Charles Bradlaugh and infidelity at St Ives

Maxwell Adams 2005

2 November 2005

This is a story about the part St Ives played in an episode in our national struggle for freedom and democracy. It took place in that stirring summer of 1881 when Thomas Treweeke at Lelant was ragging the reactionaries. It was a summer when even a cricket match between Lelant and Penzance ended in public acrimony (Cornish Telegraph 18 August 1881 page 8 column c and 25 August page 8e), when there was a complaint about the young of Hayle swearing in the street and "daily" throwing stones and thereby hurting people and damaging property, and when a marriage in St Ives parish church was halted by the father of the potential bridegroom (Cornishman 22 September 1881, page 4f). That summer the assistant curate at St Ives reportedly told his congregation that virtuous women were a "rarity" in Cornwall and this led to unseemly speculation about how he knew. He denied saying any such thing. The mayor of St Ives was challenged about public money. A stirring summer indeed.

Charles Bradlaugh caused a different sort of scandal among some. He was elected Liberal MP for Northampton in 1880. When he got to the House of Commons he refused, because he was an atheist, to take the religious oath of allegiance which included a reference to god and he asked to affirm. However, MPs refused to let him affirm though Joseph Pease, a Quaker Christian, had affirmed on taking his seat in 1833. When Bradlaugh offered to take the oath they would not let him because he was an atheist. This dispute dragged on for five years. He was once physically thrown out of Parliament by fourteen policemen and officials. He was re-elected by voters at successive by-elections in Northampton and each time the MPs rejected him because he was an atheist. Eventually in 1885 he managed to take the oath and his seat and shortly afterwards the law was changed so that MPs could affirm rather than swear a religious oath if they wished.

St Ives got involved in this contentious national question of whether an atheist could be an MP and in 1881 people in St Ives took opposite sides and several petitions in favour of and against Bradlaugh's admission as an MP were apparently sent off. All our information comes from partisans in the town. We are fortunate that some of the arguments of the two sides have survived and through them we can glance a little into the minds of people in St Ives a century and a quarter ago. Middle class Victorians had a public interest in religion and the minutiae of it which seems obsessive and even cranky to many of us today.

The question of whether atheists should be allowed to be MPs, even if elected by voters, divided the country. The Evangelical Alliance, a Christian organisation, nominated 1 May 1881 a day of prayer against the increase in "infidelity, lawlessness, and drink," a spinning and insulting way of tarring atheists with crime and drunkenness (Cornish Telegraph 5 May 1881 page 3). By infidelity the evangelicals meant atheism and agnosticism not adultery though no doubt they were aware that the word usefully carried innuendos of sexual misbehaviour against atheists too.

Our information comes largely from two sources, the Cornish Telegraph where the Bradlaugh case is put and the St Ives Penny Post where the anti-Bradlaugh case is made. The reference to the latter I found among Cyril Noall's papers at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro.

For Bradlaugh
On 4 August the West Briton (page 5b) reported, "Four numerously signed petitions were sent from St Ives to Mr Labouchere MP in the House of Commons, on Monday, in favour of Mr Bradlaugh, MP, taking his seat." An identical report appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on 5 August (page 5b). We shall see that getting to the bottom of the numbers is difficult; remember, we are reading partisan accounts in the newspapers.

There followed three items in the Cornish Telegraph of 11 August 1881 which support Bradlaugh's admission to the Commons and, from their internal references, two seem to come from local Methodists.

First is a comment by someone identified only as X (page 4f). I do not know why he chose anonymity though anonymous letter writers are common in Victorian newspapers. He described the anti-Bradlaugh petition as "religious intolerance" and "persecution." He argued for toleration in civil affairs of people with differing religious views, an enlightened approach, though he was fierce about those who disagreed with him. He was apparently a Methodist and was disbelieving and scathing about the Methodist ministers ganging up with "a ritualistic parson, with whom a few weeks since they refused to walk the streets." The ritualistic parson - X used the word ritualistic twice; he obviously thought it effective abuse - was presumably the Church of England priest at St Ives. Christians are not known for graciousness in their disagreements. In Victorian England Anglicans and Methodists snarled at one another, and even at other varieties of their own. In 1877 at Lelant a stone cross was vandalised by having the word 'Popery' painted on it, most probably by Methodist fishermen from St Ives (Cornish Telegraph 17 April 1877 and 12 March 1878). These uncivilised trivialities mattered to them.

