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The Times/1906/Obituary/George Jacob Holyoake

Mr. George Jacob Holyoake

The death occurred yesterday at his residence, Eastern Lodge, Brighton, of Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, the well-known publicist, agitator and advocate of the system of co-operation for the working classes which has been so widely adopted in this county and elsewhere. Mr. Holyoake, who had reached the advanced age of 89, was well known to the public during a large part of the last century, about the middle of which he attained considerable notoriety by the advocacy of heterodox opinions and by his association with men of "advanced" political views. Of late years he had lived in retirement at Brighton. He continued until recently to contribute occasional letters to the Press, and maintained to the last his interest in public affairs of the Local Government Board. When Mr. John Burns was appointed to the Presidency of the Local Government Board, Mr. Holyoake wrote to him from his sick-room, conveying his congratulations upon this recognition of the claims of labour, and concluding with the opening words of the Nune Dimittis.

Mr. Holyoake was born in Birmingham on April 13, 1817, and was the son of artisan parents, his mother being a women of decided character and exemplary piety. His early education was elementary, but he was of studious disposition, and made use of the opportunities for learning afforded by the Old Mechanics' Institution of his native town. Having a natural bent for mathematics, he attained considerable proficiency in that branch of science, and was wont to say that the book which had most strongly influenced him was the Euclid, which he mastered when quite a boy. He worked for some years with his father in an iron foundry in Birmingham, and it was there that his desire to contribute to the education and influence of his class was awakened. Forsaking the Evangelical views of his early youth, he adopted when a very young man, the ideas of the Socialist Robert Owen, although he subsequently modified his acceptance of them in their entirety. In 1839 he married a young woman of his own class, and two years later, being appointed, at a salary of 16s. a week, one of the lecturers chosen to expound Owen's social system, he gave addresses in different parts of the country, being known as what was called a "social missionary" or preacher of the doctrines of co-operation and "rational religion."

His labours on behalf of co-operation largely contributed to the success of the movement. As a result of Owen's impulse, and of the propaganda of his disciples, from 300 to 400 co-operative societies had been set up in England by the year 1830; many of them perished owing to mismanagement and other causes. The following is Holyoake's own account of the principle upon which co-operation was afterwards conducted:—

"The Rochdale Society of 1844 was the first which adopted the principle of giving the shareholders 5 percent only, and dividing the remaining profit among the customers. … They began under the idea of saving money for community purposes, and establishing co-operative workshops. For this purpose they advised their members to leave their savings in the store at 5 per cent interest; and with a view to get secular education, of which there was little to be had in those days, and under the impression that stupidity was against them, they set apart 2½ per cent of their profits for the purpose of instruction, education, and propagandism. By selling at retail prices they not only acquired funds, but they avoided the imputation of underselling their neighbours which they had the good sense and good feeling to dislike. They intended to live, but their principle was 'to let live.' By encouraging members to save their dividend in order to accumulate capital, they taught them habits of thrift. By refusing expenses in keeping books, and they taught the working classes around them for the first time to live without falling into debt. This scheme of equity, thrift and education contributes what is called the 'Rochdale plan' in contradistinction to that of the Civil Service Stores. A little 'History of the Rochdale Pioneers,' and the personal and social advantages which accrued to the members during the first 13 years of the society's existence, led to the formation of 200 stores in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The great store of Blaydon-on-Tyne was founded through Mr. Cowen, the late member for Newcastle, reading chapters of that narrative to his workmen at night. The subsequent development of co-operation has been greatly due to the interest which Professor Maurice, Canon Kingsley, Mr. Vansittart Neal, Mr. Thomas Hughes, and Mr, J. M. Ludlow took in it." ("The Growth of Co-operation in England," by G. J. Holyoake, Fortnightly Review, August 1887.)

Mr. Holyoake was the author of "The History of the Rochdale Pioneers" above referred to, which has gone into at least ten editions. The report of the central Board of the Co-operative Union (Limited) states that in 1904 there were 1,637 societies. Figures relating to 1,616 societies are given, from which it appears that the number of members at the end of 1904 was 2,205,942; the shares amounted to £28,123,425, the sales to £91,884,138 and the profits to £10,342,698.

