Today in London’s apocalyptic history, 1795: the day London was to be destroyed, according to prophet Richard Brothers

“There started up in London about the beginning of the late war, a new pseudo-prophet whose name was Richard Brothers, who called himself King of the Hebrews, and Nephew of God
… he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court-road”
(Robert Southey)

In 1795, prophet Richard Brothers prophesied that London would be destroyed and the English government be removed, annihilated, utterly destroyed… He announced that 4th June was to be the day of judgement.

Brothers was born in Newfoundland, Canada, on 25 December 1757, to an English soldier garrisoned there (surely being born on Xmas Day helped kickstart Messianic thinking?) He was sent to England as a child for his education; he later became a midshipman in the Royal Navy, aged thirteen. However, his experience of life in the British Navy was not pleasant, leaving him with a lasting repugnance for wars and blasphemy, especially for Christian prayers for military success and mandatory sacred oaths for military allegiance. Brothers semi-retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant on half-pay (potentially available for recall to service) in 1784. His activities and whereabouts for the next five years remain a mystery, though he is thought to have served on merchant ships, traveling to ports in France, Italy and Spain.

At some point in his career, possibly around 1789, Brothers became convinced that God was speaking to him personally, through divine revelation, and that he had been called to be a latter-day prophet and eventual messiah. Well, haven’t we all…?

Around 1789-90 Brothers found himself back in England, in the region of London. His growing belief that swearing oaths to serve the king was wrong left him not only skint (as he had to swear to receive his half-pay) but increasingly questioning religious orthodoxy. During unusually severe thunderstorms in 1791, he fled London, believing that God was about to destroy the city for its wickedness. When London was not, in fact, destroyed, Brothers attributed its temporary salvation to his own prayers to God for its deliverance.

Brothers became convinced that he was a chosen Israelite of the House of David, empowered to call the Jews and other Israelites out from their dispersion among the nations and lead them back to Jerusalem in Turkish Palestine. He claimed descent from the biblical King David and through Jesus’ Brother James the Righteous, making him a “Prince of The Hebrews” and rightful latter day King of Judah, as well as the Messiah. Nice gig if you can get it.

In February 1792 Brothers declared himself a healer and claimed he could restore sight to the blind. He drew large crowds, but not due to his healing ability as much as his small gifts of money to those he prayed for.

Brothers’ prophesy that he would lead all the world’s scattered Israelites back to Palestine and there rebuild Jerusalem tapped into and helped firm up the growing strand that was the British ‘Israelite’ tradition – the belief that Britons and other western Europeans are descended from the biblical ten lost tribes of Israel… a fascinating bywater that has produced some strange and on occasion very dodgy ideas…

The new prophet was sometimes called the “Nephew of the Almighty,” apparently by his growing band of followers, as well as by those who branded him a religious fanatic and a madman.

Brothers’ revelations (accompanied by his own commentary on selected biblical texts) began to appear in print at the beginning of the 1790s and some were compiled into a booklet for public sale in London as early as 1794.

As prophets tend to do, Brothers emerged at a time of great social dislocation, political turmoil. Britain was at war with the revolutionary French regime – a war that was growing increasingly unpopular. Brothers’ prophesies and pronouncements chimed somewhat with the growing radical movement demanding political reform and denouncing war on a revolutionary France which inspired them; his millenarian prophecies excited radicals and the disillusioned and desperate; his followers to some extent cross-pollinated with the tavern-going radical scene. The partial merging of radical, religious and mystical ideas which surrounded Brothers and other such figures produced definite hybrid radical-millenarians like James Hadfield, would-be assassin of king George III.

The time, and the milieu, in some ways echoes the years of the English Revolution, though going back as far as the 16th century there had also been such religio-political rebels who crossed the streams, like the Anabaptists… and a tradition combining millenarian religion and social discontent goes back to the Brethren of the free Spirit, the Taborites, and well beyond…

Brothers’ ‘Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times’ was published early in 1794. Like most self-appointed prophets, his writings claimed a working knowledge of the immediate plans of God, shot through with the (re-rigeur) spicy passages from the Book of Revelation, eg “All nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of Babylon’s fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication,
with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies…” Wrath of the almighty, imminent smiting, repent, repent, Etc etc.

Some of his political predictions (such as the violent death of the French king Louis XVI) seemed to be proof that he was inspired.

“Some of his vague predictions could not fail to appear to be fulfilled, and they were recalled to mind when the French armies were victorious.” Members of the radical London Corresponding Society used to visit him: they perhaps even prompted some of his ideas.

William Sharp, a famous, engraver and political reformer, became a disciple (Sharp also later followed another prophet Joanna Southcott).

Richard Brothers

Brothers “wrote letters to the King and to all the members of parliament, calling Upon them to give ear to the word of God, and prepare for the speedy establishment of his kingdom upon earth. He announced to his believers his intention of speedily setting out for Jerusalem to take possession of his metropolis, and invited them to accompany him. Some of these poor people actually shut up their shops, forsook their business and their families, and travelled from distant parts of the country to London to join him, and depart with him whenever he gave the word. Before he went, he said, he would prove the truth of his mission by public miracle, he would throw down his stick in the Strand at noon day, and it should become a serpent; and he affirmed he had already made the experiment and successfully performed it in private. A manifest falsehood, but not a wilful one; in like manner he said that he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court~road … He threatened London with an earthquake because of its unbelief, and at length named the day when the city should be destroyed.” (Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)

An 8‑page leaflet was published of Brother’s Prophecy of all the Remarkable and Wonderful Events which will come to pass … foretelling the Downfall of the Pope; a Revolution in Spain, Portugal, and Germany; the Death of Certain Great Persons in this and other Countries. Also a dreadful Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake… . In England there was to be ‘sorrow and great woe, mingled with joy unspeakable’; ‘the proud and lofty shall be humbled, even to the dust; but the righteous and poor shall flourish on the ruins of the wicked; the Palaces shall be ‑‑ and Cottages shall be ‑.’As for the Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake, these were to be seen as metaphorical:

The Famine shall destroy none but the Caterpillars of Spain and _. The Pestilence shall sweep away the Locusts that eat up the harvest of Industry; and the Earthquake shall swallow up the monstrous Leviathan, with all his train. In all these things the poor, the honest, the virtuous, and the patriotic, shall rejoice.

‘France must bleed afresh, but none but contaminated blood shall flow.’ ‘Italy shall hurl the Antechrist from his throne…’ Turkey and Russia will be plunged in war, ending in the destruction of the Ottoman Porte, the Mahometan Faith, the Russian Empire and the Greek Church. At the end of these signs of mercy, there will be an era of universal brotherhood. ‘All shall be as one people, and of one mind. . .. The Christian, the Turk, and the Pagan shall no longer be distinguished the one from the other’:

The time is come, and now is the whore of Babylon falling, and will fall to rise no more. Go forth, then, ye Sons of Eternal Light, and instruct the Sons of Ignorance and Darkness…

Then shall there be no more war, no more want, no more wickedness; but all shall be peace, plenty, and virtue.”

The date Brothers fixed when the imminent maelstrom would hit the capital was June 4th 1795. Did people take him seriously? Some did. Reformer and radical printer, John Binns wrote in his autobiography that many believed in the prophesy in the capital: “It would be difficult… to convey and adequate idea of eh nature and extent of the fears and apprehensions to which this prediction gave birth.” As it happened, June 4th coincided with a thunderstorm of ‘exceptional severity’, accompanied by heavy rain and hail, which sent some into a panic; Binns, on his way to a meeting of the London Corresponding Society, took shelter from the downpour in an ale-house, where he found 50 or 60 people (to his amusement and surprise) awaiting Brothers’ foretold apocalypse. See the header of this post also, for Gillray’s engraving, Presages of the Millennium, as Revealed to R. Brothers, published on the very day of the foretold apocalypse.

“Many persons left town to avoid this threatened calamity; the day passed by, he claimed the merit of having prevailed in prayer and obtained a respite, and fixed another …”

Shortly afterwards Brothers announced that London had been spared only as the result of his personal last-minute intervention; and since he obviously wielded such influence with the Almighty his following was doubled at a stroke.

By this time, Brothers himself was behind bars. His pronouncements that the king and royal family would either have to abdicate in his favour or be destroyed by God, and foretelling the imminent destruction of parliament, and the capital to be followed by the apocalypse, were expressed in language that alarmed the authorities. Unlike his more quietist contemporary Joanna Southcott, Brothers had begun to seem a threat to order. He was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council shortly before the foretold Apocalypse, in May 1795, charged with teaching seditious nonsense and claiming that God command England refrain from military action against Republican France… He was then sectioned.

“Government at last thought fit to interfere, and committed Brothers to the national hospital for madmen … Thus easily and effectually was this wild heresy crushed. Brothers continued to threaten earthquakes, fixed days for them, and prorogue them after the day was passed, but his influence was at an end … He was lucky enough to find out better consolation for himself. There was a female lunatic in the same hospital, whom he discovered to be the destined Queen of the Hebrews; and as such announced her to the world. At present he and this chosen partner of the throne of David are in daily expectation of a miraculous deliverance, after which they are to proceed to Jerusalem to be crowned, and commence their reign.”
(Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)

Escaping a sentence of treason, by reason of insanity, and with the advocacy of an MP who supported his case, he was committed as a lunatic to a private asylum in Islington (probably Fisher House, which stood off Essex Road). The “Nephew of God” was locked in the madhouse for eleven years.

While he was in the private asylum Brothers wrote a variety of prophetic pamphlets which gained him many believers. But when Brothers predicted that, on 19 November 1795 he would be revealed as Prince of the Hebrews and Ruler of the world, and the date passed without this manifesting, followers tended to drift away either disillusioned or embarrassed.

He was finally released in 1806, when the authorities decided he was no longer a menace to society.

Besides being widely reprinted under his own name, several of Brothers’ prophesies were included in a popular rendition of apocalyptic predictions published later in 1795, entitled The World’s Doom.

A few of his followers, like George Turner of Leeds, continued  to agitate for his release until the turn of the century (threatening destruction upon the English Babylon if the prophet remained confined).

Due to his long incarceration, Brothers gradually faded from public prominence; to some extent, his mantle as the Chosen One was taken over by Joanna Southcott, who picked up many of his followers over the years. In some of the Southcottian traditions that survived into the 20th century Southcott is identified as identified as Brothers’ successor, a bit like John the Baptist to her Jesus.

Socialist historian EP Thompson theorised that the support for the millenarian and apocalyptic predictions of Brothers and Southcott was stimulated largely by the terrible dislocations of the industrial revolution which were upheaving many long-held ways of life and pushing millions into new and more exploitative forms of work and poverty. This ‘chiliasm of despair’, as he called it, seemed to him a response offering some certainty and an immediate better future in dark times. However, Clarke Garrett, in his study of millenarianism in relation to the French Revolution, ‘Respectable Folly’, points out that to some extent Brothers and especially Southcott’s greatest support came when the dream or belief in an English revolution seemed to have been disillusioned; if people had felt there was a chance of more egalitarian social change or political reform in the favour of the lower orders, this was dissipating in reaction and war. Garrett suggests Southcottianism in particular represented a retreat from political ideals into mystical promise. I do wonder if some of the enthusiasm for Brothers’ prophesies of doom was a kind of nihilistic desire among the despairing to see a society they hated crash and burn…
This kind of draining of social ideals into otherworldly or individual mysticism does seem to follow a pattern; the 1650s saw similar trajectories after the Civil War ended with defeat for the most progressive elements; and check out what happened to all those radicals from the 1960s in the 70s, and the immense growth in meditation, eastern religion, cults and other nonsense.

