East London Humanists article published Newham Recorder 19.4.17.
Last Thursday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Holyoake, a household name in his time. His radical views were well known around East London through the many meetings he held here. His legacy includes the terms ‘secularism’ and ‘jingoism’ which he coined. He was also an early pioneer of the Co-operative movement.
Holyoake’s bi-centenary is a timely reminder that this country has not always been so tolerant of those who have disagreed with the religious orthodoxy. In 1842 he was convicted of the then offence of ‘blasphemy in a public lecture’ for expressing his atheistic views and sentenced to six months imprisonment. However the resulting furor led to the repeal of the law. Holyoake was also the last person to be prosecuted for publishing a newspaper on which stamp tax hadn’t been paid. Once again his stand led to reform of a law used to stifle free expression.
An interesting insight into the early days of radical East London is the meeting around 1848 between Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, then a teenager, at a coffee house for ‘Freethinkers’ just off Hackney Road which was run by another notable campaigner, Eliza Sharples. Bradlaugh had been kicked out of his family home in Hoxton at the age of 15 for expressing doubts about religion. Holyoake took Bradlaugh under his wing and set him on a path of lifelong radical activity. Bradlaugh went on to be elected four times as the first openly atheist MP, having initially been stopped from taking his seat for refusing to swear the religious oath. Bradlaugh was also famously prosecuted in 1877, along with Annie Besant, for publishing a book on contraception, a prosecution vigorously supported by the church hierarchy. Annie went on to play a leading role in the groundbreaking matchgirls’ strike in Bow a few years later.
We should never forget the extent to which the liberties we enjoy today have only been achieved through people such as Holyoake who have had the courage to speak out against the establishment, often at great personal cost.