Peter Berresford Ellis explains how Charles Bradlaugh's youthful experiences, whilst serving in the British army in Ireland, influenced the political development of this prominent English freethinker, republican and supporter of Irish Home Rule
ON 7 NOVEMBER 1867, Karl Marx, writing to his friend and colleague Friedrich Engels, mentioned that he had read a detailed description of Lord Abercorn's evictions in the Dublin newspaper The Irishman. The Duke of Abercorn (1811-1885) had become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1866. The family name was Hamilton and they owned large estates which embraced Counties Donegal, Derry and the family seat at Baronscourt, Co Tyrone. Abercorn was a Conservative of the far right and his estates were ruled with a firm and unsympathetic hand.
He was to achieve notoriety in his suppression of the IRB during his first period as Lord Lieutenant. He then achieved even more notoriety in trying to suppress the Home Rule movement and the Land League. His evictions of the poor tenants of his estates created widespread agitation in Ireland and protests in England among radicals such as Marx.
In his letter, Marx reports that at a protest meeting about Lord Abercorn at which "Bradlaugh made a speech about Ireland" and a resolution in support of the Fenians (IRB) had been passed unanimously.
Charles Bradlaugh was one of the great campaigners for Irish independence. Yet T.W. Moody, the Irish historian, who has influenced generations of Irish people's views towards their history with such books as The Course of Irish History (co-written with F X Martin), dismissed Bradlaugh, in 1981, as "the notorious atheist, republican and advocate of birth control".
I was fifteen years old when I discovered some intriguing titles by Bradlaugh on my father's bookshelf. These were printed in The Thinker's Library series, published by Watts & Co of London; a series of provocative series of studies from Charles Darwin to H G Wells and T H Huxley and Anatole France. I still have one of my father's copies of a Bradlaugh. It was called Humanity's Gain from Unbelief, a series of essays that he had written before his death in 1891.
I think it was those essays that kick started the radical in me by making me question every dogma and taking nothing at mere face value.
It was reading such books that I wanted to learn more about Bradlaugh. I was not surprised to find that he was a champion for Irish independence.
He was the son of a solicitor's clerk, born in Hoxton, London, on September 26, 1833. His father was a strict and religious man and the boy's upbringing was not a happy one. He took the opportunity to 'escape' his father's control by joining the army. He enlisted in the 7th Dragoon Guards, The Princess Royal's Own, whose Colonel, in 1849, the year he joined, was Sir Henry Murray. It was one of the oldest cavalry regiments in the British army and had been posted in many parts of the empire. Now it was on 'home establishment' which meant that companies were sent to garrison Ireland.
The company that Bradlaugh served in was sent to Ballincollig Barracks, in Co. Cork. This was basically the principal artillery depot in the south-west and usually 'home' to eight field batteries because of its proximity to a privately owned gunpowder factory employing 200 people and producing 16,000 barrels of gunpowder a year. The military strength of the barracks was usually 18 officers and 242 men. It also was the principal police-training centre in Munster.
It was one of sixteen major military stations for Cork whose total military garrison consisted of 352 officers and 6,799 men at this time.
Ireland, emerging from the devastating 'Great Hunger', and with the unfeeling absentee landlords in London and Paris still caring nothing about the conditions of the people and continuing the evictions that were still causing death and migration, was a country that shocked young Bradlaugh.
In the November of 1849 a starving woman found a turnip in the field of Sir George Colthurst of Ardrum and picked it up. She was spotted and arrested. Brought before the magistrates at Blarney she was fined twenty shillings. To a penniless, starving woman it was a transportation sentence. Obviously, the woman had no hope of paying and was sent directly to the transport hulks. Later, Bradlaugh was to write briefly on his experience in Ireland which turned him into such a radical:
"I was there on a November day. I was one of a troop to protect the law officers, who had come from the agent in Dublin to make an eviction a few miles from Inniscarra, where the River Bride joins the Lee. It was a miserable day - rain freezing into sleet as it fell - and the men beat down wretched dwelling after wretched dwelling, some thirty or forty perhaps. They did not take much beating down; there was no flooring to take up; the walls were more mud than aught else; and there was but little trouble in the levelling of them to the ground."
"We had got our work about three parts done, when out of one them a woman ran, and flung herself on the ground, wet as it was, before the captain of the troop, and she asked that her house might be spared - not for long, but for a little while. She said that her husband had been born in it; he was ill of the fever, but could not live long, and she asked that he might be permitted to die in it in peace.
"Our captain had no power; the law agent from Dublin wanted to get back to Dublin, his time was of importance and he would not wait; and the man was carried out while we were there - in front of us, while the sleet was coming down - carried out on a wretched thing; you could not call it a bed, and he died there while we were there; and three nights afterwards, while I was sentry on the front gate at Ballincollig Barracks, we heard a cry, and when the guard was turned out, we found this poor woman there a raving maniac, with one dead babe in one arm, and another in the other clinging to the cold nipple of her lifeless breast.
