Get off your knees

Ferdinand Mount

  • Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican by Bryan Niblett
    Kramedart, 391 pp, £19.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 9564743 0 8

He was ‘unquestionably a great and good man’. Who could forget ‘his gigantic stature, his warm temperament, his good health and good humour, his bull-necked obstinacy, his generous and open temper? … He had many enemies and fought them all with generosity … In the last glimpse of the enormous “Iconoclast”, he is a priest defending an altar.’

This was the verdict of G.K. Chesterton on the death of Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91), atheist and republican, publicist for contraception – and, in short, for pretty much everything Chesterton hated. This genial tribute from the champion of Orthodoxy with a capital O to the self-styled ‘Iconoclast’ (Bradlaugh’s pen name) was not simply another piece of glittering paradox, one more instance of Chesterton’s determination to startle the reader at all costs. On the contrary, that was the way most people saw Bradlaugh. From the moment he burst onto the scene as a teenage preacher to his last days thundering at the Bar of the House of Commons, he struck everyone as enormous: physically so, six foot two, broad-browed, broad-shouldered (in later years elephantine and ponderous of gait) and gifted with a resonant voice which could reach audiences in their thousands without any visible effort; but also eloquent, serious, immensely moral and decent. He was the Gloria Steinem of atheism, an inexhaustible public personality who lent star quality to an unpopular and alarming cause. He defied in his own person the caricature so crudely chalked by Lord Randolph Churchill that the supporters of atheism ‘were for the most part … the residuum, the rabble and the scum of the population; the bulk of them persons to whom all restraint – religious, moral or legal – is odious and intolerable.’

Nobody could possibly say any such thing of Bradlaugh. For one thing, he was a lifelong teetotaller. After he had been sacked as a Sunday school teacher for pointing out the discrepancies in the Thirty-Nine Articles and the gospels, he took the queen’s shilling and was enrolled in the Seventh Dragoon Guards, where he was nicknamed Leaves because he preferred tea to alcohol and spent much of the time turning the pages of a book. All his life he was desperately concerned about appearances. He fired the poet James Thomson from the paper he edited for drunkenness (‘The City of Dreadful Night’ first appeared in Bradlaugh’s National Reformer). And though he was more or less in love with his long-time collaborator Annie Besant (and she desperately so with him), there could be no question of their living together so long as her ghastly husband, the Rev. Frank Besant, was still alive.

Born poor, Bradlaugh never lost his sympathy for the poor classes he came from. His father was a solicitor’s clerk, his mother a nurse, and he left school at the age of 11 to work as a wharf clerk in a coal merchant’s. Never embittered, never corrupted, he stayed poor. As a teenage soldier in Ireland, he had seen the horrors of the evictions after the Famine. When he became an MP, he was dismayed by how little interest his fellow MPs took in the sufferings and struggles of the Indian people. He was soon known as ‘the Member for India’.

But his compassion didn’t temper his critique of Christianity. In the first issue of his first periodical, the short-lived Investigator, he set out his editorial aims bluntly enough to satisfy any Hitchens or Dawkins: ‘We believe all the religions of the world are founded on error, in the ignorance of natural causes and material conditions, and we deem it our duty to expose their falsity. Our policy is therefore aggressive.’ And it was.

It was also unremittingly constructive. Derision and demolition were only necessary preliminaries. Bradlaugh was never more mid-Victorian than in his determination to build an alternative secular society. It was his predecessor George Jacob Holyoake who coined the term ‘secularism’ – ‘the province of the real, the known, the useful and the affirmative’ – in the year of the Great Exhibition, and it was not the least of the achievements of the age. But it was Bradlaugh who, still only 24, became president of the London Secular Society, elbowing aside the more hesitant Holyoake. For the rest of his life, he was the leader of English free thought. Though not always unchallenged, he saw off every challenger in briskly contested elections for any post that was going.

