Bradlaugh, Charles, 1833-1891

Alternative names
Birth 1833-09-26
Death 1891-01-30

Biographical notes:

Charles Bradlaugh was an active and controversial worker for social reform in England. Largely self-educated, he questioned theological, political, and social issues in countless pamphlets and speeches throughout England and the United States. Publicity and scandal followed him, perhaps most notably in the 1877 trial of Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy. He was elected to Parliament, but was disallowed from sitting in the house because of his stance on the oath of office. Bradlaugh's legacy goes beyond his championing such radical causes as women's equality, birth control, land reform, labor reform, compulsory education, and the alleviation of poverty; he remains a notable example of working through the system to effect positive change.

From the description of Charles Bradlaugh letters, clippings, and related materials, 1880-1935. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 61113061

Epithet: Subject of Mss Eur D767

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001394.0x00025f

Born Hoxton, London, September 1833, the son of a solicitor's clerk; aged 12 employed as an office boy in his father's company; during his early years, Bradlaugh increasingly became influenced by the ideas of Richard Carlile who was sent to prison for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1819, and he began to question Christian ideals. Due to religious disputes with his family, Bradlaugh left home in 1849 and shortly after joined the Seventh Dragoon Guards, although he was to obtain a discharge in 1853, finding work in a law office. Now a committed republican and freethinker, he joined Joseph Barker, a Sheffield Chartist, to form The National Reformer in 1860.

During the 1860s, Bradlaugh published a series of pamphlets on politics and religion becoming one of Britain's leading freethinkers. He helped in the establishment of the National Secular Society in 1866. Shortly after, Bradlaugh met Annie Besant, who he employed on The National Reformer. In 1877, Bradlaugh and Besant published Charles Knowlton's book The Fruits of Knowledge concerning birth control and, as a result, both were charged and sentenced to six months in prison, although at the Court of Appeal, the sentence was quashed.

In 1880, after several previous attempts, Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton and, due to his beliefs, sought permission to affirm rather than to take the oath of office; request was refused and he was expelled from the House of Commons; campaigned to allow atheists to sit in the Commons, attracting support from Non-Conformists and some important figures, such as William Gladstone, although it angered many in the clergy and members of the Conservative Party. Attempts to take his seat in June 1880 and April 1881, met with resistance, including a spell imprisoned in the Tower of London. After being refused access in August, a petition was presented to Parliament and, in May 1883, an Affirmation Bill, headed by Gladstone, was defeated in the Commons. Bradlaugh was re-elected in 1884 and again tried to affirm and take his seat, including voting three times for which he was later fined. A further attempt to affirm in January 1886 was accepted by the Speaker, Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel, and he was allowed to sit remaining a fervent republican and critic of British foreign policy, most notably in South Africa, Sudan, Afghanistan and Egypt. Bradlaugh died in January 1891.

From the guide to the BRADLAUGH, Charles (1833-1891), 1702-1969, (Bishopsgate Institute)


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  • Social reformers--19th century--Correspondence
  • Parliamentary elections
  • Vaccination
  • Republicanism


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  • Great Britain (as recorded)