X said he disagreed with Bradlaugh's religious and political views, but nevertheless supported his right to be elected an MP. Bradlaugh was a mix. He was a Liberal, an opponent of socialism, and an English republican. Worse, he and Annie Besant had in 1877 published Charles Knoulton's book on sex and family planning, quaintly named the Fruits of philosophy.You cannot imagine how that scandalised many of the Victorians. It was denounced as depraved and corrupt and he was sentenced to six months in jail for it, a sentence quashed on appeal. How times change. Both Tacitus and Pliny, writing within a hundred years of the traditional time of Jesus, described Christianity as depraved and we are more likely today to be scandalised by people who do not use contraception. We can, however, understand X's marking out his disagreement with Bradlaugh's views; Charles Darwin and even some Victorian atheists were uncomfortable with contraception. In the circumstances X's Christian support for his admission to Parliament was extraordinarily liberal.

The same edition of the Cornish Telegraph also had anonymous letter supporting Bradlaugh. This was signed dramatically 'Lover of freedom' and was also apparently from a Methodist. He (I assume it was a man) referred very bitterly in the light of Methodist history to some Methodist opposition to Bradlaugh (page 8e).

"I am astonished that Nonconformist ministers and members of societies [ie Methodists]could so far forget the battles of their forefathers on behalf of freedom, to which they owe all the rights and liberties they now enjoy, as to lend their aid to the party [ie Anglicans and Tories] who are now preventing the member for a free constituency from fulfilling his duty to his constituents and to his country. They tell us Mr Bradlaugh is an atheist and as such is not fit to sit in the British House of Commons, but they seem to forget that a generation has scarcely passed away since we were told that Dissenters [ie Protestant Christians who were not Anglicans] were heretics and unfit to hold any public office in the realm, and twelve short months have scarely passed away since they were prevented [from] burying their deceased friends in their own churchyards with their own ministers..."

For many years only members of the Church of England could hold civic or military posts in England: Catholics and other Christians, Jews, and atheists, and indeed everyone else were all barred. Catholics were barred as MPs until 1829, Jews until 1858, atheists effectively until 1888, and all women whatever they believed until the twentieth century. Before the burial act of 1880 only an Anglican priest could officiate at burials in the parish churchyard. The nineteenth century saw repeated incursions into the Anglican monopolies.

The letter from 'Lover of freedom' of St Ives ends passionately. "The march of progress...will ultimately triumph as surely as the reforms of the past have been victoriously won in spite of religious bigotry, Tory arrogance, and benighted ignorance."

Ah, that reference to the Tories is a clue to the multiple motives. Religion and party politics were mixed up in a way we fortunately do not experience now. Remember this was the radical summer of Thomas Treweeke. Very broadly, the Church of England and the Tory party kept company and the Methodists were Liberal party supporters. Tyacke, the vicar at Lelant, complained in 1870 that Tyringham, who owned most of Lelant, would not help St Uny's church financially because a Liberal had been elected as churchwarden (Cornish Telegraph 21 September 1870).

For social conservative Methodists and Methodist ministers in St Ives some cooperation with Anglican enemies on this issue was possible against the larger enemy of atheism. This interestingly supports my view that Methodist ministers in Cornwall were politically reactionary (see The people's bitterest enemies). For more liberal Methodists, for whom political allegiance to democracy, progress, and reform was important or for whom remembrance of Anglican ill-deeds to them was lively, Bradlaugh was to be supported. The Anglicans and Tories rightly saw atheism as one of those philosophies that challenged, and ultimately undermined, their power and privileges. They understood Chilo's maxim, Finem respice, and saw where all this radicalism was leading. The nineteenth century, like the twentieth, was a succession of battles to treat everyone equally. Of course, allegiances were complex. Gladstone, the Liberal prime minister who supported Bradlaugh's right to admission, was a staunch Anglican. Stewart Headlam backed Bradlaugh but he was a socialist as well as an Anglican priest.

