The son of a Birmingham whitesmith, he started evening classes at the Birmingham Mechanics Institute in 1836 where he first came under the influence of the ideas of Robert Owen. He also became a member of the Chartist movement in Birmingham. In 1840, Holyoake became a Owenite social missionary, first in Worcester and later, in a more important position in Sheffield. During this time, he began contributing articles highly critical of Christianity to the periodical The Oracle of Reason, and when the journal’s editor Charles Southwell was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1842, Holyoake became its editor. However, later that year, faced with charges of condemning Christianity at a lecture in Cheltenham, he was also charged with blasphemy and imprisoned for six months in Gloucester Gaol.
On release from prison, Holyoake formed a journal The Movement, later re-named The Reasoner, which was to remain one of the most important periodicals of the nineteenth century, championing Chartist principles, political reform and the emerging secularist movement.
His publications include: Self Help by the People (1858), The Workman and the Suffrage (1859), The Liberal Situation (1865), The History of Co-operation in England (1877) and Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (1892).
His archive is housed in the Bishopsgate Library, London.