Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter XIII

Sometimes my lecturing experiences were not of the smoothest. In June, 1875, I visited Darwen in Lancashire, and found that stone-throwing was considered a fair argument to be addressed to "the Atheist lecturer". On my last visit to that place in May, 1884, large and enthusiastic audiences attended the lectures, and not a sign of hostility was to be seen outside the hall. At Swansea, in March, 1876, the fear of violence was so great that no local friend had the courage to take the chair for me (a guarantee against damage to the hall had been exacted by the proprietor). I had to march on to the platform in solitary state, introduce myself, and proceed with my lecture. If violence had been intended, none was offered: it would have needed much brutality to charge on to a platform occupied by a solitary woman. (By the way, those who fancy that a lecturer's life is a luxurious one may note that the Swansea lecture spoken of was one of a series of ten, delivered within eight days at Wednesbury, Bilston, Kidderminster, Swansea, and Bristol, most of the travelling being performed through storm, rain, and snow.) On September, 4th, 1876, I had rather a lively time at Hoyland, a village near Barnsley. A Mr. Hebblethwaite, a Primitive Methodist minister, "prepared the way of the" Atheist by pouring out virulent abuse on Atheism in general, and this Atheist in particular; two Protestant missionaries aided him vigorously, exhorting the pious Christians to "sweep Secularists out". The result was a very fair row; I got through the lecture, despite many interruptions, but when it was over a regular riot ensued; the enraged Christians shook their fists at me, swore at me, and finally took to kicking as I passed out to the cab; only one kick, however, reached me, and the attempts to overturn the cab were foiled by the driver, who put his horse at a gallop. A somewhat barbarous village, that same village of Hoyland. Congleton proved even livelier on September 25th and 26th. Mr. Bradlaugh lectured there on September 25th to an accompaniment of broken windows; I was sitting with Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy in front of the platform, and received a rather heavy blow at the back of the head from a stone thrown by someone in the room. We had a mile and a half to walk from the hall to Mrs. Elmy's house, and this was done in the company of a mud-throwing crowd, who yelled curses, hymns, and foul words with delightful impartiality. On the following evening I was to lecture, and we were escorted to the hall by a stone-throwing crowd; while I was lecturing a man shouted "Put her out!" and a well-known wrestler of the neighborhood, named Burbery, who had come to the hall with seven friends, stood up in the front row and loudly interrupted. Mr. Bradlaugh, who was in the chair, told him to sit down, and as he persisted in making a noise, informed him that he must either be quiet or go out. "Put me out!" said Burbery, striking an attitude. Mr. Bradlaugh left the platform and walked up to the noisy swashbuckler, who at once grappled with him and tried to throw him; but Mr. Burbery had not reckoned on his opponent's strength, and when the "throw" was complete Mr. Burbery was underneath. Amid much excitement Mr. Burbery was propelled to the door, where he was handed over to the police, and the chairman resumed his seat and said "Go on", whereupon on I went and finished the lecture. There was plenty more stone-throwing outside, and Mrs. Elmy received a cut on the temple, but no serious harm was done— except to Christianity.

In the summer of 1875 a strong protest was made by the working classes against the grant of £142,000 for the Prince of Wales visit to India, and on Sunday, July 18th, I saw for the first time one of the famous "Hyde Park Demonstrations". Mr. Bradlaugh called a meeting to support Messrs. Taylor, Macdonald, Wilfrid Lawson, Burt, and the other fourteen members of the House of Commons who voted in opposition to the grant, and to protest against burdening the workers to provide for the amusement of a spendthrift prince. I did not go into the meeting, but, with Mr. Bradlaugh's two daughters, hovered on the outskirts. A woman is considerably in the way in such a gathering, unless the speakers reach the platform in carriages, for she is physically unfitted to push her way through the dense mass of people, and has therefore to be looked after and saved from the crushing pressure of the crowd. I have always thought that a man responsible for the order of such huge gatherings ought not to be burdened in addition with the responsibility of protecting his female friends, and have therefore preferred to take care of myself outside the meetings both at Hyde Park and in Trafalgar Square. The method of organisation by which the London Radicals have succeeded in holding perfectly orderly meetings of enormous size is simple but effective. A large number of "marshals" volunteer, and each of these hands in to Mr. Bradlaugh a list of the "stewards" he is prepared to bring; the "marshals" and "stewards" alike are members of the Radical and Secular associations of the metropolis. These officials all wear badges, a rosette of the Northampton election colors; directions are given to the marshals by Mr. Bradlaugh himself, and each marshal, with his stewards, turns up at the appointed place at the appointed time, and does the share of the work allotted to him. A ring two or three deep is formed round the place whence the speakers are to address the meeting, and those who form the ring stand linked arm-in-arm, making a living barrier round this empty spot. There a platform, brought thither in pieces, is screwed together, and into this enclosure only the chosen speakers and newspaper reporters are admitted. The marshals and stewards who are not told off for guarding the platform are distributed over the ground which the meeting is to occupy, and act as guardians of order.

