Leicester Secular Society
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Freethinker Magazine

F. J. Gould: Life Story of a Humanist

Reproduced here are the complete texts of four chapters of F. J. Gould's The Life-Story of a Humanist, published by Watts & Co, London 1923, which describe his most active years in London and Leicester, plus brief summaries and extracts from the rest. These chapters relate to an important period in the development of secular movements, and many of the issues are still with us today.

Sections: IntroductionChapter VIIIChapter XChapter XIChapter XIIConclusionEnd. Top


F. J. Gould in 1921, from photo by G. C. Beresford Frederick James Gould was born December 19, 1855, in Brighton where his parents, from London, lived for a few years before returning to lodgings in London. In summer 1865 his mother heard of a vacancy in the boy's choir at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, where he was boarded and educated for three years. Canon Wriothesley Russell, who read the boys ‘godly tales’ on Sunday evenings after Chapel services, decided in 1868 to ‘befriend’ him by offering a place at Chenies school. He was there nine years.

“When Wriothesley Russell died in 1886 he had been Rector of the village [Chenies] fifty-six years. ... Half-brother to Earl Russell, ex-Prime Minister, he held Liberal views in politics. Strong as were his Christian convictions, he never expressed contempt for “unbelievers”; and no whisper reached us of any resentment at the scepticism of his nephew, Viscount Amberley, author of The Analysis of Religious Belief.”

[Viscount Amberley was John Russell (1842-76), son of John, first Earl Russell (1792-1878, Prime Minister 1846-52) and father of John, second Earl Russell (1865-1921) and of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).]

On January 29th, 1871, at age 15, he reports having a conversion experience, hearing a voice exclaim “How wonderful is the love of God!” which led him to study theology “in a kind of devout fury”. In the same year he became a teacher and remained so until 1877. However he began to have doubts in 1875. He taught at a Church school in Great Missenden for two years, but resigned and became assistant at the very different Turin Street Board-school Bethnal Green. Before taking up his new post he recalls twice visiting the Hall of Science in Old Street to hear Joseph Symes on “What does the World Owe to the Bible?” and Charles Bradlaugh on “The Depression of Trade”. In November 1879 he married.

[Oddly, he nowhere mentions the name of his wife. At the time of his writing the book they had been together 43 years.]

He served under the London School Board until 1896. During this period he was active in radical politics and met most of the luminaries of the age. “No incident of this period left a deeper mark on my sympathies than a meeting at Mortimer Street ... 1881, when my wife and I heard Frederic Harrison speak on “The New Social System”—that is, the Positive Philosophy and Religion of Humanity, as formulated by Auguste Comte.”

“In June, 1883, I lectured at the Secular Hall in Leicester, a city with which I was to become very familar in later years (1899-1910); and in 1884, in the same hall, I spoke again, with George Jacob Holyoake as my chairman.”

“Once or twice I met my good old friend Russell at Chenies, and we conversed with mutual courtesy, though with necessary restraint.”

At the end of 1887 some of his columns in the Secular Review came to the notice of his employers, the London School Board, and he was obliged to apply for relief from the duty of giving Bible instruction. He was transferred to Northey Street, Limehouse, and taught there for eight years. His desire to continue teaching principles of morality and religion was raised in the House of Commons, 1888, and in the National Reformer 1891, but to no avail.


Chapter VIII (pp.72-80)

The moment when, bearing the label (so to speak) of “Heretic Teacher,” I was transferred to Limehouse, and the dock district seemed to open a new period, divided by a broad line from the past, I prepared for fresh explorations. From a pamphlet, Religious Instruction in Board Schools (signed “Mirabeau Brown”), which I wrote for distribution at the School Board election, November, 1888, I copy a few lines:—

The decay of faith in miracles is proceeding with a significant speed. The breeze of scepticism is sweeping out of the avenues of modern thought these sere and yellow superstitions, leaving still green and bright the moral sentiments which are the glory of true religion......If scepticism as to the miraculous elements of religion is thus widely extended in present-day society; if, with the decline of theology and dogma, a more sympathetic and intelligent interest is felt in the application of moral forces to the bettering of man's condition in body and mind, surely this tendency ought to be reflected in the character of the religious teaching imparted in our popular schools.

The ends thus indicated—social progress and the humanizing of thought and education—were the ends on which I have sought to concentrate since 1888.

I soon pitched “Mirabeau Brown” overboard, and the wise School Board made no sign when I continued to lecture and write under my proper name, and issued a collection of pamphlets (1889) under the title Stepping-stones to Agnosticism. In this booklet I coined a phrase, “The Enthusiasm of Development,” which seemed usefully to expand the term “Progress.” But the word “Agnosticism” was by no means a dogmatic finality, and in my Bruno: A Sketch of His Life and Philosophy (1890) I closed my notice of that noble martyr by saying:—

Let the coming religion be a true Catholicism, embracing all the greatness of the Past and all the highest aspirations of the Present. Above all, let us keep our ears ever open to the voices of truth. Truth is more sacred than our schemes of Agnosticism......

At that period Frederick Millar, Dr. R. Bithell, Charles A. Watts, and I used occasionally to sit close together in a poky room at Johnson's Court, calling ourselves the Propagandist Press Committee, and plotting to set the Thames on fire with tracts and cheap volumes. I supplied the conspirators with a motto: “The lecturer wins his thousands, but the writer his tens of thousands”; for, indeed, the lessened cost and larger output of Freethought literature made the common citizen much less dependent upon public debates and expositions than in 1860 or 1870. In 1893 we transformed ourselvs into the Rationalist Press Committee, and I believe I was the chief impulse in effecting the change of name. Watts was, all along, the master-builder, and his business mind was already outlining the most successful humanist publishing enterprise in the annals of literature. Six years later the brilliant butterfly of the Rationalist Press Association* emerged from the humble chrysalis of the R. P. C., and the flash of its wings has been seen in five continents.

[* Footnote] A little volume of mine on The New Testament (1914) had this dedication: “To Charles Albert Watts, chief founder of the Rationalist Press Association, with whom I have been companion in the spread of progressive ideas on religion since the year 1882.”

