Charles Bradlaugh was born on 26 September 1833 in Hoxton, London, the eldest of the seven children of a poor solicitor’s clerk, and he received only an elementary education. Though brought up in the Church of England, he came to doubt the doctrines of Christianity. Pressure to conform drove him from home in 1850 and he sought lodgings at the Warner Street Temperance Hall with Elizabeth Sharples, widow of Richard Carlile, the freethinking publisher who had died in 1843. Here he began his career as a freethought lecturer, but soon took the Queen’s shilling and was sent with the 7th Dragoon Guards to Ireland, an experience that deeply affected his political outlook.
On return to civilian life in 1852, he worked as a solicitor’s clerk and soon became an expert in the law. At the same time, his reputation as a freethought lecturer grew under the pseudonym Iconoclast. His enormous energy and ability as a platform orator were quickly recognised by the secularist movement and he was invited to co-edit a new paper, the National Reformer, with which his name was to be associated for the rest of his life, as editor between 1860-64 and 1866-90, and as owner from 1862. In 1866 he formed the National Secular Society with himself as President, a post he was to hold every year, except 1871-74, until 1890.
He was also recognised as a rising star in radical and republican circles and he took a leading part on the executive of the Reform League (1865-67). Though always opposed to violence, he warmly supported the Fenians and helped draft their manifesto in 1867. In the early 1870s he emerged as a leading critic of the monarchy and aristocracy, publishing his two most successful lectures, The Land, the People and the Coming Struggle (1871) and The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick (1872), and founding the National Republican League in 1873.
Despite this extremism, he thought of himself as a supporter of William Gladstone and sought to enter Parliament as a Radical Liberal. In 1868 and twice in 1874, he contested a parliamentary seat at Northampton but without local party support he was unsuccessful. His political reputation was not helped when, in 1877, in association with Mrs Annie Besant, he republished a pamphlet on birth control entitled The Fruits of Philosophy, for which he was prosecuted on grounds of obscenity. This trial, which Bradlaugh lost but escaped penalty on a technicality, brought great support to the National Secular Society but determined many good nonconformist Liberals not to accept a man who personified blasphemy, sedition and obscenity.
Nevertheless, disorganisation in the Northampton constituency party and a realisation that, although Bradlaugh could not win, he could split the vote and prevent the Liberals from winning, gained him an official nomination in 1880, and he was returned as the junior of the two members for Northampton. On entering the Commons, he asked to be allowed to make an affirmation instead of the oath on the grounds of unbelief. When a Select Committee ruled against this, Bradlaugh offered to take the oath, but permission was refused. Despite support for Bradlaugh from Gladstone’s government, an Affirmations Bill was defeated by three votes in 1883, and the opposition was able to disrupt government business and thwart Bradlaugh’s attempts to take his seat for five years, despite four appearances to plead his case at the Bar of the House and successful re-elections for Northampton in 1881, 1882, 1884 and 1885. Attempts to disqualify him by convicting him for blasphemy failed, and prosecutions aimed at bankrupting him were resisted as he defended himself in several cases against the best legal brains in the country. Bradlaugh came to symbolise the people against Parliament and the Bradlaugh case was an acute embarrassment to Gladstone’s ministry. Yet when he was finally accepted by the Speaker in 1886 he settled down to become an outstanding backbencher, a master of parliamentary procedure and a champion of individualistic Liberalism against the mounting tide of socialism. He was accorded the honour of becoming recognised as the unofficial backbench spokesman on Indian affairs, and in December 1889 was invited to the Indian National Congress in Bombay.
Bradlaugh was one of the finest popular orators of his generation, and also a great believer in the power of the law. He insisted in all his campaigns that the law must be upheld and he tried to prevent the holding of the rally in Trafalgar Square in November 1887 which led to Bloody Sunday and the deaths of two men. But he had scarcely begun to use his great powers in the service of the House of Commons and the Liberal Party when his health collapsed, and on 30 January 1891 he died at his home in London of Bright’s disease. He was buried at the Brookwood Necropolis, Woking.
Bradlaugh married Susannah Lamb Hooper in 1855. She bore him a son and two daughters but later suffered from alcoholism. The marriage broke up in 1870 and Mrs Bradlaugh died in 1877. Of the three children, only one survived her father, the younger daughter, Hypatia, who embodied his spirit and courage, and continued as an active worker and speaker in the Liberal cause for the next forty years.
A good modern biography using Bradlaugh’s private papers has been written by David Tribe, President Charles Bradlaugh, MP (Elek Books, 1971). This is a useful corrective to the filial record of his life by Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, which appears in J. M. Robertson, Charles Bradlaugh: A record of his life and work by his daughter, with an account of his parliamentary struggle, politics and teachings (2 vols, T. Fisher Unwin, 1898).
Edward Royle was a Reader in History at the University of York, at the time of writing this piece. He has published several books on aspects of religion, freethought and radical politics in nineteenth century Britain, as well as a general survey, Modern Britain: A Social History 1750-1997 (2nd ed., 1997).