The Hyde Park meeting against the royal grant was a thoroughly successful one, and a large number of protests came up from all parts of the country. Being from the poorer classes, they were of course disregarded, but none the less was a strong agitation against royal grants carried on throughout the autumn and winter months. The National Secular Society determined to gather signatures to a "monster petition against royal grants", and the superintendence of this was placed in my hands. The petition was drafted by Mr. Bradlaugh, and ran as follows:—


"The humble petition of the undersigned,

"Prays,—That no further grant or allowance may be made to any member of the Royal Family until an account shall have been laid before your Honorable House, showing the total real and personal estates and incomes of each and every member of the said Royal Family who shall be in receipt of any pension or allowance, and also showing all posts and places of profit severally held by members of the said Royal Family, and also showing all pensions, if any, formerly charged on any estates now enjoyed by any member or members of the said Royal Family, and in case any such pensions shall have been transferred, showing how and at what date such transfer took place."

Day after day, week after week, month after month, the postman delivered rolls of paper, little and big, each roll containing names and addresses of men and woman who protested against the waste of public money on our greedy and never-satisfied Royal House. The sheets often bore the marks of the places to which they had been carried; from a mining district some would come coal-dust-blackened, which had been signed in the mines by workers who grudged to idleness the fruits of toil; from an agricultural district the sheets bore often far too many "crosses", the "marks" of those whom Church and landlord had left in ignorance, regarding them only as machines for sowing and reaping. From September, 1875, to March, 1876, they came in steady stream, and each was added to the ever-lengthening roll which lay in one corner of my sitting-room and which assumed ever larger and larger proportions. At last the work was over, and on June 16th, 1876, the "monster"—rolled on a mahogany pole presented by a London friend, and encased in American cloth—was placed in a carriage to be conveyed to the House of Commons; the heading ran: "The petition of the undersigned Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Charles Watts, and 102,934 others". Unrolled, it was nearly a mile in length, and a very happy time we had in rolling the last few hundred yards. When we arrived at the House, Mr. Bradlaugh and Mr. Watts carried the petition up Westminster Hall, each holding one end of the mahogany pole. Messrs. Burt and Macdonald took charge of the "monster" at the door of the House, and, carrying it in, presented it in due form. The presentation caused considerable excitement both in the House and in the press, and the Newcastle Daily Chronicle said some kindly words of the "labor and enthusiasm" bestowed on the petition by myself.

At the beginning of August, 1875, the first attempt to deprive me of my little daughter, Mabel, was made, but fortunately proved unsuccessful. The story of the trick played is told in the National Reformer of August 22nd, and I quote it just as it appeared there :—

"PERSONAL.—Mrs. Annie Besant, as some of our readers are aware, was the wife of a Church of England clergyman, the Rev. Frank Besant, Vicar of Sibsey, near Boston, in Lincolnshire. There is no need, at present, to say anything about the earlier portion of her married life; but when Mrs. Besant's opinions on religious matters became liberal, the conduct of her husband rendered a separation absolutely necessary, and in 1873 a formal deed of separation was drawn up, and duly executed. Under this deed Mrs. Besant is entitled to the sole custody and control of her infant daughter Mabel until the child becomes of age, with the proviso that the little girl is to visit her father for one month in each year. Having recently obtained possession of the person of the little child under cover of the annual visit, the Rev. Mr. Besant sought to deprive Mrs. Besant entirely of her daughter, on the ground of Mrs. Besant's Atheism. Vigorous steps were at once taken by Messrs. Lewis and Lewis (to whom our readers will remember we entrusted the case of Mr. Lennard against Mr. Woolrych), by whose advice Mrs. Besant at once went down herself to Sibsey to demand the child; the little girl had been hidden, and was not at the Vicarage, but we are glad to report that Mrs. Besant has, after some little difficulty, recovered the custody of her daughter. It was decided against Percy Bysshe Shelley that an Atheist father could not be the guardian of his own children. If this law be appealed to, and anyone dares to enforce it, we shall contest it step by step; and while we are out of England, we know that in case of any attempt to retake the child by force we may safely leave our new advocate to the protection of the stout arms of our friends, who will see that no injustice of this kind is done her. So far as the law courts are concerned, we have the most complete confidence in Mr. George Henry Lewis, and we shall fight the case to House of Lords if need be.


