Leicester Secular Society


Richard Carlile (1790 - 1843)

English journalist and radical reformer, born in Ashburton, Devon. He became a chemist's boy and a tinman's apprentice. A disciple of Thomas Paine, he sold the prohibited radical weekly Black Dwarf throughout London in 1817. He then printed thousands of Southey's Wat Tyler, reprinted William Hone's Parodies, and wrote a series of imitations of them, for which he got 18 weeks in the King's Bench. This was the first of a series of imprisonments whose total amounted to nine years and four months, and which included sentences for publishing his own Political Litany and Paine's works, and a journal, The Republican (1819-26). [Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 5th edition, 1990]

Links to other sites on Richard Carlile

Spartacus Schoolnet - biography - see also under Republican
Cotton Times
Freethought of the Day
Working Women
The Press War
Apocalypse - utopian ideas
Philosophy of Sex
Female Reformers - PDF
Foundations of Modern Humanism - PDF

Wikipedia - Peterloo Massacre
Victorian Web - contemporary accounts

Extract from J. M. Robertson's
A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century

pages 61-64

As the years went on the persecution in England grew still fiercer; but it was met with a stubborn hardihood which wore out even the bitter malice of piety. One of the worst features of the religious crusade was that it affected to attack not unbelief but "vice", such being the plea on which [William] Wilberforce and others prosecuted, during a period of more than twenty years, the publishers and booksellers who issued the works of [Thomas] Paine.[3]

[3] Cp. [Robertson] Dynamics of Religion, pp.184-5.

But even that dissembling device did not ultimately avail. A name not to be forgotten by those who value obscure services to human freedom is that of Richard Carlile, who between 1817 and 1835 underwent over nine years' imprisonment in his unyielding struggle for the freedom of the press, of thought, and of speech.[1]

[1] See Harriet Martineau's History of the Peace, ed. 1877, ii, 87, and Mrs Carlile Campbell's The Battle of the Press (Bonner, 1899), passim, as to the treatment of those who acted as Carlile's shopmen. Carlile's wife and sister were imprisoned with him; and over twenty volunteer shopmen in all went to jail.

His battle began in 1817, when the Habeus Corpus Act was suspended, and Cobbett prudentially went to America to be out of the way of trouble. Carlile had regarded Cobbett's Political Register as "a mere milk-and-water paper compared with the Black Dwarf and some of the other newspapers", and he undertook-to and did sel these, until he was imprisoned for eighteen weeks for selling Hone's suppressed Parodies on the Prayer-Book. Then he became a publisher on his own account; and in January of 1819 Wilberforce's old 'Society for the Suppression of Vice' (which was now living largely by blackmail, making charges and withdrawing them on payment of "expenses") began an attack on him for republishing Paine's Age of Reason, on which charge he was prosecuted. / In point of fact, the publishing venture had not been very successful, only a hundred copies having been sold in a month. Immediately on the prosecution the second month's sales rose to nine hundred;[2]

[2] Freethinkers' Information for the People, 1842, pp.167-8.

and Carlile at his trial insisted on reading the whole book in his speech of defence, so that the jury should know its contents. It was accordingly embodied in the report, which sold by thousands; and Carlile's edition, with the rest of his stock, went on selling at the same rate. Paine, who had somewhat passed out of notice, was now much more read than ever, as were the other reprinted "infidels". Meanwhile Carlile was sentenced to imprisonment for three years, and to pay a fine of 1,500. As he could not pay it, the three years extended to six. And in prison he went on editing his periodicals! / In the year 1819 he produced, besides the 'Theological, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of Thomas Paine', a long series of aggressive free-thinking tracts and books,[3]

[3] The Doubts of Infidels, or, Queries relative to Scriptural Inconsistencies and Contradictions, submitted for elucidation to the bench of Bishops, by a Weak but Sincere Christian (24pp.); Watson Refuted, by Dr. Samuel Francis (rep. of tract of 1796, 92pp); Christian Mystery: A Chinese Tale, found in the Portfolio of a Portuguese Friar (9pp.); Thoughts on the Christian Religion, by a Deist, To which are added A Few Ideas on Miraculous Conversion and Religion in General, by a Theophilanthropist (29pp.); A letter to Sir Samuel Shepherd, Knt., His Majesty's Attorney-General, upon the Subject of his Prosecutions of Richard Carlile, etc., signed Philalethes (20pp.); A Letter to Mr. Carlile [unsigned, in which the prosecutors are reminded that "the means they are resorting to are those which so successfully promoted the cause of infidelity in France"]; Principles of Nature, by Elihu Palmer (206pp.); The God of the Jews, or Jehovah Unveiled, etc., and Remarks on the Theocracy, to which is prefixed A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, by a Tradesman (99pp.); Thoughts on the Inconsistency of Religious Persecutions, by J. W. (16pp.).