Richard Brothers died in London, largely forgotten, in January 1824.

The Panacea Society, still holding on to the dream of the Millennium after all these years, have some copies of Richard Brothers’ prophesies in their archive

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’s religious history, 1575: twenty Dutch Anabaptists arrested near Aldgate

On 3rd April 1575, twenty Dutch Anabaptists were arrested near Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City of London, at a meeting for Easter. Of these, fourteen were banished, two escaped from prison, and two, Jan Pieters and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield on 22 July.

Anabaptism can best be broadly described as a radical offshoot of the Protestant Reformation, spiritual ancestors of the modern Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers. (Though historians argue about how much influence and connection anabaptists had on later movements like the Baptist churches). However, it’s unlikely anyone called them self an anabaptist in the 1530s; it was a derogatory name given to them by their detractors. The movement’s most distinctive tenet was adult baptism: converts underwent a second baptism, (a ‘crime’ punishable by death under the legal codes of the time.) Members rejected the label Anabaptist (meaning Rebaptizer) – they repudiated their own baptism as infants as a blasphemous formality. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. Following the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, they held that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, repent, and accept baptism.

The Anabaptists also believed that the church, the community of those who have made a public commitment of faith, should be separated from the state, which they believed existed only for the punishment of sinners. Most Anabaptists were pacifists who opposed war and the use of coercive measures to maintain the social order; they also refused to swear oaths, including those to civil authorities. For their teachings regarding baptism and for the apparent danger they posed to the political order, they were persecuted pretty much everywhere they emerged, by Protestant and Catholic states alike.

The Anabaptists, like most Protestant Reformers, were determined to restore the institutions and spirit of the primitive church and often identified their suffering with that of the martyrs of the first three Christian centuries. Quite confident that they were living at the end of time, they expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

The biblical validity of infant baptism began to be debated in the early years of the Reformation, and the first adult baptism, which took place at Zollikon, outside Zürich, probably on January 21, 1525, was the result of the dissatisfaction of a group of Zwingli’s followers, led by the patrician humanist Konrad Grebel, over Zwingli’s unwillingness to undertake what they considered necessary reforms. Soon thereafter an extensive movement was in progress. Some of the more distinctive convictions of the Swiss movement were set forth in the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), prepared under the leadership of Michael Sattler.

The revolutionary implications of their teachings got the early anabaptists expelled from one city after another: however this also served to spread their ideas around Europe. Soon civil magistrates took sterner measures, and most of the early Anabaptist leaders died in prison or were executed.

Despite increasing persecution, new Anabaptist communities and teachings emerged. A unique type of Anabaptism, developed later in Moravia under the leadership of Jakob Hutter, stressed the common ownership of goods modeled on the primitive church in Jerusalem. The Hutterite colonies first established in Moravia survived the Reformation and are now located primarily in the western United States and Canada.  Melchior Hofmann, established a large following in the Netherlands and inspired a number of disciples. He taught that the world would soon end and that the new age would begin in Strasbourg. He was imprisoned in that city in 1533 and died about 10 years later.

Some of Hofmann’s followers, such as the Dutchman Jan Mathijs (died 1534) and John of Leiden (Jan Beuckelson; died 1536), and many persecuted Anabaptists settled in Münster, Westphalia. Hofmann’s disciples were attracted to the city by dramatic changes that occurred there in the early 1530s. Under the influence of the Reformer Bernhard Rothman, Anabaptist sentiment was strong enough there to elect an Anabaptist majority to the city council in 1533. This was followed, under the direction of Mathijs and John of Leiden, by the expulsion and persecution of all non-Anabaptists and the creation of a messianic kingdom under John of Leiden. The city was surrounded in 1534 by an army of Catholics and Protestants, which perhaps encouraged further reforms, including the common ownership of goods (and allegedly polygamy) – justified by biblical scripture. The city was captured in 1535, and the Anabaptist leaders were tortured and killed and their bodies hung in steel cages from the steeple of St. Lambert’s church.

While most so-called Anabaptists were horrified at the episode in Münster, it brought down fiercer repression on all of them. The massive upsurge of Class violence during the German Peasants’ War and the anabaptists’ ideas were clearly linked to the authorities way of thinking: rejection of state and church and refusal to obey the law could only lead to revolution and disorder.

However, the pacifist Anabaptists in the Netherlands and northern Germany rallied under the leadership of the former priest Menno Simons, becoming the Mennonite church.

A number of anabaptists settled in England from the early 1530s, lulled by Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope and flirtations with reform into seeing it as a safer haven than other European countries. But repression awaited them here too, especially after the Münster revolution, which scared the authorities everywhere into cracking down on any whiff of the sect or sympathy for it. Henry imprisoned & burned some; and this treatment continued under Elizabeth I, despite her much-quoted decree that she would not look into men’s souls and persecute them for their beliefs…

Here’s an account of the arrests of the anabaptists in London in 1575, from a chronicle of English Baptism:

“During the persecution which raged in the Netherlands under the Duke of Alva, butcher-general of the Inquisition in that country, numbers fled to other parts of the Continent, or to England, for refuge and safety. In England, at any rate, they ought to have been safe. But the demon of persecution ruled here. In London, on the 3rd of April, 1575, a small congregation of Dutch Baptists convened in a private house, outside the City gates (“without Aldgate”), was interrupted by a constable while at worship, and twenty-five persons were taken before a magistrate, who committed them to prison, but released them after two days’ confinement, on their giving bail for their appearance whenever summoned.

Information being given to the Queen, a Royal Commission was issued to Sandys, Bishop of London, and some others, to examine the parties and proceed accordingly. They appeared before the Commissioners in pursuance of the summons. Their confession of faith was rejected, and they were required to subscribe to four articles, condemnatory of their own principles.

“They proposed to us four questions,” says one of the prisoners, “telling us to say yea or nay—”

“1. Whether Christ had not taken His flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary?

“We answered: ‘He is the Son of the living God.’”

“2. Ought not little children to be baptized ?

“We answered: ‘Not so; we find it not written in Holy Scripture.

“3. May a Christian serve the office of a magistrate?

“We answered: ‘That it did not oblige our consciences; but, as we read, we esteemed it an ordinance of God.

“4. Whether a Christian, if needs be, may not swear?

“We answered: That it also obliged not our consciences; for Christ has said, in Matthew, Let your words be yea, yea; nay, nay. Then we were silent.

“But the Bishop said, that our misdeeds therein were so great that we could not enjoy the favour of God. O, Lord, avenge it not! He then said to us all, that we should be imprisoned in the Marshalsea.”

In the Marshalsea Prison (now called the “Queen’s Bench”), to which they were then conveyed, many efforts were made, by the ministers of the Dutch Church and others, to persuade them to submit and recant. “Master Joris came to us and said, If we would join the Church, that is, the Dutch Church, our chains should be struck off and our bonds loosed. The Bishop, he said, had given him command so to do. But we remained steadfast to the truth of Jesus Christ. He is, indeed, our Captain, and no other; yea, in Him is all our trust. My dear brethren, and sweet sisters, let us persevere until we conquer. The Lord will then give us to drink of the new wine. O Lord, strengthen our faith. As we have received the Lord Jesus Christ, let us go forward courageously, trusting in Him.” Five of them were overpowered, and consented to join the Dutch Church. They made a public recantation in St. Paul’s churchyard, on the 25th of May, standing there before thousands of people, with faggots bound to, their shoulders, as in Popish times. A few days after the remainder appeared again before the Commissioners. “We remembered the Word of the Lord,” says Gerrit van Byler, “‘When they shall lead you before lords and princes, fear not what you shall say, for in that hour it shall be given you.’ So we trusted in the Lord. The questions were again proposed, and subscription demanded; but we said, ‘That we would cleave to the Word of the Lord.”’ Upon this they were declared to be incorrigible heretics, sentenced to death, and given over to the secular arm to be punished.

Bishop Sandys was the spokesman on the occasion. The sentence accorded with his theology. In a sermon preached by him before the Parliament this passage occurs: “Such as teach, but teach not the good and right way; such as are open and public maintainers of errors and heresy; such, in the judgment of God, are thought unworthy to live. Let the false prophet die (Deut. xiii.5). Elias and Jehu did not think themselves imbrued, but rather sanctified, with such blood. I have no cruel heart; blood be far from me. I mind [desire] nothing less. Yet needs must it be granted that the maintainers and teachers of errors and heresy are to be repressed in every Christian commonwealth.”1

Fourteen women and a youth were put on board a vessel and sent out of the country. The youth was whipped from the prison to the wharf. The remaining five were consigned to Newgate, where they were put in heavy irons, thrust into a damp and filthy dungeon swarming with vermin, and not allowed to associate with other prisoners lest the thieves and murderers in the jail should be corrupted by Anabaptist contamination. One of their number, Christian Kernels, sank under the inhuman treatment. He died in the dungeon, after eight days’ confinement. He was “released by death, trusting in God; his dying testimony filled us with joy.”

The Queen was entreated to spare them. But she resented such interference with her prerogative, and would only consent to a month’s reprieve, and that in compliance with the intercession of John Foxe, the Martyrologist, whose truly pathetic and eloquent letter to her Majesty on the subject has been often printed and generally admired. Admirable it was in some respects. It was a gushing forth of Christianized humanity, quite peculiar in that age of steel-clad religion. But good old John was still in the dark. He did not understand soul-freedom. According to him, Baptists had no right to hold and profess their opinions. They were ranked with those “fanatical sects” which “are by no means to be countenanced in a commonwealth,” but ought to be “suppressed by proper correction.” He did not ask, therefore, for their release. All he complained of was “the sharpness of their punishment.” He would have it changed. “There are excommunications, and close imprisonment; there are bonds; there is perpetual banishment, burning of the hand, and whipping, or even slavery itself.” But “to roast alive the bodies of poor wretches, that offend rather through blindness of judgment than perverseness of will, in fire and flames, raging with pitch and brimstone,” he denounced as “a hard-hearted thing, and more agreeable to the practice of the Romanists than the custom of the Gospellers.” If, however, the Queen would not consent to recall the sentence, he implored her to grant “a month or two, in which we may try whether the Lord will give them grace to turn from their dangerous errors, lest, with the destruction of their bodies, their souls be in danger of eternal ruin.”

Foxe wrote also to the prisoners, urging them to acknowledge their errors, to give up their “frantic conceptions,” and telling them that they had “disturbed the Church by their great scandal and offence.” He sent them a copy of his letter to the Queen. In their reply to him, they say: “We are sorry, that you do not understand our matter, and that you have another opinion of us than we wish, since you think that by our curiosity and obstinacy we have not only given offence to the Church of God, but also provoked God himself, and frustrated our salvation. What reason you have thus to think of us we know not; nevertheless, we can assure you that we seek with our whole hearts to serve the one God and Christ in a good conscience, and to edify our neighbour, as far as in us lies. Therefore we gladly receive what the Holy Scripture testifies, and wish to be permitted to adhere to the plainness and simplicity of the Word of God, and not to be urged farther with subtle questions, which our feeble understandings are not able to comprehend, nor by Scripture to justify.”