The attempt to take the child from me by force indeed failed, but later the theft was successfully carried out by due process of law. It is always a blunder from a tactical point of view for a Christian to use methods of illegal violence in persecuting an Atheist in this Christian land; legal violence is a far safer weapon, for courage can checkmate the first, while it is helpless before the second. All Christians who adopt the sound old principle that "no faith need be kept with the heretic" should remember that they can always guard themselves against unpleasant consequences by breaking faith under cover of the laws against heresy, which still remain on our Statute Book ad majorem Dei gloriam.

In September, 1875, Mr. Bradlaugh again sailed for America, leaving plenty of work to be done by his colleagues before he returned. The Executive of the National Secular Society had determined to issue a "Secular Song Book", and the task of selection and of editing was confided to me. The little book was duly issued, and ran through two editions; then, feeling that it was marred by many sins both of commission and omission, I set my face against the publication of a third edition, hoping that a compilation more worthy of Free Thought might be made. I am half inclined to take the matter up again, and set to work at a fresh collection.

The delivery and publication of a course of six lectures on the early part of the French Revolution was another portion of that autumn's work; they involved a large amount of labor, as I had determined to tell the story from the people's point of view, and was therefore compelled to read a large amount of the current literature of the time, as well as the great standard histories of Louis Blanc, Michelet, and others. Fortunately for me, Mr. Bradlaugh had a splendid collection of works on the subject, and before he left England he brought to me two cabs full of books, French and English, from all points of view, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, democratic, and I studied these diligently and impartially until the French Revolution became to me as a drama in which I had myself taken part, and the actors therein became personal friends and foes. In this, again, as in so much of my public work, I have to thank Mr. Bradlaugh for the influence which led me to read fully all sides of a question, and to read most carefully those from which I differed most, ere I judged myself competent to write or to speak thereon.

The late autumn was clouded by the news of Mr. Bradlaugh's serious illness in America. After struggling for some time against ill-health he was struck down by an attack of pleurisy, to which soon was added typhoid fever, and for a time lay at the brink of the grave. Dr. Otis, his able physician, finding that it was impossible to give him the necessary attendance at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, put him into his own carriage and drove him to the Hospital of St. Luke's, where he confided him to the care of Dr. Leaming, himself also visiting him daily. Of this illness the Baltimore Advertiser wrote:

"Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, the famous English Radical lecturer, has been so very dangerously ill that his life has almost been despaired of. He was taken ill at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and partially recovered; but on the day upon which a lecture had been arranged from him before the Liberal Club he was taken down a second time with a relapse, which has been very near proving fatal. The cause was overwork and complete nervous prostration which brought on low fever. His physician has allowed one friend only to see him daily for five minutes, and removed him to St. Luke's Hospital for the sake of the absolute quiet, comfort, and intelligent attendance he could secure there, and for which he was glad to pay munificently. This long and severe illness has disappointed the hopes and retarded the object for which he came to this country; but he is gentleness and patience itself in his sickness in this strange land, and has endeared himself greatly to his physicians and attendants by his gratitude and appreciation of the slightest attention."

There is no doubt that the care so willingly lavished on the English stranger saved his life, and those who in England honor Charles Bradlaugh as chief and love him as friend must always keep in grateful memory those who in his sorest need served him so nobly well. Those who think that an Atheist cannot calmly face the prospect of death might well learn a lesson from the fortitude and courage shown by an Atheist as he lay at the point of death, far from home and from all he loved best. The Rev. Mr. Frothingham bore public and admiring testimony in his own church to Mr. Bradlaugh's perfect serenity, at once fearless and unpretending, and, himself a Theist, gave willing witness to the Atheist's calm strength.

Mr. Bradlaugh returned to England at the end of December, worn to a shadow and terribly weak, and for many a long month he bore the traces of his wrestle with death. Indeed, he felt the effect of the illness for years, for typhoid fever is a foe whose weapons leave scars even after the healing of the wounds it inflicts.

