George Holyoake
- Favourite Briton.

Born in Birmingham, West Midlands
Born on 13rd of April 1817
Died on 22nd of January 1906

Born 1817. Died 1906 - English social reformer.

George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) -- secularist, Chartist, newspaper publisher, bookseller, author, and supporter and advocate of the Co-operative movement -- was born at Birmingham on 13 April 1817. His father George was a printer and his mother Catherine a button maker. Following a rudimentary education he became a whitesmith (a person who works with "white" or light-colored metals such as tin and pewter).

In 1836, in an effort to improve his education, Holyoake began evening classes at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute where he became attracted to the socialist ideas of Robert Owen. He became an Owenite Social Missionary, his first post as such being in Worcester after which he was transferred to a more important position in Sheffield.

Holyoake also began to contribute articles to the "Oracle of Reason," a journal highly critical of Christianity. In January 1842, Charles Southwell, its editor, was arrested and convicted of blasphemy. While Southwell was in prison, Holyoake became the journal's editor; six months later, while making a speech at Cheltenham, he too was arrested and charged with "condemning Christianity". During his trial his main line of defense was that there were those who thought religion was proper and that it alone could lead to general happiness, but that he did not think so. "I have the same means of judging. You say your feelings are insulted, your opinions are outraged; but what of mine? Mine, however honest, are rendered liable to punishment! I ask not equality of privileges in this respect; I seek not the power of punishing those who differ from me nay, I should disdain the use." But despite his own rigourous defense he was convicted of atheism and sentenced to six months imprisonment. There was much unease about aspects of this trial, it being discussed in Parliament. Holyoake later recounted his experience in "The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism" (1851).

Following his release, Holyoake commenced a weekly journal, "The Movement", later to be replaced by "The Reasoner," which became a highly influential working class journal; by 1853 its circulation was 5,000 copies a week. Holyoake used the journal as a platform to campaign on a wide variety of social and political issues, including the support of non-violent Chartism and the government's attempt to censor newspapers and journals by the imposition of a swineging stamp duty on their production and publication. He also used the journal to criticise Christianity, which he suggested should be replaced by a belief system based on reason and science, a theory that he named "Secularism". By the mid 1850s there were over forty Secular Societies in Britain. Holyoake remained the leader of the Secular movement until he was replaced by the more militant Charles Bradlaugh in 1858.

While in Birmingham, Holyoake had become a member of the Birmingham Chartists, although he refused to become involved in the Birmingham rioting of 1839 that followed the rejection by Parliament of the Chartist petition. In later years he became a member of the Chartist executive. Following the decline of Chartism during the 1850s, he became one of the leaders of the National Reform League. In 1859 he wrote and published "The Workman and the Suffrage" where he argued that members of the working class could be trusted to vote wisely. In "The Liberal Situation" (1865) he supported the views of Samuel Smiles that the franchise should be based upon educational rather than property qualifications.

Holyoake had been deeply influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen, including Owen's views on co-operation, and had supported the co-operative movement in "The Reasoner". In 1858, Holyoake wrote the influential "Self-Help by the People; a History of the Rochdale Pioneers", which was to go through many editions. Holyoake continued to campaign for the co-operative movement and, in 1870, was one of the founders of the Co-operative Union. In 1875 and 1879 he published his two-volume "The History of Co-operation in England". One of the promoters of the 1869 Co-operative Congress, he attended in subsequent years and spoke frequently, edited the reports of the proceedings of the third, fourth and fifth Congresses, presided at the seventh and, being a moving and eloquent orator, addressed most co-operative occasions worthy of note. He contributed numerous articles to the press on co-operative topics and also wrote many pamphlets on related subjects. The Co-operative Union recognized his contribution by naming the main offices and library of the movement in Manchester, Holyoake House.

In 1892 Holyoake published his autobiography "Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life" (1892); it is not solely an account of his life, but gives an interesting and very readable perspective on radicalism in 19th century Briton. It was followed in 1905 by "Bygones Worth Remembering."

George Jacob Holyoake died at Brighton on the 22nd of January 1906; his ashes are interred in Highgate cemetery.

Links: More information on G. J. Holyoake and his principal publications The National Co-operative Archive

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