"No, I have never been. Mr. Bradlaugh is rather a rough sort of speaker, is he not?"
"He is the finest speaker of Saxon English that I have ever heard," Mrs. Conway answered, "except, perhaps, John Bright, and his power over a crowd is something marvellous. Whether you agree with him or not, you should hear him."
I replied that I really did not know what his views were, beyond having a vague notion that he was an Atheist of a rather pronounced type, but that I would go and hear him when I had an opportunity.
Mr. Conway had passed beyond the emotional Theism of Mr. Voysey, and talk with him did something towards widening my views on the question of a Divine Existence. I re-read carefully Mansel's Bampton Lectures, and found in them much to provoke doubt, nothing to induce faith. Take the following phrases, and think whither they carry us. Dean Mansel is speaking of God as Infinite, and he says: "That a man can be conscious of the Infinite is, then, a supposition which, in the very terms in which it is expressed, annihilates itself.... The Infinite, if it is to be conceived at all, must be conceived as potentially everything and actually nothing; for if there is anything in general which it cannot become, it is thereby limited; and if there is anything in particular which it actually is, it is thereby excluded from being any other thing. But again, it must also be conceived as actually everything and potentially nothing: for an unrealised potentiality is likewise a limitation. If the infinite can be that which it is not, it is by that very possibility marked out as incomplete and capable of a higher perfection. If it is actually everything, it possesses no characteristic feature by which it can be distinguished from anything else and discerned as an object of consciousness."
Could any argument more thoroughly Atheistic be put before a mind which dared to think out to the logical end any train of thought? Such reasoning can lead but to one of two ends: despair of truth and consequent acceptance of the incomprehensible as Divine, or else the resolute refusal to profess belief where reason is helpless, and where faith is but the credulity of ignorance. In my case, it had the latter effect.
At the same time I re-read Mill's "Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy", and also went through a pretty severe study of Comte's Philosophic Positive. I had entirely given up the use of prayer, not because I was an Atheist but because I was still a Theist. It seemed to me to be absurd to pray, if I believed in a God who was wiser and better than myself. An all-wise God did not need my suggestions: an all-good God would do all that was best without my prompting. Prayer appeared to me to be a blasphemous impertinence, and for a considerable time I had discontinued its use. But God fades gradually out of the daily life of those who never pray; a God who is not a Providence is a superfluity; when from the heaven does not smile a listening Father, it soon becomes an empty space whence resounds no echo of man's cry.
At last I said to Mr. Scott: "Mr. Scott, may I write a tract on the nature and existence of God?"
He glanced at me keenly: "Ah, little lady; you are facing then that problem at last? I thought it must come. Write away."
The thought that had been driving me forward found its expression in the opening words of the essay (published a few months later, with one or two additions that were made after I had read two of Mr. Bradlaugh's essays, his "Plea for Atheism", and "Is there a God?"): "It is impossible for those who study the deeper religious problems of our time to stave off much longer the question which lies at the root of them all, 'What do you believe in regard to God?' We may controvert Christian doctrines one after another; point by point we may be driven from the various beliefs of our churches; reason may force us to see contradictions where we had imagined harmony, and may open our eyes to flaws where we had dreamed of perfection; we resign all idea of a revelation; we seek for God in Nature only: we renounce for ever the hope (which glorified our former creed into such alluring beauty) that at some future time we should verily 'see' God; that 'our eyes should behold the King in his beauty', in that fairy 'land which is very far off'. But every step we take onwards towards a more reasonable faith and a surer light of Truth, leads us nearer and nearer to the problem of problems: 'What is THAT which men call God?".
I sketched out the plan of my essay and had written most of it when on returning one day from the British Museum I stopped at the shop of Mr. Edward Truelove, 256 High Holborn. I had been working at some Comtist literature, and had found a reference to Mr. Truelove's shop as one at which Comtist publications might be bought. Lying on the counter was a copy of the National Reformer, and attracted by the title I bought it. I had never before heard of nor seen the paper, and I read it placidly in the omnibus; looking up, I was at first puzzled and then amused to see an old gentleman gazing at me with indignation and horror printed on his countenance; I realised that my paper had disturbed his peace of mind, and that the sight of a young woman, respectably dressed in crape, reading an Atheistic journal in an omnibus was a shock too great to be endured by the ordinary Philistine without sign of discomposure. He looked so hard at the paper that I was inclined to offer it to him for his perusal, but repressed the mischievous inclination, and read on demurely.
This first copy of the paper with which I was to be so closely connected bore date July 19th, 1874, and contained two long letters from a Mr. Arnold of Northampton, attacking Mr. Bradlaugh, and a brief and singularly self-restrained answer from the latter. There was also an article on the National Secular Society, which made me aware that there was an organisation devoted to the propagandism of Free Thought. I felt that if such a society existed, I ought to belong to it, and I consequently wrote a short note to the editor of the National Reformer, asking whether it was necessary for a person to profess Atheism before being admitted to the Society. The answer appeared in the National Reformer:—
"S.E.—To be a member of the National Secular Society it is only necessary to be able honestly to accept the four principles, as given in the National Reformer of June 14th. This any person may do without being required to avow himself an Atheist. Candidly, we can see no logical resting-place between the entire acceptance of authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church, and the most extreme nationalism. If, on again looking to the Principles of the Society, you can accept them, we repeat to you our invitation."
I sent my name in as an active member, and find it recorded in the National Reformer of August 9th. Having received an intimation that Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of Science from Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it was on the 2nd August, 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall.
As I sat, much crushed, surveying the crowded audience with much interest and longing to know which were members of the brotherhood I had entered, a sudden roar of cheering startled me. I saw a tall figure passing swiftly along and mounting the stairs, and the roar deepened and swelled as he made a slight acknowledgment of the greeting and sat down. I remember well my sensations as I looked at Charles Bradlaugh for the first time. The grave, quiet, strong look, as he sat facing the crowd, impressed me strangely, and most of all was I surprised at the breadth of forehead, the massive head, of the man I had heard described as a mere ignorant demagogue.
The lecture was on "The ancestry and birth of Jesus", and was largely devoted to tracing the resemblance between the Christ and Krishna myths. As this ground was well-known to me, I was able to judge of the lecturer's accuracy, and quickly found that his knowledge was as sound as his language was splendid. I had never before heard eloquence, sarcasm, fire, and passion brought to bear on the Christian superstition, nor had I ever before felt the sway of the orator, nor the power that dwells in spoken words.
After the lecture, Mr. Bradlaugh came down the Hall with some certificates of membership of the National Secular Society in his hand, and glancing round for their claimants caught, I suppose, some look of expectancy in my face, for he paused and handed me mine, with a questioning, "Mrs. Besant?". Then he said that if I had any doubt at all on the subject of Atheism, he would willingly discuss it with me, if I would write making an appointment for that purpose. I made up my mind to take advantage of the opportunity, and a day or two later saw me walking down Commercial Road, looking for Turner Street.
My first conversation with Mr. Bradlaugh was brief, direct, and satisfactory. We found that there was little real difference between our theological views, and my dislike of the name "Atheist" arose from my sharing in the vulgar error that the Atheist asserted, "There is no God". This error I corrected in the draft of my essay, by inserting a few passages from pamphlets written by acknowledged Atheists, to which Mr. Bradlaugh drew my attention; with this exception the essay remained as it was sketched, being described by Mr. Bradlaugh as "a very good Atheistic essay", a criticism which ended with the smiling comment: "You have thought yourself into Atheism without knowing it."
Very wise were some of the suggestions made: "You should never say you have an opinion on a subject until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the view to which you are inclined". "You must not think you know a subject until you are acquainted with all that the best minds have said about it." "No steady work can be done in public unless the worker study at home far more than he talks outside." And let me say here that among the many things for which I have to thank Mr. Bradlaugh, there is none for which I owe him more gratitude than for the fashion in which he has constantly urged the duty of all who stand forward as teachers to study deeply every subject they touch, and the impetus he has given to my own love of knowledge by the constant spur of criticism and of challenge, criticism of every weak statement, challenge of every hastily-expressed view. It will be a good thing for the world when a friendship between a man and a woman no longer means protective condescension on one side and helpless dependence on the other, but when they meet on equal ground of intellectual sympathy, discussing, criticising, studying, and so aiding the evolution of stronger and clearer thought-ability in each.
A few days after our first discussion, Mr. Bradlaugh offered me a place on the staff of the National Reformer at a small weekly salary; and my first contribution appeared in the number for August 30th, over the signature of "Ajax"; I was obliged to use a nom de guerre at first, for the work I was doing for Mr. Scott would have been injured had my name appeared in the columns of the terrible National Reformer, and until the work commenced and paid for was concluded I did not feel at liberty to use my own name. Later, I signed my National Reformer articles, and the tracts written for Mr. Scott appeared anonymously.
The name was suggested by the famous statue of "Ajax crying for light", a cast of which stands in the centre walk of the Crystal Palace. The cry through the darkness for light, even if light brought destruction, was one that awoke the keenest sympathy of response from my heart:
"If our fate be death, Give light, and let us die!"