The first work done by Mr. Bradlaugh on resuming the editorial chair of the National Reformer, was to indite a vigorous protest against the investment of national capital in the Suez Canal Shares. He exposed the financial condition of Egypt, gave detail after detail of the Khedive's indebtedness, unveiled the rottenness of the Egyptian Government, warned the people of the danger of taking the first steps in a path which must lead to continual interference in Egyptian finance, denounced the shameful job perpetrated by Mr. Disraeli in borrowing the money for the purchase from the Rothschilds at enormous interest. His protest was, of course, useless, but its justice has been proved by the course of events. The bombarding of Alexandria, the shameful repression of the national movement in Egypt, the wholesale and useless slaughter in the Soudan, the waste of English lives and English money, the new burden of debt and of responsibility now assumed by the Government, all these are the results of the fatal purchase of shares in the Suez Canal by Mr. Disraeli; yet against the chorus of praise which resounded from every side when the purchase was announced, but one voice of disapproval and of warning was raised at first; others soon caught the warning and saw the dangers it pointed out, but for awhile Charles Bradlaugh stood alone in his opposition, and to him belongs the credit of at once seeing the peril which lay under the purchase.

The 1876 Conference of the National Secular Society held at Leeds showed the growing power of the organisation, and was made notable by a very pleasant incident—the presentation to a miner, William Washington, of a silver tea-pot and some books, in recognition of a very noble act of self-devotion. An explosion had occurred on December 6th, 1875, at Swaithe Main pit, in which 143 miners were killed; a miner belonging to a neighboring pit, named William Washington, an Atheist, when every one was hanging back, sprang into the cage to descend into the pit in forlorn hope of rescue, when to descend seemed almost certain death. Others swiftly followed the gallant volunteer, but he had set the example, and it was felt by the Executive of the National Secular Society that his heroism deserved recognition, William Washington set his face against any gift to himself, so the subscription to a testimonial was limited to 6d., and a silver teapot was presented to him for his wife and some books for his children. At this same Conference a committee was appointed, consisting of Messrs. Charles Bradlaugh, G.J. Holyoake, C. Watts, R.A. Cooper,—Gimson, T. Slater, and Mrs. Besant, to draw up a fresh statement of the principles and objects of the National Secular Society; it was decided that this statement should be submitted to the ensuing Conference, that the deliberation on the report of the Committee should "be open to all Freethinkers, but that only those will be entitled to vote on the ratification who declare their determination to enter the Society on the basis of the ratified constitution". It was hoped that by this means various scattered and independent societies might be brought into union, and that the National Secular Society might he thereby strengthened. The committee held a very large number of meetings and finally decided on the following statement, which was approved of at the Conference held at Nottingham in 1877, and stands now as the "Principles and Object of the National Secular Society":—

"The National Secular Society has been formed to maintain the principles and rights of Freethought, and to direct their application to the Secular improvement of this life.

"By the principle of Freethought is meant the exercise of the understanding upon relevant facts, and independently of penal or priestly intimidation.

"By the rights of Freethought are meant the liberty of free criticism for the security of truth, and the liberty of free publicity for the extension of truth.

"Secularism relates to the present existence of man, and to actions the issue of which can be tested by experience.

"It declares that the promotion of human improvement and happiness is the highest duty, and that morality is to be tested by utility.

"That in order to promote effectually the improvement and happiness of mankind, every individual of the human family ought to be well placed and well instructed, and that all who are of a suitable age ought to be usefully employed for their own and the general good.

"That human improvement and happiness cannot be effectually promoted without civil and religious liberty; and that, therefore, it is the duty of every individual to actively attack all barriers to equal freedom of thought and utterance for all, upon political, theological, and social subjects.

"A Secularist is one who deduces his moral duties from considerations which pertain to this life, and who, practically recognising the above duties, devotes himself to the promotion of the general good.

"The object of the National Secular Society is to disseminate the above principles by every legitimate means in its power."

At this same Conference of Leeds was inaugurated the subscription to the statue to be erected in Rome to the memory of Giordano Bruno, burned in that city for Atheism in 1600; this resulted in the collection of £60.

The Executive appointed by the Leeds Conference made great efforts to induce the Freethinkers of the country to work for the repeal of the Blasphemy Laws, and in October 1876 they issued a copy of a petition against those evil laws to every one of the forty branches of the Society. The effort proved, however, of little avail. The laws had not been put in force for a long time, and were regarded with apathy as being obsolete, and it has needed the cruel imprisonments inflicted by Mr. Justice North on Messrs. Foote, Ramsey, and Kemp, to arouse the Freethought party to a sense of their duty in the matter.