Bradlaugh believed in the Unchurch Militant. He despised the Beatitudes. ‘Poverty of spirit is no virtue,’ he wrote. ‘Honesty of spirit, manliness of spirit, bold, uncompromising, determined resistance of wrong, and assertion of right, should be taught in lieu of that poverty of spirit which allows the proud and haughty in spirit to trample upon and oppress the highest human rights.’ Here he is at one with Nietzsche, his near contemporary, for whom the worship of weakness was the worst thing about the Christian religion. Indeed, Bradlaugh forms one more link in the great chain that joins Lucretius’ praise of Epicurus for breaking the shackles of superstition and teaching man to stand up, through Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not a Christian, to Dawkins’s call for ‘atheist pride’, and Hitchens’s abhorrence of the ‘guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection’. Those who preferred to stay on their knees were literally benighted, crouching in the dark, victims of the ultimate False Alarm. ‘Get off your knees’ has been the humanists’ trumpet call down the ages, and no one has trumpeted it more thrillingly than Bradlaugh.

He was not so much a philosopher or a writer as a public man, most at home on the platform, in the witness box or hammering on the doors of the House of Commons. Bryan Niblett is a barrister, computer scientist and judicial arbitrator, and he is nicely attuned to his subject. This excellent biography, the first for nearly 40 years, makes us understand why Bradlaugh deserves more than a footnote in political and legal history. His contemporaries understood this well enough. Half a dozen biographies were published in his lifetime and several more after his death. His funeral procession to Brookwood Crematorium required three special trains and was attended by many young men who were to be heard much of in the next century, notably Gandhi and Lloyd George. Lord Queensberry was also present, to bear witness to his loathing of ‘Christian tomfoolery’. So was Walter Sickert, who painted the enormous portrait of Bradlaugh that now hangs in Manchester Art Gallery.

To the last, Bradlaugh remained a pioneer of customs we now take for granted, his daughter Hypatia arranging for him to be buried in one of the London Necropolis Company’s earth-to-earth coffins made of papier-mâché. Bradlaugh had called her Hypatia after the fourth-century bluestocking who was said to have been the last librarian of Alexandria and who was martyred by a fanatical Christian sect, her body mutilated with pottery shards. He was never less than consistent.

To later generations, though, Bradlaugh’s impact has faded. His long struggle to be admitted to his seat as MP for Northampton without swearing the oath has come to seem a dusty curiosity, a picturesque hiccup in our seamless progress towards a secular world. It didn’t appear that way at the time. Niblett’s lucid and painstaking account of the saga forms the centrepiece of his book, and is not to be missed. In retrospect, Bradlaugh’s seemingly unpatterned clashes with the authorities look more like a neat row of milestones on the road from the pre-modern polity to the one we now live in. Every battle he threw himself into turned into a test case. He was often rebuffed at first. Yet in the long term he mostly prevailed, and his prevailing unblocked a remarkable sequence of changes in attitudes, practices and institutions.

As a journalist, he was in trouble from the start. W.H. Smith, by the 1850s a presence at every large railway station, refused to stock the National Reformer, out of a hostility towards subversive publications which the firm has sturdily maintained throughout the succeeding 150 years. In 1868, the attorney-general attempted to squash the Reformer on the grounds that it had not gone through the hoops demanded by the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act of 1819 – one of the notorious Six Acts enacted during Lord Liverpool’s repressions after Peterloo. The paper in time-honoured tradition carried the banner: PROSECUTED BY HER MAJESTY’S ATTORNEY-GENERAL. The jury found against Bradlaugh, but within three months the government passed the Newspapers, Printers and Reading Rooms Repeal Act 1869, which repealed the 1819 Act, and eight more statutes that fettered free speech in one way or another. This was the final extinction of a tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, that publication was not a right but a privilege to be licensed by the authorities.

Sometimes Bradlaugh deliberately invited prosecution. When in 1877 he and Annie Besant published a pamphlet on contraception, entitled The Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married Couples, he sent copies to the chief clerk of magistrates at Guildhall and to the police, advising them that the book was on sale at Stonecutter Street. The jury found that the pamphlet was obscene and a short jail sentence was imposed, but the Appeal Court found the prosecution defective and Bradlaugh and Annie were set free. By then the pamphlet (which had been selling quietly ever since it was first published in Britain in 1833) had sold over 100,000 copies: the topic of family planning could never be effectively suppressed again.