To the R. P. C. I introduced an unassuming, spectacled young man, with a very firm mouth, who had shown his interest in astronomy by frequently calling on a friend of mine, the possessor of a fine telescope, at Forest Gate. He had recently divested himself of the Catholic priesthood, and early in 1896 we had exchanged letters and agreed to meet outside Anderton's Hotel in Fleet Street. We met, and adjourned to a tea-shop. My proposition that he should write a pamphlet on From Rome to Rationalism was accepted by the Committee, and Joseph McCabe (ex-Father Anthony) stepped into a circle of which he was to become a greatly distinguished member. His reputation is world-wide.

One of my activities in the decade ending 1899 was interviewing, for purposes of print, people of the Rationalist persuasion. Such, for example, were G. W. Foote, who in his library appeared rather the cultured book-lover than the iconoclast; G. J. Holyoake, the witty old Owenite and Co-operator; George Julian Harney, the ancient silver-locked Chartist; Moncure Conway, the ever-liberal and ever-interesting lecturer of South Place Chapel, Finsbury; John M. Robertson, acid critic and Atlantean cyclopaedist; the amiably serious Mrs Lynn Linton; the poetic and statuesque Jewess, Miss Mathilde Blind, in black dress and black plumy hat; Mrs. Annie Besant, profusely discoursing on Theosophy and reprimanding me if I forgot a Buddhist phrase. These and many another agreeably confronted me and the fluttering leaves of my Pitman shorthand note-book.

By kind permission of “Blood and Fire” Headquarters, I made (for the Agnostic Journal) a series of visits to Salvation Army Rescue Homes and the like, and felt carried back to the mildewed Evangelicalism of Chenies. Chatting with a Salvationist as he sat at his tea, I asked him what became of sincere Agnostics. He pointed dramatically to the floor, and calmly munched bread-and-butter and water-cress. Once I accompanied a black-gowned young Anglican priest on his mission to a common lodging-house in Shoreditch, where ragged tramps bent over a fire, and, a hymn being in danger of perishing for want of voices, I took compassion on the struggling priest and swelled the faint choir; and may I not be damned for hypocrisy!

On a March evening, 1889, at the Unitarian school-room near Oxford Street, I heard Mr. Trevor (assistant to Philip Wickstead, the Dante scholar, and afterwards founder of Labour Churches) give a very useful account of the Moral Instruction (La Morale Laïque) in French Primary Schools, and I was deeply interested. Another member of the scanty audience was Dr. Stanton Coit, who had emerged from Dr. Felix Adler's Ethical Culture circle in New York, and was lecturing at South Place. Coit was a fair-haired American from Ohio, and he preached an admirable Humanist gospel in a happy alternation of smiles and hurricanes. At Bayswater, West London, he still flies the Ethical Church flag, and continues to exercise a breezy and hygienic influence on religious and social thought.

A group of us met in Hackney (November, 1889) and planned an Ethical Society. The group included Gustav Spiller, an emancipated Jew from Budapesth [sic], much devoted to poetry and psychology, now a naturalized and excellent Englishman and attached to the Labour Office of the League of Nations at Geneva; C. J. Pollard, now an active worker in the South Place Ethical Society; and others like-minded. Coit assisted our propagandist councils, and early in 1890 we launched the East London Ethical Society at a dancing saloon by Mile End Road. Four years later (October, 1894) we—proud as Solomon in the erection of his Temple—inaugurated a corrugated iron hall in Libra Road, Old Ford, amid a hubbub of our East-end neighbours and the cheery yells of the boys.

All—lectures, entertainments, Sunday-school for sixty children, boys' and girls' club—was done on “a purely human basis.” I venture to affirm that, in a grey monotonous environment, we did, in a humble way, as penetrating and vital a work as Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. Today I feel a throb of gratitude to the pioneer spirits who came down into our wilderness and gave us of their store of philosophy, science, art, politics, and visions—Coit, Graham Wallas, Okey (basket-maker and Italian scholar), Bernard Bosanquet, Mrs. Gilliland Husband, Miss Foley (Mrs. Rhys Davids), J. F. Green (now M. P. for West Leicester), J. Ramsey Macdonald, Halliday Sparling, and the devoted and enthusiastic Zona Vallance, daughter of a Stratford doctor. Socialists mingled with us cordially. Among them were Tom Mann, a staccato, emphatic orator, with pointed moustache and revolutionary menaces; and George Lansbury, a man with a truly good heart, a half-cynical, half-pathetic pity for an unrighteous world, and more zeal than judgment—his editorship of the Daily Herald and his friendship with Lenin of Moscow being a perfectly natural evolution from the Lansbury I knew nearly thirty years ago.

Tom Mann's four small daughters and four or five of Lansbury's children attended the Libra Road Sunday school of which, for some six years, I joyfully took charge, aided by the silent, solid friend Uffindell—who worked a magic lantern—and other loyal colleagues. Among these simple East-end children, Sunday after Sunday, I found, in story-telling on themes of personal and social conduct, a blessed relief from the harsh methods of the Board School and an experimental field for humanist ideas. Five or six times each year we took our little children's fellowship to museums, Westminster Abbey, Tower, Zoo, Epping Forest, and so forth, and thus, as far as we could, opened up glimpses of a brighter scenery beyond the East-end dullness. Stanton Coit observed my industry in lecturing and educational pathfinding, and proposed that I should co-operate with him officially in the Ethical Movement. That is how it happened that in February, 1896, I escaped from the School Board. It is curious to recall that at virtually the same moment Joseph McCabe escaped from the Franciscan College at Buckingham.

