George Holyoake

(13 April 1817 – 22 January 1906)

George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906)

George HolyoakeGeorge Jacob Holyoake was an English writer who coined the term 'secularism'.

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.

Poster advertising lectures by Holyoake. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Secular Society

Poster advertising lectures by Holyoake. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Secular Society

Holyoake remained the figure-head of the secularist movement, influencing many others like Harriet Law, until he was replaced by the more militant Charles Bradlaugh in 1858.

Holyoake lived 36 Camelford Street, Brighton from 1881 to his death in 1906. He is buried at Highgate Cemetery, London.

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.

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