Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Bradlaugh, Charles

BRADLAUGH, CHARLES (1833–1891), freethought advocate and politician, born on 26 Sept. 1833 at Hoxton, was the eldest son of Charles Bradlaugh, solicitor's clerk, and Elizabeth Trimby. He was educated at local elementary schools, and at the age of twelve became office boy to the firm employing his father. Two years later he was clerk to a coal merchant. The strife which beset his life began early. At the age of fifteen he told his clergyman of some doubts which he had of a theological nature, and this resulted in his being compelled to leave home in 1849 and accept the hospitality of some political friends, one of whom was the widow of Richard Carlile [q. v.] An attempt to make a living as a coal agent failed owing to the notoriety he was acquiring as an advocate of freethought, and in despair he enlisted in the army as a private soldier on 17 Dec. 1850. On the death of an aunt in 1853 his family procured his discharge, and he returned to London, where after a time he obtained employment as message boy to a solicitor. He was soon promoted to the management of the common law department in the office, and while serving in this capacity under various employers he acquired that knowledge of the law which he put to such effective use in the many law cases in which he found himself involved. On his return to London he had entered into the propaganda of freethought and radical principles at Sunday open-air meetings, and to shield himself in his week-day employment adopted the nom de guerre 'Iconoclast,' which he used until his first contest at Northampton in 1868. In 1858 he began the platform campaign in the provinces, which lasted until close upon his death, and which was marked in its earlier stages by riotous opposition and by frequent conflicts with the police authorities. His platform oratory and his powers of physical endurance rapidly won for him a large personal following, and he became the popular leader of an extreme party in the country, chiefly composed of working men, which combined freethought in religion and republicanism in politics. His connection with the freethought and republican weekly periodical, the 'National Reformer,' lasted from the founding of the paper in 1860 by some Sheffield freethinkers until his death, with a short break, 1863-6. He became proprietor of the paper in 1862. In 1858 he was secretary to the fund started to defend Mr. E. Truelove for publishing a defence of Orsini for attempting to assassinate Napoleon III; he was a member of the parliamentary reform league of 1866, and his resolution committed the league to set aside the police prohibition and go on with the meeting which led to the railings of Hyde Park being pulled down on 22 July 1866. He drew up the first draft (afterwards altered) of the Fenian proclamation issued in 1867. He was sent to Senor Castelar, the Spanish republican leader, in 1870 as the envoy of the English republicans, and on the establishment of the French republic in the same year he was nominated as candidate for a division of Paris; on the outbreak of the commune he went to act as an intermediary between Thiers and the communists, but was arrested at Calais and sent back.

Resolved to secure a seat in the House of Commons, Bradlaugh stood for Northampton in 1868, but was unsuccessful at the polls. His notoriety greatly alarmed the minds of the religious and conservative sections of the electors, and every effort was made to defeat him. A similar result attended his second candidature in the same constituency in 1874; but in 1880, on the third occasion that he offered himself for election, he was returned. On 3 May he presented himself at the house with a view to taking his seat, and he then claimed the right to affirm instead of swearing an oath on the bible. He thus initiated a struggle with the House of Commons which lasted for six years and involved him in eight actions in the law courts. The war began when the question of his claim to the right to affirm on 3 May 1880 was referred to a select committee, which, by the casting vote of its chairman, decided against him. On 23 June he appeared at the bar of the House of Commons, and, refusing to retire, was taken away in custody. On 2 July he took his seat in consequence of a motion having been passed on the previous day that he could affirm and sit at his own risk. Having voted, the legality of his action was contested and he was unseated. Re-elected on 9 April 1881, he consented to remain inactive while the government introduced an affirmation bill, which, however, had to be dropped. On 3 Aug. he attempted to force his way into the house, but was ejected by force. When the new session opened, 20 Feb. 1882, he appeared at the bar, and advancing up the floor he pulled a testament out of his pocket and administered the oath to himself. Next day he was expelled, and a new writ for Northampton was issued. He was re-elected on 2 March, but the struggle in parliament was allowed to rest while that in the law courts was proceeding. His opponents were endeavouring to make Bradlaugh bankrupt by imposing upon him the financial consequences of his vote in parliament in the previous year; he was suing the deputy sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons for assault; a friendly action to test the legal right of the House of Commons to exclude him was being promoted; and another prosecution for blasphemous libel was commenced. A second affirmation bill was introduced on 20 Feb. 1883, and rejected by three votes on 3 May. Next day Bradlaugh presented himself for the fourth time at the bar of the house, and on 9 July a resolution was passed excluding him. Again at the opening of the new session in February 1884 he appeared, but he was immediately excluded, 11 Feb. 1884, and next day a new writ was issued. Although re-elected he did not trouble the house again until 6 July 1885, when he was again excluded. At the general election held in November that year he was elected once more, and when parliament met on 13 Jan. following the new speaker (afterwards Viscount Peel) would not allow any objection being made to his taking the oath. This ended the struggle. He had fought single-handed. Although he was a follower of the liberal government, it gave him very half-hearted support in his efforts to take his seat; its action was mainly confined to unsuccessful endeavours to alter the law so as to enable him to affirm. He was re-elected for Northampton in the general election of June 1886, and thenceforth sat in the House of Commons unchallenged until his death four and a half years later.