For three years I laboured without ceasing, in lectures, in teaching a variety of Ethical Sunday-schools, in conferences (as at Zürich, where I met F. W. Foerster, since famous as a German opponent of the German wrong in 1914), in the pages of the Ethical World, which Coit and I, in conjunction with Charles A. Watts and Charles E. Hooper, set going (January, 1898), and in the establishment of the Ethical Union, the Moral Instruction League, and a Moral Instruction Circle. It was in this Circle that I began delivering those lessons to children before adult audiences which are still a main feature of my programme. In 1894 I had circulated a quarto leaflet, Religion in Board Schools, which asked for non-theological Moral Instruction, and which drew a lugubrious howl from the Daily Chronicle. In 1895 a similar broadsheet, Our Children, sketched a plan of ethical teaching, and won good words from Frederick Harrison and John Page Hopps. In 1897 the sketch was developed into an elaborate Plan, which was circulated to many thousands, and which formed the basis of the four volumes of my Children's Book of Moral Lessons.

For purposes of illustration I had now begun to collect short stories from biography and history, ransacking the literature of the world for examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good; and of such stories the number had in 1922 reached beyond 3,000 in my note-books. Very few of these are anecdotes implying blame of evil. The vast majority are positive in quality—that is, they portray the Honourable, the Sane, and the Noble in many ages and many lands. For I had long since made it a cardinal doctrine in education that, if we cease praising the Gods, it more behoves us to praise the good works of humanity.

This allusion to “Humanity” reminds me that I had never lost touch with the propaganda of Harrison, Beesly, Bridges, Cotter Morison, Swinny, and their co-workers at Newton Hall, Fetter Lane. I had printed an interview with that fine old Garibaldian volunteer and enthusiastic Positivist, Henry Ellis. When in March, 1899, I took service with the Leicester Secular Society, I definitely told the Committee I felt deep respect for the teachings of the “Religion of Humanity.” I mention the circumstance here, as it foreshadowed coming events in 1908.

Our Ethical World had the vital spark. Week by week the paper issued stirring articles by Coit, the economist J. A. Hobson, the politician J. R. Macdonald, and G. H. Perris. I name the last name in grief at the untimely death (December, 1920) of a high-minded journalist, a tireless labourer in the cause of International Arbitration, a most judicious war-correspondent (alas! for the irony of events), and an eager supporter of the League of Nations, who spent his final energies at Geneva in the service of that ideal. On behalf of the Ethical World I raced to and fro, interviewing social pioneers and inspecting institutions; for instance, I attended the opening of Ruskin Hall, Oxford, and reported the glowing speeches of Dennis Hird and Ben Tillett. One of the last articles I wrote before removing with my wife and two children to Leicester ended with a prophecy:—

Ethical Religion will be the ever-present sense of personal and public duty. It will transform the city into a fellowship, the market into an honest exchange, the army into a phalanx of civic athletes, and the senaate into a council of the wisest fathers and mothers of the nation.

I humbly offer this proof that in 1899 I was in favour of women members of Parliament.

Top Chapter IX (pp.80-83), consists of an address, written by Gould, and read by Gustav Spiller at the funeral of six-year old Eva Minna (whom I presume to be his daughter) in 1893. His wife and another daughter, Romola (not more than age 13), were in attendance.

Chapter X (pp.83-92)

The City of Leicester spreads its clean streets, its pleasantly-red brick dwellings (housing some 240,000 shoe-makers, hosiery-makers, and the rest), its municipal trams, libraries, and open spaces, and its many churches and chapels, over the vale of the modest, winding Soar, and at a point near the centre of England, at which economic, social, and spiritual currents have met and inter-acted for many centuries. The very name, anciently Leircastre, whispers a reminiscence of the Lir and Lear—God and King perchance—of British antiquity. The Jewry Wall is a venerable brick fragment that speaks of Rome first, and later of a local ghetto. A castle mound and bits of old churches and traditions of gates—Humberstone Gate, Gallowtree Gate, etc.—and “Greyfriars” (street) breathe reminders of the Feudal-Catholic age; and De Montfort Square tells of the city's connection with a great figure in our Parliamentary evolution. The city throbs within a girdle, many miles broad, of pastures and green hills that are laden with history—at Naseby, Cromwell fought; at Lutterworth, Wiclif preached; at Bradgate House, Lady Jane Grey talked of Plato's Ideas with Roger Ascham while the duke and duchess were hunting in the woodland; at Bosworth fell Richard Crookback; at Fenny Drayton George Fox minded flocks and dreamed of the Inner Light; at Dishley Grange, Robert Bakewell bred the best sheep in England; and he who, in the moonlight, looks at the gables, the fluted chimneys, and the armorial sculptures over the portals of Ragdale Hall can with ease, in reverie, glide back to the days when Charles the First still spent his happy leisure at Hampton Court.

Nonconformist, Radical, Chartist, and Owenite elements found a natural home in the city. Anti-vaccination thrilled the citizens with a sort of evangelical fervour. In May, 1876, Charles Eagle and Frank Palmer, after ten days in jail for disobedience to the vaccination law, went in a procession to the market place, and received the homage of fifteen thousand cheering fellow-townsmen; and Michael Wright and others denounced medical tyrrany. These names recall me to my proper theme, for Eagle and Wright were connected with the Leicester Secular Society, and Michael Wright's portrait has a place of honour—with the portraits of Bradlaugh, Holyoake, Josiah Gimson, Thomas Slater, and James Thomson (B.V.)—in the Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate. The hall seats between 500 and 600 people, and its presentable front of red brick and stone challenges the passer-by with five busts: Jesus, Socrates, Voltaire, Paine and Robert Owen. My friend McCabe had played an effective part here for nearly a year, and, having given Leicester many excellent lectures, had departed with an excellent wife; and I was appointed Secretary and Organiser in April, 1899, and so I remained till April, 1908.

