George Holyoake

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George Holyoake [1]
George Jacob Holyoake

(1817-04-13)13 April 1817
Died22 January 1906(1906-01-22) (aged 88)
Brighton, Sussex, England
OccupationNewspaper editor
Spouse(s)Eleanor Williams
Holyoake's name on the lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery The lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery.jpg
Holyoake's name on the lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

George Jacob Holyoake (13 April 1817 – 22 January 1906) was an English secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor. He coined the term "secularism" in 1851 [2] and "jingoism" in 1878. [3] He edited a secularist paper, the Reasoner, from 1846 to June 1861, and a co-operative paper, The English Leader, from 1864 to 1867. [4]

Cooperative autonomous association of persons or organizations

A cooperative is "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise". Cooperatives may include:

Secularism, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the "indifference to, or rejection or exclusion of, religion and religious considerations." In certain context, the word can refer to anticlericalism, atheism, desire to exclude religion from social activities or civic affairs, banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere, state neutrality toward religion, the separation of religion from state, or disestablishment.

Jingoism patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy

Jingoism is nationalism in the form of aggressive foreign policy, such as a country's advocacy for the use of threats or actual force, as opposed to peaceful relations, in efforts to safeguard what it perceives as its national interests. Colloquially, jingoism is excessive bias in judging one's own country as superior to others—an extreme type of nationalism.


Early life

George Jacob Holyoake was born in Birmingham, where his father worked as a whitesmith and his mother as a button maker. He attended a dame school, but began working half-days at the same foundry as his father at the age of eight and learnt the whitesmith's trade. At eighteen he began attending lectures at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, where he discovered the socialist writings of Robert Owen and eventually became an assistant lecturer. He married Eleanor Williams in 1839 and decided to become a full-time teacher, but was rejected for promotion because of his socialist views.[ citation needed ] Unable to teach full-time, Holyoake instead took a job as an Owenite social missionary. His first posting was in Worcester, and the following year he was transferred to a more important one in Sheffield. [5]

Birmingham City in the English Midlands, 2nd highest population of UK cities

Birmingham is the second-most populous city in the United Kingdom, after London, and the most populous city in the English Midlands. It is also the most populous metropolitan district in the United Kingdom, with an estimated 1,137,123 inhabitants, and is considered the social, cultural, financial, and commercial centre of the Midlands. It is the main local government of the West Midlands conurbation, which is the third most populated urban area in the United Kingdom, with a population of 2,897,303 in 2017. The wider Birmingham metropolitan area is the second largest in the United Kingdom with a population of over 4.3 million. It is frequently referred to as the United Kingdom's "second city".

A whitesmith is a metalworker who does finishing work on iron and steel such as filing, lathing, burnishing or polishing. The term also refers to a person who works with "white" or light-coloured metals, and is sometimes used as a synonym for tinsmith.

Dame school

A dame school was an early form of a private elementary school in English-speaking countries. They were usually taught by women and were often located in the home of the teacher.


Holyoake joined Charles Southwell in dissenting from the official policy of Owenism that lecturers should take a religious oath, to enable them to take collections on Sundays. Southwell had founded an atheist organization, Oracle of Reason , and was soon imprisoned on those grounds. Holyoake took over as editor, having moved to an atheist position as a result of his experiences.

Charles Southwell was a radical English journalist and freethinker.

The Oracle of Reason, or Philosophy Vindicated was the first avowedly atheistic periodical to be published in Britain. It was founded by Charles Southwell, William Chilton and John Field in 1841, and lasted until 1843. Several of its editors were imprisoned for blasphemy.

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Holyoake was influenced by the French philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, notable in the discipline of sociology and famous for the doctrine of positivism. Comte had himself attempted to establish a secular "religion of humanity" to fulfil the cohesive function of traditional religion. Holyoake was an acquaintance of Harriet Martineau, the English translator of various works by Comte and perhaps the first female sociologist. She wrote to him excitedly on reviewing Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Auguste Comte French philosopher

Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte was a French philosopher and writer who formulated the doctrine of positivism. He is often regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term; Comte is also seen as the founder of the academic discipline of sociology.

Sociology Scientific study of human society and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions

Sociology is the study of society, patterns of social relationships, social interaction and culture of everyday life. It is a social science that uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about social order, acceptance, and change or social evolution. While some sociologists conduct research that may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro-sociology level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.