To see, to know, to understand, even though the seeing blind, though the knowledge sadden, though the understanding shatter the dearest hopes, such has ever been the craving of the upward-striving mind of man. Some regard it as a weakness, as a folly, but I am sure that it exists most strongly in some of the noblest of our race; that from the lips of those who have done most in lifting the burden of ignorance from the overstrained and bowed shoulders of a stumbling world has gone out most often into the empty darkness the pleading, impassioned cry :—
My first lecture was delivered at the Co-operative Society's Hall, 55, Castle Street, on August 25, 1873. Twice before this, I had ventured to raise my voice in discussion, once at a garden-party at which I was invited to join in a brief informal debate, and discovered that words came readily and smoothly, and the second time at the Liberal Social Union, in a discussion on a paper read by a member—I forget by whom— dealing with the opening of Museums and Art Galleries on Sunday.
My membership of that same "Liberal" Social Union was not, by the way, of very long duration. A discussion arose, one night, on the admissibility of Atheists to the society. Dr. Zerffi declared that he would not remain a member if avowed Atheists were admitted. I declared that I was an Atheist, and that the basis of the Union was liberty. The result was that I found myself coldshouldered, and those who had been warmly cordial to me as a Theist looked askance at me after I had avowed that my scepticism had advanced beyond their "limits of religious thought". The Liberal Social Union knew me no more, but in the wider field of work open before me the narrowmindedness of this petty clique troubled me not at all.
To return from this digression to my first essay in lecturing work. An invitation to read a paper before the Co-operative Society came to me from Mr. Greenwood, who was, I believe, the Secretary, and as the subject was left to my own choice, I determined that my first public attempt at speech should be on behalf of my own sex, and selected for it, "The Political Status of Women". With much fear and trembling was that paper written, and it was a very nervous person who presented herself at the Co-operative Hall. When a visit to the dentist is made, and one stands on the steps outside, desiring to run away ere the neat little boy in buttons opens the door and beams on one with a smile of compassionate contempt and implike triumph, then the world seems dark and life is as a huge blunder. But all such feelings are poor and weak when compared with the sinking of the heart, and the trembling of the knees, which, seize upon the unhappy lecturer as he advances towards his first audience, and as before his eyes rises a ghastly vision of a tongue-tied would-be speaker facing rows of listening faces, listening to—silence.
All this miserable feeling, however, disappeared the moment I rose to my feet and looked at the faces before me. No tremor of nervousness touched me from the first word to the last. And a similar experience has been mine ever since. I am still always nervous before a lecture, and feel miserable and ill-assured, but, once on my feet, I am at my ease, and not once on the platform after the lecture has commenced have I experienced the painful feeling of hesitancy and "fear of the sound of my own voice" of which I have often heard people speak.
The death of Mr. Charles Gilpin in September left vacant one of the seats for Northampton, and Mr. Bradlaugh at once announced his intention of again presenting himself to the constituency as a candidate. He had at first stood for the borough in 1868, and had received 1086 votes; on February 5th, 1874, he received 1653 votes, and of these 1060 were plumpers; the other candidates were Messrs. Merewether, Phipps, Gilpin, and Lord Henley; Mr. Merewether had 12 plumpers; Mr. Phipps, 113; Mr. Gilpin, 64; Lord Henley, 21. Thus signs were already seen of the compact and personally loyal following which was to win the seat for its chief in 1880, after twelve years of steady struggle. In 1868, Mr. John Stuart Mill had strongly supported Mr. Bradlaugh's candidature, and had sent a donation to his election fund. Mr. Mill wrote in his Autobiography (pp. 311,312):
"He had the support of the working classes; having heard him speak I knew him to be a man of ability, and he had proved that he was the reverse of a demagogue by placing himself in strong opposition to the prevailing opinion of the Democratic party on two such important subjects as Malthusianism. and Personal Representation. Men of this sort, who, while sharing the democratic feelings of the working classes, judge political questions for themselves, and have courage to assert their individual convictions against popular opposition, were needed, as it seemed to me, in Parliament; and I did not think that Mr. Bradlaugh's anti-religious opinions (even though he had been intemperate in the expression of them) ought to exclude him."
When the election was over, and after Mr. Mill had himself been beaten at Westminster, he wrote, referring to his donation: "It was the right thing to do, and if the election were yet to take place, I would do it again". The election in February, 1874 took place while Mr. Bradlaugh was away in America, and this second one in the same year took place on the eve of his departure on another American lecturing tour.
I went down to Northampton to report electioneering incidents for the National Reformer, and spent some days there in the whirl of the struggle. The Whig party was more bitter against Mr. Bradlaugh than was the Tory, and every weapon that could be forged out of slander and falsehood was used against him by "Liberals", who employed their Christianity as an electioneering dodge to injure a man whose sturdy Radicalism they feared. Over and over again Mr. Bradlaugh was told that he was an "impossible candidate", and gibe and sneer and scoff were flung at the man who had neither ancestors nor wealth to recommend him, who fought his battle with his brain and his tongue, and whose election expenses were paid by hundreds of contributions from poor men and women in every part of the land. Strenuous efforts were made to procure a "Liberal" candidate, who should be able at least to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh's return by obtaining the votes of the Liberal as against the Radical party. Messrs. Bell and James and Dr. Pearce came on the scene only to disappear. Mr. Jacob Bright and Mr. Arthur Arnold were suggested. Mr. Ayrton's name was whispered. Major Lumley was recommended by Mr. Bernal Osborne. Dr. Kenealy proclaimed himself ready to rescue the Liberal party in their dire strait. Mr. Tillet of Norwich, Mr. Cox of Belper, were invited, but neither of these would consent to oppose a sound Radical, who had fought two elections at Northampton and who had been before the constituency for six years. At last Mr. William Fowler, a banker, was invited, and accepted the task of handing over the representation of a Radical borough to a Tory.
October 6th was fixed as the election day, and at 7.30 on that day Mr. Merewether, the Tory, was declared elected with 2,171 votes. Mr. Bradlaugh polled 1,766, having added another 133 voters to those who had polled for him in the previous February.
The violent abuse levelled against Mr. Bradlaugh by the Whigs, and the foul and wicked slanders circulated against him, had angered almost to madness those who knew and loved him, and when it was found that the unscrupulous Whig devices had succeeded in turning the election against him, the fury broke out into open violence. As Mr. Bradlaugh was sitting well-nigh exhausted in the hotel, the landlord rushed in, crying to him to go out and try to stop the people, or there would be murder done at the "Palmerston", Mr. Fowler's head-quarters; the crowd was charging the door, and the windows were being broken, with showers of stones. Weary as he was, Mr. Bradlaugh sprang to his feet and swiftly made his way to the rescue of those who had defeated him. Flinging himself before the door, he drove the crowd back, scolded them into quietness and dispersed them. But at nine o'clock he had to leave the town to catch the mail for Queenstown, where he was to join the steamer for America, and after he had left, the riot he had quelled broke out afresh. The soldiers were called out, the Riot Act was read, stones flew freely, heads and windows were broken, but no very serious harm was done. The "Palmerston" and the printing office of the Mercury, the Whig organ, were the principal sufferers, windows and doors vanishing somewhat completely.
In this same month of October I find I noted in the National Reformer that it was rumored "that on hearing that the Prince of Wales had succeeded the Earl of Ripon as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, Mr. Bradlaugh immediately sent in his resignation". "The report", I added demurely, "seems likely to be a true one". I had not much doubt of the fact, having seen the cancelled certificate.
My second lecture was delivered on September 27th, during the election struggle, at Mr. Moncure D. Conway's Chapel in St. Paul's Road, Camden Town, and was on "The true basis of morality.". The lecture was re-delivered a few weeks later at a Unitarian chapel, where the minister was the Rev. Peter Dean, and gave, I was afterwards told, great offence to some of the congregation, especially to Miss Frances Power Cobbe, who declared that she would have left the chapel had not the speaker been a woman. The ground of complaint was that the suggested "basis" was Utilitarian and human instead of Intuitional and Theistic. Published as a pamphlet, the lecture has reached its seventh thousand.
In October I had a severe attack of congestion of the lungs, and soon after my recovery I left Norwood to settle in London. I found that my work required that I should be nearer head-quarters, and I arranged to rent part of a house—19, Westbourne Park Terrace, Bayswater—two lady friends taking the remainder. The arrangement proved a very comfortable one, and it continued until my improved means enabled me, in 1876, to take a house of my own.
In January, 1875, I made up my mind to lecture regularly, and in the National Reformer for January 17th I find the announcement that "Mrs. Annie Besant (Ajax) will lecture at South Place Chapel, Finsbury, on 'Civil and religious liberty'", Mr. Conway took the chair at this first identification of "Ajax" with myself, and sent a very kindly notice of the lecture to the Cincinnati Commercial. Mr. Charles Watts wrote a report in the National Reformer of January 24th. Dr. Maurice Davies also wrote a very favorable article in a London journal, but unfortunately he knew Mr. Walter Besant, who persuaded him to suppress my name, so that although the notice appeared it did me no service. My struggle to gain my livelihood was for some time rendered considerably more difficult by this kind of ungenerous and underhand antagonism. A woman's road to the earning of her own living, especially when she is weighted with the care of a young child, is always fairly thorny at the outset, and does not need to be rendered yet more difficult by secret attempts to injure, on the part of those who trust that suffering and poverty may avail to bend pride to submission.