The prisoners transmitted to the Queen a confession of their faith, accompanied by a “ supplication,” from which we take the following extract:—

“We testify before God and your Majesty, that were we in our consciences able by any means to think or understand the contrary, we would with all our hearts receive and confess it; since it were a great folly in us, not to live rather in the exercise of a right faith than to die, perhaps, in a false one. May it also please your Majesty in your wisdom and innate goodness to consider that it were not right, but hypocrisy in us to speak otherwise than with our hearts we believe, in order to escape the peril of temporal death; that it is impossible to believe otherwise than we in our consciences think; and also that it is not in our power to believe this or that, as evil-doers who do right or wrong as they please. But the true faith must be implanted in the heart of man by God; and to Him we daily pray that He would give us His Spirit, to understand His Word and Gospel.”

“Above all, it is evident to your Majesty that we have not sought to stir up any rebellions or seditions against your Majesty; but, much more, have daily besought the Lord for your happy reign, and the welfare both of your soul and body. Lastly, we have not endeavoured to spread our faith in the land. This we could not do, for we are only unlearned trades-people, unskilled in divinity.”

All was in vain. The Baptists remained firm. The Queen would not relent. On the 15th of July she signed the warrant for the execution of two of them, commanding the Sheriffs of London to burn them alive in Smithfield.

A copy of the warrant is now before us. There is also before us a copy of the warrant for the burning of Archbishop Cranmer, in Queen Mary’s days. These warrants are substantially alike. In fact, they are almost couched in the same language, word for word. Mary, the Papist, dooming to death the Protestant, and Elizabeth, the Protestant, ordering the execution of the Baptist, advance the same pretensions and adopt the same forms of speech. Both of them call their victims “heretics.” Both assume to be “zealous for justice.” Both are “defenders of the Catholic faith.” Both declare their determination to “maintain and defend the Holy Church, her rights and liberties.” Both avow their resolve to “root out and extirpate heresies and errors.” Both assert that the heretics named in the warrants had been convicted and condemned “according to the laws and customs of the realm.” Both charge the Sheriffs to take their prisoners to a “public and open place,” and there to “commit them to the fire,” in the presence of the people, and to cause them to be “really consumed” in the said fire. Both warn the Sheriffs that they fail therein at their peril. Herod and Pontius Pilate forgot their differences when they united in crucifying the Saviour. Papists and Protestants agree in murdering His followers.

Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters were the two whom the Queen appointed to death. Terwoort was a young man, about twenty-five years of age. He was a goldsmith, and in good circumstances. He was married some eight or ten weeks before his imprisonment. Pieters was aged, poor, and had nine children dependent on his daily toil. His first wife had been martyred at Ghent, in Flanders: his second wife was the widow of a martyr. A statement of his circumstances was laid before Sandys, in order to induce him to get permission for Pieters to leave the country, with his wife and children. But the Bishop was inaccessible to pity.

On Lord’s Day, the 17th of July, they were informed that the warrant for their execution had arrived. “Upon Tuesday,” says Gerrit Van Byler, “a stake was set up in Smithfield, but the execution was not that day. On Wednesday, many people were gathered together to witness the death of our two friends, but it was again deferred. This was done to terrify, and draw our friends and us from the faith. But on Friday our two friends, Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters, being brought out from their prison, were led to the sacrifice. As they went forth, Jan Pieters said, ‘The holy prophets, and also Christ, our Saviour, have gone this way before us, even from the beginning, from Abel until now.’” A vast multitude had collected together on the occasion, but few of whom, probably, sympathized with the sufferers. Some preachers were sent to the place of execution to prevent the expression of sympathy by maligning them. One of them exclaimed, “These men believe not on God.” “We believe,” replied Pieters, “in one God, our Heavenly Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son.” When they were bound to the stake, the articles were again offered to them, and life and pardon promised if they would subscribe. Pieters answered for them both, “You have laboured hard to drive us to you, but now, when placed at the stake, it is labor in vain.” One of the preachers said in excuse, “That all such matters were determined by the Council, and that it was the Queen’s intention they should die.” “But,” rejoined Pieters, “you are the teachers of the Queen, whom it behooves you to instruct better; therefore shall our blood be required at your hands.” No answer could be given to this. Fire was applied, and the souls of the martyrs ascended to God. “How utterly absurd,” says the Dutch Martyrologist, “do all such cruel proceedings and sentences as are here seen appear, when contrasted with the Christian faith! The Christian host is described as sheep and lambs, sent forth among cruel and devouring wolves. Who will be able, with a good conscience, to believe that these English preachers were the true sheep of Christ, since in this matter they brought forth so notably the fruit of wolves ?”

This was a black affair. It was essentially unjust and cruel, and admitted of no palliation. These Baptists owed no allegiance to Elizabeth. They were not her subjects. They were refugees, and claimed her protection as exiles for religion’s sake from their native land. They were living peaceably, doing harm to none. No rioting or disturbance was laid to their charge. All that could be alleged against them was that they did not go to the parish churches, but exercised Christian freedom, and worshipped God as they understood the Scriptures to teach them. For this they were burnt to death by a Protestant Queen.

We are willing to believe that Elizabeth was influenced by her bishops. Sandys and Whitgift were furious against the Baptists. They misrepresented and calumniated them continually. They held them up to public scorn and indignation, as professing sentiments incompatible with the well-being of society. The Queen was instructed by these men to regard the Baptists as hostile to her royal authority. That was touching her in a tender part. The womanly heart was strangely hardened, and she refused to show mercy.

Elizabeth could not plead ignorance respecting the sentiments of the Baptists. In the confession of faith which Terwoort and Pieters sent to her, a revised copy of which was signed by them the day before their martyrdom, they thus plainly stated their views:—

“We believe and confess that magistrates are set and ordained of God, to punish the evil and protect the good; which magistracy we desire from our hearts to obey, as it is written in 1 Peter 2:13, ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ ‘For he beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 8:4). And Paul teaches us that we should offer up for all ‘prayers, and intercessions, and giving of thanks; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires that all men should be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:1-4)He further teaches us ‘to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, and to be ready to every good work’ (Titus 3:1). Therefore we pray your Majesty kindly to understand aright our meaning; which is, that we do not despise the eminent, noble, and gracious Queen, and her wise councils, but esteem them as worthy of all honour, to whom we desire to be obedient in all things that we may. For we confess with Paul, as above, that she is God’s servant, and that if we resist this power we resist the ordinance of God; for ‘rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.’ Therefore we confess to be due unto her, and are ready to give, tribute, custom, honour, and fear, as Christ Himself has taught us, saying, I Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). Since, therefore, she is a servant of God, we will kindly pray her Majesty that it would please her to show pity to us poor prisoners, even as our Father in heaven is pitiful (Luke 6:36). We likewise do not approve of those who resist the magistrates; but confess and declare, with our whole heart, that we must be obedient and subject unto them, as we have here set down.”

But it availed them nothing. They were Baptists. The Queen was told that the Baptists were incorrigible heretics, and that she would be doing God service if she put them to death. So she lighted again the flames of Smithfield.

We have referred to Sandys and Whitgift. Their writings teem with invectives against the Baptists. In his controversy with Thomas Cartwright, the Puritan, Whitgift endeavoured to show that the arguments employed by Cartwright in defense of separation from the Church of England were similar to those used by the “Anabaptists,” a sect which was “hated” by “all estates and orders of the realm.” He collected a number of extracts from the writings of Zuingli, Calvin, Bullinger, and others, and adopted them as containing true descriptions of the opinions and practices of the “hated” party, adding observations of his own to the same effect. He says that they make contentions wheresoever they come; that the churches are disquieted by them, and magistrates contemned and despised; that “they do with as spiteful words and bitter speeches condemn the Church of England as they do the Papistical Church;” that they count all them as wicked and reprobate which are not of their sect; that they are “great hypocrites;” that they constantly “invent new opinions, and run from error to error;” that they are “stubborn and willful, wayward and froward, without all humanity;” that they seek to “overthrow commonweals, and states of government;” that they “reject all authority of superiors;” that they seek “to be free from all laws, and to do what they list;” and, finally, that all this is “most true, and therefore no slander.” No comment on these monstrosities is required. They are fair specimens of the controversial style of the age.

Doubtless, it was an unpardonable sin in the Baptists that they condemned the interference of the civil power with religion. They were remarkably clear on that subject. Whitgift unwittingly does them justice. He observes that they taught that “the civil magistrate hath no authority in ecclesiastical matters, and that he ought not to meddle in causes of religion and faith”—that “no man ought to be compelled to faith and religion” —and that “Christians ought to punish faults, not with imprisonment, not with the sword, or corporal punishment, but only with excommunication.” These are scriptural truths, which the bishops aforesaid laboured to suppress, because their own nefarious proceedings were inconsistent with them.

When Terwoort and Pieters were led out to die, Gerrit van Byler and Hans van Straten were left in Newgate, uncertain as to their fate. How long they remained there is not known. It is said that they were heavily ironed because they had endeavoured to escape by filing asunder the bars of their dungeon. At length they were discharged, probably because the Government were unwilling to incur the odium of another burning.”

 

 

 

Today in London religious history, 1819: Followers of millenarian prophetess Joanna Southcott ’cause a riot’ in Cannon Street

The Woman Clothed with the Sun

Joanna Southcott  (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born in the hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon, England.

Originally in the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Methodist Church in Exeter, becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6). An apocalypse was coming, she announced, where the ‘satanic powers’ would be overthrown, and a messiah would return, to launch a Millennium of peace.

Moving to London, Southcott began selling paper “seals of the Lord” (at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea) – basically ‘Get Out of the Apocalypse Free’ Cards which supposedly ensured the holders’ places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life. She spent the 1790s recording a series of prophecies communicated to her, she maintained, by a ‘Spirit of Truth’; worldly events (war, famine, etc) signalling the impending end of days. The theology she developed set out a role for herself, partly identifying her with ‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’ described in the Book of Revelation (which features in a famous engraving by William Blake); empowered with the redemptive power of God, who would tale part in a war on heaven; she also foretold that a ‘Shiloh’ or prophet would appear immediately before Jesus’ return (again derived from Biblical writings)

The World Turned Upside Down

Southcott’s prophecies began to gain her followers, as her writings became wider known across the country. By 1814 she had gathered at least 12,000 adherents, although the movement was estimated as influencing many more; accurate figures are hard to nail down. Many of her followers had previously cleaved to Methodism, like herself, to other fringe Christian churches and to prophets like her near-contemporary Richard Brothers, The millenarian ferment could take wildly divergent forms: on one hand millenarians could by politically quietist, avoiding action for reform or social change in the immediate because they viewed the Second Coming of Jesus as imminent and that would sweep worldly structures away, but just as easily, millenarianism could evolve into the urgent compulsion to bring the Second Coming about by collective action. As Southcott was beginning her career this dangerous dichotomy had already landed Richard Brothers in prison, Brothers having spooked the authorities after predicting the downfall of Parliament and king George III in apocalyptic language so violent that it came close to echoing the revolutionary agitation of France. As during the years of the English Revolution, religious fervour and dreams of the apocalypse and everyday social change went to some extent hand in hand. Millenarians hanging out in London taverns rubbed shoulders with very earthly radicals, with ideas mingling at the fringes, producing individuals like James Hadfield, who tried to shoot king George III in 1800, convinced it would help bring about the Millennium. Figures like William Blake, who mixed religious millenarianism with radical desires for social justice, are not unusual in this evolving, fertile brew of milieu.

