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Charles Bradlaugh

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Title: Charles Bradlaugh  
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Subject: Annie Besant, National Secular Society, Irreligion in the United Kingdom, George Holyoake, Henry Labouchère
Collection: 1833 Births, 1891 Deaths, 7Th Dragoon Guards Soldiers, Atheism Activists, British Birth Control Activists, British Classical Liberals, British Politicians Convicted of Crimes, British Republicans, British Secularists, Burials at Brookwood Cemetery, English Atheists, English Humanists, Liberal Party (Uk) Mps, Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom for English Constituencies, People Associated with Conway Hall Ethical Society, People from Hoxton, People Prosecuted for Blasphemy, Uk Mps 1880–85, Uk Mps 1885–86, Uk Mps 1886–92
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Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh
Member of Parliament
for Northampton
In office
Preceded by Charles George Merewether
Succeeded by Sir Moses Philip Manfield
Personal details
Born (1833-09-26)26 September 1833
Died 30 January 1891(1891-01-30) (aged 57)
Nationality British
Political party Liberal

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 1
  • Activism and journalism 2
  • Politics 3
  • Parliament 4
    • First Select Committee 4.1
    • Attempts to take the Oath 4.2
    • Second Select Committee 4.3
    • Imprisonment 4.4
  • Personal life 5
  • Death 6
  • Commemoration 7
  • Statue 8
  • See also 9
  • Bibliography 10
  • Citations 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Born in 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, pleading ill-health, but at the time writing to Bradlaugh that his testimony would have been of little use to them because he opposed birth control. They were sentenced to heavy fines and six months' imprisonment, but their conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal on a legal technicality. The Malthusian League was founded as a result of the trial to promote birth control. He was a member of a Masonic lodge in Bolton, although he was later to resign due to the nomination of the Prince of Wales as Grand Master.[4]

On 6 March 1881 he spoke at the opening of Annie Besant and Harriet Law.[5]


Bradlaugh was an advocate of trade unionism, republicanism, and women's suffrage, and he opposed socialism.[6] 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.


Bradlaugh's arrest in Parliament

In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton. To take his seat and become an active Parliamentarian, he needed to signify his allegiance to the Crown and on 3 May Bradlaugh came to the Table of the House of Commons, bearing a letter to the Speaker "begging respectfully to claim to be allowed to affirm" instead of taking the religious Oath of Allegiance, citing the Evidence Amendment Acts of 1869 and 1870. Speaker Brand declared that he had "grave doubts" and asked the House for its judgment. Lord Frederick Cavendish, for the Government, moved that a Select Committee be set up to decide whether persons entitled to make a solemn affirmation in court were also allowed to affirm instead of taking the Parliamentary oath.[7][8]

First Select Committee

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

This Select Committee held only one brief meeting on 12 May 1880. The Attorney General, Sir Henry James, moved that anyone entitled to affirm to give evidence in court was also entitled to affirm instead of taking the Oath in Parliament. Sir John Holker, Conservative MP for Preston, moved an amendment to reverse this finding, and the committee split down the middle with eight members (seven Conservatives and Charles Henry Hopwood, Liberal MP for Stockport) supporting the amendment and eight (all Liberals) opposing it; on the casting vote of the chairman Spencer Horatio Walpole the amendment was carried.[9] Bradlaugh was not surprised that the Committee had gone against him, and notified the Speaker that he would attend to take the Oath on 21 May.