My next lecture was given in the Theatre Royal, Northampton, and in the National Reformer of February 14th appears for the first time my list of lecturing engagements, so that in February next I shall complete my first decade of lecturing for the Freethought and Republican Cause. Never, since first I stood on the Freethought platform, have I felt one hour's regret for the resolution taken in solitude in January, 1875, to devote to that sacred Cause every power of brain and tongue that I possessed. Not lightly was that resolution taken, for I know no task of weightier responsibility than that of standing forth as teacher, and swaying thousands of hearers year after year. But I pledged my word then to the Cause I loved that no effort on my part should be wanting to render myself worthy of the privilege of service which I took; that I would read, and study, and would train every faculty that I had; that I would polish my language, discipline my thought, widen my knowledge; and this, at least, I may say, that if I have written and spoken much I have studied and thought more, and that at least I have not given to my mistress, Liberty, that "which hath cost me nothing".
A queer incident occurred on February 17th. I had been invited by the Dialectical Society to read a paper, and selected for subject "The existence of God". The Dialectical Society had for some years held their meetings in a room in Adam Street rented from the Social Science Association. When the members gathered as usual on this 17th February, the door was found closed, and they were informed that Ajax's paper had been too much for the Social Science nerves, and that entrance to the ordinary meeting-place was henceforth denied. We found refuge in the Charing Cross Hotel, where we speculated merrily on the eccentricities of religious charity.
On February 12th, I started on my first lecturing tour in the provinces. After lecturing at Birkenhead on the evening of that day, I started by the night mail for Glasgow. Some races—dog races, I think—had been going on, and very unpleasant were many of the passengers waiting on the platform. Some Birkenhead friends had secured me a compartment, and watched over me till the train began to move. Then, after we had fairly started, the door was flung open by a porter and a man was thrust in who half tumbled on to the seat. As he slowly recovered, he stood up, and as his money rolled out of his hand on to the floor and he gazed vaguely at it, I saw, to my horror, that he was drunk. The position was pleasant, for the train was an express and was not timed to stop for a considerable time. My odious fellow-passenger spent some time on the floor hunting for his scattered coins. Then he slowly gathered himself up, and presently became conscious of my presence. He studied me for some time and then proposed to shut the window. I assented quietly, not wanting to discuss a trifle, and feeling in deadly terror. Alone at night in an express, with a man not drunk enough to be helpless but too drunk to be controlled. Never, before or since, have I felt so thoroughly frightened, but I sat there quiet and unmoved, only grasping a penknife in my pocket, with a desperate resolve to use my feeble weapon as soon as the need arose. The man had risen again to his feet and had come over to me, when a jarring noise was heard and the train began to slacken.
"What is that?" stammered my drunken companion.
"They are putting on the brakes to stop the train," I said very slowly and distinctly, though a very passion of relief made it hard to say quietly the measured words.
The man sat down stupidly, staring at me, and in a minute or two more the train pulled up at a station. It had been stopped by signal. In a moment I was at the window, calling the guard. I rapidly explained to him that I was travelling alone, that a half-drunken man was with me, and I begged him to put me into another carriage. With the usual kindliness of a railway official, the guard at once moved my baggage and myself into an empty compartment, into which he locked me, and he kept a friendly watch over me at every station at which we stopped until he landed me safely at Glasgow.
At Glasgow a room had been taken for me at a Temperance Hotel, and it seemed to me a new and lonely sort of thing to be "on my own account" in a strange city in a strange hotel. By the way, why are Temperance Hotels so often lacking in cleanliness? Surely abstinence from wine and superfluity of "matter in the wrong place" need not necessarily be correlated in hotel-life, and yet my experience leads me to look for the twain together. Here and there I have been to Temperance Hotels in which water is used for other purposes than that of drinking, but these are, I regret to say, the exceptions to a melancholy rule.
From Glasgow I went north to Aberdeen, and from Aberdeen home again to London. A long weary journey that was, in a third-class carriage in the cold month of February, but the labor had in it a joy that outpaid all physical discomfort, and the feeling that I had found my work in the world gave a new happiness to my life.
I reported my doings to the chief of our party in America, and found them only half approved. "You should have waited till I returned, and at least I could have saved you some discomforts," he wrote; but the discomforts troubled me little, and I think I rather preferred the independent launch out into lecturing work, trusting only to my own courage and ability to win my way. So far as health was concerned, the lecturing acted as a tonic. My chest had always been a little delicate, and when I consulted a doctor on the possibility of my lecturing he answered: "It will either kill you or cure you". It has entirely cured the lung weakness, and I have grown strong and vigorous instead of being frail and delicate as of old.
On February 28th I delivered my first lecture at the Hall of Science, London, and was received with that warmth of greeting which Freethinkers are ever willing to extend to one who sacrifices aught to join their ranks. From that day to this that hearty welcome at our central London hall has never failed me, and the love and courage wherewith Freethinkers have ever stood by me have overpaid a thousandfold any poor services I have been fortunate enough to render to the common cause.
It would be wearisome to go step by step over the ten years' journeys and lectures; I will only select, here and there, incidents illustrative of the whole.
Some folk say that the lives of Freethought lecturers are easy, and that their lecturing tours are lucrative in the extreme. On one occasion I spent eight days in the north lecturing daily, with three lectures on the two Sundays, and made a deficit of 11s. on the journey! I do not pretend that such a thing would happen now, but I fancy that every Freethought lecturer could tell of a similar experience in the early days of "winning his way".
There is no better field for Freethought and Radical work than Northumberland and Durham; the miners there are as a rule shrewd and hard-headed men, and very cordial is the greeting given by them to those whom they have reason to trust. At Seghill and at Bedlington I have slept in their cottages and have been welcomed to their tables, and I remember one evening at Seghill, after a lecture, that my host invited about a dozen miners to supper to meet me; the talk ran on politics, and I soon found that my companions knew more of English politics and had a far shrewder notion of political methods than I had found among the ordinary "diners-out" in "society". They were of the "uneducated" class despised by "gentlemen" and had not the vote, but politically they were far better educated than their social superiors, and were far better fitted to discharge the duties of citizenship.
On May 16th I attended, for the first time, the Annual Conference called by the National Secular Society. It was held at Manchester, in the Society's rooms in Grosvenor Street, and it is interesting and encouraging to note how the Society has grown and strengthened since that small meeting held nearly ten years ago. Mr. Bradlaugh was elected President; Messrs. A. Trevelyan, T. Slater, C. Watts, C.C. Cattell, R.A. Cooper, P.A.V. Le Lubez, N. Ridgway, G.W. Foote, G.H. Reddalls, and Mrs. Besant Vice Presidents. Messrs. Watts and Standring were elected as Secretary and Assistant-Secretary—both offices were then honorary, for the Society was too poor to pay the holders—and Mr. Le Lubez Treasurer. The result of the Conference was soon seen in the energy infused into the Freethought propaganda, and from that time to this the Society has increased in numbers and in influence, until that which was scarcely more than a skeleton has become a living power in the land on the side of all social and political reforms. The Council for 1875 consisted of but thirty-nine members, including President, Vice-Presidents, and Secretary, and of these only nine were available as a Central Executive. Let Freethinkers compare this meagre list with the present, and then let them "thank" man "and take courage".
Lecturing at Leicester in June, I came for the first time across a falsehood of which I have since heard plenty. An irate Christian declared that I was responsible for a book entitled the "Elements of Social Science", which was, he averred, the "Bible of Secularists". I had never heard of the book, but as he insisted that it was in favor of the abolition of marriage, and that Mr. Bradlaugh agreed with it, I promptly contradicted him, knowing that Mr. Bradlaugh's views on marriage were conservative rather than revolutionary. On enquiry afterwards I found that the book in question had been written some years before by a Doctor of Medicine, and had been sent for review by its publisher to the National Reformer among other papers. I found further that it consisted of three parts; the first dealt with the sexual relation, and advocated, from the standpoint of an experienced medical man, what is roughly known as "free love"; the second was entirely medical, dealing with diseases; the third consisted of a very clear and able exposition of the law of population as laid down by Malthus, and insisted—as John Stuart Mill had done—that it was the duty of married persons to voluntarily limit their families within their means of subsistence. Mr. Bradlaugh, in the National Reformer, in reviewing the book, stated that it was written "with honest and pure intent and purpose", and recommended to working men the exposition of the law of population. Because he did this Christians and Tories who desire to injure him still insist that he shares the author's views on sexual relations, and despite his reiterated contradictions, they quote detached pieces of the work, speaking against marriage, as containing his views. Anything more meanly vile and dishonest than this it would be difficult to imagine, yet such are the weapons used against Atheists in a Christian country. Unable to find in Mr. Bradlaugh's own writings anything to serve their purpose, they take isolated passages from a book he neither wrote nor published, but once reviewed with a recommendation of a part of it which says nothing against marriage.
That the book is a remarkable one and deserves to be read has been acknowledged on all hands. Personally, I cordially dislike a large part of it, and dissent utterly from its views on the marital relation, but none the less I feel sure that the writer is an honest, good, and right meaning man. In the Reasoner, edited by Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, I find warmer praise of it than in the National Reformer; in the review the following passage appears:—
"In some respects all books of this class are evils: but it would be weakness and criminal prudery—a prudery as criminal as vice itself—not to say that such a book as the one in question is not only a far lesser evil than the one that it combats, but in one sense a book which it is a mercy to issue and courage to publish."
The Examiner, reviewing the same book, declared it to be
"A very valuable, though rather heterogeneous book.... This is, we believe, the only book that has fully, honestly, and in a scientific spirit recognised all the elements in the problem—How are mankind to triumph over poverty, with its train of attendant evils?—and fearlessly endeavored to find a practical solution."