Many of Southcott’s followers (in common with the adherents of other prophets, Methodists and other sects) were of plebeian origins; the dream of overturning society appealing most obviously to those whose lives were often bitterly hard, faced with oppression, poverty and arbitrary powers above them. The massive social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the dislocation caused by enclosure, the political cataclysm represented by the French Revolution, were all combining to give birth of a varied, shifting, many-faceted sense of a world changing being turned on its head. Southcott herself, however, specifically opposed radical politics and warned her readers against following the reform-minded and republican paths. ‘Rebellion is as iniquity and Idolatry’, she wrote, urging her followers to ‘not trouble themselves about politics or parties and have no connection with desperate Men… avoid contention or strife’. She wrote a book in reply and opposition to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, and declared her support for the English monarchy.
Nevertheless among her following were a number of former radicals of the 1790s; on the other hand, after her death, a portion of the Southcottian scene did take part on reformist or radical politics.

Her followers created a network of Southcottian chapels (taking advantage of new easings on the opening of dissenting meeting houses), to hear sermons and sing hymns on the subject of the Millennium.

At the age of 64 Southcott let it be known that she was pregnant and would give birth to the new Messiah, the Shiloh mentioned in the book of of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was announced that Southcott was in a trance.

She died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it seems that she died the previous day, but her followers retained her body for a day or two, believing that she would soon be raised from the dead. They agreed to her burial only after the corpse began to decay.

Her death, without giving birth to the Messiah, didn’t completely disillusion her following, though the movement splintered into sects with diverging explanations for what had ‘happened’ at her death (had the Shiloh in fact been born but was taken up to God etc). The kind of rationalisation that generally takes place in cults when Millennial dates pass without visible sign of Apocalypse or Rapture… Elements of the Southcottian tradition continue to exit today, though much declined in number. Successor prophets including George Turner, John Wroe, and John ‘Zion’ Ward held sway in some parts of the Southcottian movement; other factions felt she could have no earthly successor.

‘A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm’

Engaged with radicalism or not, the movement attracted both the distrust of the authorities and something of the more general contempt and mockery that dissenting religious sects aroused among a section of the populace. Southcottians became occasional targets for mobs and general abuse.
At least once this led to a mini-riot. In January 2019 a family of Southcottians were arrested in the City of London after triggering a barney in the street. An account of their trial exists in the Newgate Calendar:

“SAMUEL SIBLEY; MARIA CATHERINE SIBLEY; SAMUEL JONES; his son; THOMAS JONES; JOHN ANGEL; THOMAS SMITH; JAMES DODD and EDWARD SLATER

Deluded followers of Joanna Southcott, the sham prophetess, tried for rioting, 13th of January, 1819

   A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm was exhibited before the sitting magistrate, at Guildhall, London, on the 13th of January, 1819, when Samuel Sibley, and Maria Catherine Sibley, his wife; Samuel Jones; his son, a boy of ten years’ old; Thomas Jones, John Angel, Thomas Smith, James Dodd, and Edward Slater, a boy of twelve years’ of age; were brought up from the Compter, by two officers of the Cordwainers’ Ward, who had with great difficulty, and at the hazard of their own lives, rescued the prisoners from the fury of an immense mob, in Budge-row, Cannon-street, about ten o’clock on the previous morning.

   These deluded people, it was ascertained, were disciples of the lately famous Joanna Southcott, of whom the public have heard so much, and conceived themselves directed by God to proclaim the Coming of Shiloh on Earth: for this purpose they assembled at the west end of the town, in order to enter the only gate of the great city (Temple-bar), through which they marched in procession about nine o’clock in the morning, They were each decorated with a white cockade, and wore a small star of yellow riband on the left breast; Sibley, who led the procession, bearing a brazen trumpet adorned with light blue ribands, and the boys carried each a small flag of blue silk.

   In this manner they had proceeded through Fleet-street, up Ludgate-hill, and along St Paul’s Church-yard, to Budge-row, a great crowd following them, increasing continually as they proceeded. Having arrived, as they supposed, in the middle of the great city, they halted, and began to perform their ceremonies. Sibley sounded the trumpet, and proclaimed the second coming of the Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, on earth; and his wife cried aloud, “Wo! wo! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the coming of the Shiioh!” This cry was repeated several times, and joined in with a loud voice by the others of the company.

   The crowd was by this time immense, every avenue was stopped up, and the passage of carts and carriages rendered impossible. The mob began with laughing and shouting at these miserably deluded people, and at length proceeded to pelting them with mud and every sort of missile they could procure; they, on their part, being most of them stout young men, resisted; the fight became general and tremendous, the flags were torn down, and Sibley and his associates with great difficulty preserved, by the exertions of the officers, from falling victims to the infuriated rage of the mob, and conveyed to the Compter. Their appearance, when put to the bar, bespoke the danger they had gone through; the men had been all rolled in the mud, and Sibley bore evident marks of violence in his face. The tattered remnants of the paraphernalia used on this singular occasion were also produced, and excited in the minds of all present a mixed sensation of pity and disgust at the assumption of holy functions and heavenly agencies in which the deluded fanatics had so impiously indulged.

   On being called upon by the magistrate, Mr. Alderman Bridges, to give an account of their conduct, in thus disturbing the public peace, Sibley, with an air of authority, directed the others to be silent, and, addressing the alderman, said, he regretted there was no time for him to enter into the particulars of the mission of God to him. He had been commanded by a voice, through the boy Slater, to announce that the Prince of Peace was come upon earth. He was commanded to proclaim the Second Coming of Shiloh, in the same manner, and with the same authority as John the Baptist had proclaimed his first coming. This proclamation he was to make three times in the midst of the great city, by the sound of the trumpet. He and his companions were obeying the commands of God, and in so doing had conducted themselves peaceably, and interfered with no one, when they were attacked by the mob.

   He was proceeding to explain the nature of the visions with which the boy had been favoured, and his wife was raising her voice to bear testimony to the fact of the Shiloh being on earth, whom she said she had had in her arms four times, when the magistrate interrupted them, and observed, that it was evident, if they were not insane, that they were acting under a strong delusion, and pointed out to them how much better they would have been employed in pursuing their regular avocations, than in being the cause of public riot, and endangering their own persons; recommending them to desist from any repetitions of their gross absurdities and delusions.

   The men in reply said, it was right they should obey God; but they would do whatever the magistrate directed, and desist from any further proclamation, assuring him at the same time that nevertheless the Shiloh was come.

   The Alderman said he would not rely on their promise, and should detain them all in custody till they could procure him some better assurance than their own words for their peaceable demeanour in future. They were accordingly conveyed back to the Compter in two coaches to protect them from the mob: one of the men on stepping into the coach, unbuttoned his coat, displayed his yellow star, and placing his hand on it, proclaimed that it was God’s colour.

   On the following morning, the whole party of these self-created heralds of heavenly news were again brought up before the sitting magistrate, Alderman Christopher Smith.

   Sibley was again the spokesman, and, in reply to the magistrate, who inquired if he had ever been in Bedlam, said, the gentlemen might laugh, but he was not mad, but had investigated the business thoroughly before he was convinced. He believed the Bible from cover to cover, and could point out the prophecies which were now fulfilling. He then went into a long rhapsody of nonsense respecting the visions with which the boy had been favoured by God, and declared he had witnessed miracles performed by him. In the course of his long address, he quoted the Scriptures very fluently, and concluded by referring, in justification of his belief, to the passage in which it is said, “in the latter days your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions.” Being asked what place of worship he attended, he replied, his church was his own house, No. 3, Gooch-yard, Upper Whitecross-street; there were about thirty of them who met there frequently, to read the Bible and receive commands of the Lord. He had now received command from God to desist from any further proclamation; and if the Prince Regent were to collect all the money in the world, and lay it at his feet, he dared not do it; the magistrate might therefore rely there would be no repetition of their previous conduct.

   In this declaration he was joined by his wife and the rest of his associates, who all declared aloud, that they dared not now proceed any further in this business. On this assurance on their parts, they were discharged with a suitable admonition from the worthy Alderman, and thus terminated this very singular mission.

   The leader of this redoubtable troop, Sibley, held the dignified station of watchman, in the neighbourhood of St. George’s Fields; and the rest of the maniac band was composed of journeymen mechanics and labourers, with their wives. The whole were grossly ignorant and stupid, but most inveterate1y conceited, and evidently acted under a full impression of the divine nature of the cause in which they were embarked.”

As noted above, the popular millenarian movement founded by Joanna Southcott enjoyed a complex relationship with political radicalism in early nineteenth-century Britain. Southcott opposed radicalism during her lifetime, encouraging her followers to await a messianic agent of the millennium. But within two decades of the prophet’s death, some surviving Southcottians became political radicals, most notably, John ‘Zion’ Ward (1781-1837) and James Elishama Smith (1801-57). Ward was a popular preacher during the agitations around the Reform Bill, speaking regularly at Carlile’s Rotunda; Smith was a utopian socialist lecturer, editor of Robert Owen’s journal Crisis, active in the co-operative movement’s attempt to create a ‘general trades union’ in 1833-34. The influence of Ward and Smith drew several hundred Southcottians into engagement with politics.

Historians have differed widely on the relationship of Southcottianism and religious millenarianism more widely to political radicalism. ‘Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism’ by Philip Lockley (published 2013) look like an interesting recent discussion of this interaction.

What’s In the Box? What’s In the Baaax?

The most intriguing myth of the Southcottian tradition centres around ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box. On her death, she left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England (who were to spend time beforehand studying Southcott’s prophecies). Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of the reluctant suffragan Bishop of Grantham, but this box was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. However, historians and followers of Southcott disputed Price’s claims to have had the true box; modern Southcottians the Panacea Society claim THEY have the real box, and ran an advertising campaign on billboards and in British newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, to try to persuade the twenty-four bishops to have the box opened, on the grounds that “War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.”

However, Southcott’s prophesy that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004 appears not to have come to pass, and her followers’ campaign for the contents of the box to be been studied beforehand (so that the world would have had to meet the Second Coming unprepared) fell on largely deaf ears…

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today in London religious history, 1971: protests against the reactionary christian Festival of Light continue

Just over two weeks after the Gay Liberation Front, women’s liberationists and other activist from London’s underground had made a laughing stock of the reactionary Christian Festival of Light at Westminster Central Hall, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park.

The opposition got into gear again… An alternative ‘Festival of Life’ was called for Hyde Park.