Attempts to take the Oath

To explain his actions, Bradlaugh wrote an open letter to The Times which was published on the morning of 21 May. He said it would have been hypocritical to voluntarily take the oath "including words of idle and meaningless character" without protest when another form of words was available, but now that the Select Committee had ruled he must, he would do so and "regard myself as bound not by the letter of its words, but by the spirit which the affirmation would have conveyed had I been permitted to use it." Bradlaugh's letter was regarded as a direct provocation by his opponents, and when he came to the table, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff rose to object to the administration of the Oath to Bradlaugh. Speaker Brand allowed him to object, and Wolff argued that the Evidence Amendment Acts referred to by Bradlaugh only allowed an affirmation to one who regarded the oath as meaningless, so the House should not allow Bradlaugh to take it. Prime Minister William Gladstone, alerted to the fact that a protest was possible, moved to set up a second Select Committee to examine whether it was possible to interfere with a Member wishing to take the oath. Gladstone's amendment was carried by 289 to 214.[10]

Second Select Committee

Bradlaugh by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1887

The Select Committee began deliberating on 1 June 1880, when it considered a paper put in by Sir Thomas Erskine May, the Clerk of the House. Sir Thomas found several precedents for Members disabled to sit for refusing to take the Oath, together with Quaker MP Joseph Pease who was permitted to affirm, and Jewish MPs Baron Lionel de Rothschild and David Salomons who were eventually allowed to take the Oath while omitting the words "on the true faith of a Christian."[11] On the following day, Erskine May and Bradlaugh himself were questioned by the Committee, with Bradlaugh arguing that, should the Committee decide he had no right to affirm, he would take the oath and regard it as binding on his conscience.[12] When the Committee decided its report, it agreed by one vote an amendment declaring that the House could "and, in the opinion of your Committee, ought to" prevent Bradlaugh taking the Oath.[13] It also added (by 12 votes to 9) that it would be possible for an action in the High Court of Justice to test whether an affirmation was genuinely legal, and therefore recommended that if Bradlaugh sought to affirm, he should be allowed to do so in order that such an action be brought to clarify the law.[14] The second Select Committee had effectively reversed the outcome of the first.[15]

When it was known that this was the likely outcome of the Select Committee, Bradlaugh's fellow Northampton MP Henry Labouchère initiated a debate on a motion to allow Bradlaugh to affirm. Sir Hardinge Giffard moved an amendment that Bradlaugh be not permitted to take either the Oath or make an affirmation. After two days of debate,[16] Giffard's amendment was carried by 275 to 230, a defeat which surprised Gladstone. The majority comprised 210 Conservatives, 34 Liberals and 31 Irish Home Rulers; supporting Bradlaugh were 218 Liberals, 10 Home Rulers and 2 Conservatives.[17] On the next day, Bradlaugh came to the Table claiming to take the Oath; in consequence of the previous night's vote the Speaker ordered him to withdraw. Bradlaugh was permitted to address the House from behind the Bar (which was technically outside the Chamber), and treated the occasion as his maiden speech. He based his argument on law, contending that he was not legally disqualified, and asking "as one man against six hundred" for the same justice he would receive in the Courts. Although well received, the speech was too late to reverse the decision, and Henry Labouchère was forced to withdraw a motion to rescind it.[18]


The initial difficulty is in defining the word "God." It is equally impossible to intelligently affirm or deny any proposition unless there is at least an understanding, on the part of the affirmer or denier, of the meaning of every word used in the proposition. To me the word "God" standing alone is a word without meaning. . . . So long as the word "God" is undefined I do not deny "God."
--Charles Bradlaugh[19]

At that point Bradlaugh was summoned back to the table to be told the outcome of the debate; having relayed it, the Speaker then ordered him to withdraw. Bradlaugh "respectfully refused" to obey an order of the House which was "against the law." The Conservative leader Sir Stafford Northcote successfully moved a motion that Bradlaugh be required to withdraw (agreed on a division by 326 to 38, Liberal MPs being unwilling to challenge a motion which sustained the House's legal authority) but Bradlaugh "positively refused to obey." The Serjeant-at-Arms was sent for and led Bradlaugh out to the Bar of the House, but Bradlaugh then immediately returned to the table claiming to take the Oath. At this Sir Stafford Northcote moved that Bradlaugh be taken into custody. The House agreed, on a division by 274 votes to 7 and Bradlaugh was taken to the small prison cell located under Big Ben in the Clock Tower.[20]

Lord Randolph Churchill roused the Conservatives by leading resistance to Bradlaugh.