The British Journal of Homaeopathy wrote:
"Though quite out of the province of our journal, we cannot refrain from stating that this work is unquestionably the most remarkable one, in many respects, we have ever met with. Though we differ toto coelo from the author in his views of religion and morality, and hold some of his remedies to tend rather to a dissolution than a reconstruction of society, yet we are bound to admit the benevolence and philanthropy of his motives. The scope of the work is nothing less than the whole field of political economy."
Ernest Jones and others wrote yet more strongly, but out of all these Charles Bradlaugh alone has been selected for reproach, and has had the peculiar views of the anonymous author fathered on himself. Why? The reason is not far to seek. None of the other writers are active Radical politicians, dangerous to the luxurious idleness of the non-producing but all-consuming "upper classes" of society. These know how easy it is to raise social prejudice against a man by setting afloat the idea that he desires to "abolish marriage and the home". It is the most convenient poniard and the one most certain to wound. Therefore those whose profligacy is notorious, who welcome into their society the Blandfords, Aylesburys, and St. Leonards, rave against a man as a "destroyer of marriage" whose life is pure, and whose theories on this, as it happens, are "orthodox", merely because his honest Atheism shames their hypocritical professions, and his sturdy Republicanism menaces their corrupt and rotting society.
Sometimes my lecturing experiences were not of the smoothest. In June, 1875, I visited Darwen in Lancashire, and found that stone-throwing was considered a fair argument to be addressed to "the Atheist lecturer". On my last visit to that place in May, 1884, large and enthusiastic audiences attended the lectures, and not a sign of hostility was to be seen outside the hall. At Swansea, in March, 1876, the fear of violence was so great that no local friend had the courage to take the chair for me (a guarantee against damage to the hall had been exacted by the proprietor). I had to march on to the platform in solitary state, introduce myself, and proceed with my lecture. If violence had been intended, none was offered: it would have needed much brutality to charge on to a platform occupied by a solitary woman. (By the way, those who fancy that a lecturer's life is a luxurious one may note that the Swansea lecture spoken of was one of a series of ten, delivered within eight days at Wednesbury, Bilston, Kidderminster, Swansea, and Bristol, most of the travelling being performed through storm, rain, and snow.) On September, 4th, 1876, I had rather a lively time at Hoyland, a village near Barnsley. A Mr. Hebblethwaite, a Primitive Methodist minister, "prepared the way of the" Atheist by pouring out virulent abuse on Atheism in general, and this Atheist in particular; two Protestant missionaries aided him vigorously, exhorting the pious Christians to "sweep Secularists out". The result was a very fair row; I got through the lecture, despite many interruptions, but when it was over a regular riot ensued; the enraged Christians shook their fists at me, swore at me, and finally took to kicking as I passed out to the cab; only one kick, however, reached me, and the attempts to overturn the cab were foiled by the driver, who put his horse at a gallop. A somewhat barbarous village, that same village of Hoyland. Congleton proved even livelier on September 25th and 26th. Mr. Bradlaugh lectured there on September 25th to an accompaniment of broken windows; I was sitting with Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy in front of the platform, and received a rather heavy blow at the back of the head from a stone thrown by someone in the room. We had a mile and a half to walk from the hall to Mrs. Elmy's house, and this was done in the company of a mud-throwing crowd, who yelled curses, hymns, and foul words with delightful impartiality. On the following evening I was to lecture, and we were escorted to the hall by a stone-throwing crowd; while I was lecturing a man shouted "Put her out!" and a well-known wrestler of the neighborhood, named Burbery, who had come to the hall with seven friends, stood up in the front row and loudly interrupted. Mr. Bradlaugh, who was in the chair, told him to sit down, and as he persisted in making a noise, informed him that he must either be quiet or go out. "Put me out!" said Burbery, striking an attitude. Mr. Bradlaugh left the platform and walked up to the noisy swashbuckler, who at once grappled with him and tried to throw him; but Mr. Burbery had not reckoned on his opponent's strength, and when the "throw" was complete Mr. Burbery was underneath. Amid much excitement Mr. Burbery was propelled to the door, where he was handed over to the police, and the chairman resumed his seat and said "Go on", whereupon on I went and finished the lecture. There was plenty more stone-throwing outside, and Mrs. Elmy received a cut on the temple, but no serious harm was done— except to Christianity.
In the summer of 1875 a strong protest was made by the working classes against the grant of L142,000 for the Prince of Wales visit to India, and on Sunday, July 18th, I saw for the first time one of the famous "Hyde Park Demonstrations". Mr. Bradlaugh called a meeting to support Messrs. Taylor, Macdonald, Wilfrid Lawson, Burt, and the other fourteen members of the House of Commons who voted in opposition to the grant, and to protest against burdening the workers to provide for the amusement of a spendthrift prince. I did not go into the meeting, but, with Mr. Bradlaugh's two daughters, hovered on the outskirts. A woman is considerably in the way in such a gathering, unless the speakers reach the platform in carriages, for she is physically unfitted to push her way through the dense mass of people, and has therefore to be looked after and saved from the crushing pressure of the crowd. I have always thought that a man responsible for the order of such huge gatherings ought not to be burdened in addition with the responsibility of protecting his female friends, and have therefore preferred to take care of myself outside the meetings both at Hyde Park and in Trafalgar Square. The method of organisation by which the London Radicals have succeeded in holding perfectly orderly meetings of enormous size is simple but effective. A large number of "marshals" volunteer, and each of these hands in to Mr. Bradlaugh a list of the "stewards" he is prepared to bring; the "marshals" and "stewards" alike are members of the Radical and Secular associations of the metropolis. These officials all wear badges, a rosette of the Northampton election colors; directions are given to the marshals by Mr. Bradlaugh himself, and each marshal, with his stewards, turns up at the appointed place at the appointed time, and does the share of the work allotted to him. A ring two or three deep is formed round the place whence the speakers are to address the meeting, and those who form the ring stand linked arm-in-arm, making a living barrier round this empty spot. There a platform, brought thither in pieces, is screwed together, and into this enclosure only the chosen speakers and newspaper reporters are admitted. The marshals and stewards who are not told off for guarding the platform are distributed over the ground which the meeting is to occupy, and act as guardians of order.
The Hyde Park meeting against the royal grant was a thoroughly successful one, and a large number of protests came up from all parts of the country. Being from the poorer classes, they were of course disregarded, but none the less was a strong agitation against royal grants carried on throughout the autumn and winter months. The National Secular Society determined to gather signatures to a "monster petition against royal grants", and the superintendence of this was placed in my hands. The petition was drafted by Mr. Bradlaugh, and ran as follows:—
"TO THE HONORABLE THE COMMONS OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, IN PARLIAMENT ASSEMBLED.
"The humble petition of the undersigned,
"Prays,—That no further grant or allowance may be made to any member of the Royal Family until an account shall have been laid before your Honorable House, showing the total real and personal estates and incomes of each and every member of the said Royal Family who shall be in receipt of any pension or allowance, and also showing all posts and places of profit severally held by members of the said Royal Family, and also showing all pensions, if any, formerly charged on any estates now enjoyed by any member or members of the said Royal Family, and in case any such pensions shall have been transferred, showing how and at what date such transfer took place."
Day after day, week after week, month after month, the postman delivered rolls of paper, little and big, each roll containing names and addresses of men and woman who protested against the waste of public money on our greedy and never-satisfied Royal House. The sheets often bore the marks of the places to which they had been carried; from a mining district some would come coal-dust-blackened, which had been signed in the mines by workers who grudged to idleness the fruits of toil; from an agricultural district the sheets bore often far too many "crosses", the "marks" of those whom Church and landlord had left in ignorance, regarding them only as machines for sowing and reaping. From September, 1875, to March, 1876, they came in steady stream, and each was added to the ever-lengthening roll which lay in one corner of my sitting-room and which assumed ever larger and larger proportions. At last the work was over, and on June 16th, 1876, the "monster"—rolled on a mahogany pole presented by a London friend, and encased in American cloth—was placed in a carriage to be conveyed to the House of Commons; the heading ran: "The petition of the undersigned Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Charles Watts, and 102,934 others". Unrolled, it was nearly a mile in length, and a very happy time we had in rolling the last few hundred yards. When we arrived at the House, Mr. Bradlaugh and Mr. Watts carried the petition up Westminster Hall, each holding one end of the mahogany pole. Messrs. Burt and Macdonald took charge of the "monster" at the door of the House, and, carrying it in, presented it in due form. The presentation caused considerable excitement both in the House and in the press, and the Newcastle Daily Chronicle said some kindly words of the "labor and enthusiasm" bestowed on the petition by myself.