The year 1877 had scarcely opened ere we found ourselves with a serious fight on our hands. A pamphlet written early in the present century by Charles Knowlton, M.D., entitled "The Fruits of Philosophy", which had been sold unchallenged in England for nearly forty years, was suddenly seized at Bristol as an obscene publication. The book had been supplied in the ordinary course of business by Mr. Charles Watts, but the Bristol bookseller had altered its price, had inserted some indecent pictures in it, and had sold it among literature to which the word obscene was fairly applied. In itself, Dr. Knowlton's work was merely a physiological treatise, and it advocated conjugal prudence and parental responsibility; it argued in favor of early marriage, but as over-large families among persons of limited incomes imply either pauperism, or lack of necessary food, clothing, education, and fair start in life for the children, Dr. Knowlton advocated the restriction of the number of the family within the means of existence, and stated the means by which this restriction should be carried out. On hearing of the prosecution, Mr. Watts went down to Bristol, and frankly announced himself as the publisher of the book. Soon after his return to London he was arrested on the charge of having published an obscene book, and was duly liberated on bail. Mr. and Mrs. Watts, Mr. Bradlaugh and myself met to arrange our plan of united action on Friday, January 12th, and it was decided that Mr. Watts should defend the book, that a fund should at once be raised for his legal expenses, and that once more the right of publication of useful knowledge in a cheap form should be defended by the leaders of the Freethought party. After long and friendly discussion we separated with the plan of the campaign arranged, and it was decided that I should claim the sympathy and help of the Plymouth friends, whom I was to address on the following Sunday, January 14th. I went down to Plymouth on January 13th, and there received a telegram from Mr. Watts, saying that a change of plan had been decided on. I was puzzled, but none the less I appealed for help as I had promised to do, and a collection of £8 1s. 10d. for Mr. Watts' Defence Fund was made after my evening lecture. To my horror, on returning to London, I found that Mr. Watts had given way before the peril of imprisonment, and had decided to plead guilty to the charge of publishing an obscene book, and to throw himself on the mercy of the Court, relying on his previous good character and on an alleged ignorance of the contents of the incriminated work. The latter plea we knew to be false, for Mr. Watts before going down to Bristol to declare himself responsible for the pamphlet had carefully read it and had marked all the passages which, being physiological, might be attacked as "obscene". This marked copy he had sent to the Bristol bookseller, before he himself went to Bristol to attend the trial, and under these circumstances any pretence of ignorance of the contents of the book was transparently inaccurate. Mr. Watts' surrender, of course, upset all the arrangements we had agreed on; Mr. Bradlaugh and myself were prepared to stand by him in battle, but not in surrender. I at once returned to the Secretary of the Plymouth Branch the money collected for defence, not for capitulation, and Mr. Bradlaugh published the following brief statement in the National Reformer for January 21st:

"PROSECUTION OF Mr. CHARLES WATTS.—Mr. Charles Watts, as most of our readers will have already learned, has been committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court for February 5th, for misdemeanor, for publication of a work on the population question, entitled "Fruits of Philosophy", by Charles Knowlton, M.D. This book has been openly published in England and America for more than thirty years. It was sold in England by James Watson, who always bore the highest repute. On James Watson's retirement from business it was sold by Holyoake & Co., at Fleet Street House, and was afterwards sold by Mr. Austin Holyoake until the time of his death; and a separate edition was, up till last week, still sold by Mr. Brooks, of 282, Strand, W.C. When Mr. James Watson died, Mr. Charles Watts bought from James Watson's widow a large quantity of stereotype plates, including this work. If this book is to be condemned as obscene, so also in my opinion must be many published by Messrs. W.H. Smith & Son, and other publishers, against whose respectability no imputation has been made. Such books as Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and 'Descent of Man' must immediately be branded as obscene, while no medical work must be permitted publication; and all theological works, like those of Dulaure, Inman, etc., dealing with ancient creeds, must at once be suppressed. The bulk of the publications of the society for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, together with its monthly organ, the Shield, would be equally liable. The issue of the greater part of classic authors, and of Lemprière, Shakspere, Sterne, Fielding, Richardson, Rabelais, etc., must be stopped: while the Bible—containing obscene passages omitted from the lectionary—must no longer be permitted circulation. All these contain obscenity which is either inserted to amuse or to instruct, and the medical work now assailed deals with physiological points purely to instruct, and to increase the happiness of men and women.

"If the pamphlet now prosecuted had been brought to me for publication, I should probably have declined to publish it, not because of the subject-matter, but because I do not like its style. If I had once published it, I should defend it until the very last. Here Mr. Watts and myself disagree in opinion; and as he is the person chiefly concerned, it is, of course, right that his decision should determine what is done. He tells me that he thinks the pamphlet indefensible, and that he was misled in publishing it without examination as part of James Watson's stock. I think it ought to be fought right through. Under these circumstances I can only leave Mr. Watts to speak for himself, as we so utterly differ in opinion on this case that I cease to be his proper interpreter. I have, therefore, already offered Mr. Watts the columns of the National Reformer, that he may put before the party his view of the case, which he does in another column."—C. BRADLAUGH.