Because Members had to take the oath before being allowed to take their seats, he effectively forfeited his seat in 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 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[22], 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.

Personal life

The Biography of Charles Bradlaugh by Adolphe Headingle (1880) states (p. 64) "In 1854, Bradlaugh married the daughter of Mr. Hooper, a working plasterer who had attended the meetings at Bonner's Fields, where he was among the foremost to applaud his future son-in-law, the boy orator, whose eloquence delighted so many Chartists and Freethinkers." ("BONNER'S FIELDS. An open space on the banks of the Regent's Canal, near one of the entrances to Victoria Park, and so called from the House of Bishop Bonner at Bethnal Green, lately taken down. These fields were one of the places of assemblage of the Chartist Rioters of 1848. -- Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850. Quoted from the online The Dictionary of Victorian London.)

His daughter Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner (31 March 1858 – 25 August 1935) was a peace activist, author, atheist and freethinker. He named her after Hypatia, the Ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and teacher, who was murdered by a Christian mob.


Bradlaugh's statue at Abington Square, Northampton.

Bradlaugh died on 30 January 1891. His funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners, including a 21-year-old Mohandas Gandhi.[21][22][23] He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.[24]

Photo of the Charles Bradlaugh Statue in Northampton, Abington Square with a large crowd.

In 1898, Bradlaugh’s daughter Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner wrote a pamphlet in answer to the question that was often addressed to her: whether her father "changed his opinions and became a Christian" before he died. Bonner laid out all the evidence and concluded that her father gave no indication that his opinions had changed in the "smallest" way.[25]


A statue to Bradlaugh is located on a traffic island at Abington Square,

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Pickering Phipps
Charles George Merewether
Member of Parliament for Northampton
With: Henry Labouchère
Succeeded by
Henry Labouchère
Moses Manfield
  • Works by Charles Bradlaugh at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Charles Bradlaugh at Internet Archive
  • Works by Charles Bradlaugh at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Charles Bradlaugh
  • NSS Founder, Charles Bradlaugh
  • Charles Bradlaugh writings (Bank of Wisdom)
  • by Bryan Niblett – book review by Edward PearceDare To Stand Alone
  • Detailed account in page on police in Parliament by Robin Fell
  • Browse and search the catalogue of the Charles Bradlaugh Collection and Bradlaugh Papers archive, held at the Bishopsgate Institute, London.
  • Charles Bradlaugh Collection, Northamptonshire Central Library, Northampton
  • Hackney Plaques and Social History: birthplace of Charles Bradlaugh
  • Omnibus: Charles Bradlaugh, BBC World Service radio programme, broadcast 1991
  • A bronze bust of Bradlaugh
  • Northampton based Charles Bradlaugh Society

External links

  • Arnstein, Walter L. (1962) "Gladstone and the Bradlaugh Case," Victorian Studies, (1962) 5#4 pp 303–330
  • 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)
  • Besant, Annie. Autobiographical Sketches (1885) in which Bradlaugh plays a major role. [39]
  • Besant, Annie. An Autobiography (1893) in which Chap VI is devoted to Charles Bradlaugh. [40]
  • Bonner, Hypatia Bradlaugh (1895). Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work, Vol 1. London, T. Fisher Unwin. [41]
  • Bonner, Hypatia Bradlaugh (1891), Catalogue of the Library of the Late Charles Bradlaugh. London: Mrs. H. Bradlaugh Bonner [42]
  • 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


