Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh MP
Member of Parliament
for Northampton
In office
Preceded by Charles George Merewether
Succeeded by Sir Moses Philip Manfield
Personal details
Born 26 September 1833(1833-09-26)
Died 30 January 1891(1891-01-30) (aged 57)
Nationality British
Religion None (Atheism)

Charles Bradlaugh (26 September 1833 – 30 January 1891) was a political activist and one of the most famous English atheists of the 19th century. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866.[1]


Early life

Born in Hoxton (an area in the East End of London), Bradlaugh was the son of a solicitor's clerk. He left school at the age of eleven and then worked as an office errand-boy and later as a clerk to a coal merchant. After a brief spell as a Sunday school teacher, he became disturbed by discrepancies between the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church and the Bible. When he expressed his concerns, the local vicar, John Graham Packer, accused him of atheism and suspended him from teaching.[2] He was thrown out of the family home and was taken in by Elizabeth Sharples Carlile, the widow of Richard Carlile, who had been imprisoned for printing Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Soon Bradlaugh was introduced to George Holyoake, who organized Bradlaugh's first public lecture as an atheist. At the age of 17, he published his first pamphlet, A Few Words on the Christian Creed. However, refusing financial support from fellow freethinkers, he enlisted as a soldier with the Seventh Dragoon Guards hoping to serve in India and make his fortune. Instead he was stationed in Dublin. In 1853, he was left a legacy by a great-aunt and used it to purchase his discharge from the army.

Activism and journalism

Bradlaugh returned to London in 1853 and took a post as a solicitor's clerk. By this time he was a convinced freethinker and in his free time he became a pamphleteer and writer about "secularist" ideas, adopting the pseudonym "Iconoclast" to protect his employer's reputation.[3] He gradually attained prominence in a number of liberal or radical political groups or societies, including the Reform League, Land Law Reformers, and Secularists. He was President of the London Secular Society from 1858. In 1860 he became editor of the secularist newspaper, the National Reformer, and in 1866 co-founded the National Secular Society, in which Annie Besant became his close associate. In 1868, the Reformer was prosecuted by the British Government for blasphemy and sedition. Bradlaugh was eventually acquitted on all charges, but fierce controversy continued both in the courts and in the press. A decade later (1876), Bradlaugh and Besant decided to republish the American Charles Knowlton's pamphlet advocating birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People, whose previous British publisher had already been successfully prosecuted for obscenity. The two activists were both tried in 1877, and Charles Darwin refused to give evidence in their defence. They were sentenced to heavy fines and six months' imprisonment, but their conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal on a legal technicality.


Bradlaugh was an advocate of trade unionism, republicanism, and women's suffrage, and he opposed socialism. His anti-socialism was divisive, and many secularists who became socialists left the secularist movement because of its identification with Bradlaugh's liberal individualism. He was a supporter of Irish Home Rule, and backed France during the Franco-Prussian War. He took a strong interest in India.


Caricature from Punch, 1881 -- "Mr. Bradlaugh, M.P., The Northampton Cherub"

In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton, and claimed the right to affirm (instead of taking the religious Oath of Allegiance), but this was denied. Lord Randolph Churchill roused the Conservatives by leading resistance to Bradlaugh.

Bradlaugh subsequently offered to take the oath "as a matter of form". This offer, too, was rejected by the House. Because Members must take the oath before being allowed to take their seats, he effectively forfeited his seat in Parliament. He attempted to take his seat regardless and was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament. His seat fell vacant and a by-election was declared. Bradlaugh was re-elected by Northampton four times in succession as the dispute continued. Supporting Bradlaugh were William Ewart Gladstone, T. P. O'Connor and George Bernard Shaw as well as hundreds of thousands of people who signed a public petition. Opposing his right to sit were the Conservative Party, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leading figures in the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church.

On at least one occasion, Bradlaugh was escorted from the House by police officers. In 1883 he took his seat and voted three times before being fined £1,500 for voting illegally. A bill allowing him to affirm was defeated in Parliament.

In 1886 Bradlaugh was finally allowed to take the oath, and did so at the risk of prosecution under the Parliamentary Oaths Act. Two years later, in 1888, he secured passage of a new Oaths Act, which enshrined into law the right of affirmation for members of both Houses, as well as extending and clarifying the law as it related to witnesses in civil and criminal trials (the Evidence Amendment Acts of 1869 and 1870 had proved unsatisfactory, though they had given relief to many who would otherwise have been disadvantaged). Bradlaugh spoke in Parliament about the London matchgirls strike of 1888.


Bradlaugh's statue, Abington Square, Northampton UK, on his birthday 2004

Bradlaugh's funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners, including a then 21 years old Mohandas Gandhi.[4][5][6] He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.[7] A statue to Bradlaugh is located on a traffic island at Abington Square, Northampton and he is remembered annually on his birthday[citation needed]. The statue points west towards the centre of Northampton, the accusing finger periodically missing due to vandalism[citation needed]. Various local landmarks are named after Bradlaugh, including Bradlaugh Fields [8] nature reserves, The Charles Bradlaugh pub, and Charles Bradlaugh Hall at the University of Northampton.



  1. ^ "Charles Bradlaugh (1833 - 1891): Founder". National Secular Society. Retrieved 2008-03-22. 
  2. ^ See Bradlaugh-Bonner (1908, p.8); Headlingly (1888, pp.5-6); Tribe (1971, p.18)
  3. ^ Edward Royle, 'Bradlaugh, Charles (1833–1891)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2008 accessed 9 March 2010
  4. ^ Chatterjee, Margaret (2005). Gandhi and the challenge of religious diversity: religious pluralism revisited . New Delhi/Chicago:Promilla & Co./Bibliophile South Asia, p.330
  5. ^ Payne, Robert (1969). The life and death of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: E.P. Dutton, pp.73.
  6. ^ Arnstein (1983), p.322.
  7. ^ "Charles Bradlaugh". Necropolis Notables. The Brookwood Cemetery Society. Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  8. ^


  • Arnstein, Walter L. (1965) The Bradlaugh Case: a study in late Victorian opinion and politics. Oxford University Press. (2nd ed. with new postscript chapter published as The Bradlaugh Case: Atheism, Sex and Politics Among the Late Victorians, University of Missouri Press, 1983. ISBN 0-8262-0425-2)
  • Bradlaugh Bonner, Hypatia (1908). Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work by his daughter. London, T. Fisher Unwin.
  • Champion of Liberty: Charles Bradlaugh (Centenary Volume) (1933). London, Watts & Co and Pioneer Press.
  • Diamond, M. (2003) Victorian Sensation, London, Anthem Press. ISBN 1-84331-150-X, pp. 101–110.
  • Headingly, Adolphe S. (1888). The biography of Charles Bradlaugh. London: Freethought Publishing Company.
  • Manvell, Roger (1976). Trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. London: Elek/Pemberton.
  • Niblett, Bryan (2011). Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh. Oxford: kramedart press. ISBN 978-0-9564743-0-8
  • Robertson, J.M. (1920). Charles Bradlaugh. London, Watts & Co.
  • Tribe, David (1971) President Charles Bradlaugh MP. London, Elek. ISBN 0-236-17726-5

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Pickering Phipps
Charles George Merewether
Member of Parliament for Northampton
1880 – 1891
With: Henry Labouchère
Succeeded by
Henry Labouchère
Moses Manfield

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