In Holyoake's early days the public expression of opinions so unorthodox as his was attended with certain risks in that, having made at Cheltenham statements which were considered derogatory to the Christian religion, he was arrested and brought before the magistrates, who committed him for trial. He would have been liberated on bail at the time of his commitment if he had entered into and sworn to his own recognizances of £100. He, however, refused to take the oath, and remained in prison for three weeks, but was liberated shortly before his trial in order that he might prepare his defence. Between the time of his commitment and his trial the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, introduced and passed into law a Bill enacting that all trials relating to such offences should take place at assizes and not at quarter sessions. Holyoake was the first person tried under the new Act. His case was heard before Mr. Justice Erskine; he was found guilty and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. There is some reason to believe that the Home Secretary disapproved of the prosecution and of the treatment of the prisoner in gaol. Be that as it may Holyoake was no sooner at liberty then he went back to Cheltenham and repeated on a public platform, without incurring any further penalty, the very words for uttering which he had just served his term of imprisonment.

Soon after his release Holyoake came to London and opened a publishing office in Fleet-street for the dissemination of "advanced" literature, his premises being used as a meeting place for politicians and agitators with whom he was in sympathy. He seems to have known and aided all the revolutionaries of note at a time of revolutions. With Mazzini and Garibaldi he was on terms of personal friendship, and he acted as secretary to the British legion sent out to assist Garibaldi in 1861. Among others whom he knew, some of whom he assisted, were Orsinin, Bernard, Blanqui, Louis Blanc, Ledru Rollin, the brothers Reclus, Robert Ingersoll, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas Cooper the Chartist. His friendships were not, however, confined to men of such extreme views; for Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martinean, Wendell Phillips, and Joseph Cowen, of Newcastle, were of the number of his friends, and he was also intimate with G. H. Lewes, George Eliot, and John Bright. He was always agitating for something which, rightly or wrongly, he believed to be in the interests of the community. Freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, and freedom of opinion were the principal objects at which he aimed; but there were other causes to which he lent his advocacy. In addition to doing much to promote the co-operative movement, he claimed to be the founder of what is called "Secularism," which has had so great an influence — many people will think not for good — on the Radicals and working classes of the present day. In 1849 an association was formed for obtaining the exemption of the Press from all taxation and from all control except that of a Court of law. Of this association Holyoake was an active member. By publishing unstamped papers he incurred a fine of £600,000, and when summoned to the Court of Exchequer to answer to his liabilities he requested the Chancellor, Mr. Gladstone, to oblige him by accepting weekly instalments, as he was unable to pay the money down. In 1855 the newspaper stamp was done away with, it was followed by the paper duty in 1861, and thus the so-called taxes on knowledge were abolished. For many years, also, Holyoake was chairman of the committee which at length succeeded in inducing Mr. Childers to relieve railways of their passenger duty in case of third-class passengers; and he secured the utilization of our Diplomatic and Consular Service abroad for the collection and distribution of information of importance to the working classes. These reports, which contained much valuable matter, were known as the People's Blue-books.

Holyoake sought to enter Parliament on three occasions — first in 1857, when he issued an address to the electors of the Tower Hamlets; next in 1863, when he hoped for the suffrages of the voters of his native town of Birmingham; and finally in 1884, when he desired to stand at Leicester on the retirement of Mr. P. A. Taylor. He did not go to the poll on any of these occasions. He writes in his "Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life" :—

"My candidature in the Tower Hamlets was the first claim ever made to represent labour in Parliament; and it was the first time Mr. Mill supported such an intention. It was at my request that Mr. Mill's subscription of £10 was not made public, as I knew his generosity would do him more harm than it would be me good." Mr. Bradlaugh was one of his committee on this occasion. There were points of similarity between the views entertained by Bradlaugh and Holyoake as well as between the men themselves. Both were born agitators, both offended by their methods as well as by their spoken and printed utterances, and towards both the hostility which they had once aroused subsided somewhat with the lapse of time.

Holyoake was a voluminous writer and had edited a number of periodical publications, among the latter being 30 volumes of the Reasoner. His published works include a "History of Co-operation in England," a "Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, Preacher and Political Orator," "Self-Help One Hundred Years Ago," "The Co-operative Movement of To-Day," "Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life," and "Things Worth Remembering." He married a second time in 1885.

His body will be cremated at Golder's-green, Hampstead, by his own request, and the date of his funeral will duly be made known so that friends who desire to be present may go. From Golder's-green his remains will be taken for interment to Highgate Cemetery, where they will be buried in a grave adjoining those of his friends, George Henry Lewes and George Eliot. He had, in fact, a long time ago made this arrangement himself, desiring that he should lie near those with whom in earlier years he spent many happy hours.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.