What is interesting is that the support in St Ives for atheist Bradlaugh apparently came from some Christians. There is no reference to any agnostics or atheists here supporting him, but perhaps in 1881 they were not numerous and did not publicly identify their views. The support was based on a knotted mixture of serious antagonism to Anglicans and Tories, progressive ideas about freedom and democracy in politics, and respect for the decision of voters.

Against Bradlaugh
The Cornishman of 11 August (page 4f) reported from the town: "Our walls are bristling with posters begging the inhabitants to 'sign the petition against the admission of an atheist into Parliament.' One has already been forwarded for presentation in support of Mr Bradlaugh's claim; the adverse one [ie, the anti-Bradlaugh petition] is receiving numerous signatures." The Cornish Telegraph of 11 August reported the organising of petitions in St Ives against the admission of Bradlaugh to Parliament and explained that the anti-Bradlaugh petitions were put in the places of worship in the town "but the number of signatures obtained was very small." Remember the West Briton comment on numbers. Numerous, very small - without the petitions (I have looked but at present I have not found them and they may not have survived) it is impossible to know what the truth of numbers is; and what the numbers mean in a town stirred up. I think we might be looking at Victorian spin.

The opposition to Bradlaugh was from some Christians. A meeting on 6 August of the priests of the various Christian groups in St Ives decided to put out petitions against Bradlaugh's admission to parliament. This was presumably a response to a pro-Bradlaugh campaign which had already got well under way.

The local monthly, the Penny Post, was firmly against Bradlaugh. In its August 1881 edition it saw Bradlaugh not as an MP representing his constituents but as representing atheism in Parliament. What you see depends where you are standing. It unwisely noted that the number signing the pro-Bradlaugh petition was not given. It was a telling point, but I say made unwisely because the following month there was an embarrassment over anti-Bradlaugh numbers.

The Penny Post went on to abuse the signatories of the pro-Bradlaugh petitions as either blind atheist fools or people who let party partisanship override their religion, the latter a criticism of the Liberal Party Methodists in St Ives who were supporting Bradlaugh. I have suggested that identified atheists seem non-existent or secretive in St Ives so far as supporting Bradlaugh goes though perhaps in its denunciation of foolish atheist signatories the Penny Post knew a local reality which had not reached the newspapers; or perhaps it was simply abuse. Apparently the Penny Post did not explain what were the religious principles that would overthrow a proto-democratic election and promote discrimination against people who did not have the same religious views as you.

I wonder what Bradlaugh made of this mutual abuse among Christians? And of his support from some of them? And of the absence of known atheist supporters?

The September issue of the Penny Post highlights the difficulty over numbers.

Initially the anti-Bradlaugh petition had been signed by about five hundred people but an "informality" - capital phrase for the blunder or fraud - meant the number was reduced to about three hundred. We are not told on what basis about two hundred names were removed; we are not told what the difficulty was; we are not told why the three hundred should be taken as trouble-free. Even today petitions can give rise to controversy. The honesty though is commendable.

This was the Anglican petition. There was, the paper noted, also an anti-Bradlaugh petition from the Wesleyan Methodists. The Anglicans and Methodists apparently could not even sign the same petition. Christian cooperation had its limits.

As for the pro and anti petitions, we should not assume that in 1881 everyone could read what they were signing and I am a little surprised that apparently so many people could sign their names.

In the end Bradlaugh and the democrats won. In Northampton a pub and a nature reserve are named after him and there is a statue of him: as much immortality as an atheist can expect. The 'march of progress' did ultimately triumph and in our enlightened days virtually anyone can sit in the House of Commons whatever his philosophy.


Cyril Noall's notes from the Penny Post are in Box B pages 164-166 of the Noall Bequest at the library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro

Pliny Epistles Book 10, 96

Tacitus Annals of imperial Rome, Book 15, 44.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette 5 August 1881, page 8e has a report of an attempt by Bradlaugh to take his seat.