1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bradlaugh, Charles

BRADLAUGH, CHARLES (1833–1891), English free-thinker and politician, was born at Hoxton, London, on the 26th of September 1833. His father was a poor solicitor’s clerk, who also had a small business as a law stationer, and his mother had been a nursemaid. At twelve years old he became office-boy to his father’s employer, and at fourteen wharf-clerk and cashier to a coal merchant in the City Road. He had been baptized and brought up in the Church of England, but he now came into contact with a group of free-thinkers who were disciples of Richard Carlile. He was hastily labelled an “atheist,” and was turned out of his situation. Thus driven into the arms of the secularists, he managed to earn a living by odd jobs, and became further immersed in the study of free-thought. At the end of 1850 he enlisted as a soldier, but in 1853 was bought out with money provided by his mother. He then found employment as a lawyer’s clerk, and gradually became known as a free-thought lecturer, under the name of “Iconoclast.” From 1860 he conducted the National Reformer for several years, and displayed much resource in legal defence when the paper was prosecuted by the government on account of its alleged blasphemy and sedition in 1868–1869. Bradlaugh became notorious as a leading “infidel,” and was supported by the sympathy of those who were enthusiasts at that time for liberty of speech and thought. He was a constant figure in the law courts; and his competence to take the oath was continually being called in question, while his atheism and republican opinions were adduced as reasons why no jury should give damages for attacks on his character. In 1874 he became acquainted with Mrs Annie Besant (b. 1847), who afterwards became famous for her gifts as a lecturer on socialism and theosophy. She began by writing for the National Reformer and soon became co-editor. In 1876 the Bristol publisher of an American pamphlet on the population question, called Fruits of Philosophy, was indicted for selling a work full of indecent physiological details, and, pleading guilty, was lightly sentenced; but Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant took the matter up, in order to vindicate their ideas of liberty, and aggressively republished and circulated the pamphlet. The prosecution which resulted created considerable scandal. They were convicted and sentenced to a heavy fine and imprisonment, but the sentence was stayed and the indictment ultimately quashed on a technical point. The affair, however, had several side issues in the courts and led to much prejudice against the defendants, the distinction being ignored between a protest against the suppression of opinion and the championship of the particular opinions in question. Mrs Besant’s close alliance with Bradlaugh eventually terminated in 1886, when she drifted from secularism, first into socialistic and labour agitation and then into theosophy as a pupil of Mme Blavatsky. Bradlaugh himself took up politics with increasing fervour. He had been unsuccessful in standing for Northampton in 1868, but in 1880 he was returned by that constituency to parliament as an advanced Radical. A long and sensational parliamentary struggle now began. He claimed to be allowed to affirm under the Parliamentary Oaths Act, and the rejection of this pretension, and the refusal to allow him to take the oath on his professing his willingness to do so, terminated in Bradlaugh’s victory in 1886. But this result was not obtained without protracted scenes in the House, in which Lord Randolph Churchill took a leading part. When the long struggle was over, the public had gradually got used to Bradlaugh, and his transparent honesty and courageous contempt for mere popularity gained him increasing respect. Experience of public life in the House of Commons appeared to give him a more balanced view of things; and before he died, on the 30th of January 1891, the progress of events was such that it was beginning to be said of him that he was in a fair way to end as a Conservative. Hard, arrogant and dogmatic, with a powerful physique and a real gift for popular oratory, he was a natural leader in causes which had society against them, but his sincerity was as unquestionable as his combativeness.

His Life was written, from a sympathetic point of view, with much interesting detail as to the history of secularism, by his daughter, Mrs Bradlaugh Bonner, and J. M. Robertson (1894).