Our membership—a motley of some two hundred—included nobody with a University degree, and nobody who possessed a carriage, except Philip Wright, Michael's son; and I only once beheld the beatific vision of the two-horse vehicle at our Hall entrance. We were Co-operators, Individualists, Radicals, with a few humble Socialists mixed in. Some loved to lounge in the club-room and chat over their glass of beer or brandy rather than hear lectures on the Pauline theology or the possibility of miracles; while poet Brant or expert geologist Edwards would brood in the reading-room over the volumes of a quite well-stocked library. One member confided to me that, having some twenty years previously heard lectures criticising the Noah's Flood story, he abandoned the Christian faith, and had not felt the need of further study of the Whence and Whither. A bearded carpenter and joiner, William Wilber, whose kindly eyes had beamed through his glasses upon me, as a 'prentice in lecturing, long before 1899, had a sound knowledge of the Bible and quoted Scripture like a bishop. A sturdy old smooth-shaven man of the people, Benjamin Drake, called everybody “Brother,” advised everybody to keep clear of priestcraft, and exhorted everybody to keep healthy on Culverwell's System of Medicine. The bookstore attached to the hall was in charge of William H. Holyoak. He had sold Freethought books for more than half a century, and teemed with recollections of Robert Owen and G. J. Holyoake. Born in 1818, he was a patriarchal and venerable comrade among us, familiar with the inside as well as the prices current of Paine's Age of Reason or Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary and the like. Equally with books he loved the woods and meadows, and thus he sang in his own artless verse:—

I will wander away from the town,
And leave behind me all care for the day;
'Neath some wide-spreading oak I will lay myself down,
And inhale the sweet perfume of May.
I will gaze on the blue sky above,
And the silvery clouds as they pass;
I will dream of the dear ones I love,
As I lie on the velvety grass.

This grand old citizen died in 1907, aged 89.

Among the women was one who had a face like a Roman matron's, large-featured and genial. In dubious grammar, Sarah Perkins taught the children in the Sunday-school good lessons. Her hand was ever ready to serve, to wait, to wash, to sew, to mend, “to warn, to comfort, and command.” Quiet-spoken and deliberate, she had the judgment that comes of an affectionate rearing of children in a proletarian home. Little did she fancy I should instal her in a portrait-gallery such as this; but I will say that in human insight and common-sense she outshone heaps of the M.A.s and B.A.s I have had the honour of knowing.

Leicester Secular Hall in 1900

The chief inspirer of the hall (erected in 1881) was a Leicester engineer and Town Councillor, Josiah Gimson, who died in 1883. One of his younger sons, Sydney, became President of the Society in 1888, and has held the office, with scarce any interval, ever since; and in 1908 he took his seat on the Town (now City) Council. In the Cromwellian days Sydney Gimson would have been a Hampden or a Pym. Engineer like his father, practical, resourceful, foreseeing, he was eminently fair-minded in listening and weighing, and scrupulously just in giving judgment. During the war of 1914-18 he rendered no small service in the Midland supply of munitions, and the thanks of many a Belgian in the local refugee colony will echo through the years to come. He has the great distinction of enjoying the respect of all Leicester.

Such was the environment and such were the people in whose midst I laboured nine years. I lectured on literature, biography and history; taught classes in logic, psychology, sociology, etc.; supervised a Young People's ethical guild, carried on a “Garland” group for juniors, initiated a Women's Sewing-circle, presided at discussions, increased and catalogued the library, composed a History of the Society (1900), wrote articles and reports in the local press, edited the monthly Leicester Reasoner (1901-3), recorded minutes, collected rents for the Secular Hall Company, instructed the Sunday-school, conducted operettas, painted scenery, stage-managed the small actors, organized three bazaars, got up programmes for “socials” and dances, visited the sick, bent over the dying, and pronounced many a funeral address. And still I felt the agenda was inadequate, and longed for more scopes to conquer.

Once a big obstacle threatened, and Gimson and I, like the Heavenly twins, had to go strenuously at it. I have already hinted, in a delicate manner, that our club provided beer and brandy, and of course it added cards, chess, and billiards. We more and more perceived that this alcoholic institution acted as a handicap in our appeal to the Leicester citizenhood. Our proposal to cast out the Spirituous Power led to an excited general meeting, which had to decide whether alcohol should go and the Secretary stay, or the Secretary go and alcohol stay. The moment, as novelists say, was tense; and one keltic enthusiast, his voice faltering almost into a sob, implored us not to be disloyal to the traditions of British freedom. The vote (January, 1902) came out: For alcohol, 28; for the Secretary, 103. My reputation among the Leicester teetotallers went up at a jump, but, I fear, undeservedly; for, though I have been a rigid abstainer more than forty years (1871 to 1923, but deleting several years of wine-spoonfuls), I was then, and still am, opposed to Parliamentary prohibition of the Liquor Traffic. I would rather rely upon social betterment, purer conceptions of hygiene in general, and a sound moral and civic education.

The record of speakers at the hall since 1881 has been truly remarkable, and a few salient names may be here cited: Annie Besant, Millicent Fawcett, Margaret MacMillan, Mary Kingsley, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Charles Bradlaugh, G. B. Shaw, Edward Clodd, Moncure Conway, William Morris, John Burns, Stepniak, J. M. Robertson, J. A. Hobson, J. F. Green, Conrad Noel, Sydney Ollivier, C. Cohen, S. H. Swinny, Dennis Hird, Harry Snell, G. W. Foote, William Archer, Stewart Headlam, H. M. Hyndman, Kropotkin, Paul H. Loyson, G. K. Chesterton, George Lansbury, Tom Mann, Aylmer Maude, Ebenezer Howard, J. M. Parikh, F. S. Marvin, G. M. Trevelyan, Charles Watts...... but one must stop somewhere! The Society was one of the foremost to welcome the lantern lectures on evolution, by means of which Mr. McCabe has flashed new thought into myriads of minds here and overseas. This reference to the lantern reminds me that, at my instance, my good friend A. J. Essex—expert at photography as at astronomy—prepared lantern slides of some of Wiliam Blake's glorious pictures, as also of scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy, for I have always admired Blake, and regarded Dante with exceeding great reverence.