At the beginning of August, 1875, the first attempt to deprive me of my little daughter, Mabel, was made, but fortunately proved unsuccessful. The story of the trick played is told in the National Reformer of August 22nd, and I quote it just as it appeared there :—
"PERSONAL.—Mrs. Annie Besant, as some of our readers are aware, was the wife of a Church of England clergyman, the Rev. Frank Besant, Vicar of Sibsey, near Boston, in Lincolnshire. There is no need, at present, to say anything about the earlier portion of her married life; but when Mrs. Besant's opinions on religious matters became liberal, the conduct of her husband rendered a separation absolutely necessary, and in 1873 a formal deed of separation was drawn up, and duly executed. Under this deed Mrs. Besant is entitled to the sole custody and control of her infant daughter Mabel until the child becomes of age, with the proviso that the little girl is to visit her father for one month in each year. Having recently obtained possession of the person of the little child under cover of the annual visit, the Rev. Mr. Besant sought to deprive Mrs. Besant entirely of her daughter, on the ground of Mrs. Besant's Atheism. Vigorous steps were at once taken by Messrs. Lewis and Lewis (to whom our readers will remember we entrusted the case of Mr. Lennard against Mr. Woolrych), by whose advice Mrs. Besant at once went down herself to Sibsey to demand the child; the little girl had been hidden, and was not at the Vicarage, but we are glad to report that Mrs. Besant has, after some little difficulty, recovered the custody of her daughter. It was decided against Percy Bysshe Shelley that an Atheist father could not be the guardian of his own children. If this law be appealed to, and anyone dares to enforce it, we shall contest it step by step; and while we are out of England, we know that in case of any attempt to retake the child by force we may safely leave our new advocate to the protection of the stout arms of our friends, who will see that no injustice of this kind is done her. So far as the law courts are concerned, we have the most complete confidence in Mr. George Henry Lewis, and we shall fight the case to House of Lords if need be.
The attempt to take the child from me by force indeed failed, but later the theft was successfully carried out by due process of law. It is always a blunder from a tactical point of view for a Christian to use methods of illegal violence in persecuting an Atheist in this Christian land; legal violence is a far safer weapon, for courage can checkmate the first, while it is helpless before the second. All Christians who adopt the sound old principle that "no faith need be kept with the heretic" should remember that they can always guard themselves against unpleasant consequences by breaking faith under cover of the laws against heresy, which still remain on our Statute Book ad majorem Dei gloriam.
In September, 1875, Mr. Bradlaugh again sailed for America, leaving plenty of work to be done by his colleagues before he returned. The Executive of the National Secular Society had determined to issue a "Secular Song Book", and the task of selection and of editing was confided to me. The little book was duly issued, and ran through two editions; then, feeling that it was marred by many sins both of commission and omission, I set my face against the publication of a third edition, hoping that a compilation more worthy of Free Thought might be made. I am half inclined to take the matter up again, and set to work at a fresh collection.
The delivery and publication of a course of six lectures on the early part of the French Revolution was another portion of that autumn's work; they involved a large amount of labor, as I had determined to tell the story from the people's point of view, and was therefore compelled to read a large amount of the current literature of the time, as well as the great standard histories of Louis Blanc, Michelet, and others. Fortunately for me, Mr. Bradlaugh had a splendid collection of works on the subject, and before he left England he brought to me two cabs full of books, French and English, from all points of view, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, democratic, and I studied these diligently and impartially until the French Revolution became to me as a drama in which I had myself taken part, and the actors therein became personal friends and foes. In this, again, as in so much of my public work, I have to thank Mr. Bradlaugh for the influence which led me to read fully all sides of a question, and to read most carefully those from which I differed most, ere I judged myself competent to write or to speak thereon.
The late autumn was clouded by the news of Mr. Bradlaugh's serious illness in America. After struggling for some time against ill-health he was struck down by an attack of pleurisy, to which soon was added typhoid fever, and for a time lay at the brink of the grave. Dr. Otis, his able physician, finding that it was impossible to give him the necessary attendance at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, put him into his own carriage and drove him to the Hospital of St. Luke's, where he confided him to the care of Dr. Leaming, himself also visiting him daily. Of this illness the Baltimore Advertiser wrote:
"Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, the famous English Radical lecturer, has been so very dangerously ill that his life has almost been despaired of. He was taken ill at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and partially recovered; but on the day upon which a lecture had been arranged from him before the Liberal Club he was taken down a second time with a relapse, which has been very near proving fatal. The cause was overwork and complete nervous prostration which brought on low fever. His physician has allowed one friend only to see him daily for five minutes, and removed him to St. Luke's Hospital for the sake of the absolute quiet, comfort, and intelligent attendance he could secure there, and for which he was glad to pay munificently. This long and severe illness has disappointed the hopes and retarded the object for which he came to this country; but he is gentleness and patience itself in his sickness in this strange land, and has endeared himself greatly to his physicians and attendants by his gratitude and appreciation of the slightest attention."
There is no doubt that the care so willingly lavished on the English stranger saved his life, and those who in England honor Charles Bradlaugh as chief and love him as friend must always keep in grateful memory those who in his sorest need served him so nobly well. Those who think that an Atheist cannot calmly face the prospect of death might well learn a lesson from the fortitude and courage shown by an Atheist as he lay at the point of death, far from home and from all he loved best. The Rev. Mr. Frothingham bore public and admiring testimony in his own church to Mr. Bradlaugh's perfect serenity, at once fearless and unpretending, and, himself a Theist, gave willing witness to the Atheist's calm strength.
Mr. Bradlaugh returned to England at the end of December, worn to a shadow and terribly weak, and for many a long month he bore the traces of his wrestle with death. Indeed, he felt the effect of the illness for years, for typhoid fever is a foe whose weapons leave scars even after the healing of the wounds it inflicts.
The first work done by Mr. Bradlaugh on resuming the editorial chair of the National Reformer, was to indite a vigorous protest against the investment of national capital in the Suez Canal Shares. He exposed the financial condition of Egypt, gave detail after detail of the Khedive's indebtedness, unveiled the rottenness of the Egyptian Government, warned the people of the danger of taking the first steps in a path which must lead to continual interference in Egyptian finance, denounced the shameful job perpetrated by Mr. Disraeli in borrowing the money for the purchase from the Rothschilds at enormous interest. His protest was, of course, useless, but its justice has been proved by the course of events. The bombarding of Alexandria, the shameful repression of the national movement in Egypt, the wholesale and useless slaughter in the Soudan, the waste of English lives and English money, the new burden of debt and of responsibility now assumed by the Government, all these are the results of the fatal purchase of shares in the Suez Canal by Mr. Disraeli; yet against the chorus of praise which resounded from every side when the purchase was announced, but one voice of disapproval and of warning was raised at first; others soon caught the warning and saw the dangers it pointed out, but for awhile Charles Bradlaugh stood alone in his opposition, and to him belongs the credit of at once seeing the peril which lay under the purchase.
The 1876 Conference of the National Secular Society held at Leeds showed the growing power of the organisation, and was made notable by a very pleasant incident—the presentation to a miner, William Washington, of a silver tea-pot and some books, in recognition of a very noble act of self-devotion. An explosion had occurred on December 6th, 1875, at Swaithe Main pit, in which 143 miners were killed; a miner belonging to a neighboring pit, named William Washington, an Atheist, when every one was hanging back, sprang into the cage to descend into the pit in forlorn hope of rescue, when to descend seemed almost certain death. Others swiftly followed the gallant volunteer, but he had set the example, and it was felt by the Executive of the National Secular Society that his heroism deserved recognition, William Washington set his face against any gift to himself, so the subscription to a testimonial was limited to 6d., and a silver teapot was presented to him for his wife and some books for his children. At this same Conference a committee was appointed, consisting of Messrs. Charles Bradlaugh, G.J. Holyoake, C. Watts, R.A. Cooper,—Gimson, T. Slater, and Mrs. Besant, to draw up a fresh statement of the principles and objects of the National Secular Society; it was decided that this statement should be submitted to the ensuing Conference, that the deliberation on the report of the Committee should "be open to all Freethinkers, but that only those will be entitled to vote on the ratification who declare their determination to enter the Society on the basis of the ratified constitution". It was hoped that by this means various scattered and independent societies might be brought into union, and that the National Secular Society might he thereby strengthened. The committee held a very large number of meetings and finally decided on the following statement, which was approved of at the Conference held at Nottingham in 1877, and stands now as the "Principles and Object of the National Secular Society":—
"The National Secular Society has been formed to maintain the principles and rights of Freethought, and to direct their application to the Secular improvement of this life.
"By the principle of Freethought is meant the exercise of the understanding upon relevant facts, and independently of penal or priestly intimidation.
"By the rights of Freethought are meant the liberty of free criticism for the security of truth, and the liberty of free publicity for the extension of truth.
"Secularism relates to the present existence of man, and to actions the issue of which can be tested by experience.
"It declares that the promotion of human improvement and happiness is the highest duty, and that morality is to be tested by utility.
"That in order to promote effectually the improvement and happiness of mankind, every individual of the human family ought to be well placed and well instructed, and that all who are of a suitable age ought to be usefully employed for their own and the general good.
"That human improvement and happiness cannot be effectually promoted without civil and religious liberty; and that, therefore, it is the duty of every individual to actively attack all barriers to equal freedom of thought and utterance for all, upon political, theological, and social subjects.
"A Secularist is one who deduces his moral duties from considerations which pertain to this life, and who, practically recognising the above duties, devotes himself to the promotion of the general good.
"The object of the National Secular Society is to disseminate the above principles by every legitimate means in its power."
At this same Conference of Leeds was inaugurated the subscription to the statue to be erected in Rome to the memory of Giordano Bruno, burned in that city for Atheism in 1600; this resulted in the collection of L60.
The Executive appointed by the Leeds Conference made great efforts to induce the Freethinkers of the country to work for the repeal of the Blasphemy Laws, and in October 1876 they issued a copy of a petition against those evil laws to every one of the forty branches of the Society. The effort proved, however, of little avail. The laws had not been put in force for a long time, and were regarded with apathy as being obsolete, and it has needed the cruel imprisonments inflicted by Mr. Justice North on Messrs. Foote, Ramsey, and Kemp, to arouse the Freethought party to a sense of their duty in the matter.