Positivism philosophy of science based on the view that information derived from scientific observation is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge

Positivism is a philosophical theory stating that certain ("positive") knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. Positivism holds that valid knowledge is found only in this a posteriori knowledge.


In 1842, Holyoake became one of the last persons convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, held in April 1842 at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute, though this had no theological character and the incriminating words were merely a reply to a question addressed to him from the body of the meeting.

The United Kingdom is made up of three distinct parts and several legal jurisdictions. In criminal justice matters, these jurisdictions are England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Laws prohibiting blasphemy and blasphemous libel dating back to the medieval times existed in each jurisdiction as common law and in some special cases as enacted legislation. The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were formally abolished in England and Wales in 2008. Equivalent laws remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland but have not been used for many years.

Cheltenham Place in England

Cheltenham is a regency spa town and borough on the edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, England. Cheltenham became known as a health and holiday spa town resort following the discovery of mineral springs in 1716.

Mechanics Institutes educational establishment

Mechanics' Institutes are educational establishments, originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. Similar organisation are sometimes simply called Institutes. As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. The Mechanics' Institutes were used as 'libraries' for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.

It took an intervention by his supporters to stop him being walked in chains from Cheltenham to Gloucester Gaol, and there was a formal memorial of complaint to the then Home Secretary, which was upheld. He was well supported by the Cheltenham Free Press at the time in his actions, but attacked in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Examiner. Those attending the lecture, the second in a series, moved and carried a motion "that free discussion was equally beneficial in the departments of politics, morals and religion." [6] [7] In 1842 Holyoake and socialist Emma Martin formed the Anti-Persecution Union to support free thinkers in danger of arrest. [8]

Gloucester City and Non-metropolitan district in England

Gloucester is a city and district in Gloucestershire, in the South West of England, of which it is the county town. Gloucester lies close to the Welsh border, on the River Severn, between the Cotswolds to the east and the Forest of Dean to the southwest.

Emma Martin was a British author, socialist and free thinker. She is known for her public speaking on behalf of socialism and Owenism.

Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed only on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or dogma. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a freethinker is "a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching." In some contemporary thought in particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional social or religious belief systems. The cognitive application of freethought is known as "freethinking", and practitioners of freethought are known as "freethinkers". Modern freethinkers consider freethought as a natural freedom of all negative and illusive thoughts acquired from the society.


Holyoake nevertheless underwent six months' imprisonment and editorship of the Oracle changed hands. After the Oracle closed at the end of 1843, Holyoake founded a more moderate paper, The Movement, which survived until 1845. [9] Holyoake also established the Reasoner, [10] where he developed the concept of secularism , [11] and founded the Secular Review in August 1876. He was the last person indicted for publishing an unstamped newspaper, but the prosecution was dropped when the tax was repealed.

In the 1850s Holyoake and Charles Southwell were giving lectures in East London. Harriet Law, then a Baptist, began debating with them, and in the process changed her beliefs. [12] She "saw the light of reason" in 1855 and became a strong supporter of Holyoake and a prominent secular speaker.

After an 1887 split with Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, leaders of the National Secular Society (NSS), Holyoake, Charles Watts and Harriet Law founded the British Secular Union, which remained active until 1884. [13]

On 6 March 1881 Holyoake was one of the speakers at the opening of Leicester Secular Society's new Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate, Leicester. The other speakers were Harriet Law, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. [14]

Holyoake chaired the Rationalist Press Association in 1899–1906. [15] He retained his disbelief in God, but after the Oracle soon came to regard "atheism" as a negative word, preferring "secularism". He then adopted the term "agnostic" when it appeared. [16]

Co-operative movement

The grave of George Holyoake, Highgate Cemetery, London Highgate Cemetery - East - George Holyoake 04.jpg
The grave of George Holyoake, Highgate Cemetery, London

Holyoake's later years were mainly devoted to the working-class co-operative movement. He served as President of the first day of the 1887 Co-operative Congress. [17] He wrote a history of the Rochdale Pioneers (1857), The History of Co-operation in England (1875; revised ed. 1906) and The Co-operative Movement of To-day (1891). He also published (1892) an autobiography entitled Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, and in 1905 two volumes of reminiscences, Bygones Worth Remembering. [18] [19]

Holyoake died in Brighton, Sussex, on 22 January 1906, and was buried in the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery in London. [20] The grave lies in a north-east section, off the main paths, and is not readily accessible, but visible between graves on the east side of the main central-north path, behind George Eliot's grave.