Thanks to the continued presence of the GLFs infiltrator in the Festival office, maximum confusion was wreaked on the organisation in the run-up to the 25th. Fake parking plans were mailed out, sending delegations form other town and cities to park miles away; letters were sent out a couple of days before announcing false time changes, and claiming the Trafalgar Square event had been cancelled.

In the Square, ‘old men in dark suits who carried signs that said, “Fear God” and “The Wicked Shall Be Turned Into Hell,” and young people, many more young ones than old, holding up the regulation Festival of Light poster, a map of the British Isles blazing brightly against a blue background. Young girls walked with rings of Jesus buttons pasted on their foreheads and in a circle on their hair. They wore T-shirts embroidered with buttons in the shape of a J that ran between their breasts, and the slogan “Smile, Jesus loves you” scrawled on the back. Even the Blackstone lions that guarded Nelson’s column had orange Jesus buttons glued into their eye holes.’

A number of GLF and feminist activists tried to disrupt the event in Trafalgar Square:

‘Michael [James] was a lady schoolteacher with a cane; Nicholas Bramble was the Spirit of Porn, Paul Theobald and Carla and others were dressed as riot police carrying the coffin of freedom, Mary McIntosh and others as choirboys, Michael Redding, Chris Blaby and Douglas MacDougall as nuns, me as Mary Whtehouse. We all met in Covent Garden, in Henrietta Street because we knew there would be heavy security hearer the Square, and we changed into our costumes in shop doorways. We got as far as the steps of St Martins, where I conducted the choir in ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’. We had planned to join the crowd and process to the rally in Hyde Park but we got as far as the south of the Square and we were blocked by the police.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was in the choir singing at Trafalgar Square. We knew the bit about the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate… that may have been the only verse we sung. We had to repeat it over and over.’ (Mary McIntosh)

‘I was part of a little Street theatre and we all organised ourselves into heterosexual couples and were chained together as heterosexual couples. There was a sort of sex symbol and a business man and I think I was a downtrodden housewife, and we had discussion with the people around us. So we formed this straggling little procession and we did manage to get to the base of the column… it was a pretty effective protest because people couldn’t quite suss whether we were hostile or not. We came up the back of the plinth and generally infiltrated into the crowd and the mass of Christians were basically confused as to whether this was just some odd it of the entertainment or not.’ (Sarah Grimes)

‘Richard Dipple was carrying a cross and there were thousands in Trafalgar Square, it was jammed to the gills. There was another group singing hymns and carols, I never knew who they were. Stuart stopped to conduct them. Then there were Womens Lib, they had a demo with prams and dolls and things. They were going across the top of the Square in front of the National Gallery. We slipped down by South Africa House and sidled up to the back of the column, no problem. I was a schoolteacher and I had all my kids in school costume, roped together and I was the oppressive schoolmarm with the cane and an earphone type wig. We had no intention of disturbing the rally itself at all. We were grossly outnumbered. What we were going to do was march with them or beside them. Mary Whitehouse and people were at the front. The police got freaked out – we were outside the railings on the pavement away from the Square itself, looking down towards Whitehall and they told us to stand there and we said, ‘We want to stand here, we’re not going anywhere else’, and this police inspector or sergeant or something freaked out and they started pushing us and pushing us until they hemmed us in to that little space between two of the lions. Well we had nowhere to go but up, because they were getting heavy, so up we went and we were quite happy there…’ (Michael James)

Mary Whitehouse took the podium. A former schoolteacher, her name was synonymous in Britain for opposition to publications like Oz, sex on the telly and dirty words on the wireless. She’d appeared on a panel show with Mick Jagger once and attacked him for “living in sin” with a woman. She is 61. “The eyes of the world are on what’s happening in Britain at this time,” she said, as a women’s lib banner began circling the crowd. It read “All God’s Children Got Nipples.”

‘They invaded the rostrum and the fake Mary Whitehouse, Stuart, was up there with the proper one. There were several Mary Whitehouses and very funny they looked.’ (John Chesterman)

‘We were gathering a crowd at the back, we had no microphones, so we were quite happy to have our little discourse. But then of course the police got up and of course we could only go higher and they got very rough and grabbed hold of me by the arms and legs and I was hauled down to the ground. I was terrified I was going to be thrown down another six feet from the plinth.’ (Michael James)

There were police chasing transvestites in all directions, smoke bombs going off… it looked like a revolution.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I saw this police inspector who’d started it all coming towards me. I was laying down with one leg free and I just gathered that leg up and shot for his balls. And I hit him, right in the balls. But he never knew it was me, because there were so many people there, all around us. But I got him. Then the next thing I knew, I was being see-sawed off the edge of the plinth. Then they dropped to the ground and I was being carried by the arms and legs, looking up through all these Christians who’d started marching off. They were screaming ‘Hang him! Birch him!’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly where you’re at now, isn’t that exactly it.’ I felt quite good about that, ‘I’ve dug you out, you’ve said what you really believe. We’ve got the truth.’ Once you get that, you know what you’re dealing with.’ (Michael James)

‘They accused us of being the Angry Brigade, that was what some Assistant Chief Constable said to us. As were pushed back against Nelson’s Column and our only way of escape was to get up on it, so we did. The ‘choirboys’ were at the bottom of the plinth, so we all started singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ again. The police were chasing us all over the plinth and they arrested some people And on the north side of the plinth were Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, Cliff Richard and Malcolm Muggeridge and so on. Michael Redding was accused of waving a cucumber obscenely while dressed as a nun. Some people escaped and made it to Hyde Park, but the police swooped on them and arrested them there.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was the only GLF woman arrested in the Square. Mary O’Shea heard a senior officer point at me and say ‘Get that one.’ Richard (Dipple), who was Jesus, took off his robe and crown and disappeared into the crowd. I was taken to Bow Street and put into a cell with the women from Women’s Street theatre who’d come as the nuclear family. Michele Roberts was dressed as the vicar’s wife, Alison Fell was the vicar’s son. They had come as a family and chained themselves together, so when the police picked up one of them they got the lot.’ (Carla Toney)

‘A few of us decided to use the occasion to try to expose the perverse morality of the Festival organisers. On the one hand they condemned lesbian and gay people for victimless consenting relationships, yet on the other hand they were totally silent about the war in Bangladesh which was resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people. We got some collecting tins from the organisation that was fundraising to help refugees in Bangladesh and went amongst the crowd in Trafalgar Square, soliciting donations. We challenged them over their apparent disinterest in the starvation and murder of people in Bangladesh. It very successfully put them on the spot over their distorted sense of moral priorities. They found it very embarrassing.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘I was slung into the van. They’d got Michael Redding previously because he was a nun. I don’t know how they’d managed to get him. Douglas MacDougall was also a nun. I think there were three nuns. And I think one of them escaped. Whoever got into the green van – the women were already there, they’d already picked the women up from the top and they’d done nothing. So it was clear that we were not going to be allowed to express our opinions at all. We were taken down to Cannon Row police station, just by Old Scotland Yard and there were more women there when we arrived, they’d got the singers and the dykes, they’d picked them off first. They knew what to look for, they knew who to look for. We were eventually bailed about nine or ten o’clock that night.’ (Michael James)

The Festival continued on its way to Hyde Park, harassed by activists, among them the GLF Youth Group. Several hundred demonstrators (mainly straight hippies, apparently), gathered at Marble Arch, pelted the marchers with stink bombs and jeered…

‘In detachments a block long, the marchers streamed out of the square to Hyde Park. They marched behind a wooden cross with the band booming… At Hyde Park, the sound of the band brought freaks running from all over the park across open green fields, swirling through fallen leaves and vaulting over a high spiked fence to join others already wheeling up Park Lane. Surrounding the band on all sides, a raggle-taggle army with right hands outstretched in a Hitler salute, chanting “Sieg Heil.” Freaks reading madly from the Bible with no one listening as they marched, freaks carrying little children in their arms, freaks carrying signs that read “Go To Hell — It’s More Fun” and wearing jackets that said “God Speeds.” ‘

In the park, huge numbers of police were arresting any protestors on any pretext. ‘The most beautiful of the GLF banners, with three interlocking circles, in red, purple and white, was confiscated by police as an offensive weapon and never returned, it is thought to have been destroyed at a later date.’

‘Sweeping into the park like a conquering army with the band playing for them, laughing people with long hair and open faces, goose-stepping along on the green grass singing “Lloyd George knew my father … father knew Lloyd George” in perfect time to “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Oh, do be quiet,” folksinger Judy Mc Kenzie scolded from the stage. “Praise God. Now I’m going to sing, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ He’s got the whole world …” she began.

“Between his legs,” the crowd screamed.

“He’s got the whole world …” she repeated.

“In his pants,” the crowd howled.’

As at Central Hall, Tony Salvis was dressed a vicar again, lecturing to a large crowd… So, this time around was ‘Father Fuck of Tooting’:

‘We always have younger cannabis in the Church of Aphrodite at Elmbourne Road in Tooting… we keep it in the Chalice on the altar. We… said that our church’s contribution in the Festival of Light will be a sacrificial cake baked in the shape of a phallus with half an ounce of cannabis as one of the ingredients, that we’ll take it to Hyde Park and share it with the people as the sacraments of the church… three of us took it to Hyde Park… I got up on our sacrificial altar and a crowd of about 100 heads gathered round me.

I told my listeners that the prick is the symbol of our Church because the prick with a lovely pair of ball is the symbol of life and the cross is the symbol of death. The heads were saying ‘Lets have the sacrament now’… I performed the religious ceremony: I broke off the knob of the prick, crushed it in my fingers and as the crumbs were falling to the ground I was praying aloud For Peace, For Love, For Freedom. Having thus prayed I broke off another piece of it for myself and handed the rest to the people to be shared as the sacrament of our Church.

Man, you’ve never seen a faster castration of the prick. It just disappeared in ten seconds… great happiness all round!… Later I got a bit closer to the Jesus people, put up our altar, got on it and started to indoctrinate my listeners… about 100 people were listening to me, some Jesus people, some heads… I was grabbed by a bobby and about six of them started to drag me to the waiting police van… A girl, a psychologist, walks beside us and keeps asking the policeman ‘Why are you arresting this man?’… she too is pulled into the van. Then they drive us to Hyde Park police station. A bobby says to me ‘What’s your occupation?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘Occupation?’ ‘Minister of religion’ says I. ‘Will you sign for bail?’ ‘Yes’ says I. ‘In what name?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘I can’t accept that name’ says he and they lock me up in the cell till Monday.’ (Father Fuck)

[NB: Father Fuck, aka Paul Pawlowski, was later one of the organisers of the somewhat abortive Windsor Free Festival in 1972. The Church of Aphrodite was apparently dedicated to ‘psychedelia and shagging’.]

‘Cliff Richard, once Britain’s Elvis and now a convert to Christ, came out and plugged in.

“Ooooh, it’s Cliff,” a GLFer moaned, swooning, “Oh, Cliff.”

“If we get honest with ourselves …” Cliff is saying on stage.

“Be honest, Cliff,” someone shouted. “Admit you’re a homosexual. … Come out, Cliff.” ‘

[2018 Note: he never has yet!]

