Charles Southwell

(1814 – 7 August 1860)

Charles Southwell was a radical English journalist and freethinker.

In 1830, Southwell set up as a radical bookseller in Westminster, London, and joined the radical lecture circuit.

He was confirmed as an Owenite ‘socialist missionary’ in 1840 and worked in that capacity in London and Birmingham.

In late 1841 Southwell opened a freethought bookshop in Bristol with William Chilton and together they began publishing a new atheist periodical, the Oracle of Reason.

In the journal they denounced all religion as superstition. In the fourth issue Southwell wrote an article criticizing the Bible. Southwell was arrested and charged with blasphemous libel. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in Bristol Gaol and fined £100, an enormous sum.

Southwell served the full sentence and on 6 February 1843 was released from gaol. He made good use of his time in prison, writing a pamphlet entitled Paley refuted in his own words. William Paley’s (1743-1805) book Natural Theology (1802) articulated one of the most comprehensive design arguments to prove the existence of God. It was probably while in prison that Southwell wrote The Confessions of a Freethinker, a ‘candid and fascinating piece of autobiography.’

Southwell did not return to the Oracle after his release from gaol but began a new paper called the Investigator. This paper was less militant in tone, though he was still an atheist. He had attracted a great deal of support while in prison, and became a popular lecturer throughout the country for quite a long period alter that. He spent time in Scotland, helping freethinkers deflect the hostile attentions of the Kirk. And he ran a particularly successful freethought programme in Lancashire, with the inevitable paper, the Lancashire Beacon.

Southwell emigrated to Australia in April 1855 before moving to New Zealand, in 1856, becoming the country’s first freethinker.

Also see…