The year 1877 had scarcely opened ere we found ourselves with a serious fight on our hands. A pamphlet written early in the present century by Charles Knowlton, M.D., entitled "The Fruits of Philosophy", which had been sold unchallenged in England for nearly forty years, was suddenly seized at Bristol as an obscene publication. The book had been supplied in the ordinary course of business by Mr. Charles Watts, but the Bristol bookseller had altered its price, had inserted some indecent pictures in it, and had sold it among literature to which the word obscene was fairly applied. In itself, Dr. Knowlton's work was merely a physiological treatise, and it advocated conjugal prudence and parental responsibility; it argued in favor of early marriage, but as over-large families among persons of limited incomes imply either pauperism, or lack of necessary food, clothing, education, and fair start in life for the children, Dr. Knowlton advocated the restriction of the number of the family within the means of existence, and stated the means by which this restriction should be carried out. On hearing of the prosecution, Mr. Watts went down to Bristol, and frankly announced himself as the publisher of the book. Soon after his return to London he was arrested on the charge of having published an obscene book, and was duly liberated on bail. Mr. and Mrs. Watts, Mr. Bradlaugh and myself met to arrange our plan of united action on Friday, January 12th, and it was decided that Mr. Watts should defend the book, that a fund should at once be raised for his legal expenses, and that once more the right of publication of useful knowledge in a cheap form should be defended by the leaders of the Freethought party. After long and friendly discussion we separated with the plan of the campaign arranged, and it was decided that I should claim the sympathy and help of the Plymouth friends, whom I was to address on the following Sunday, January 14th. I went down to Plymouth on January 13th, and there received a telegram from Mr. Watts, saying that a change of plan had been decided on. I was puzzled, but none the less I appealed for help as I had promised to do, and a collection of L8 1s. 10d. for Mr. Watts' Defence Fund was made after my evening lecture. To my horror, on returning to London, I found that Mr. Watts had given way before the peril of imprisonment, and had decided to plead guilty to the charge of publishing an obscene book, and to throw himself on the mercy of the Court, relying on his previous good character and on an alleged ignorance of the contents of the incriminated work. The latter plea we knew to be false, for Mr. Watts before going down to Bristol to declare himself responsible for the pamphlet had carefully read it and had marked all the passages which, being physiological, might be attacked as "obscene". This marked copy he had sent to the Bristol bookseller, before he himself went to Bristol to attend the trial, and under these circumstances any pretence of ignorance of the contents of the book was transparently inaccurate. Mr. Watts' surrender, of course, upset all the arrangements we had agreed on; Mr. Bradlaugh and myself were prepared to stand by him in battle, but not in surrender. I at once returned to the Secretary of the Plymouth Branch the money collected for defence, not for capitulation, and Mr. Bradlaugh published the following brief statement in the National Reformer for January 21st:
"PROSECUTION OF Mr. CHARLES WATTS.—Mr. Charles Watts, as most of our readers will have already learned, has been committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court for February 5th, for misdemeanor, for publication of a work on the population question, entitled "Fruits of Philosophy", by Charles Knowlton, M.D. This book has been openly published in England and America for more than thirty years. It was sold in England by James Watson, who always bore the highest repute. On James Watson's retirement from business it was sold by Holyoake & Co., at Fleet Street House, and was afterwards sold by Mr. Austin Holyoake until the time of his death; and a separate edition was, up till last week, still sold by Mr. Brooks, of 282, Strand, W.C. When Mr. James Watson died, Mr. Charles Watts bought from James Watson's widow a large quantity of stereotype plates, including this work. If this book is to be condemned as obscene, so also in my opinion must be many published by Messrs. W.H. Smith & Son, and other publishers, against whose respectability no imputation has been made. Such books as Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and 'Descent of Man' must immediately be branded as obscene, while no medical work must be permitted publication; and all theological works, like those of Dulaure, Inman, etc., dealing with ancient creeds, must at once be suppressed. The bulk of the publications of the society for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, together with its monthly organ, the Shield, would be equally liable. The issue of the greater part of classic authors, and of Lempriere, Shakspere, Sterne, Fielding, Richardson, Rabelais, etc., must be stopped: while the Bible—containing obscene passages omitted from the lectionary—must no longer be permitted circulation. All these contain obscenity which is either inserted to amuse or to instruct, and the medical work now assailed deals with physiological points purely to instruct, and to increase the happiness of men and women.
"If the pamphlet now prosecuted had been brought to me for publication, I should probably have declined to publish it, not because of the subject-matter, but because I do not like its style. If I had once published it, I should defend it until the very last. Here Mr. Watts and myself disagree in opinion; and as he is the person chiefly concerned, it is, of course, right that his decision should determine what is done. He tells me that he thinks the pamphlet indefensible, and that he was misled in publishing it without examination as part of James Watson's stock. I think it ought to be fought right through. Under these circumstances I can only leave Mr. Watts to speak for himself, as we so utterly differ in opinion on this case that I cease to be his proper interpreter. I have, therefore, already offered Mr. Watts the columns of the National Reformer, that he may put before the party his view of the case, which he does in another column."—C. BRADLAUGH.
Up to this time (January, 1877) Mr. Watts had acted as sub-editor of the National Reformer, and printer and publisher of the books and pamphlets issued by Mr. Bradlaugh and myself. The continuance of this common work obviously became impossible after Mr. Watts had determined to surrender one of his publications under threat of prosecution. We felt that for two main reasons we could no longer publicly associate ourselves with him: (1) We could not retain on our publications the name of a man who had pleaded guilty to the publication of an obscene work; (2) Many of our writings were liable to prosecution for blasphemy, and it was necessary that we should have a publisher who could be relied on to stand firm in time of peril; we felt that if Mr. Watts surrendered one thing he would be likely to surrender others. This feeling on my part was strengthened by the remembrance of a request of his made a few months before, that I would print my own name instead of his as publisher of a political song I had issued, on the ground that it might come within the law of seditious libel. I had readily acceded at the time, but when absolute surrender under attack followed on timid precaution against attack, I felt that a bolder publisher was necessary to me. No particular blame should be laid on persons who are constitutionally timid; they have their own line of usefulness, and are often pleasant and agreeable folk enough; but they are out of place in the front rank of a fighting movement, for their desertion in face of the enemy means added danger for those left to carry on the fight. We therefore decided to sever ourselves from Mr. Watts; and Mr. Bradlaugh, in the National Reformer of January 28th, inserted the following statement:
"The divergence of opinion between myself and Mr. Charles Watts is so complete on the Knowlton case, that he has already ceased to be sub-editor of this journal, and I have given him notice determining our connexion on and from March 25th. My reasons for this course are as follows. The Knowlton pamphlet is either decent or indecent. If decent it ought to be defended; if indecent it should never have been published. To judge it indecent is to condemn, with the most severe condemnation, James Watson whom I respected, and Austin Holyoake with whom I worked. I hold the work to be defensible, and I deny the right of any one to interfere with the full and free discussion of social questions affecting the happiness of the nation. The struggle for a free press has been one of the marks of the Freethought Party throughout its history, and as long as the Party permits me to hold its flag, I will never voluntarily lower it. I have no right and no power to dictate to Mr. Watts the course he should pursue, but I have the right and duty to refuse to associate my name with a submission which is utterly repugnant to my nature, and inconsistent with my whole career."
After a long discussion, Mr. Bradlaugh and I made up our minds as to the course we would pursue. We decided that we would never again place ourselves at a publisher's mercy, but would ensure the defence of all we published by publishing everything ourselves; we resolved to become printers and publishers, and to take any small place we could find and open it as a Freethought shop. I undertook the sub-editorship of the National Reformer, and the weekly Summary of News, which had hitherto been done by Mr. Watts, was placed in the hands of Mr. Bradlaugh's daughters. The next thing to do was to find a publishing office. Somewhere within reach of Fleet Street the office must be; small it must be, as we had no funds and the risk of starting a business of which we knew nothing was great. Still "all things are possible to" those who are resolute; we discovered a tumble-down little place in Stonecutter Street and secured it by the good offices of our friend, Mr. Charles Herbert; we borrowed a few hundred pounds from personal friends, and made our new tenement habitable; we drew up a deed of partnership, founding the "Freethought Publishing Company", Mr. Bradlaugh and myself being the only partners; we engaged Mr. W.J. Ramsey as manager of the business; and in the National Reformer of February 25th we were able to announce:
"The publishing office of the National Reformer and of all the works of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant is now at 28, Stonecutter Street, E.C., three doors from Farringdon Street, where the manager, Mr. W.J. Ramsey, will be glad to receive orders for the supply of any Freethought literature".
A week later we issued the following address:
"ADDRESS FROM THE FREETHOUGHT PUBLISHING COMPANY TO THE READERS OF THE 'NATIONAL REFORMER'.
"When the prospectus of the National Reformer was issued by the founder, Charles Bradlaugh, in 1859, he described its policy as 'Atheistic in theology, Republican in politics, and Malthusian in social economy', and a free platform was promised and has been maintained for the discussion of each of these topics. In ventilating the population question the stand taken by Mr. Bradlaugh, both here and on the platform, is well known to our old readers, and many works bearing on this vital subject have been advertised and reviewed in these columns. In this the National Reformer has followed the course pursued by Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, who in 1853 published a 'Freethought Directory', giving a list of the various books supplied from the 'Fleet Street House', and which list contained amongst others:
"'Anti-Marcus on the Population Question.'