‘Everyone was charged with breach of the peace and put in the cells, but Nicholas Bramble got charged with assault, which was much more serious. I was opposite him in the line when they charged him and all it was, was that a policeman had cut his little finger on Nicholas Bramble’s diamante bracelet while arresting him. Nicholas was a trained dancer and when the policeman had grabbed him, he’d locked his arms and the policeman’s hand had slipped. He ended up having a separate trial from the rest of us, but he was found not guilty. We went to court in the drag we were arrested in. I was Mary Whitehouse, in the dock with Paul Theobald and Chris Blaby. We used friends as Mackenzie lawyers and a Catholic Worker priest gave evidence to say that he hadn’t been offended, but wherever nuns appeared they were found guilty even though the rest of us weren’t. Nicholas Bramble felt that there was very little support within GLF for the people who’d been arrested and he said so at a meeting…’ (Stuart Feather)

‘We came up at Bow Street and we all had Mackenzie lawyers, defending ourselves. Michael Redding appeared first, in a frock I think, he was done for being a nun, they accused him of masturbating with a cucumber. I had big floppy trousers, a wrapover dress and a long maxi-coat and an Indian headscarf wound round. I don’t think I was wearing make-up. My nails were painted though. Michael was found guilty. I went in and the magistrate screamed at me straight away, ‘Take that hat off!’ I thought, what on earth’s he talking about? He said ‘You take that hat off’ and I said ‘but I’m not wearing a hat.’ I wasn’t, I was wearing a scarf, not a hat. He said ‘Take that thing off your head’ and I said ‘Excuse me, I’m coming here to be tried on a charge, what I wear is entirely up to me, it’s not up to you, you don’t buy my clothes, you’ve got no say over what I wear.’ ‘I’ll also charge you with contempt of court.’ I said ‘I’m not in contempt of court, I’m in contempt of you.’ ‘Get out of here and don’t come back while you’ve got the hat on!’ So I’m led from the well of the court by two detectives, but just as I’m leaving Douglas (MacDougall) is coming in with a full circle skirt and a broderie anglaise blouse. And I thought, go on girl, you deal with that now.

Douglas came out and I was called back into court and the magistrate said to me ‘I see you still intend to remain contemptuous of this court’ and I said ‘I’m not contemptuous, but as I pointed out to you, you do not buy my clothes and you’ve got o right to tell me what to wear. This is a free country.’ He went ‘Hmph! Let’s get on with it then.’ So we got on with the case and the policeman who arrested me was lying his head off and I cross-examined him. He accused me of shouting this obscene rhyme, it was very bad and I thought ‘what!’ and said something very dismissive like ‘If I’m going to make up rhymes I’m sure I can do better than that.’ I said ‘That was made up in a police canteen and it sounds like it.’ We hadn’t been shouting anything obscene at all, not as far as I was aware.

The dock was actually about a foot away from the magistrate, I could reach over and touch him. He said ‘Tell me what happened’ and I said ‘Can I start from the beginning?’ I went into the background of the demonstration and my part in it. He said ‘What were you?’ and I explained I was meant to represent a repressive schoolmarm. He said ‘Did you have button boots?’ and I said ‘Oh yes, I did.’ And he said ‘I think I’ll dismiss this case’ and he did. Obviously a shoe fetishist.’ (Michael James)

‘The elements of camp and theatricality gave a lot of the actions a strong humorous edge which police officers often found hard to deal with. They were used to responding to belligerent macho left-wing demonstrations, but because GLF didn’t fit that traditional pattern they found it a bit unnerving. If we had followed the orthodox leftist way of doing things with the clenched fist, all very serious and quite threatening, the police would have come down on us heavier and quicker. Because some officers could see the amusing side to what we were doing it was psychologically disarming for them… The GLF style of protest was political jujitsu – we threw the police off balance by not conforming to their expectations.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘…we were being festive. We had a lot of debate about the Festival, how it was moral rearmament and fundamentalist. We did see it as very dangerous. It might have developed as something rather unpleasant and I think it was one of those rare events that [the opposition] succeeded in tis objectives. Everyone loved putting energy into doing it, it was a target made for us.’ (Sarah Grimes)

The Festival organisers’ predictions for the mass turnouts expected at the final rallies turned out to be grossly exaggerated – about 35,000 turned up, rather than the forecasted 100,000. The protests helped to deflect the plans the Christians had to step up their movement, which never won the mass public support they had aimed for.

Sarah Grimes’ conclusion, that the GLF-inspired disruptions had effectively crippled the Festival of Light’s grandiose plans, seems to be borne out by some of the organisers’ own hindsight. John Capon, the official historian of the Festival, concluded that the press coverage of the main events and the opposition had reduced the whole movement to ridicule. This was summed up by the response of a man in the street to an interviewer asking what they knew about the Festival: ‘Isn’t it something about mice and nuns?’

This post was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’.

and some came from here

Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary christian Festival of Light

“Excuse me, Sister, we’ve heard some homosexuals and radicals are going to try and disrupt our meeting here tonight. Will you pray for them?”

The National Festival of Light was founded in 1971. The original founding impulse had come from two christian missionaries, Peter and Janet Hill, on their return to England after spreading the word of god to the benighted – whether the benighted wanted it or not.

After four years as evangelical Baptist missionaries in India, the Hills experienced a sense of culture shock when they discovered that sexually explicit content was more prevalent in the mass media than when they had left. Getting in touch with vocal figures in the media, the couple helped launch the National Festival of Light in May 1971, to oppose “pornography and moral pollution”.

Journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, “clean-up TV” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, Labour cabinet member Lord Longford, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston soon became the faces of the Festival, which vowed to campaign against what they saw as the growing trends in the mass media for the explicit depiction of sexual and violent themes and for the restoration of conservative Christian morality in the UK. Pop star Cliff Richard and actress Dora Bryan were key supporters of the NFOL; many evangelical churches supported the movement, including the repulsive Salvation Army. The Festival quickly gained support among rightwingers, reactionaries and neo-fascist throwbacks of various stripes…  Signs of impending apocalypse many of the Festival supporters included the growth of sex outside marriage, the proliferation of sex in films, homosexuality, the Oz trial

The movement had two expressed aims: to protest against “sexploitation” in the media and the arts, and to offer the teaching of Christ as the key to ‘recovering moral stability in the nation’. Some supporters naturally emphasised the first, and others the second. Plans were made for major public events, including the lighting of beacons on hilltops throughout the United Kingdom, and culminating in a massed march to a public rally in Trafalgar Square and an open-air concert of Christian music in Hyde Park.

The administrative task of enlisting the support of Christian churches and denominations throughout the UK was a colossal one, as indeed was the necessity for public relations with the press and the general public. The committee and many local volunteers were occupied with this throughout the first half of 1971.

From the start, its overtly Christian proselytising attracted the critical attention of the counter-culture, which saw the message of moral reform as code for sexual repression, censorship and a return to the puritanical social values of previous eras. Homosexuality and women’s liberation, the one having been decriminalised (for men over 21) only 4 years before, and the latter in its early days challenging centuries of patriarchal domination, were both viewed dimly by many of the Festival’s supporters. These movements were not slow to rise to challenge the evangelicals’ attempt to return Britain to the dark ages…

It was the Gay Liberation Front who took the initiative in opposing it. They sent an undercover volunteer to infiltrate its headquarters and report back on its plans.

The Festival was scheduled to launch officially with a huge prestigious rally on September 9th 1971 in Westminster Central Hall; the organisers saw this as their chance to get publicity for the campaign in the media. The GLF, women’s liberation movement and other underground groups set their sights on disrupting this rally and making it a disaster. As a result, the day became what the Festival themselves admitted was a total laughing stock…

‘The Festival of Light was put to us in the middle of the summer and we were told it was this group of League of Empire Loyalists and all sorts of strange people and anti-gay. All the information was got for us by people from the Monty Python team and it was funded by Graham Chapman and others via Denis Lemon. Janet went to work in the Festival office and she got tickets and things so that more could be forged.’ (Michael James)

The GLF had been founded the previous October, and was then at its most active and creative. It was holding meetings of 400-500 every week, bursting with energy and pushing at the boundaries in almost every direction it could explode.

‘We would spend whole weekends talking about ways of furthering gay liberation and countering our opponents. John Chesterman had the kind of mind that could work out plans like kidnapping a statue or subverting a book. The festival action was much more than just Street Theatre people. They were there from other hippie groups and from the underground press.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘ ‘Networking’ as a word didn’t really exist then but its what we did over the Festival of Light. We started to put word out through the underground press. I persuaded Janet to volunteer for the Festival, in their main office, so we had access to all the literature and even the mailing list. Ae sent out fake mailings on it. For the big final rally, we sent out false parking plans for the coaches, which gave people real hassle.’ (John Chesterman)

The action to disrupt the September 9th rally became known as Operation Rupert. A number of groups were organised, each acting independently, who would kick off inside the rally in turn…

‘John Chesterman… asked us in advance to think of ideas for something to do, but not to tell anyone what our idea was. We met in the office, identified who our groups were and he gave us a number each. I was number seven and I knew who number six was. He said that once number six was finished, you won’t know what they’re doing, but you then take off from there in your own time.’ (Michael James)

‘John handed round a note: Festival of Blight – opening ceremony… Enter the hall in small groups. Ones or twos. Act unobtrusively. Dress conservatively. Act cool. Make no sign of protest until it is your turn. Do not speak to each other. Sit as close to the centre of your row as possible. Let the previous demonstration finish completely before you start yours. Let everyone settle down and the speeches start again. Part of the purpose is to slow down and delay proceedings. Stick to the agreed form of protest and/or slogans and do so clearly and loudly. Offer passive resistance only. Do not fight back. A general brawl will only confuse he media image. If there is any aggression, let them look like the villains in the press reports. Do not carry anything that could be construed as an offensive weapon. Do not carry dope or anything else illegal. You may be arrested so make arrangements… beforehand. Make no statements to the police until you have legal assistance. They can not force you to do so. Do not speak to the press or TV.

The Festival of Light demonstration was the most enjoyable one because it was perfectly orchestrated. All the libertarian left groups collaborated and nobody leaked it, which was amazing…’ (Tim Clark)

As a number of GLF members discovered a prodigious talent for forgery, there were more than enough tickets to the Festival for all who wanted to get involved in the disruption…

‘We all met at Cleopatra’s Needle beforehand. Underneath a suit I had a beige lace dre4ss with pearl buttons all the way down the front, long sleeves and a full circle lace skirt. I don’t know how I’d managed to crush it all up and get it into my trousers, but they weren’t looking for things like that. Peter Flannery and I chose this space right at the back of the Central Hall… It has this incredibly steep rake, so we sat against the back wall in the middle of the row. Gradually the hall filled up and we saw various people sitting around the hall in various spots.’ (Michael James)

Many of those who had infiltrated the hall were unaware of the scope of the plans, so tight had security been kept.

‘At Central Hall, I was with a group of people from the Youth Group who were in the balcony… it was left to everybody’s common sense and judgment about when to erupt and what to do. All we did have worked out was that different people were assigned different things… the group I was with was assigned to erupt and express same-sex affection at a relevant moment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘It had taken just over ten days to organise. Fifteen independently operating but coordinated groups. GLF, Womens Lib, IT, Oz, Frendz, and others. But mainly GLF. Phone calls; meetings; leaflets to be written, printed and distributed; costumes; banners; all the last minute panic, hustle and briefings. About 150 people from almost all the radical groups in London. That was probably the most important thing of all. NCCL came along as observers. Many individuals came on their own and stood on their own in that huge audience.’ (John Chesterman).