To such lecturers as have just been enumerated the winter season was dedicated, and to lesser audiences I gave addresses, through successive summers, on Greece, Rome, France, Spain, Italy, and similar historical topics; for to me, as to Comte, “history is the true guide of life.” And here I may state that, from 1902 onwards, I closely studied all Auguste Comte's works, and, while perpetually re-shaping his views to my own Twentieth Century outlook, became deeply convinced that he, better than any other man, had marked out certain essentials of the moral reorganization of society. In October, 1904, a paper of mine on Comte in the Agnostic Annual drew from Frederic Harrison the message: “One of the best estimates I ever saw.” Somewhat later, when visiting Liverpool, I met a little group of Positivists one evening, in their humble Church (which has since given place to a handsome Temple of Humanity), and told them how profoundly my sympathies responded to the Humanist religion of Love, Order, Progress. Albert Crompton—shipowner, business man, and a passionate follower of that threefold ideal—hearkened with gladness in his eyes.

At the Secular Hall meetings we used Hymns of Modern Thought (1900), which Mr. Gimson and I had induced Emily Josephine Troup to compile, with music; and our Society was the first body to adopt this excellent set of songs. Miss Troup had a gracious and noble soul, and her personal influence in the South Place and other Ethical Societies was of the finest. If you listen to the joyous tune of “Raise your standard, brothers,” or the solemn harmonies of her anthem “O may I join the choir invisible!”, you will catch her exquisite spirit.

In 1901 I joined with Burt Williams (well known in the Co-operative world), F. W. Rogers, and other adventurous characters, in launching an independent, audacious, and most spontaneous halfpenny weekly, entitled The Leicester Pioneer. It fluttered the town, and made Leicester more democratic than ever. Much I wrote in it for elders; and many a children's article, since gathered into my books for young readers, appeared in this lively revelation. Once, in its behalf, I visited a sort of prize fight in order to deliver a true and unofficial account of the bruising and blood-letting; and, so as not to seem too respectable, I slouched into the entertainment hall shabbily clad and smoking the only cigar I ever held between my lips. On another occasion, prompted by a like public motive, I attended the Leicester Races, and gravely asked a policeman where I might bet. He pointed to the official Ring, and I have always maintained that the law of England, blue-uniformed and spike-helmeted, was consciously encouraging me to put money on a horse. This was my first and last vision of the imperial sport.


Chapter XI (pp.92-99)

One gloomy November evening, 1900, Mr. Sydney Gimson and I paused at a door in the main street of Leicester. I felt as if we were prisoners summoned to the bar when we were admitted to the presence of Alexander Baines and Dr. F. W. Bennett, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the School Board, and devoted Liberals. The Leicester Liberals and Bible Orthodoxy presided, in sworn alliance, over the education of the young citizens in the Board schools.

“Gentlemen,” said Baines, a pleasant, white-haired, Congregationalist Christian, “we understand that Mr. Gould intends to stand as a candidate in the interests of secular education, and we beg of you, in the name of progressive principles, to abandon a plan which cannot succeed, and which can only divide Liberal votes to the advantage of Tories and the Church.”

Bennett, one of the most expert geologists in the Midlands, gazed at us through his spectacles as if we were peculiar fossils, to be duly hammered out of our obstinacy.

Arguments ensued. The representatives of Liberalism and Orthodoxy assumed an air of grim reproach when we retired with polite refusals.

Often have I thanked the men and women who tramped the streets, distributing my unconventional Election Address; and now, many years afterwards, I thank them again. On the first page of the four-page Address appeared the statement:—

Auguste Comte, founder of the Religion of Humanity, composed this excellent motto for daily life and education; Love the principle; Order the basis; Progress the aim.

Pages two and three made the appeal after this manner:—

I object to the present system, under which the teaching is divided into Secular Instruction and Religious Instruction. I desire that Board School education should be ENTIRELY SECULAR. Education should be treated as a unity, and its chief aim should be the making of character......

A detailed ethical programme followed, the final paragraph of which ran thus:—

SOCIETY AND THE STATE. — Intelligent study, not of the details of british battles and trifling incidents in the lives of kings, but of the history of mankind, and of all the wonderful works of the human race in the past; inventions, literature, and the arts; the nature of justice, personal and civic; the functions of the State and the duties of citizenship; the blessings of co-operation and international peace; the beauties of art and nature. And this civic instruction should include the principle of the social and political equality of the sexes.

The fourth page sparkled with benedictions from Frederic Harrison, John Page Hopps the Unitarian, and J. Allanson Picton, once M.P. for Leicester. My Ethical Code glowed in posters on the town hoardings.

The Vicar of St. John's (blessings on his reverend head!) declared in the local press that I was perversely putting the town to an election expense which would bar out the hoped-for electric trams. The Daily Post said that to my appeal for the abolition of Bible reading there should be “a single answer”—namely, the election of the block of nine Liberals. Of the fifteen candidates elected on December 3 the votes for the first three stood thus:—

Rev. J. T. Coward (Anglican)... 17,254
F. J. Gould... 15,669
Canon Rendell... 15,546

As seven Liberals and seven Churchmen got in, I had the casting vote, and used it at the inaugural meeting of the Board to put Baines and Bennett back in their official chairs, and to place the Catholic priest on the Industrial Schools Committee, from which the Liberals had, more or less liberally, excluded him for years past.

From time to time during nine months I visited the Board schools—twenty-nine in all—and made notes of the Scripture lessons which I heard given, and considered how far the ethical and civic elements appeared most useful and effective. On October 7, 1901, thirteen of the members of the Board being present, I moved:—

That an inquiry be held into the present scope and method of the moral instruction given in the schools under the Board in connection with the bible reading, and that a scheme be prepared with the object of (1) Rendering the moral instruction more systematic, and (2) Strengthening the moral element in the school training generally.

As a matter of fact the detailed recital of my visits to the schools amounted to an effective inquiry; and I told the full tale, praising where I could, “damning with faint prasise” when obliged, and rather staggering my colleagues with this incident:—

At the conclusion of the lesson the teacher asked the children to put their hands together, and then repeat the Psalm, “By the waters of Babylon,” which they did. I will simply [I added] read you the last two verses: “Oh, daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery, yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones.”

