George Jacob Holyoake
13 April 1817
|Died||22 January 1906 (aged 88)|
George Jacob Holyoake (13 April 1817 - 22 January 1906) was an English secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor. He coined the term "secularism" in 1851 and "jingoism" in 1878. He edited a secularist paper, the Reasoner, from 1846 to June 1861, and a co-operative paper, The English Leader, from 1864 to 1867.
George Jacob Holyoake was born in Birmingham, where his father worked as a whitesmith and his mother as a button maker. He attended a dame school, but began working half-days at the same foundry as his father at the age of eight and learnt the whitesmith's trade. At eighteen he began attending lectures at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, where he discovered the socialist writings of Robert Owen and eventually became an assistant lecturer. He married Eleanor Williams in 1839 and decided to become a full-time teacher, but was rejected for promotion because of his socialist views. Unable to teach full-time, Holyoake instead took a job as an Owenite social missionary. His first posting was in Worcester, and the following year he was transferred to a more important one in Sheffield.
Holyoake joined Charles Southwell in dissenting from the official policy of Owenism that lecturers should take a religious oath, to enable them to take collections on Sundays. Southwell had founded an atheist organization, Oracle of Reason, and was soon imprisoned on those grounds. Holyoake took over as editor, having moved to an atheist position as a result of his experiences.
Holyoake was influenced by the French philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, notable in the discipline of sociology and famous for the doctrine of positivism. Comte had himself attempted to establish a secular "religion of humanity" to fulfil the cohesive function of traditional religion. Holyoake was an acquaintance of Harriet Martineau, the English translator of various works by Comte and perhaps the first female sociologist. She wrote to him excitedly on reviewing Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.
In 1842, Holyoake became one of the last persons convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, held in April 1842 at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute, though this had no theological character and the incriminating words were merely a reply to a question addressed to him from the body of the meeting.
It took an intervention by his supporters to stop him being walked in chains from Cheltenham to Gloucester Gaol, and there was a formal memorial of complaint to the then Home Secretary, which was upheld. He was well supported by the Cheltenham Free Press at the time in his actions, but attacked in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Examiner. Those attending the lecture, the second in a series, moved and carried a motion "that free discussion was equally beneficial in the departments of politics, morals and religion." In 1842 Holyoake and socialist Emma Martin formed the Anti-Persecution Union to support free thinkers in danger of arrest.
Holyoake nevertheless underwent six months' imprisonment and editorship of the Oracle changed hands. After the Oracle closed at the end of 1843, Holyoake founded a more moderate paper, The Movement, which survived until 1845. Holyoake also established the Reasoner, where he developed the concept of secularism, and founded the Secular Review in August 1876. He was the last person indicted for publishing an unstamped newspaper, but the prosecution was dropped when the tax was repealed.
In the 1850s Holyoake and Charles Southwell were giving lectures in East London. Harriet Law, then a Baptist, began debating with them, and in the process changed her beliefs. She "saw the light of reason" in 1855 and became a strong supporter of Holyoake and a prominent secular speaker.
After an 1887 split with Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, leaders of the National Secular Society (NSS), Holyoake, Charles Watts and Harriet Law founded the British Secular Union, which remained active until 1884.
On 6 March 1881 Holyoake was one of the speakers at the opening of Leicester Secular Society's new Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate, Leicester. The other speakers were Harriet Law, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh.
Holyoake chaired the Rationalist Press Association in 1899-1906. He retained his disbelief in God, but after the Oracle soon came to regard "atheism" as a negative word, preferring "secularism". He then adopted the term "agnostic" when it appeared.
Holyoake's later years were mainly devoted to the working-class co-operative movement. He served as President of the first day of the 1887 Co-operative Congress. He wrote a history of the Rochdale Pioneers (1857), The History of Co-operation in England (1875; revised ed. 1906) and The Co-operative Movement of To-day (1891). He also published (1892) an autobiography entitled Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, and in 1905 two volumes of reminiscences, Bygones Worth Remembering.
Holyoake died in Brighton, Sussex, on 22 January 1906, and was buried in the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery in London. The grave lies in a north-east section, off the main paths, and is not readily accessible, but visible between graves on the east side of the main central-north path, behind George Eliot's grave.
The Co-operative Movement decided that a lasting monument should be built to him: a permanent home for the Co-operative Union in Manchester. Holyoake House was opened in 1911. It also houses the National Co-operative Archive. A second collection is also held at Bishopsgate Library.
Holyoake coined the term "jingoism" in a letter to the Daily News on 13 March 1878, referring to the patriotic song "By Jingo" by G. W. Hunt, popularised by the music hall singer G. H. MacDermott.
The National Secular Society unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Holyoake on Friday 17 August 2018. It is mounted on the front of a newsagents' at 4 Woburn Walk in Bloomsbury, London, WC1H 0JL and is part of the Marchmont Association's scheme of local history commemorative plaques.