The Festival organisers had possibly got some wind of the likelihood that disruption could expected; but had no idea of what they would face:

‘To cope with any disruptive tactics or opposition within the hall a strong body of marshals was recruited. It could hardly have been visualised how necessary they were going to be… Stewards had noticed several members of the audience who, to say the least, looked unlikely to be supporters of the Festival. Among the characters regarded with suspicion were half a dozen young ‘nuns’. Stewards quickly spotted that some of the were young men in disguise. To minimise trouble a steward was stationed behind each ‘nun’ in the audience!’ (And Then There Was Light, John Capon – the official history of the Festival of Light)

‘Janet and I had the white mice and Mary Whitehouse recognised Janet. She said, ‘Don’t I know you?’ but she couldn’t quite make the connections, and when the disruption was at its height she turned and gave Janet a very hard look. People did see us release the mice and this woman started hitting me over the head in a frenzied manner with her handbag, yelling ‘Jesus loves you’ again and again.’ (Jane Winter)

‘I can remember a woman coming up to Tony Salvis, who was dressed as a bishop. She made some remark about how we were living in a very sinful world, none of us is without sin. Tony turned to her and said ‘Don’t worry sister, keep right on sinning.’ The woman just stood there frozen for several seconds with her mouth ajar and looked Tony up and down and just walked off in utter bewilderment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘Where the hell were the others? Had they got past the heavies on the door? The faces more than fifteen feet away ran into a blur. Nuns. There should be nuns. One group, yes, two, three. Were they ours? They looked too genuine. Jesus, they were actually praying. Damn this sweat. The stewards at the end of the row were looking this way. The one with the glasses had been down on the Embankment when we were assembling. Cameras, microphones, choirs, people. Hundreds, thousands of them. All the galleries full and more coming in. Somewhere out there were the groups. They had to be. Waiting for the signal. Had they got the right positions? How many of the props had they got in? Stop trembling, it must be a dead giveaway. Smile. Suddenly, a couple of yards away, a small white mouse ran like slow clockwork across the aisle. They were there.’ (John Chesterman’s notes).

‘The choir was up on stage in plum velvet cloaks. The first thing that happened was the applause – we just went on applauding, loud and slow, which has a certain menace.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘Things started and there was clapping going on too long – I think that was John Chesterman – and so they asked him to leave.’ (Michael James)

‘I didn’t get slung out because I wasn’t disruptive. One of the things I thought was impressive about it was that when Trevor Huddleston spoke, nobody interrupted him because we did all respect him and we thought he’d made a mistake. Michael Brown and I wrote him a letter with our awareness group, asking him not to be part of it and he actually went and met with this group and eventually withdrew from the Festival of Light. And I think that’s partially because we didn’t just abuse him. Because we knew in a way that he was misguided. I remember various folk groups and then people coming and talking sodomy and unchristian marriage and abortion, those were the kind of people who got interrupted.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘We got everyone spaced around the hall and then I noticed that opposite the front row where I was sitting there was a row of plugs. I managed to pull out two but it wasn’t enough. I kept going back in after being thrown out. The trouble was pacing people; everybody wanted to do their bit straight away.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I remember all the mice being released. Two elderly women holding on to each other suddenly unfurled a banner from the balcony saying ‘Cliff for Queen’. It became total mayhem as he incidents started to pile up into each other. We deposited fake religious literature around which had religious covers, so they would be picked up and taken away to be read – only inside it was porn.’ (Tim Clark)

Danish evangelist Johannus Facius lectured the audience of the terrible fate of his home country after it had liberalised censorship laws – only to be nearly drowned out by the saboteurs in the crowd. The organisers tried to out-noise the protest with loud hymns…

‘What was most bewildering to the Festival goers was the range of tactics used and the layers of reality abused. People were blowing bubbles peacefully alongside displays of same-sex affection, suddenly disrupted by respectable-looking people erupting into obscenity or arguing with the speakers while mice scuttled around the hall. Talcum powder and pornography inside christian texts showered down from the balcony. Worst of all, you couldn’t even trust the church.

‘Tony Salvis was going round (as a vicar) going ‘Bless you, my son.’ He did look absolutely right for the part. All these Christians were coming up very worried about these dreadful homosexuals and then eventually he revealed himself in some way and it was ‘Oh no, not another one!’ Because he looked so respectable.’ (Nettie Pollard).

‘And then Malcolm Muggeridge came forward to speak. Because of his thorough recantation of his earlier liberal views he, like Cliff Richard, was a particular target for the demonstrators and he compounded their feelings almost immediately. ‘Malcolm Muggeridge was vile. He was the one who said he disliked homosexuals or something like that.’ (Nettie Pollard)

When Muggeridge made a statement about hating gays, that was when our youth group got up and started kissing. Lesbian couples and gay couples started kissing. We got jeered and abused by the Festival of Light people in the seats around us. Some of them tried to push and shove us out of the way but we just carried on kissing for about ten minutes.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘When Malcom Muggeridge started to attack homosexuals, Simon (Benson) stood p a few rows in front of him and said, ‘If hat is so, you must really dislike someone who is both homosexual AND Jewish.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Malcolm Muggeridge was so badly heckled that the choir was brought back on to sing ‘How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds’  – wheeling the choir on seems to have been the standard response to disruption – while attempts were made to restore order by the stewards.

‘Plainclothes men were practically carrying me down the corridor. ‘Think yourself bloody lucky. We want a word with you outside.’ Suddenly the corridor was blocked by a large bald-headed man wearing a bible. ‘You homosexuals are SCUM. You are nothing but BESTIAL FILTH’ He was breathing into my face, shaking with rage and hysteria. ‘Read this and find out what subversive MUCK you are.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘It was round this time that the nuns acted. I was just by them and I remember someone saying to them, ‘Pray for us, sisters’, and I couldn’t believe they honestly thought they were nuns. They were a mixture of men and women including Sue Gimore. As far as I remember, they started walking towards the front and then started running and whooping and about then the mice were released, I don’t know who did that. But they got right up the front and people were absolutely staggered, they couldn’t believe it. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them that people would dress as nuns. They thought they were real nuns and they couldn’t cope – it was incomprehensible, these people had gone mad suddenly. It was the first time we had used nuns on a gay demonstration in Britain.’ (Nettie Pollard)

[Dressing as nuns however had been used previously by womens liberation groups to confuse the police on their demos…]

The GLF nuns had been part of a grander plan which had not come to fruition. According to John Chesterman, they were sitting around in the GLF office one day planning the action when Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus stuck his head round the door.

‘He was always the sort of person who wouldn’t come right into the room, he just hovered in and out. He said ‘D’you want any camels?’ and there was a sort of stunned silence and someone said ‘yes’. The after a few seconds pause, someone else said, probably joking, ‘And nuns.’ Camels and nuns’ he said, ‘Okay’. But there were all sort of regulations and licences, we were supposed to find camel handlers, for God’s sake. So in the end we just had the nuns.

I was dressed up as an American evangelist’s wife with some bloke from round here, it drew in all sorts of people. We had football rattles and we were supposed to run up and down the aisle shouting. It was co-ordinated really well and so it was triggered. You could have mice and then stink bombs and snow and the football rattles. Anyway, we got thrown out and I went ‘Oh my God this is terrible. They’ve just thrown me out and I’m an innocent woman going to the toilet!’ Then this husband and I ran down the middle shouting ‘Fuck for Jesus’ in front of Cliff Richard. Anyhow we got thrown out again. Meanwhile the nuns came out, and all the audience was going ‘yes sisters!’ and then they turned round and started doing the cancan and people realised they were men.’ (Julia L)

‘The nuns took off in a flying phalanx, down the aisles towards the platform. A banner unravelled with a personal invitation to Cliff Richard to take over the monarchy. On the platform he had the grace to blush.’ (John Chesterman)

‘In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd’s shocked, one of the nun’s robes comes off … hairy legs and big ugly boots … it’s Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.’

‘A mouse, sailing through the air, landed on a lap full of hymn sheets. A section of the audience erupted. Peter (Bette Bourne), unstoppable, was loudly complaining of the atmosphere of violence, the disturbing vibrations and how could he concentrate on God? A woman turned around in front of him. ‘There you are’ he said, ‘I can see the violence in your eyes.’ ‘No, no, it’s the light of Jesus.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I was eventually thrown out, I was shouting out ‘There is violence in this room, there is violence’ and me and John Church, who were two trained actors, gave it lots of voce.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘My cue was Bette Bourne because I knew Bette. Bette was sat across the other side of the hall in the front row dressed as Colonel Blimp, tweeds and things. The demo previous had been a ‘Cliff for Queen’ banner which had suddenly been unfolded over the front of the balustrade. They had been hustled out with a great noise and pushing and shoving and ranting and raving. Bette started in this wonderful county voice, going ‘There is violence going on here, these men are being beaten up, there’s no reason for physical violence.’ He shocked everyone because it was quite true and it freaked the stewards, who were kicking people, to have it brought to everyone’s attention.

They sussed that Bette was part and parcel o the demo and he was asked to leave, but during this time I’d transformed myself from the three-piece suit, slipped out of that, given it to Peter next to me, who’d put it into a carrier bag, plumped out this lovely coffee lace dress, put the shoes and a little bit of eye shadow and lipstick on and a wig. Nobody noticed – we were at the very back of the hall and people were standing up to sing every time there was a demonstration and I was sat down getting ready behind them. The people next to me didn’t notice, they were too busy looking to see what was happening around the rest of the room.

It was in the middle of Malcolm Muggeridge’s speech. He must have paused and I shot up in the back of this row and screamed out ‘I’ve been saved! I believe! I see the Lord!’ just doing this terrible cod impression of a Southern belle who’s suddenly seen the light. Being where we were, in the middle of a row with that steep rake, they had to be very gentle getting us out. We didn’t fight, Peter and I came quietly but we made sure they came to us first. So they had to get everybody out the first half of the row and shuffle in disruption and I had this wonderful huge steep staircase to the exit in full view of everybody in the hall. I came down very slowly with this beautiful dress wafting the lace all over people’s heads and continuing on in the same vein ‘I believe! I’ve seen the Lord! I’ve been saved! Glory hallelujah!’ all the way down these stairs.’ (Michael James)

‘I remember when Michael [James] said ‘I’ve been saved!’ people went ‘Hallelujah!’ thinking that somebody really had found Christ. I think these Christians were extremely naïve, because I don’t think any of us looked right. I mean, this extra-ordinary over made-up man dressed as a woman… and he was right at the back, up against the wall and stood on his seat or something. I didn’t actually know who it was at the time, then gradually he was revealed as a man.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘He came down the steps in full drag with all these people cheering, they didn’t know whether to take it seriously. The meeting was totally disrupted, people were taking out the nuns and the elderly because they thought it was going to get violent, but it wasn’t violent at all, it was harmless apart from the stewards, but it was extremely powerful in term of disruption.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘As if all that was happening within the hall wasn’t enough, a small squad from the office collective, led by Martin Corbett, had managed to get into the basement below and interrupted part of the electricity, causing problems for people trying to film and adding to the air of general anarchy. ‘Mine was one of the last actions of the day. We just put on Ku Klux Klan drag and stood there demanding that perverts be burnt at the stake… we all got thrown out by stewards wearing crosses, who got quite a few thumps in to prove to us that they were the church militant, I suppose.’ (Stuart Feather)

John Capon, in his official history of the Festival of Light, claimed that after this the protest largely ended and the speakers were able to speak unhindered – however, most GLF memories suggest otherwise, and that small-scale protests and heckling continued.