For Annie, the personal consequences of the prosecution were grim. In a rage, the Rev. Frank Besant filed an action to recover custody of their daughter Mabel. Sir George Jessel, Master of the Rolls and the first Jew to be appointed a judge, said that Annie’s writings in support of atheism ‘must quite cut her off, practically, not merely from the sympathy of, but from social intercourse with, the great majority of her sex’. He did not believe, he said, that ‘a single clergyman’s wife in England would approve of such conduct, or associate with Mrs Besant’. As for The Fruits of Philosophy: ‘The pamphlet itself, even if it had been couched in the chastest and most refined language, would be grossly immoral; and it would be subversive of all human civilised society if the female population of our country were once imbued with the idea that they might safely indulge in unchaste intercourse without fear of any of the consequences such intercourse entails upon them.’

After this effusion, surpassing even Mervyn Griffith-Jones’s remarks in leading the prosecution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover 80 years later, it was not surprising that Jessel ordered custody of Mabel to be given to Besant. Annie then launched an appeal for a judicial separation, which Jessel refused. This judgment effectively barred her in perpetuity from petitioning for divorce. She was stuck with Besant until he died, which wasn’t until 1917. Her dream of marrying Bradlaugh was shattered. The only consolation was that Mabel and her brother Digby both opted to live with their mother when they grew up.

How much did Bradlaugh mind? Hard to say. He was compassionate but he was also ruthless and single-minded. Any of his collaborators who got in his way were sidelined or pushed out: James Thomson; Edward Aveling, Marx’s son-in-law; Annie herself when she took up socialism and then theosophy, equally detestable aberrations in Bradlaugh’s eyes. Like Annie, he had no sense of humour and not much imagination. His own wife, Susannah, declined into chronic alcoholism and retired to live with Bradlaugh’s parents in a Sussex cottage. She died there aged 45, sending ‘great love to dear Papa’. Niblett records all this without much comment, but it is hard not to see Susannah as having been bundled out when she became an embarrassment to the cause. Bradlaugh liked fishing – he held the record for the largest carp caught with rod and line – and dogs. He doted on Annie’s St Bernard, Lion, which looked remarkably like him. Yet in private life there was something unappealing about him, an unyielding, flinty quality.

Which no doubt he needed to persist in his extraordinary struggle to take his seat in the House of Commons. He was elected for Northampton in 1880 at the fourth attempt, on a 90 per cent turnout. His fellow candidate for the town, Henry Labouchere, who was as cynical and free-living as Bradlaugh was earnest and straitlaced, remarked on hearing the news: ‘Oh! They’ve swallowed Bradlaugh after all, have they?’ But after a repellent display of prejudice and self-contradiction on the part of the House, Bradlaugh was not allowed to affirm. Although the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866 had given this right to ‘Quakers, and every other Person for the time being permitted to make a solemn Affirmation or Declaration instead of taking an oath’, the Tories maintained that such ‘permitted Persons’ did not include avowed atheists. At the same time, a second select committee found that Bradlaugh was not a fit person to swear the oath of allegiance either, since he didn’t believe in it. Again and again, Bradlaugh pleaded at the Bar of the House, again and again he was chucked out, and again the voters of Northampton returned him at by-election and general election alike.

Bradlaugh sued the sergeant-at-arms, Captain Gossett, and lost. But in his judgment in the case of Bradlaugh v. Gossett, the lord chief justice, Lord Coleridge, ruled that ‘what is said or done within the walls of Parliament cannot be inquired into in a court of law. The jurisdiction of the Houses over their own members, their right to impose discipline within their walls, is absolute.’ This judgment remains the classic authority on the powers of Parliament over its members.

And so on it went. Finally, years after being first elected, Bradlaugh was at last allowed to take his seat thanks to a cool and masterly coup by the speaker, Arthur Wellesley Peel, Sir Robert’s youngest son. No sooner had Peel been re-elected speaker on 12 January 1885 than he got up and said: ‘I have come clearly and without hesitation to the conclusion that it would neither be my duty to prohibit the honourable gentleman from coming nor to permit a motion to be made standing between him and his taking of the oath.’ The leader of the House, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, rose to object. The speaker silenced him, reminding him that Hicks-Beach had himself not yet taken the oath. And that was the end of it.