George Chitham, a conservative wine merchant, to whom I had never spoken, unexpectedly seconded the motion. Considerable talk ensued, and finally (one lady dissenting and the Catholic priest remaining neutral) the Board agreed to institute “a course of moral lessons in the curriculum of secular teaching.” In the course of time Devonshire county, Bradford city, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and other education authorities followed Leicester's example, the Moral Instruction (later Education) League in London greatly aiding. In 1906 the Education Code for England laid it down that “Moral Instruction should form an important part of the curriculum of every elementary school.”

Of the fourteen Moral Instruction books which I have issued the first appeared in 1899, and only the serious rise in costs due to the War prevents my issuing yet more volumes. The main contents are drawn from history and biography (a fundamental Positivist method), with the addition of legends consecrated by popular taste through the ages. Selections have appeared in Italian, Polish, Arabic, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Gujerati, Danish, Norwegian, etc. While India has been so hospitable, the good old county of Cheshire has nervously frowned. On the impulsion of ths Chester Diocesan Association and of the Shrewsbury Roman Catholic Diocesan Association (which stated that “many passages of these books are offensive to our religious convictions”), the Cheshire Education Committee had a warm debate on my books in 1905. The affair ended in a decision to allow the managers of each school to adopt the books or not, as they thought well.

In the period of my Town Council membership, 1904-1910, I thrice moved on behalf of “Secular Education” (1) for “free and secular Secondary Education,” the proposal being rejected; (2) for a purely secular curriculum in the Council (once Board) schools, the proposal being rejected; and (3) the same thing again, the proposal being rejected. A damp atmosphere and dismal Protestant countenances figure in my memory of each occasion. But I never can help smiling as I recall Ebenezer Hancock's astonished and expostulatory face when I happened to say in the course of a debate that, if driven to a choice, I would rather be a Roman Catholic than a Protestant! Councillor Hancock was an amiable Nonconformist, and he looked as pained as if I had openly turned Moslem and married four wives. I do not know of any other Town councillor anywhere who made so many attempts as I did; and, on mature reflection, I have concluded—not that public opinion is obstinately set against change—but that the supporters of the “secular solution” have not adequately made clear the relation of their proposal to the Bible. Hence, in May, 1920, I circulated a leaflet on “The unification of the national system in order to ensure a higher efficiency in training for citizenship.” I cast my plan into a formal Parliamentary clause as follows:—

The whole of the instruction given in the public schools shall be subject to the inspection and control of the Board of Education, religious instruction as recognized by the Elementary Education Act of 1870 being abolished; the general instruction will include such teaching drawn from the religious faiths of the world as may, in the judgment of the teachers, promote the enthusiasm and knowledge necessary to personal and social service and to good citizenship; no religious catechism or formulary or doctrine which is distinctive of any particular denomination shall be taught.

The term “public school” embraces all Council, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, etc., schools receiving public grants. I confidently feel that any reader who has attentively conned the preceding leaves of my record will believe that this simple but decisive proposal is essentially prompted by a desire for a more excellent citizenship, and sinks neither to an anti-theological bias on the one side nor to subserviency to the Churches on the other.

[Footnote]: It is interesting to note that during the period 1871-1921 the Board (Council) schools of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, had no “Scripture” lessons. Religious Instruction on a Bible basis was introduced in March, 1921. Instead of complaining about “reaction,” Rationalists should study the meaning of the incident.

From time to time I visited London, or this or that provincial town, and gave a Demonstration lesson on an ethical basis to children before a public audience, the treatment of the topic (Kindness, Courage, Veracity, and the like) being such as to be—so I hoped—acceptable to all schools of thought and faith. In 1902 I hailed with joy the publication by Dr. F. H. Hayward (then quite unknown to me) of a book on The Reform of Moral and Biblical Education. It was one of the bravest and most vivid educational books of the age, and splendidly opened the long series of Hayward's services to the cause of citizen training. His friendly references to my own efforts were the most encouraging I ever received. Many years have since waxed and waned, but the flower of my gratitude has not withered.

Of course, the Sunday school at the Secular Hall gave me peculiar scope for realizing a variety of types of ethical lessons; and the Senior Class, for adolescents—numbering some fifteen to twenty pupils of both sexes—had a programme of this sort: Hymn; calendar notes (biographical); song or pianoforte piece; talk on current events, or the reading of a novel; hymn. The novels I selected were by Scott, Stevenson, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Mrs. Craik, and Thomas Hardy. When we had finished reading Far from the Madding Crowd—not at all a conventional Sabbath book!—the class sent a letter of thanks, signed by myself and all the scholars in round robin style, to the author; and we were happy to get the annexed reply:—

The Athenaeum, Pall Mall, S.W.,
July 14, 1907.
Dear Sir,—Your information that you and the young people in your Senior Class have so thoroughly liked reading Far from the Madding Crowd is very interesting to me. Assure them all that I am much gratified to have their signatures, and shall keep the letter containing them.
Yours very truly,
Thomas Hardy.

This plan of novel-reading illustrated a principle which I have always deemed vital—namely, that the most powerful method of fighting an inferior taste is to implant a better. I wasted no breath in blaming bad novels; I simply presented the best. This positive rule applies to a hundred subjects—amusements, hobbies, art, “temperance” questions, and the wide field of political and social ideals.


Chapter XII (pp.100-107)

Humble alleys, poky little shops, architecture with a tired look, and heaps of children playing in the streets characterized the Newton Ward of Leicester. In November, 1903, the Newton burgesses were somewhat puzzled to choose, for Town Council member, between a worthy carpet and linoleum dealer and an eccentric candidate who quoted Plato and Walt Whitman in a municipal election address, thus:—

I should encourage every effort to make children love the True, the Beautiful, and the Good; and I am dead against the idea that the aim of education should be to cut out the French, German, and American rivals. I am for co-operation and trade-unionism, and for international co-operation and union......My view of what a proper town should be is much the same as Walt Whitman's......:—

“Where women walk in processions in the streets the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men,
Where the city of faithful friends stands,
Where the city of the cleanliness of the sexes stands,
Where the city of the healthiest fathers stands,
Where the city of the best-bodied mothers stands,
There the great city stands......”