"Fowler's Tracts on Physiology, etc.
"Dr. C. Knowlton's 'Fruits of Philosophy'.
"'Moral Physiology: a plain treatise on the Population Question.'
"In this Directory Mr. G.J. Holyoake says:
"'No. 147 Fleet Street is a Central Secular Book Depot, where all works extant in the English language on the side of Freethought in Religion, Politics, Morals, and Culture are kept in stock, or are procured at short notice.'
"We shall try to do at 28 Stonecutter Street that which Mr. Holyoake's Directory promised for Fleet Street House.
"The partners in the Freethought Publishing Company are Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, who have entered into a legal partnership for the purpose of sharing the legal responsibility of the works they publish.
"We intend to publish nothing that we do not think we can morally defend. All that we do publish we shall defend. We do not mean that we shall agree with all we publish, but we shall, so far as we can, try to keep the possibility of free utterance of earnest, honest opinion.
"It may not be out of place here to remind new readers of this journal of that which old readers well know, that no articles are editorial except those which are unsigned or bear the name of the editor, or that of the sub-editor; for each and every other article the author is allowed to say his own say in his own way; the editor only furnishes the means to address our readers, leaving to him or to her the right and responsibility of divergent thought.
"ANNIE BESANT "CHARLES BRADLAUGH."
Thus we found ourselves suddenly launched on a new undertaking, and with some amusement and much trepidation I realised that I was "in business", with business knowledge amounting to nil. I had, however, fair ability and plenty of goodwill, and I determined to learn my work, feeling proud that I had become one of the list of "Freethought publishers", who published for love of the cause of freedom, and risked all for the triumph of a principle ere it wore "silver slippers and walked in the sunshine with applause".
On February 8th Mr. Watts was tried at the Old Bailey. He withdrew his plea of "Not Guilty", and pleaded "Guilty". His counsel urged that he was a man of good character, that Mr. George Jacob Holyoake had sold the incriminated pamphlet, that Mr. Watts had bought the stereo-plates of it in the stock of the late Mr. Austin Holyoake, which he had taken over bodily, and that he had never read the book until after the Bristol investigation. "Mr. Watts pledges himself to me", the counsel stated, "that he was entirely ignorant of the contents of this pamphlet until he heard passages read from it in the prosecution at Bristol". The counsel for the prosecution pointed out that this statement was inaccurate, and read passages from Mr. Watts' deposition made on the first occasion at Bristol, in which Mr. Watts stated that he had perused the book, and was prepared to justify it as a medical work. He, however, did not wish to press the case, if the plates and stock were destroyed, and Mr. Watts was accordingly discharged on his own recognisances in L500 to come up for judgment when called on.
While this struggle was raging, an old friend of Mr. Bradlaugh's, Mr. George Odger, was slowly passing away; the good old man lay dying in his poor lodgings in High Street, Oxford Street, and I find recorded in the National Reformer of March 4th, that on February 28th we had been to see him, and that "he is very feeble and is, apparently, sinking fast; but he is as brave and bright, facing his last enemy, as he has ever been facing his former ones". He died on March 4th, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery on the 10th of the same month.
A grave question now lay before us for decision. The Knowlton pamphlet had been surrendered; was that surrender to stand as the last word of the Freethought party on a book which had been sold by the most prominent men in its ranks for forty years? To our minds such surrender, left unchallenged, would be a stain on all who submitted to it, and we decided that faulty as the book was in many respects it had yet become the symbol of a great principle, of the right to circulate physiological knowledge among the poor in pamphlets published at a price they could afford to pay. Deliberately counting the risk, recognising that by our action we should subject ourselves to the vilest slander, knowing that Christian malice would misrepresent and ignorance would echo the misrepresentation —we yet resolved that the sacrifice must be made, and made by us in virtue of our position in the Freethought Party. If the leaders flinched how could the followers be expected to fight? The greatest sacrifice had to be made by Mr. Bradlaugh. How would an indictment for publishing an obscene book affect his candidature for Northampton? What a new weapon for his foes, what a new difficulty for his friends! I may say here that our worst forebodings were realised by the event; we have been assailed as "vendors of obscene literature", as "writers of obscene books", as "living by the circulation of filthy books". And it is because such accusations have been widely made that I here place on permanent record the facts of the case, for thus, at least, some honest opponents will learn the truth and will cease to circulate the slanders they may have repeated in ignorance.
On February 27th our determination to republish the Knowlton pamphlet was announced by Mr. Bradlaugh in an address delivered by him at the Hall of Science on "The Right of Publication". Extracts from a brief report, published in the National Reformer of March 11th, will show the drift of his statement:
"Mr. Bradlaugh was most warmly welcomed to the platform, and reiterated cheers greeted him as he rose to make his speech. Few who heard him that evening will forget the passion and the pathos with which he spoke. The defence of the right to publish was put as strongly and as firmly as words could put it, and the determination to maintain that right, in dock and in jail as on the platform, rang out with no uncertain sound. Truly, as the orator said: 'The bold words I have spoken from this place would be nothing but the emptiest brag and the coward's boast, if I flinched now in the day of battle'. Every word of praise of the fighters of old would fall in disgrace on the head of him who spoke it, if when the time came to share in their peril he shrunk back from the danger of the strife.... Mr. Bradlaugh drew a graphic picture of the earlier struggles for a free press, and then dealt with the present state of the law; from that he passed on to the pamphlet which is the test-question of the hour; he pointed out how some parts of it were foolish, such as the 'philosophical proem', but remarked that he knew no right in law to forbid the publication of all save wisdom; he then showed how, had he originally been asked to publish the pamphlet, he should have raised some objections to its style, but that was a very different matter from permitting the authorities to stop its sale; the style of many books might be faulty without the books being therefore obscene. He contended the book was a perfectly moral medical work, and was no more indecent than every other medical work dealing with the same subject. The knowledge it gave was useful knowledge; many a young man might be saved from disease by such a knowledge as was contained in the book; if it was argued that such books should not be sold at so cheap a rate, he replied that it was among the masses that such physiological knowledge was needed, 'and if there is one subject above all others', he exclaimed, 'for which a man might gladly sacrifice his hopes and his life, surely it is for that which would relieve his fellow-men from poverty, the mother of crimes, and would make happy homes where now only want and suffering reign'. He had fully counted the cost; he knew all he might lose; but Carlile before him had been imprisoned for teaching the same doctrine, 'and what Carlile did for his day, I, while health and strength remain, will do for mine'."
The position we took up in republishing the pamphlet was clearly stated in the preface which we wrote for it, and which I here reprint, as it gives plainly and briefly the facts of the case:
"PUBLISHERS' PREFACE TO DR. KNOWLTON'S 'FRUITS OF PHILOSOPHY'.
"The pamphlet which we now present to the public is one which has been lately prosecuted under Lord Campbell's Act, and which we now republish in order to test the right of publication. It was originally written by Charles Knowlton, M.D., an American physician, whose degree entitles him to be heard with respect on a medical question. It is openly sold and widely circulated in America at the present time. It was first published in England, about forty years ago, by James Watson, the gallant Radical who came to London and took up Richard Carlile's work when Carlile was in jail. He sold it unchallenged for many years, approved it, and recommended it. It was printed and published by Messrs. Holyoake and Co., and found its place, with other works of a similar character, in their 'Freethought Directory' of 1853, and was thus identified with Freethought literature at the then leading Freethought depot . Mr. Austin Holyoake, working in conjunction with Mr. Bradlaugh at the National Reformer office, Johnson's Court, printed and published it in his turn, and this well-known Freethought advocate, in his 'Large or Small Families'. selected this pamphlet, together with R.D. Owen's 'Moral Physiology' and the 'Elements of Social Science', for special recommendation. Mr. Charles Watts, succeeding to Mr. Austin Holyoake's business, continued the sale, and when Mr. Watson died in 1875, he bought the plates of the work (with others) from Mrs. Watson, and continued to advertise and to sell it until December 23rd, 1876. For the last forty years the book has thus been identified with Freethought, advertised by leading Freethinkers, published under the sanction of their names, and sold in the head-quarters of Freethought literature. If during this long period the party has thus—without one word of protest—circulated an indecent work, the less we talk about Freethought morality the better; the work has been largely sold, and if leading Freethinkers have sold it—profiting by the sale—in mere carelessness, few words could be strong enough to brand the indifference which thus scattered obscenity broadcast over the land. The pamphlet has been withdrawn from circulation in consequence of the prosecution instituted against Mr. Charles Watts, but the question of its legality or illegality has not been tried; a plea of 'Guilty' was put in by the publisher, and the book, therefore, was not examined, nor was any judgment passed upon it; no jury registered a verdict, and the judge stated that he had not read the work.
"We republish this pamphlet, honestly believing that on all questions affecting the happiness of the people, whether they be theological, political, or social, fullest right of free discussion ought to be maintained at all hazards. We do not personally endorse all that Dr. Knowlton says: his 'Philosophical Proem' seems to us full of philosophical mistakes, and—as we are neither of us doctors—we are not prepared to endorse his medical views; but since progress can only be made through discussion, and no discussion is possible where differing opinions are suppressed, we claim the right to publish all opinions, so that the public, enabled to see all sides of a question, may have the materials for forming a sound judgment.
