Holyoake, George Jacob (DNB12)

HOLYOAKE, GEORGE JACOB (1817–1906), co-operator and secularist, born at 1 Inge Street, Birmingham, on 13 April 1817, was eldest son and second of thirteen children of George Holyoake, engineer, by his wife Catherine Groves. His mother carried on independently a business for making horn buttons, and George practised when still a child some of the processes of the manufacture. He was apprenticed to a tinsmith, and afterwards worked with his father at the Eagle Foundry as a whitesmith. Later, the father bought some machinery then newly invented for making bone buttons and placed his son in charge of it.

The boy's inclinations lay, however, towards intellectual pursuits, and at the age of seventeen he became a student at the Old Mechanics' Institute, where he showed aptitude for mathematics and the making of mechanical instruments. He began to teach mathematics in Sunday schools when he was twenty, and about the same time to assist with classes at the Mechanics' Institute. In 1839, on the occasion of a machinery and art exhibition at Birmingham, he was selected to explain to the public the working of some of the machines.

Deeply moved in youth by the aspirations which produced the Owenite and Chartist movements, Holyoake joined the Birmingham reform league at the age of fourteen (1831), and became a Chartist a year later. In 1837 he attended meetings addressed by Robert Owen [q. v.]. In 1838 he delivered his first lecture on socialism and co-operation and enrolled himself a member of the Owenite 'Association of all Classes of all Nations.' He was present at the great Chartist riots, known as the Bull Ring riots, at Birmingham on 15 July 1839.

Holyoake had been brought up in the strictest evangelical tenets, which his mother firmly held, but his association with liberal movements broadened his beliefs. Abandoning the life of a workman, he accepted in 1840 an invitation from the Owenites of Worcester to minister for them at their hall of science. These halls, which were springing up in many towns, were centres of educational and propagandist work. Under such influences Holyoake's beliefs rapidly grew rationalistic. Next year, on the invitation of the congress of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionista, ho went to Sheffield to lecture and conduct a school. In 1841 he was one of the editors of 'The Oracle of Reason' (published at Bristol), and when a colleague, Charles Southwell, was imprisoned next year for blasphemy, Holyoake continued the paper, and, being compelled to examine the evidences of Christianity with some thoroughness, finally rejected them altogether. On 24 May 1842, in the course of a walk from Birmingham to Bristol, where Southwell was in prison, he lectured at the Mechanics' Institution; Cheltenham, and in reply to a question by an auditor made flippant reference to the deity. Arrested on a charge of blasphemy on 1 June, he was committed by the magistrates for trial at the Gloucester Assizes, and on declining to swear to his own recognisances, was refused bail. He was tried at the Gloucester Assizes on 15 Aug. 1842, before Justice Thomas Erskine [q. v.], on a charge of blasphemy at common law, and after defending himself in a nine hours' speech, was convicted and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. A report of the trial was published in the same year, and in 1851 Holyoake, in 'The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England,' appealed to the attorney-general and the clergy for some change in the law. But no alteration was made, and several trials on the like charge have taken place since (cf. J. F. Stephen, Hist. of Criminal Law, ii. 473-6).

On his release from prison Holyoake came to London, and, opening a shop for the sale of advanced literature, continued his varied propaganda. He was secretary of the anti-persecution union, which demanded freedom of theological thought and speech. He was editor of 'The Movement' (1843), a republican and radical journal. But practical social reform also occupied his mind. Supporting the principle of co-operative production and distribution, he presided at the opening of the Toad Lane store at Rochdale in 1845. To his enthusiasm the spread of the co-operative idea owed much. During 1845 he was in Glasgow as lecturer again to a body of Owenites. But he soon returned to London, and started the 'Reasoner' on 3 June 1846. This was the most sustained of the many journals which he conducted. It was followed in 1850 by the 'Leader.'