‘Outside, a nearby pub was crowded with post-mortems and high spirits. Check leaflets for distribution. ‘Is someone outside to direct he groups in here? When does the audience come out? Hey, the BBC TV news cameras are out there.’ Tony being interviewed ‘Are you a Roman Catholic or Protestant?’ ‘I’m a priest of the liberation.’ Crowds sweeping out. Leaflets. ‘Read our side of the story.’ The leaflet with crosses on it is easiest to give away. They take them as a reflex action.

The bald-headed steward is there again. ‘Get out of here. You are ANIMALS. You are intruding on our privacy.’ ‘It’s a public meeting.’ ‘Only if you have tickets.’ I give him a handful. Eleven or twelve. He tears them in two and throws them on the floor.

‘Litter’ I remind him gently, and dodge.

(John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I don’t think anyone got arrested, which is fairly amazing. There was an attempt to arrest somebody outside for kissing a policeman, but it didn’t work. There was this enormous sea of lesbians and gay men suddenly around the policeman and I remember him looking around and thinking, I don’t think this is worth it, and he shuffled off. It was very, very funny indeed. You often saw police at a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to handle us. I remember there was a stall with Christian books and people from GLF started stealing them. I got one of Trevor Huddleston’s books that someone gave me and I said to Paul Theobald, ‘I don’t think we should be stealing these books’ and he said, ‘Of course we should.’ He believed it was tight but I’m not sure.

There was a definite decision to try and talk to people as they came out. It was a really nice atmosphere and I genuinely think that talking to some of those people did have an effect and they did think twice about whether or not they should be involved. Because they weren’t just being shouted at. Although we did such outrageous things we were real people prepared to talk with them. I went to the thing OutRage! disrupted in Brighton. The Christian Family thing about three years ago, and what happened there was that they rushed the stage and got thrown out and then as everybody was leaving they went through a cordon of angry lesbians and gay men shouting abuse at them. I just thought, what is the point of this? Because we’re neither preventing them from doing this nor are we making them think. All we’re doing is making them think we’re rabble.’ (Nettie Pollard)

The whole area of pavement outside the entrance is covered with arguing groups as a public discussion gets under way with the Children of God. Inside there is a confrontation with those of the organisers and speakers who are prepared to talk. The Jesus-freak, the beautiful one with the long blond hair and flowing beard, the one with the pale blue eyes, screams, ‘You people are an abomination!’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Press coverage of the Festival launch dwelt heavily upon the disruption, and some papers took the mick out of the christians. The Daily Mirror reported ‘five bogus nuns… fending off hefty stewards’. The Guardian reported about 150 protestors, making special mention of the nuns, the Southern belle and Bette Bourne’s Colonel Blimp. The publicity was a serious blow to the Festival; it fatally undermined their attempt to be taken seriously, and opened the gates for other protestors to take a potshot at them elsewhere. As local Festival rallies took place around the country, opposition began to mount up. At Rochdale, a Festival rally was disrupted by the White Panthers. The central plank of the Festival was the lighting of a series of beacons across the UK to symbolise the urgent warning against sin and the cleansing moral fire. One of the beacons was mysteriously burnt down the night before its scheduled date… Others were prevented by objections to local authorities…

Just over two weeks later, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park…

To be continued…

This was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: AN Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’. A very fine book…

There’s a short video here of some of the ex-GLF disruptors talking about their part in the protest.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London religious history, 1742: Methodist John Wesley stoned by unbelievers, Whitechapel.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist branch of the Christian mystery, was a great one for preaching to large crowds in the open air. Throughout much of the 18th century, Wesley could be found bothering people with his brand of religion, in fields, squares, commons… whether people wanted to be bothered or not.

Many of the crowds that gathered when he preached didn’t come to listen or be converted. Many came to mock, catcall, and take the piss. And often they went further…

On September 12th 1742, Wesley’s attempt to preach in Great Gardens, an open space between Whitechapel and nearby Coverlet Fields, ended with him being stoned by non-believers:

“Many of the beasts of the people laboured much to disturb those who were of a better mind. They endeavoured to drive in a herd of cows among them: but the brutes were wiser than their masters.” Not totally disheartened by the failure of their unpredictable and obviously unmotivated cattle, the demonstrators rely on a more manageable weapon, the traditional stone: “One . . . struck me just between the eyes: but I felt no pain at all; and when I had wiped away the blood, went on testifying with a loud voice that God hath given to them that believe “not the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”  {Wesley, Journal. Ill, 45).

Wesley had been attacked already that year: in January he had been pelted with stones while preaching in his Long Lane chapel. In St Ives in 1743, Wesley was beaten up by a crowd; there were riots at Falmouth and Wednesbury against him.

Some of these events were were just plain old dislike of godbotherers telling people how to live and get saved. However, some of the violence targeted at Wesley and other Methodists was somewhat more complex…

inspired by more orthodox Anglican clergy, trying to cut out the competition. Wesley and his fellow Methodists were seen as dangerous, possibly Catholic in sympathy, and suspicious. The Anglican establishment and elements of the existing social hierarchy that backed Anglicanism as a vital part of the status quo, combined to prevent Wesley from preaching, and encouraging violence against him. In some cases people were paid, or even forced, by their employers to join crowds attacking Wesley and other Methodists. Magistrates sometimes declined to prosecute rioters who attacked Wesley and his congregations, which of course gave a green light to further attacks…

The Whitechapel mini-riot against Wesley seems to have been pure joyous spite against holy rollers, however… Nothing wrong with that. An old East End tradition, that the Skeleton Army would later revive a century and a half later.

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Today in London’s religious history, 1553: a riot at St Paul’s

The religious divisions of mid-16th century England may not have given birth to outright civil war, as happened in France, though there were a number of abortive rebellions pertly stimulated by religious aims. London was a centre of religious debate and dissent – always a hotchpotch and melting pot of religious ideas, simply because of its size and the different communities attracted here, and the opportunity to meet people, discuss ideas, evolve new theologies…

The rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors – from Catholic orthodoxy, through the dissolution of the monasteries and mild reform, radical Protestantism, catholicism, to a milder Anglicanism – saw dissenters of various stripes burnt, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

Mid-16th century London had evolved many dissenting protestant congregations, nominally part off the one established church, which were variously tolerated, persecuted, encouraged, then repressed again… While many people held strong beliefs one way or the other, most were very likely content to adhere to whatever wouldn’t get them into trouble with the authorities. Though the bewildering theological roller-coaster caught out many who just couldn’t keep up with what was orthodoxy and what was heresy this month…

Opposing views sometimes led to violent clashes.

On August 13th 1553, a riot broke out outside St Pauls Cathedral, at ‘Pauls Cross,’ when worshippers objected to a preacher praying for the souls of the departed and defended the widely hated Bishop Bonner.

Catholic Queen Mary had recently succeeded to the throne and was in the first stages of rolling back the strict protestant regime of her predecessor Edward VI. The reformers who had dominated Edward’s reign were in a desperate rearguard action against reversal of their changes.

This incident is noticed in the public chronicles. Gilbert Bourne, the preacher, Queen Mary’s chaplain, offended the audience by speaking vehemently in the defence of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who was already known as a prosecutor of protestants and other ‘heretics’ and would garner an odious reputation over the next five years for burning numerous dissenters under Queen Mary’s catholic regime. Bourne also spoke out against against the protestant reformer bishop Ridley. A great crowd booed and abused Bourne, with cries of “Papist, Papist! Tear him down!” One of the crowd threw a dagger at Bourne, which struck one of the sideposts of the pulpit. “Maister Bradford, the celebrated Reformer, came forward to persuade the people to quietness, and by the help of that worthy man and of maister Rogers, (both of whom were afterwards sacrificed in cold blood by their religious adversaries,) Bourne was conveyed safely away into Paul’s School. Grafton’s Abridgement, 1566, and Stowe’s Summarie of the same date.”

The privy council, which was sitting at the Tower of London, took immediate alarm at this disturbance. On the 16th of August, Homfrey Palden was “committed to the counter for seditious wordes uttered by him againste the preacher Mr. Burne for his sermon at Paule’s crosse on Sunday last;” and the same day the celebrated Bradford and Veron, “two seditious preachers,” were committed to the Tower, as was “Theodore Basill, alias Thomas Beacon, another seditious preacher.”

Subsequent sermons in the following weeks saw preachers thought to be speaking on matters that would inflame their hearers protected by up to 200 armed guards. The next sermon was specifically on the subject of loyalty to the monarch’s religious decrees and to ‘the old faith’.

What is not clear is the composition of the crowd that kicked off against Bourne’s sermon. Were they radical protestants? Regular churchgoers to whom Bonner’s name in particular meant fear and loathing? John Rogers, and John Bradford, both leading radical protestants, had been a notable presence in the crowd – in fact he had intervened to try to calm the congregation down, enabling Bourne to escape unharmed. But the Queen and church conservatives interpreted this as them having a great deal of influence with the riotous crowd, whether or not they had stirred them up or not. Both were to be imprisoned and executed for heresy in 1555.

It’s not clear if the St Paul’s riot is the same incident described in a letter from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor from August 1553, where he mentions that

“great scandal occurred, and outrages against religion were committed lately on the person of a priest who dared to say mass in a chapel here m London; some took the chalice, others the vestments; the ornaments on the altar were broken in pieces, and two or three hundred people assembled and made such riot that the mayor had been obliged to go in person to quell the tumult. He succeeded, and saved the person of the priest by taking him into custody. “

It is possible that the St Paul’s uproar was part of a series of disturbances…

Paul’s Cross, outside St Paul’s, was used for the dissemination of ideas by preachers backed by the authorities from the fourteenth century; but the spot was also known as a kind of speakers corner through medieval and early modern times. This had evolved partly from the ‘folkmoots’ – assemblies of citizens that had at one time represented a form of community self-government, but also had a history of use for agitation and articulating anger or discontent. Crowds were not only used to hearing ideas – religious, political, social – set out by speakers here, but also to reacting to them and taking part in the proceedings.

The uproar against Bourne was only part of series of sermons at Paul’s Cross, showing it was a venue for a debate in the to and fro of theology. (Some of which can be read here)

While repression of Protestantism was well underway, resistance continued, if clandestine… a dead cat which had been made to look like a priest saying mass was found on a cross in Cheapside, and at a sermon in April 1554, Bonner’s chaplain gave a sermon displaying the cat and ordering the culprit to come forward. In June, when the chaplain spoke again, he was shot at and a search was made of every house in the precinct of St Paul’s to find the culprit, but to no avail.

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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

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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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