he also met leading radicals Francis Place and Thomas Spence as well as other figures of literary and political London. However, in 1810, the project ended in the bankruptcy courts. After this Hone earned a living as an auctioneer of private libraries, and later as “Literary Editor” of the venerable Critical Review, a position he held for about 18 months. The status (and salary) afforded to Hone by this position enabled him to open a bookselling shop at 55 Fleet Street, where he moved with his family in December of 1814.

But Hone’s political activism, honed (sorry) in the 1790s, which had taken back seat to his need to earn a living, cropped up now and again: in the early 1810s he worked with James Bevans and Edward Wakefield to develop a new form of asylum for the humane treatment of the insane. The orject failed for lack of funds.

Hone then became involved with exposing the miscarriage of justice over the killing of Edward Vyse, who had been shot dead during the March 1815 street protests about the Corn Laws – shot from the windows of the home of the MP Frederick Robinson. A concerted effort was made in the subsequent trial to make sure no-one of ‘importance’ would be held responsible. Hone took it upon himself to publicise this miscarriage of justice.

He also wrote about the trial and execution of Elizabeth Fenning, a servant girl accused on scanty evidence of poisoning the family of her employer. Hone wrote a short narrative pamphlet about the case – La Pie Voleuse, or the Maid and the Magpie – which was very popular in itself and which inspired Hone to produce other pamphlets documenting the abuses of power within the legal and political systems.

In 1815 to 1817, Hone continued to write and publish journalistic exposes. For example, just days after the Spa Fields Riots of late 1816, Hone published his own account of the affair. His account included a broader social and economic analysis founded loosely on the principles of the radical Thomas Spence, whose followers had been prominent in the riots. But Hone also issued radical critiques of the government, developing a style rich in parody and satire.

At the beginning of 1817, political tensions and the threat of social unrest were running high. Post-Napoleonic War recession and unemployment, and the juggernaut of industrial development and the mechanisation of labour and growth of factories, had produced huge social anger and poverty, which had collided with renewed pressure for political reform. A scared government suspended habeas corpus and tried to jail leading reformers. Hone began publishing a radical weekly newspaper called the Reformists’ Register. The Register formed a part of a burgeoning radical press, an explosion of journals, pamphlets, newspapers recounted aloud by a huge and increasing public, sometimes read aloud by the literate to those who could not read… This popular press terrified the authorities, as the atmosphere was volatile and the appetite of millions for new ideas was a clear threat to the elites of the time.

Early in 1817 Hone wrote and published a series of pamphlets which parodied church liturgy, in which he savaged government corruption and political complacency.

The three pamphlets – Political Creed, Political Liturgy, and Catechism of a Ministerial Member – satirised government ministers as divine beings and MPs as “worshippers at the font of patronage”. The 5000 print run circulated throughout the country, in great demand, rapidly achieving cult status and sparking imitations and rip-offs. The enraged government and its toadies regarded Hone as the worst example of a free press who needed teaching a harsh lesson.

These pamphlets got Hone was arrested in May 1817, and charged with blasphemy and sedition, and briefly held in the King’s Bench prison. Although he managed to get himself released, the Reformist’s Register collapsed in the wake of this due to lack of funds and energy, as he prepared to face his trial.

During the process of selecting a jury, Hone was however able to expose the process by which judges and prosecution collaborated to select the jurors they wanted illegally, and to overturn this nobbling by legal action.

The case came to trial in December 1817, held in the Guildhall, which had a long history of state trials, including prosecutions of Leveller John Lilburne, treason trials of Lady Jane Grey and Thomas Cranmer… But it was also very much a public arena, a centre of political life in London, a forum for debate and pagreantry. The government wanted a show trial in front of the nation – Hone was “the fittest object for prosecution”, an example which would overawe other journalists and radicals – and the authorities believed a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion.

The Attorney General had singled out three of the offending parodies for separate trials, and these occurred on successive days, 18, 19, and 20 December. In each case, the Attorney General’s argued that using liturgical texts as the basis for comic parody was an act of blasphemy, publishing a libel “with intent to excite impiety and irreligion in the minds of his Majesty’s liege subjects”. The sacred quality of religious language was being degraded and mocked by being used for comic satire. In addition, the Book of Common Prayer, from which the church liturgy was filched, was published by authorisation of Act of Parliament, part of he official religion of the nation, and thus satirising it was a criminal and unpatriotic act.

In reply, Hone arrived at court with hundreds of books which contained similar satires on church litanies, written by all sorts of highly respected persons, among them Martin Luther, John Milton, protestant martyr Bishop Latimer, and most damningly George Canning), former Foreign Secretary, and at the time of the trial President of the Board of Control. Parody of religious texts was a recognised literary device, aimed at instruction and ages old. He had no interest in attacking religion, he said, he was a political satirist, and if they government had wanted to try him for that, they should have charge him with seditious libel.

Hone defended himself by reading these parodies in the courtroom. There were frequent eruptions of laughter from the packed galleries, and equally frequent but pompously ineffectual warnings from the presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough. After each day’s trial, the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” which was met by enthusiastic cheers from the gallery.

Hone’s defence was based on common sense and the ridiculousness of the charge, and how he had been singled out by the government, rather than complex legal arguments, and showing that he had a highly skilled knowledge of literary tradition. Next to which the hysterical assertions of the prosecutors that to acquit him would be a victory for atheism, and that the satires were “so injurious… that any man, on the first reading, would start in horror…”, sounded weak and laughable. The judges tried to rule his defence inadmissible, but Hone showed they were wrong in law, and his exposing of the clear bias of the judge Ellenborough won the jury over.

The trials were widely publicised and as a result Hone became a popular hero—a kind of humble common man who had bravely stood up to the political authorities of the day. The forces of repression, as Hone put it later, had been “laughed out of court.”

Hone continued to publish satires and attacks on the government and establishment, often collaborating with the artist George Cruikshank. In early 1819, Hone and Cruikshank published a parodic Bank Note in response to an increase in executions for forgery. The Note received wide acclaim and may well be credited for accelerating a change in the nation’s fiscal policy. Later that year, in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in August, Hone and Cruikshank published the famous Political House that Jack Built—a pamphlet that went through dozens of editions.

This highly influential pamphlet was followed with The Man in the Moon (early 1820) and a series of illustrated satirical pamphlets on the Queen Caroline affair. (See, for example, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder and Non Mi Ricordo!) Finally, Hone capped this phase of his career with two more political parodies: A Slap at Slop and the Bridge Street Gang, and The Political Show-man, At Home!  Each of these works was extremely popular; indeed, Hone and Cruikshank were among the best-selling writers in England during this tumultuous period.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online