"If you had been brothers to such a woman, sons of such a woman, fathers of such a woman, would not rebellion have seemed the holiest gospel you could hear preached?"
Bradlaugh had already been interested in the radical ideas of Richard Carlile (1790-1843) , the freethinking, crusading journalist and publisher. Carlile, a devotee of Thomas Paine, had founded the English radical newspaper The Republican in 1819 and was jailed for sedition and blasphemy.
Bradlaugh, in Ireland, had seen for himself what depths the government and landed classes could sink to. He began to hate the army for what it represented. He managed to obtain a discharge from the army and found work back in a London law office. In 1860, Bradlaugh joined Joseph Baker, a former Sheffield Chartist, and established the radical journal The National Reformer. He began to write a series of pamphlets on politics and religion and helped to establish the National Secular Society.
One of those contributing to his newspaper was Annie Besant (1847-1933) radical and theosophist and trade union organiser who also advocated socialism.
In 1877 Bradlaugh and Besant published The Fruits of Philosophy, Charles Knowlton's book advocating birth control. They were immediately charged with publishing material "likely to deprave or corrupt". Bradlaugh told the court "we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing". They were both jailed for six months and received heavy fines.
Bradlaugh was elected to the House of Commons for Northampton in 1880. When he tried to take his seat, he asked if he could affirm rather than take the religious oath of allegiance. While prime minister William Gladstone supported Bradlaugh's right to affirm instead of taking a religious oath, the Speaker ruled that Bradlaugh should be expelled. A vote was taken by the Members of Parliament and supported the Speaker.
Bradlaugh was arrested by the Serjeant at Arms and imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was only when the Tory leader, Benjamin Disraeli, pointed out that Bradlaugh might well become a martyr that he was released from the Tower.
The people of Northampton fully supported the man they had elected to represent them. So on April 26, 1881, Bradlaugh again presented himself to the House of Commons and was refused and ejected once again.
William Gladstone privately promised Bradlaugh that he would introduce legislation to allow him to affirm but Bradlaugh was unwilling to wait and on 2 August he presented himself to the House of Commons and was once more forcibly removed.
A National Petition of 241,970 signatures was now presented to the House of Commons calling on the Speaker to admit the democratically elected representative from Northampton.
On 7 February 1882, Bradlaugh presented himself and asked to affirm the parliamentary oath. Once more he was forcibly evicted. Gladstone did present the Affirmation Bill in 1883 but the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Manning, Primate of the Catholic Church, threw their influence against it. The Bill was therefore defeated. It was now hoped the problem would go away when the General Election took place.
In spite of a dirty tricks campaign, in 1884 Bradlaugh was once again returned to represent Northampton with an increased majority.
He took his seat and voted three times before he was 'noticed' and thrown out, later being fined £1,500 for voting illegally.
On13 January 1886, Bradlaugh again presented himself in the House of Commons and demanded to affirm in order to take his seat. There was a new Speaker, Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel, who announced he had the authority to accept the affirmation. Bradlaugh was finally allowed to sit in the House of Commons.
He immediately devoted himself to supporting Irish Home Rule and the redistribution of land. He wrote:
"The enormous estates of the few landed proprietors must not only be prevented from growing larger, they must be broken up. If they claim that in this we are unfair, our answer is ready. You have monopolised the land, and while you have got each year a wider and firmer grip, you have cast its burden on others, you have made labour pay the taxes which land could more easily have borne. You have been intolerant in your power, driving your tenants to the poll like cattle, keeping your labourers ignorant and demoralised."
He argued for republicanism and against the vast sums being paid to the royal family. He said with irony:
"Her Majesty (Victoria) is now enormously rich and … grows richer daily. She is also generous, and has recently given not quite half a day's income to the starving poor of India!'
He opposed British military involvement in South Africa, Sudan, Afghanistan and Egypt.
In the few years he was active in the House of Commons he became a one-man crusade for social reform as well as the reform of that institution.
On January 30, 1891, he died. He was barely fifty-seven, and had worn himself out. Three thousand mourners attended his funeral.
Henry Snell (1865-1944), Leader of the Labour Party from 1935-40, in his memoir Men, Movements and Myself (1936) wrote:
"I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh. The commanding strength, the massive head, the imposing stature, and the ringing eloquence of the man fascinated me, and from that hour until the day of his death, ten years later, I was one of his humblest but most devoted of his followers.
"Taking him all in all - as man, orator, as leader of unpopular causes, and as an incorruptible public figure, he was the most imposing human being that I have ever known, and I do not expect to look upon his like again."
One wonders, however, what Bradlaugh would have said about Snell's acceptance of a peerage in 1931. Bradlaugh was no compromiser.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2004 Peter Berresford Ellis