Features

Humanist Heritage

pankhurst-2Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960)

Humanist Heritage Project coordinator Madeleine Goodall will be the guest speaker at the East London Humanists’ June event. Group chairperson Paul Kaufman previews the history that will be discussed

To quote Confucius: “We have two lives. The second begins when we realise we only have one.” The Humanist tradition stretches back thousands of years and across the globe. The Charvaka school of philosophy (India, 600 BCE), the Sceptic and Epicurean schools of ancient Greece and Confucius (China, 500 BCE) all reflected on how to lead a good life without religious belief. 

This month we will welcome Madeleine Goodall, coordinator of Humanist UK’s Humanist Heritage Project. Her presentation will focus on the pioneering freethinkers and social reformers emanating from East London.

In England, denial of God attracted burning at the stake or other unspeakable punishments for centuries. Little remains of what non-believers from that time wrote or said. Records show a burgeoning of freethought from the early 1800s. Reform was hard fought for, with women often at the forefront. One better-known example is Mary Wollstonecraft, born in Spitalfields in 1759, and author of the early feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Less well known is Eliza Sharples, who opened a coffee house in Hackney Road for freethinkers in 1849. She was the widow of Richard Carlile, who spent many years incarcerated for expressing non-religious views. Another prominent East London activist was Annie Besant, known among other things for supporting the iconic Matchgirls Strike in Bow in 1888. She shot to notoriety in 1877, along with Charles Bradlaugh, when they were prosecuted for publishing a pamphlet on birth control. Bradlaugh, born in Hoxton, became a household name as the first openly atheist MP. He was imprisoned in the cell under Big Ben in 1880 for refusing to take the religious oath then required. He finally took his seat in 1888.

Other local Humanists whose names may be familiar include writer, artist and social activist William Morris, and Sylvia Pankhurst, staunch campaigner for peace and women’s rights. In 1915, Sylvia created an early haven for women when she converted The Gunmakers Arms pub on Old Ford Road to The Mothers Arms. 

Neglected pioneers the Humanist Heritage Project has unearthed include Zona Vallance, born in Stratford in 1860 and founder of the East London Ethical Society, and Bessie Mabbs, appointed head of Bow Modern School in 1901, which boasted “a sound and thorough education without undue pressure.”

King Charles III’s coronation, with its anointings and other rituals, highlighted this country’s faith traditions. The Humanist Heritage Project is a much-needed celebration of the invaluable contribution the ethical non-religious have made to tolerance, culture and social progress.


Madeleine Goodall will be speaking at the East London Humanists’ meeting at Wanstead House on 26 June from 7.30pm. The event is free and open to all. For more information, visit wnstd.com/elh