Drifting away both from Owenism and from the anti-Christian propaganda of his early years, he defined his developing religious views by the word 'secularism,' which he invented and first used in the 'Reasoner' (10 Dec. 1846). He fully explained his position in 'Secularism, the Practical Philosophy of the People,' a pamphlet published in 1854. His religious development led to differences with Charles Bradlaugh and other associates who remained avowed atheists, and Holyoake defended his opinions in public debates with them and their supporters. Meanwhile he was steadfast in his advocacy of the freedom of the press, of abolition of the Christian oath, and of republican radicalism, the political creed which he adopted on the death of Chartism. A presentation of 2501. from sympathisers in 1853 enabled him to start in business as a bookseller and publisher at 147 Fleet Street, and his shop became the headquarters of his agitation. There he with Special boldness defied the law for taxing newspapers. For publishing without stamps in 1854 the 'War Chronicle' and 'War Fly Sheets,' journals denouncing the Crimean war, he was summoned before the court of the exchequer (31 Jan. 1855). The fines he had incurred amounted to 600,000l. But the prosecution was abandoned, for the Newspaper Stamp Act was repealed during the year. Holyoake continued the agitation for the abolition of the remaining duties on paper, which were removed in 1861. He strenuously advocated extension of the franchise, and defended the ballot in a pamphlet against John Stuart Mill (1868). In July 1866 he played a prominent part in the demand for electoral reform which led to the Hyde Park riot, and in later life he was active in the effort to pass the affirmation bill which finally became law in 1888.

Holyoake did not confine his energies to home questions. He was acting secretary to the British legion sent out to Garibaldi in 1863, and he twice travelled in the United States and Canada with a view to studying problems of colonisation. The second visit was paid in 1882. Meanwhile failing health and eyesight reduced Holyoake's activities. In 1874 he received an annuity by public subscription. He still wrote copiously for the press, starting in 1876 a new periodical, 'The Secular Review.' To the end he was persistent in his support of the co-operative movement, and he sympathised with the co-partnership development which deprecated the mere pursuit of dividends. He recognised that distributing stores was not the fulfilment of the Rochdale purpose, and advocated co-operative production through the self-governing workshop. In his last years he removed to Brighton and was president of the Liberal Association there. He thrice tried to enter parliament—in 1857, when he issued an address to the electors of Tower Hamlets; in 1868, when he offered himself as candidate for Birmingham; and in 1884, when he addressed the Liberal Association of Leicester on the death of Peter Alfred Taylor [q. v.]. But on no occasion did he go to the poll, and after the Leicester failure he published a pamphlet setting out how handicapped a poor man was in public life. It was at his suggestion, made in 1866 to Lord John Manners, first commissioner of works, that the limelight was placed over the clock tower at Westminster at night to denote that parliament was sitting.

Holyoake died at Brighton on 22 Jan. 1906, and after cremation at Golder's Green his ashes were buried in Highgate cemetery. He was twice married: (1) on 10 March 1839 to Eleanor Williams, daughter of a soldier, by whom he had four sons and three daughters (she died at Brighton in January 1884); (2) in 1886 to Mrs. Jane Pearson.

His chief works were: 'A History of Cooperation in England' (1875-7; revised edit. 1906); 'Self-Help by the People,' a history of the Rochdale Pioneers (1855; 10th edit. 1893), and biographies of Richard Carlile (1848), Tom Paine (1851), Robert Owen (1859; 3rd edit. 1866), John Stuart Mill (1873), and Joseph Rayner Stephens (1881). Among other of his numerous writings, which included many controversial pamphlets and educational manuals, are:

  1. 'Handbook of Grammar,' 12mo, 1846.
  2. 'Paley refuted in his own Words,' 1847.
  3. 'Mathematics no Mystery,' 1848.
  4. 'Rudiments of Public Speaking and Debate,' 1849 (repeatedly revised and republished).
  5. 'The Logic of Death,' 1851; 101st edit. 1902; German translation 1865.
  6. 'History of Fleet Street House,' 1856.
  7. 'The Trial of Theism,' 1858; new edit. 1877.
  8. 'Principles of Secularism,' 1859.
  9. 'Outlaws of Free Thought,' 1861.
  10. 'Travels in Search of a Settlers' Guide Book of America and Canada,' 1884.
  11. 'The 'Co-operative Movement To-day,' 1891.
  12. 'Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life,' 2 vols. 1892; 3rd edit. 1893.
  13. 'Origin and Nature of Secularism,' 1896.
  14. 'Bygones Worth Remembering,' 1905.

He contributed to this Dictionary articles on Richard Carlile and Henry Hetherington, with whose careers he was himself associated. A portrait by a nephew, Rowland Holyoake, is in possession of the Rationalist Press Association, and a replica is in the National Liberal Club. A pen portrait by Mr. Walter Sickert belongs to Mr. Fisher Unwin.

[Holyoake's autobiographical works, cited above; Life and Letters of George Jacob Holyoake, by J. MacCabe, 2 vols. 1908; George Jacob Holyoake: a bibliography by C. W. F. Goss, 1908; Life of Charles Bradlaugh, by his daughter.]

J. R. M.