The Co-operative Movement decided that a lasting monument should be built to him: a permanent home for the Co-operative Union in Manchester. [21] Holyoake House was opened in 1911. It also houses the National Co-operative Archive. A second collection is also held at Bishopsgate Library. [22]

Other aspects

Holyoake coined the term "jingoism" in a letter to the Daily News on 13 March 1878, referring to the patriotic song "By Jingo" by G. W. Hunt, popularised by the music hall singer G. H. MacDermott. [23]

He was the uncle of an independent MP and convicted fraudster, Horatio Bottomley, and contributed to the cost of Bottomley's upkeep after he was orphaned in 1865. [24]

The New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was related to him. [25]


Holyoake is listed on the south face of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

The National Secular Society unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Holyoake on Friday 17 August 2018. It is mounted on the front of a newsagents' at 4 Woburn Walk in Bloomsbury, London, WC1H 0JL and is part of the Marchmont Association's scheme of local history commemorative plaques. [26]

Holyoake Road in Headington, Oxford, is named after George Holyoake. [27]


See also


  1. Part of a photography from Arthur Edward Praill 1903
  2. Holyoake, G.J. (1896). English Secularism: A Confession of Belief. Library of Alexandria. pp.  +Dec.+10, +1851, +p.+62.)%22%22This+was+the+first+time+the+word%22%22Secularism%22%22appeared+in+the+press%22 47−48. ISBN   978-1-465-51332-8.
  3. Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 113.
  4. Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791–1866 (University of Manchester, 1974), available via Google Books
  5. "George Holyoake".
  6. "Politics in Mechanics' Institutes 1820–1850, Turner, C M, Thesis (PhD), 1980". Turner, C M, Leicester University. hdl:2381/35680.
  7. "Notes of Mr Hunt reporter August 15 1842, The Trial of George Jacob Holyoake on an Indictment for blasphemy". British Library main catalogues. British Library.
  8. Barbara Taylor, "Martin, Emma (1811/12–1851)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 10 Sept 2015.
  9. Rectenwald, Michael (June 2014). "Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism". British Journal for the History of Science. 46 (2): 235–238. JSTOR   43820386.
  10. Rectenwald, Michael (June 2013). "Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism". The British Journal for the History of Science. 46 (2): 237–238. JSTOR   43820386.
  11. Rectenwald, Michael (2016). Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 71–106. ISBN   978-1-137-46389-0.
  12. Taylor, Barbara (1 January 1993). Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Harvard University Press. p. 283. ISBN   978-0-674-27023-7 . Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  13. Jellis, George (9 March 2011), Harriet Law (1831–1897), Leicester Secular Society
  14. Gimson, Sydney A. (March 1932). "Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society" . Retrieved 27 August 2013.
  15. Whyte, Adam Gowans (1949). The Story of the R.P.A. 1899–1949. London: Watts & Co., p. 93.
  16. "Holyoake eventually came to adopt Huxley's label "agnostic"" (Berman 1990, p. 213); "The later Holyoake felt that the new label "agnosticism" more exactly suited his atheological position." (Berman 1990, p. 222).
  17. "Congress Presidents 1869–2002" (PDF). February 2002. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
  18. Holyoake, George Jacob (1892). Sixty Years of An Agitator's Life. I. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018 via Internet Archive.; Holyoake, George Jacob (1892). Sixty Years of An Agitator's Life. II. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018 via Internet Archive.
  19. Holyoake, George Jacob (1905). Bygones Worth Remembering. I. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018.; Holyoake, George Jacob (1905). Bygones Worth Remembering. II. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  20. "George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) – Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 3 September 2009.
  21. Collection Description of the Holyoake archive, held at the National Co-operative Archive, Manchester, UK Archived 13 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  22. Collection Description of the Holyoake archive, held at the Bishopsgate Institute, London
  23. Martin Ceadel, Semi-detached Idealists: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1854–1945 (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 105.
  24. Matthew Parris, Kevin Maguire, "Great parliamentary scandals: five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo", Robson, 2004, ISBN   1-86105-736-9, p. 85.
  25. Geering, Lloyd. "In praise of the secular, part 3 of 4: The value of being secular" (PDF). Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  26. "National Secular Society unveils blue plaque commemorating Holyoake". 20 August 2018.
  27. "Origins of Headington Street Names". 21 June 2019.

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