I was the eccentric candidate. The old School Boards had been dissolved, and I was seeking a seat on the Town Council and the new Education Committee. Then, as now, I thoroughly approved of the Act which placed Denominational schools as well as Board schools under the general municipal authority. My quotation from Whitman brought me an admiring letter from Earl Russell, great-nephew of my old Chenies friend. An orthodox hand, in pious wrath, wrote in the local press:—

Men like Gould would substitute their code of morality for the atmosphere of reverence and the roof-tree of prayer, in and beneath which our fore-fathers learned to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

The linoleum dealer, a Liberal, was elected. The Atmosphere of Reverence and the Roof-tree of Prayer maintained its equilibrium for another year, and then (November, 1904) I won a seat for Castle Ward. My opponent was a Conservative and a publican, and I believe my teetotalism gained me votes from Baptists, Wesleyans, and the like, even though they felt a little uncertain about the Roof-tree of Prayer. Meanwhile I had joined the Labour Party openly, having long enough cherished profound sympathy with its objects. The Labour men on the Council increased to fifteen, and I acted as their secretary. I was supposed to represent the arts and sciences, and the roof-tree of the Secular Hall, while my colleagues mainly represented Trade Unionism. Once a month we met in an upstairs room in an undistinguished street, sitting on the table when chairs were lacking; and we conspired to raise wages, cheapen tram fares, and secure municipal free meals for hungry school children. One of my colleagues was George Banton, a coal merchant and a genuine-hearted soul, with bitter memories of wanderings in search of employment; he was elected M.P. for East Leicester in 1922. Another was Jabez Chaplin, hosiery-trade unionist, spiritualist, and future mayor. A third was Amos Sherriff, who had been a Salvation Army officer, and who had sturdily led the famous march of four hundred Leicester unemployed to London and back. We were all on good terms, my mates and I; they felt that the arts and sciences were safe in my keeping, and they never breathed a word about the roof-tree. At the monthly Council meetings, held in a pleasant chamber lit by painted windows, we fifteen Labour men sat in a proletarian group in the curve of the horseshoe line of chairs.

On the Museum Committee I fought against paying superior money for inferior pictures, and I waged a lost battle on behalf of modernizing the Museum after the pattern advocated by Patrick Geddes. Into the Library I managed to gain admission for a considerable pile of Humanist literature; and I may record that I was the means of placing a bible in the Reference Department, the orthodox members having scandalously forgotten this supreme item—my linoleum friend, he of the Roof-tree of Prayer, being one of the forgetful. As to Education, I may say I continued to pay visits, not at all brief and hasty, to each of the sixty elementary schools of the city. At various times I opposed the recruiting of boys from the Industrial School into the army. Since 1914 I have come round to the conclusion that, so long as armies are unfortunately needed, the equitable plan is that of the Citizen Force, in which all men should be enrolled, except those unfitted by infirmity or by exceptional temperament publicly noted and registered apart from any war-crisis. But I should still object to any special selection of boys of a humble social class.

As I strenuously believed in a full application of the Provision of Meals to Necessitous School-chilfren Act (1906), I came into collision with the estimable citizens who had no love of this Act, and who, in Highcross Street, carried on a Charity Organization Society and conscientiously schemed against beggars and loafers. The Evil Spirit incited me to print this skit in the Pioneer:—

“What is it you want?”
“Madam, may I ask for a few coppers to pay for a night's lodging in Britannia Street? I have walked from Coventry.”
“What is your name?”
“Gould—F. J. Gould, ma'am.”
“Well, I don't like the looks of you. What is your occupation when you do work?”
“Scribbling and talking, ma'am.”
“Yes, I thought you seemed like a loafer!”
“For the love of”—
“Take this ticket. If you are genuine, your case will be investigated. You must go to 10 Highcross Street......Oh, drat these beggars! There's the milk boiling over!”
“Thank you, ma'am, and if there is any meaning in human gratitude”—
Now that the irate lady has slammed the door, I am free to confess the imposture I have played. I thought I should like to know how it feels to be referred for investigation to the Secretary of the Leicester C. O. S.......

For this malignant jest at white-robed charity I suffered a just penalty at the Castle Ward election in November, 1907. Shortly before this election my Socialist friend, Belfort Bax, delivered at the Secular Hall a drastic lecture on the Throne, the Altar, and the Hearth, and freely criticized current views on monarchy, theology and marriage. I could have forgotten to report this awful utterance, but I duly sent my customary notes to the local press. Bax's opinions were posted up on the town hoardings, and, of course, reflected their red glare upon my pallid countenance. The Charity Orgaanizers rallied their regiments, and the chapels exhibited the Roof-tree of Prayer to the reverent electors; and I was defeated. I have reproached Belfort Bax with being the prime cause of this reverse, but he has never shown the least sign of remorse. And I close the sad episode by recommending his works, especially the volumes dealing with the French Revolution, the Anabaptists, and the Peasants' War in Germany.

Somewhere about this time an incident occured which, to my mind, still invests the name of a Leicester citizen with a happy distinction. Having tramped into the town as a lad, possessing but a few coppers, he was now what the Nineteenth century devoutly called a Self-made man—a rich shoe merchant, a Liberal in politics and a Baptist in faith. In the autumn of 1907 our Secular Hall blossomed into a Chrysanthemum Bazaar, and this Baptist, then mayor of Leicester, readily agreed to attend the opening ceremony. Standing on our platform, just under the portraits of Bradlaugh and Holyoake, he said to us:—

I do not care what you may be called so long as you are trying to benefit mankind.
I am glad to be here.

He is dead. He lives in our respectful memory, and I salute the name of Sir Edward Wood.