  1. ^ "Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891): Founder". National Secular Society. Retrieved 22 March 2008. 
  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. ^ Charles Bradlaugh, from the Grand Lodge of British Columbia
  5. ^ "Random Recollections of Leicester Secular Society". Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  6. ^ Theresa Notare, A Revolution in Christian Morals: Lambeth 1930-Resolution #15. History and Reception (ProQuest, 2008), 188.
  7. ^ Arnstein, p. 34-35.
  8. ^ Hansard 3ser vol 252 cols 20–29.
  9. ^ Arnstein, p. 38; "Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Oath" HCP 159 (1880).
  10. ^ Arnstein, p. 40-51; Hansard 3ser vol 252 cols 187–221, 333–422.
  11. ^ "Report from the Select Committee on Parliamentary Oath (Mr. Bradlaugh)", HCP 226 (1880), Appendix No. 1 (pp. 25–33).
  12. ^ Evidence, Q 85.
  13. ^ Proceedings of the Select Committee, p. xv–xvi.
  14. ^ Proceedings of the Select Committee, p. xvii–xviii.
  15. ^ Arnstein, p. 70.
  16. ^ Hansard, 3ser, vol 253 cols 443–513, 550–628.
  17. ^ Arnstein, p. 73-4.
  18. ^ Arnstein, p. 75-76.
  19. ^ Charles Bradlaugh, “Is There a God?” Online at
  20. ^ Arnstein, p. 76-77.
  21. ^ Chatterjee, Margaret (2005). Gandhi and the challenge of religious diversity: religious pluralism revisited. New Delhi/Chicago:Promilla & Co./Bibliophile South Asia, p.330
  22. ^ Payne, Robert (1969). The life and death of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: E.P. Dutton, pp.73.
  23. ^ Arnstein (1983), p.322.
  24. ^ "Charles Bradlaugh". Necropolis Notables. The Brookwood Cemetery Society. Retrieved 23 February 2007. 
  25. ^ Did Charles Bradlaugh Die An Atheist? (A. & H. B. Bonner, 1898) online at
  26. ^ "Charles Bradlaugh Society". Charles Bradlaugh Society. Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  27. ^


  • Political Essays: A Compilation (1833-1891 [24]
  • Half-Hours With The Freethinkers 1857 [25]]
  • The Credibility and Morality of the Four Gospels 1860
  • Who Was Jesus Christ, and What Did He Teach? 1860
  • A Few Words About the Devil (includes an autobiographical sketch) 1864 [26]]
  • A Plea for Atheism (included in Theological Essays) 1864 [27]
  • The Bible: What It Is! 1870 [28]
  • The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick 1875
  • The Freethinker's Text-Book, Vol 1 1876
  • Is The Bible Divine? (Debate with Roberts) 1876 [29]]
  • Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers (rpt Half-Hours With The Freethinkers) 1877 [30]
  • When Were Our Gospels Written? 1881 [31]
  • Some Objections to Socialism 1884 [32]
  • The Atheistic Platform: 12 Lectures by Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant [and others] 1884 [33]
  • Is There a God? 1887 [34]
  • Humanity's Gain from Unbelief 1889
  • Labor and Law 1891
  • The True Story of My Parliamentary Struggle 1882 [35]
  • Heresy: Its Utility And Morality. A Plea And A Justification 1882 [36]
  • Theological Essays ( includes 20 essays) 1895 [37]
  • Man, Whence and How? and Religion, What and Why? (rpt of The Freethinker’s Text-Book, Vol 1) 1906 [38]

Works by Charles Bradlaugh: 132 works online. [23]


  • Luis Emilio Recabarren, Chilean communist, was prevented from assuming his position because he refused to be sworn on a bible, based on his atheist position

See also

The statue points west towards the centre of Northampton, the accusing finger periodically missing due to vandalism. In 2014 the statue was cleaned and returned back to the stonework. New signs are to be installed in 2015 on the roundabout reading "Charles Bradlaugh MP". Various local landmarks are named after Bradlaugh, including Bradlaugh Fields[27] nature reserves, The Charles Bradlaugh pub, and Charles Bradlaugh Hall at the University of Northampton.

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