"The alterations made are very slight; the book was badly printed, and errors of spelling and a few clumsy grammatical expressions have been corrected; the sub-title has been changed, and in one case four lines have been omitted, because they are repeated word for word further on. We have, however, made some additions to the pamphlet, which are in all cases kept distinct from the original text. Physiology has made great strides during the past forty years, and not considering it right to circulate erroneous physiology, we submitted the pamphlet to a doctor in whose accurate knowledge we have the fullest confidence, and who is widely known in all parts of the world as the author of the "Elements of Social Science"; the notes signed "G.R." are written by this gentleman. References to other works are given in foot notes for the assistance of the reader, if he desires to study the subject further.
"Old Radicals will remember that Richard Carlile published a work entitled 'Every Woman's Book', which deals with the same subject, and advocates the same object, as Dr. Knowlton's pamphlet. E.D. Owen objected to the 'style and tone' of Carlile's 'Every Woman's Book' as not being 'in good taste', and he wrote his 'Moral Physiology', to do in America what Carlile's work was intended to do in England. This work of Carlile's was stigmatised as 'indecent' and 'immoral' because it advocated, as does Dr. Knowlton's, the use of preventive checks to population. In striving to carry on Carlile's work, we cannot expect to escape Carlile's reproach, but whether applauded or condemned we mean to carry it on, socially as well as politically and theologically.
"We believe, with the Rev. Mr. Malthus, that population has a tendency to increase faster than the means of existence, and that some checks must therefore exercise control over population; the checks now exercised are semi-starvation and preventible disease; the enormous mortality among the infants of the poor is one of the checks which now keeps down the population. The checks that ought to control population are scientific, and it is these which we advocate. We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children, than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air, and clothing. We advocate scientific checks to population, because, so long as poor men have large families, pauperism is a necessity, and from pauperism grow crime and disease. The wage which would support the parents and two or three children in comfort and decency is utterly insufficient to maintain a family of twelve or fourteen, and we consider it a crime to bring into the world human beings doomed to misery or to premature death. It is not only the hand-working classes which are concerned in this question. The poor curate, the struggling man of business, the young professional man, are often made wretched for life by their inordinately large families, and their years are passed in one long battle to live; meanwhile the woman's health is sacrificed and her life embittered from the same cause. To all of these, we point the way of relief and of happiness; for the sake of these we publish what others fear to issue, and we do it, confident that if we fail the first time, we shall succeed at last, and that the English public will not permit the authorities to stifle a discussion of the most important social question which can influence a nation's welfare.
"CHARLES BRADLAUGH. "ANNIE BESANT."
We advertised the sale of the pamphlet in the National Reformer of March 25th (published March 22nd) in the following words:
FRUITS OF PHILOSOPHY. By CHARLES KNOWLTON, M.D. PRICE SIXPENCE.
This Pamphlet will be republished on Saturday, March 24th, in extenso, with some additional Medical Notes by a London Doctor of Medicine. It will be on sale at 28, Stonecutter Street, E.G., after 4 p.m. until close of shop. No one need apply before this time, as none will be on sale. Mr. Charles Bradlaugh and Mrs. Annie Besant will be in attendance from that hour, and will sell personally the first hundred copies.
FREETHOUGHT PUBLISHING COMPANY, 28, Stonecutter Street, E.C.
In addition to this we ourselves delivered copies on March 23rd to Mr. Martin, the Chief Clerk of the magistrates at Guildhall, to the officer in charge at the City Police Office in Old Jewry, and to the Solicitor for the City of London. With each pamphlet we handed in a notice that we should attend personally to sell the book on March 24th, at Stonecutter Street, from 4 to 5 p.m. These precautions were taken in order to force the authorities to prosecute us, and not any of our subordinates, if they prosecuted at all. The account of the first sale will interest many:
"On Saturday we went down to Stonecutter Street, accompanied by the Misses Bradlaugh and Mr. and Mrs. Touzeau Parris; we arrived at No. 28 at three minutes to four, and found a crowd awaiting us. We promptly filled the window with copies of the pamphlet, as a kind of general notice of the sale within, and then opened the door. The shop was filled immediately, and in twenty minutes over 500 copies were sold. No one sold save Mr. Bradlaugh and myself, but Miss Bradlaugh sorted dozens with a skill that seemed to stamp her as intended by nature for the business, while her sister supplied change with a rapidity worthy of a bank clerk. Several detectives favored us with a visit, and one amused us by coming in and buying two copies from Mr. Bradlaugh, and then retiring gracefully; after an interval of perhaps a quarter of an hour he reappeared, and purchased one from me. Two policemen outside made themselves useful; one patrolled the street calmly, and the other very kindly aided Norrish, Mr. Eamsey's co-worker, in his efforts to keep the stream flowing quietly, without too much pressure. Mr. Bradlaugh's voice was heard warningly from time to time, bidding customers not to crowd, and everything went well and smoothly, save that I occasionally got into fearful muddles in the intricacies of 'trade price'; I disgusted one customer, who muttered roughly 'Ritchie', and who, when I gave him two copies, and put his shilling in the till, growled: 'I shan't take them'. I was fairly puzzled, till Mr. Bradlaugh enlightened me as to the difficulty, 'Ritchie' to me being unknown; it appeared that 'Ritchie', muttered by the buyer, meant that the copies were wanted by a bookseller of that name, and his messenger was irate at being charged full price. Friends from various parts appeared to give a kindly word; a number of the members of the Dialectical Society came in, and many were the congratulations and promises of aid in case of need. Several who came in offered to come forward as bail, and their names were taken by Mr. Parris. The buyer that most raised my curiosity was one of Mr. Watts' sons, who came in and bought seven copies, putting down only trade-price on the counter; no one is supplied at trade-price unless he buys to sell again, and we have all been wondering why Mr. Watts should intend to sell the Knowlton pamphlet, after he has proclaimed it to be obscene and indecent. At six o'clock the shutters were put up, and we gave up our amateur shop-keeping; our general time for closing on Saturday is 2 p.m., but we kept the shop open on Saturday for the special purpose of selling the Knowlton pamphlet. We sold about 800 copies, besides sending out a large number of country parcels, so that if the police now amuse themselves in seizing the work, they will entirely have failed in stopping its circulation. The pamphlet, during the present week, will have been sold over England and Scotland, and the only effect of the foolish police interference will be to have sold a large edition. We must add one word of thanks to them for the kindly aid given us by their gratuitous advertisement."
[I may note here, in passing, that we printed our edition verbatim from that issued by James Watson, not knowing that various editions were in circulation. It was thereupon stated by Mr. Watts that we had not reprinted the pamphlet for which he was prosecuted, so we at once issued another edition, printed from his own version.]
The help that flowed in to us from all sides was startling both in quantity and quality; a Defence Committee was quickly formed, consisting of the following persons:
"C.R. Drysdale, M.D., Miss Vickery, H.R.S. Dalton, B.A., W.J. Birch, M.A., J. Swaagman, Mrs. Swaagman, P.A.V. Le Lubez, Mdme. Le Lubez, Miss Bradlaugh, Miss H. Bradlaugh, Mrs. Parris, T. Allsop, E. Truelove, Mark E. Marsden, F.A. Ford, Mrs. Fenwick Miller, G.N. Strawbridge, W.W. Wright, Mrs. Rennick, Mrs. Lowe, W. Bell, Thomas Slater, G. F. Forster, J. Scott, G. Priestley, J.W. White, J. Hart, H. Brooksbank, Mrs. Brooksbank, G. Middleton, J. Child, Ben. W. Elmy, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, Touzeau Parris (Hon. Sec.), Captain R.H. Dyas, Thomas Roy (President of the Scottish Secular Union), R.A. Cooper, Robert Forder, William Wayham, Mrs. Elizabeth Wayham, Professor Emile Acollas (ancien Professeur de Droit Francais a l'Universite de Berne), W. Reynolds, C. Herbert, J.F. Haines, H. Rogers (President of the Trunk and Portmanteau Makers' Trade Society), Yves Guyot (Redacteur en chef du Radical et du Bien Public), W.J. Ramsey, J. Wilks, Mrs. Wilks, J.E. Symes, E. Martin, W.E. Adams, Mrs. Adams, John Bryson (President of the Northumberland Miners' Mutual Confident Association), Ralph Young, J. Grout, Mrs. Grout, General Cluseret, A. Talandier (Member of the Chamber of Deputies), J. Baxter Langley, LL.D., M.R.C.S., F.L.S."
Mrs. Fenwick Miller's letter of adhesion is worthy republication; it puts so tersely the real position:
"59, Francis Terrace. Victoria Park. "March 31st.
"My dear Mrs. Besant,—I feel myself privileged in having the opportunity of expressing both to you and to the public, by giving you my small aid to your defence, how much I admire the noble position taken up by Mr. Bradlaugh and yourself upon this attempt to suppress free discussion, and to keep the people in enforced ignorance upon the most important of subjects. It is shameful that you should have to do it through the cowardice of the less important person who might have made himself a hero by doing as you now do, but was too weak for his opportunities. Since you have had to do it, however, accept the assurance of my warm sympathy, and my readiness to aid in any way within my power in your fight. Please add my name to your Committee. You will find a little cheque within: I wish I had fifty times as much to give.