What is so remarkable is that Bradlaugh took the oath, which is precisely what he had sought not to do at the outset. Even more remarkably, he took it twice, because the crowd around the speaker’s chair was so great that the clerk was not sure he had done it the first time. So twice he swore allegiance to the queen whom he wanted to see the back of, in the name of a God in whom he did not believe. Twice he kissed the Bible. And he shook hands with the speaker and everyone agreed that it was all a good show. Three years later, Mr Bradlaugh MP introduced a Private Members Bill consisting of two short clauses, permitting anyone who objected to being sworn to affirm instead. The bill sailed through, and even Lord Randolph and the Archbishop of Canterbury voted for it, for all the world as though they had never thought anything else. There’s progress for you.

For a deeper insight into what was happening, it is worth going back to the debates on the Affirmation Bill that Gladstone’s government (not the GOM himself, who was recuperating in Cannes at the time) had formulated in February 1883. In the event, the Tories defeated the bill by three votes, 292-289, but Gladstone very nearly swung it with his amazing speech. When he first became an MP, he had had an almost theocratic vision of politics. In 1838, he had violently objected to the renewal of the modest government grant to the Catholic seminary of St Patrick’s Maynooth, and through the 1840s zigzagged to and fro on the issue. In The State in Its Relations with the Church, he had passionately argued that the state had a duty to uphold the national church and so by extension to deny recognition to any other church, let alone to atheists. Now, 50 years later, he told the House that they must ‘leave no distinctions between man and man on the ground of religious differences’. And he quoted, in Latin, six lines from Lucretius’ De rerum natura, which he described as ‘noble and majestic’ and translated as meaning: ‘Divinity exists in remote inaccessible recesses of which we know nothing; but with us it has no dealing, with us it has no relation.’ Niblett tells us that members were visibly moved, by the learning of the prime minister as much as by the meaning of the words.

But there was more to it than that. Here was the embodiment of Victorian Christianity quoting, as a clinching authority, the words of the most famous materialist of the ancient world. The gods took no interest in our affairs; they were unmoved by our merits or demerits; we were on our own. One can hear the hinge of history creaking, with Bradlaugh rattling at the doorknob.

What may seem in retrospect so surprising is how popular he remained throughout his struggles, among a far wider public than his fellow atheists and republicans. When he was ill with Bright’s disease towards the end of his life, several churches offered up prayers for him, setting off false rumours that he was no longer an atheist. He was popular in part because he was a fine fellow, but also because he didn’t add socialism to his atheism and republicanism. He was no threat to property. He remained a thoroughgoing Gladstonian Liberal all his life, claiming that ‘socialists are the most unwise and illogical people you can happen to meet.’ He asserted that property owners in England were in the enormous majority. ‘All savings in the Savings Bank, the Co-operative Store, the Building Society, the Friendly Society and the Assurance Society are property, and I will show you that there are millions of working men in that condition.’

Even his republicanism was of a kind familiar to us, witty, sardonic, but ultimately harmless: ‘I do not pretend to have pleaded for republicanism. I have only pleaded against the White Horse of Hanover … I loathe these small German breast-bestarred wanderers, whose only merit is their loving hatred of one another. In their own land they vegetate and wither unnoticed; here we pay them highly to marry and perpetuate a pauper prince race.’ Like many modern republicans, he didn’t call for the queen to be thrown out; he merely wanted to avoid the Prince of Wales succeeding. In this sense he posed no immediate or serious threat to the status quo. There can have been few men who brought about more change and gave less offence.

As he lay dying, the resolution of June 1880, denying him the right either to take the oath or to affirm, was expunged from the journals of the House, very nearly nem. con. In supporting the motion, Gladstone reiterated the point he had made at the start of the whole miserably protracted business: that in trying to exclude a properly elected MP, the House was overreaching its jurisdiction. ‘In an assembly possessed of almost immeasurable powers and with no possibility of appeal, excess of jurisdiction is the greatest fault the House can possibly commit. It is one of the highest functions of this House to limit its own functions and jurisdiction.’ This problem of self-limitation remains as pressing as ever; it steams from every manure heap and quacks from every duckhouse. What hay Bradlaugh would have made with it all.