Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh (1833 – 1891) was born at 5 Bacchus Row, Hoxton. The house has long since gone but a plaque nearby (29 Turner Street) marks the spot.

5 Bacchus Row (now demolished)

A prominent figure in the history of freethinking, Bradlaugh’s claims to fame include co-founding the National Secular Society in 1866, successfully challenging the requirement to swear a religious oath to sit as an MP, and being prosecuted in 1877, along with his close associate Annie Besant, for publishing a pamphlet on birth control.

Bradlaugh left school at 11 and had various jobs, including a brief spell as a Sunday School teacher. He was thrown out of the family home aged 15 after expressing doubts about religion. He was taken in by Eliza Sharples Carlile, widow of radical freethinker Richard Carlile. Eliza was at that time running a coffee house for freethinkers in Hackney.*

Bradlaugh was  soon introduced to George Holyoake, another key player in 19th Century freethinking, and so began a life time of activity  in radical freethinking movements.

Perhaps the most dramatic episode followed his election as MP for Northampton in 1880. The law at that time required an MP to swear a religious oath of allegiance before being allowed to sit. Bradlaugh was not prepared to do so but offered to affirm instead. The dispute was a national talking point. At one point Bradlaugh was imprisoned in the small cell at the bottom of big Ben following a division of 274 votes to 7. After forfeiting his seat he stood again and was re-elected four times before being finally being allowed to stay on after affirming the oath in 1886.

*In 1848 freethinkers in Hackney, who usually met outdoors in Bonner’s Fields, leased a large house at no. 1 Warner Place, off Hackney Road, and built a temperance hall at the back. The site now appears to be occupied by a joinery firm. In 1852 a new Secular Hall was built in nearby Goldsmiths Row, Hackney. It was used by the Hackney Secularist Association. This was pulled down when the landlord objected to it.