Freethinking

The grave of George Holyoake in Highgate Cemetery. ©Pierre-Yves BeaudouinThe grave of George Holyoake in Highgate Cemetery. ©Pierre-Yves Beaudouin

At Wanstead Library this month, Stefan Dickers from the Bishopsgate Institute will be talking about the life of 'freethinker' George Holyoake. Paul Kaufman, chairman of the East London Humanists, reports.

The Bishopsgate Institute is an architectural gem a stone's throw from Liverpool Street. It houses a remarkable collection of archives. Their archivist, Stefan Dickers, will speak at this month's East London Humanists meeting, marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Holyoake. The Institute is an important repository of material relating to Holyoake and the 'freethinking' and Humanist movements.

East London has a rich tradition of freethinkers who have questioned religious and social orthodoxy. Although the death penalty for blasphemy was abolished in 1676, it remained a grave crime and speaking out was highly risky. Not surprisingly, little is recorded of such views before the early 1800s. George Holyoake, born April 1817, founded the National Secular Society and coined the terms 'secularism' and 'jingoism.' He was the last person in England to be prosecuted for 'blasphemy in a public lecture.' He was imprisoned for six months.

Another pioneer was Mary Wollstonecraft, born in Spitalfields in 1759. Subsequent addresses included Epping and Hoxton. She died tragically at 42, shortly after giving birth to daughter Mary, wife of the poet Shelley and author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft defied convention in many ways, not least as a woman writing on politics and philosophy. A passionate believer in education and rational thinking, she is probably best remembered for A Vindication of the Rights of Women, an early discourse on feminist philosophy.

A more recent pioneer was Sylvia Pankhurst. Born in Manchester, she moved to east London in 1912. An atheist, feminist and life-long fighter for social justice, she chose east London as an area where she felt she could make a difference. In 1914 she founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Sylvia moved to Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years.

The Bishopsgate Institute also houses an important collection relating to Charles Bradlaugh. He was kicked out of his home in Hoxton at 15 after questioning religion. He met George Holyoake in Hackney and was soon caught up in the freethinking movement. One important event that caught national attention was his prosecution for publishing a book on contraception. Another was his election as MP for Northampton in 1880. Bradlaugh, an atheist, was not prepared to swear the religious oath required to take his seat. At one point, he was imprisoned in the small cell at the bottom of Big Ben.

The Institute also holds a treasure trove of archives on the history of London and runs many courses and events. It is free and open to all.

Stefan will be speaking at an East London Humanists discussion at Wanstead Library on 24 April from 7.30pm (visitors welcome; free). Visit wavidi.co/elh


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