In November, 1908, I was again a candidate, and this time for a region of lowly, and even dismal, streets known as Wyggeston Ward; the opponent being once more a Liberal. Singular to relate, I, a teetotaller, had the support of what Americans would call a saloon-keeper—a florid, John Bull man, with high stand-up collar, an honest heart, and old-fashioned, courteous manners—John Hurley by name. On the other hand, dear old Roof-tree of Prayer reappeared, and its heroic supporters placarded the walls of Wyggeston Ward with this stirring summons:—

To the Electors of Wyggeston Ward.
Desiring to see all sections of the community properly represented on the Town Council, we much regret that at the election in this Ward the cause of Labour should be identified with the cause of Secularism. The Town Council has to deal with Education. Mr. F. J. Gould's character and ability are well known. But surely those who believe in God and Religion will vote against one who is doing his best to persuade people that the Christian Religion is false.
A. M. Harper, Vicar of St. Matthew's.
D. Taylor Wilson, Vicar of Christ Church.
David Dewar, Vicar of St. Luke's.

The three vicars of Wyggeston had misaprehended my attitude towards Christianity. In 1905, for example, I had issued a pamphlet on The Religion that Fulfils (that is, Positivism), and said in it:—

Neither the protestant nor the antitheological school has appreciated the merits of the Middle Ages, which are unjustly called the Dark Ages. The Positive religion resumes the true line of evolution. It acknowledges the aid given to humanity by its predecessors—by the early fetishism; by the faiths of Asia, Greece, and Rome; and by the Catholic Church. It takes up their work, develops it, and fulfils the faith and hope of the past. Positivism respects the religious ideals of the theological creeds; but in the fullness of time religion can emerge from old forms......

But three other priests, perceiving my apparently desperate situation, came forward with a very noble manifesto, which commended me to the burgesses in such terms as the following:—

The cause of Christ is represented by those who stand for these things—work for the unemployed, food for the half-starved, clothing and housing for the outcast, nourishment and care for the little children. It is for such things you have pleaded in our town for years.

The three friendly priests were attached to St Mark's Church, and their names were F. Lewis Donaldson (now Canon of Peterborough), C. Stuart Smith, and A. A. D. Mackenzie. It may not seem out of place to note here that Canon Donaldson is associated in his Church work with Bishop Woods of Peterborough—the son of my old friend, Frank Woods, the curate of Chenies.

I won the election. The Roof-tree of Prayer was silently stowed away, gathering dust while awaiting a possible next occasion. To the Three Vicars of Wyggeston I subsequently addressed a humble remonstrance in an eight-page pamphlet, the printing expense of which was paid by George W. Foote, and in it I reproduced their prophetic placard, and also the fraternal letter from the three priests of St.Mark's. The affair is lapsing into ancient annals, so I will cite only one passage:—

You say you desire to see all sections of the community represented on the Town Council. Quite right. You speak like democrats. But you go on to give a broad hint to the effect that Secularists should not be so represented. But are not Secularists a section of the community? If they are not, what on earth are they? And if they are, why do you leave them out after saying no section ought to be left out? Is this your best logic, gentlemen? The souls of the people of St. Matthew's, of Christ Church, and St. Luke's must be in a poor way if you train them on no better method than this!

The pamphlet fluttered the town, and the Three Vicars, in a grand aloofness, spake neither curse nor benediction. One day, as the Education Committee was closing its business, the Rev. A. M. Harper (a co-opted member) kindly helped me on with my overcoat.
“Thanks, sir; you are very good to your old enemy of Wyggeston.”
“No, no,” he replied, with delightful modesty; “call me not enemy.”



On April 30th 1908 Gould resigned as Secretary, though he continued to be a member, and with two others set up the Leicester Positivist Society, which lasted two years. They set up a 'Church of Humanity' at 14 Highcross Street. Albert Mansbridge founded the Leicester Branch of the Workers' Educational Association there. In 1910 he resigned from Leicester Town Council and moved to Ealing to become 'Demonstrator' of the Moral Education League (which was dissolved in 1919). His son Julian, a promising art student, was killed in the war, near Arras in 1917.

He writes, Ch.XIII: “... no phrases and formulations, whether Christian, or Rationalist, or political, or philosophical, could ever indenture me ... I love the living and the evolving, and render small respect to any Word, whether Divine, or Scientific, or Ethical; and I laugh when I see old programmes dissolving in the presence of new needs, as the thick-ribbed ice melts in the young sunlight of the spring. ... Not only have I broken from the ancient Catholic evangel, but I have constantly vexed Rationalist companions and friends by tearing up this or that admired syllabus of Reason, and pointing to faults in the architecture of the most solemn temples of the Accepted and the Agreed. ... I acknowledge no intrinsic excellence in any minority, whether in Freethought, or Politics, or general Ethics. Numerous have been my contacts, during many years, with heretics, pioneers, social prophets, and ‘conscientious objectors’ in various spheres. Noble and creative elements have I encountered among this medley of folk and votes; and also elements of downright obstinacy, malice, peevishness, and self-righteousness. Worst and miserablest of all, as I am convinced, is the foolish and ignorant notion that certain intellectual groups form a kind of Elect People amid a vulgar and herd-like majority. Such an attitude repels me more than the belief in the hell of the old theology.”

From 1910 to 1923, the date of his book, he became an itinerant story-teller of moral tales to children and adults, visiting 200 towns and villages in the British Isles. In 1913 he travelled to India for a two-month tour. On two occasions he toured America, for two months in 1911 for the American Ethical Union and seven months in 1913-14 for the University of Wisconsin.

F. J. Gould died in 1938 aged 82. The following is a list of his books and pamphlets (probably incomplete).

Religious Instruction in Board Schools, pamphlet, 1888
Stepping Stones to Agnosticism, collected pamphlets, 1889
Bruno: A Sketch of His Life and Philosophy, 1890
Religion in Board Schools, leaflet, 1894
Our Children, broadsheet, 1895
A Concise History of Religions (3 vols) 1893-7
Children's Book of Moral Lessons (4 vols) 1897
History of Leicester Secular Society 1900
On the Threshold of Sex 1909
Youth's Noble Path 1910
Brave Citizens 1911
Noble Pages from German History 1913
Common Sense Thoughts on a Life Beyond 1918
Health and Honour 1919
Auguste Comte 1920
The Life-Story of a Humanist, 1923

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