On Sunday 16 February 1890, an ailing Charles Bradlaugh MP, founder and first President of the National Secular Society (NSS), resigned his office to be succeeded by George William Foote. As he did, he spoke the following words as he handed a small wooden hammer, or gavel, to his successor.
“This hammer, presented to us by the widow of James Watson, was used at the old Rotunda, in days when such freedom as we now enjoy was impossible. Carlile has often used it. I give it you joyfully, Foote, and trust you will hand it on to your successor”.
The gavel is about 16 cm long and remains in its original condition, except that a small metal casing has been added to the tip of the shaft engraved with the following names: Richard Carlile, James Watson, Charles Bradlaugh, G. W. Foote and Chapman Cohen. Hence the modern, campaigning organisation looks back not only to its foundation by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866, but to the exploits of the extraordinary Richard Carlile and James Watson who helped prepare the ground for Bradlaugh.
Richard Carlile (1790-1843) published all Thomas Paine’s works at a time when to do so was to invite prosecution for sedition and/or blasphemy. He was on the hustings at Peterloo, and on his return to London, publicised details of the “Manchester Massacre” in his newspaper “The Republican”. He was rewarded with 6 years in Dorchester gaol and, when released, published the first British birth control manual “Every Woman’s Book” to advocate the limitation of family size as an antidote to poverty and explain contraceptive technique.
The Rotunda, mentioned by Bradlaugh, once stood on Blackfriars Road, just to the south of Blackfriars Bridge. The lease was acquired by Carlile in 1830 and for a time it was London’s premier radical meeting place and centre of agitation. William Cobbett, Daniel O’Connell, Feargus O’Connor, Robert Taylor and Robert Owen all lectured there in the presence of Carlile and his gavel, while tricolour flags flew from the roof.
James Watson (1799 – 1874) knew and assisted Carlile in his publishing and bookselling activities and served a year’s imprisonment for doing so. He also played an important role in the struggle for a free press selling Henry Hetherington’s ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’ which carried on its masthead the strapline ‘For the People, Published in Defiance of Law, to Try the Power of Right Against Might”. The particular law defied was the Stamp Act, as stamp duty was not included in the price. This earned him a further six-month prison sentence. Watson carried on Carlile’s work publishing birth control, radical, anti-religious (freethought) and republican literature and was prominent in many radical agitations including Owenism and Chartism.
Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) founded the NSS in 1866 and, from the comments reported above, we can deduce that the gavel came into the Society’s possession some time after that. Bradlaugh was to emerge as arguably the most important radical of his era fighting two great struggles that captured the nation’s attention. The first was in 1877 when, assisted by Annie Besant, he republished a birth control tract following the prosecution of a Bristol bookseller. Bradlaugh and Besant were prosecuted in turn, defended themselves and were acquitted on appeal. An important blow was struck for a free press and the right to disseminate contraceptive knowledge.
In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected an MP for Northampton but was denied his seat as the Speaker ruled that as an atheist and republican, he was not entitled to take the religious oath. Bradlaugh contested this for the next six years, returning to Northampton four times to win further elections before a new Speaker reversed his predecessor’s ruling. Again, Bradlaugh had established an important democratic principle. An MP sits in Parliament by virtue of the votes cast, not according to others’ opinions of his/her beliefs.
George William Foote (1850–1915) was the second President of the NSS and founder of ‘The Freethinker’ newspaper in 1881. Foote was incensed by Bradlaugh’s treatment and exclusion form the House of Commons and decided to take the battle to those he considered his Christian tormenters. The Freethinker soon commanded a large readership. In particular Foote used “Bible cartoons” to lampoon the religious believing that those who laughed at them could never take religion or the religious seriously. The Freethinker’s Christmas number of 1882 was regarded as particularly offensive, comprising as it did a comic strip “A New Life of Christ” and other cartoons. Foote and two colleagues were tried and convicted for blasphemy with Foote serving 12 months imprisonment in harsh conditions in Holloway Gaol. His colleagues received shorter terms. For Foote, imprisonment served a useful purpose. He emerged from Holloway a hero and martyr and, consequently, when Bradlaugh resigned as NSS President, Foote was his obvious successor.
Chapman Cohen (1868-1954) was the third and longest serving President of the NSS, holding the position for 34 years. He also edited the Freethinker throughout that period, writing much of its content, published many books and lectured and debated throughout the country. He developed the philosophical and scientific case for atheism, secularism and freethought during an era when these were less well known and less accepted than they are today.
The gavel remains in the possession of the National Secular Society and is on display in their offices. It has been handed from each retiring President to his or her successor as Bradlaugh requested. It commemorates the heroism and struggles of the radicals of the past and is reminder of campaigns still to be waged.
[Note: an earlier version of this article, which mistakenly referred in the title to Robert, not Richard, Carlile, has been corrected, as has the date of Charles Bradlaugh’s death.]