Bradlaugh's efforts to maintain the freedom of the press in issuing criticisms on religious belief and on sociological questions involved him in several law-suits, which kept him constantly in debt. In 1868 he was prosecuted by the government for having failed to give securities against the publication of blasphemy and sedition in the 'National Reformer.' In the end he outmanoeuvred the government, and the restrictions on the popular press imposed by the security laws were withdrawn. Another contest, 1867-9, which arose out of a refusal of a judge to hear his evidence, on the ground that he was an atheist, and therefore could not take the oath, led to the passing of the Evidence Amendment Act, 1869, which enabled the evidence of freethinkers to be taken. The most notorious of these suits was that relating to a pamphlet by one Knowlton, entitled 'The Fruits of Philosophy,' which dealt with the question of population and the need of restraining its increase, 1877-1878. The prosecution ended in favour of Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant, with whom he had been indicted as joint publishers of the pamphlet; and the effect of their victory was to remove the remaining restrictions on the liberty of the press. This connection with Mrs. Besant is one of the most important episodes in Bradlaugh's life. He met her in 1874, and for thirteen years their names were joined together in freethought and political work, until Mrs. Besant refused to follow Bradlaugh in his opposition to socialism. The separation was formally made in 1885, when Mrs. Besant ceased to be joint editor of the 'National Reformer.'

As a result of this propaganda Bradlaugh found it impossible to carry on any occupation, and from 1870 he lived by his pen and the aid of appreciative friends. Towards the end of his life a public subscription relieved him of the last of his debts. As a sitting member of parliament from 1885 to 1890 he is chiefly remembered for the unusual number of measures the passage of which he secured; the chief of them was the affirmation bill legalising the substitution of an affirmation for an oath both in the House of Commons and the law courts, which was passed on 9 Aug. 1888. In 1889 he was nominated a member of the royal commission on vaccination. He took a special interest in questions relating to India, and interested himself so deeply in the social and political condition of the natives that he was known as 'the member for India.' In 1889 he attended the Indian national congress at Bombay, and was received with great honour. He became very popular with the House of Commons, and on 27 Jan. 1891, on the motion of Hunter, William Alexander [q. v. Suppl.], it unanimously expunged from its journals its resolutions expelling him. But at that time Bradlaugh was lying unconscious at his house in Circus Road, St. John's Wood, London, and he died on the 30th. He was buried at Brookwood. His portrait was presented by subscription to the National Liberal Club after his death.

He married, on 5 June 1855, Alice, eldest daughter of Abraham Hooper, and by her had one son and two daughters.

Bradlaugh's writings were mostly controversial pamphlets and press articles. Some of his pamphlets went into several editions, the best known being (1) 'Impeachment of the House of Brunswick,' London, 1872; (2) 'Land for the People,' London, 1877; (3) 'Perpetual Pensions,' London, 1880; (4) 'John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough,' London, 1884. He was also connected editorially with the 'London Investigator,' vols. v. and vi. 1854, &c.; 'Half-hours with the Freethinkers,' London, 1856, &c.; 'The National Secular Society's Almanac,' London, 1869, &c.; 'Freethinkers' Textbook,' London, 1876, &c. Reports of the public debates in which he took part were frequently published. He also wrote his 'Autobiography,' London, 1873; 'Genesis: its Authorship and Authenticity,' London, 1882; 'The True Story of my Parliamentary Struggle,' London, 1882; 'Rules, Customs, and Procedure of the House of Commons,' London, 1889.

[Charles Bradlauph, by Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner and John M. Robertson; Autobiography, supra; Life by A. S. Headingly; Review of Reviews, March 1891; Annie Besant: an Autobiography, by Mrs. Besant; Collection of Broadsides, Ballads, &c., issued in connection with Northampton election in Brit. Mus.]

J. R. M.