mostly bound up in a volume dedicated "To the Society, Self-Styled a Society for the Suppression of Vice",[1]

[1] Under the general title, The Deist, or Moral Philosopher, being an Impartial Inquiry, etc.

observing that it has begun a prosecution against Palmer's Principles of Nature, the longest treatise in the volume. All are produced in a more expensive style than the freethinking publishers ventured on in the 'forties; and it is to be inferred that this was made possible for Carlile by the generosity of Julian Hibbert, a scholarly freethinker of private means,[2]

[2] He cannot have been as wealthy as Mrs T. C. Campbell states. In the preface to his Theophrastus, etc., he tells that "the res angusta domi has obliged me to vow to buy no more books".

who on one occasion gave Carlile 1,000, on the spur of a similar gift to some political leader; and who is said to have assisted him, during the period to Hibbert's death in 1834, to the extent of 7,000.[3]

[3] Life, by Mrs T. C. Campbell, p.249.

In such circumstances it may be wondered why Carlile served his second term of three years in Dorchester Jail instead of paying his fine. He would indeed naturally loathe paying 1,500 to the persecuting authorities. / But there has been offered the sad solution that the staunch martyr, who had fought the judge at his trial with a bulldog persistence in "indecorum" which earned for that harassed official the sympathy of many of his fellow Christians,[4]

[4] A report of one day's proceedings is printed as an Appendix to the Life.

preferred living in jail,[5]

[5]It is worthy of record that Francis Place thought Carlile in danger of being poisoned in jail, and wrote warning him to take precautions (Life, p.244).

to living with his first wife, who was his senior, and definitely uncompanionable. When all is said, however, it is to be remembered that if he came out of jail in 1822 he might have counted on being again prosecuted so long as he continued, as he was determined to do, his publication of freethinking books. In 1826 we find him publishing another series. / It did not require any personal utterance or authorship to incur such penalties. In 1820 Thomas Davison was tried for publishing, in The Deist's Magazine, 'A Defence of Deism, and Dissection of the Bible Story',[6]

[6] Freethinkers' Information, vol.ii, p.65. He was further charged with selling Carlile's Republican. The Deist's Magazine had an alternative title; The Polemical Magazine and Philosophical Inquirer.

and was sent to prison for two years, with a fine of 100. Shop assistants who sold freethinking books were all obnoxious to the law, and women were imprisoned as well as men. In 1823 Susanna Wright was put on trial "for having been instrumental in publishing a libel on the Christian religion," and, though described as having already "suffered in health from the imprisonment she had undergone", was sentenced to eighteen months further incarceration, to pay a fine of 100, and to find sureties at the end of the term, under pain of a longer imprisonment. In making her defence she was constantly interrupted. / In 1824 eight of Carlile's shopmen were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, with fines, for selling Paine's Age of Reason and three other irreligious works. One of them, John Clarke, an ex-Methodist, was tried for selling one of his employer's publications, and "after a spirited defence, in which he read many of the worst passages of the Bible", was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, and to find securities for good behaviour during life. The latter disability he effectively anticipated by writing, while in prison, 'A Critical Review of the Life, Character, and Miracles of Jesus', wherein, on the lines of Woolston and Annet, Christian feelings were treated as Christians had treated the feelings of freethinkers, with a much more destructive result. Published first, strangely enough, in the Newgate Magazine, it was republished in 1825 and 1839, with impunity. Broadly speaking, the book is vitiated by animus, but that would not deprive it of influence in its environment.

Thus did a brutal bigotry bring upon itself ever deadlier retaliation, till it sickened of the contest. Those who threw up the struggle on the orthodox side declaimed as before about the tone of the unbeliever's attack, failing to read the plain lesson that, while noisy pious fanaticism, doing its own worst and vilesst, deterred from utterance all the gentler and more sympathetic spirits on the side of reason, the work of reason could be done only by the harder natures, which gave back blow for blow and insult for insult, rejoicing in the encounter. Thus championed, freethought could not be crushed. Lovers of freedom and fairplay among the well-to-do classes gave pecuniary support, as always happens in England in times of such struggle. The benevolent Julian Hibbert, besides giving Carlile his cheque for 1,000, spent nearly as much in refitting his shop in Fleet Street.[1]

[1] Hibbert is to be remembered also as having printed at his private press, in uncial Greek, the Orphic Hymns and 'Plutarch and Theophrastus on Superstition'.

The propagandist and publishing work done by Carlile was carried on diversely by such freelances as Robert Taylor (ex-surgeon, ex-clergyman, B.A., author of the Diegesis, 1829, anf The Devil's Pulpit 1830), and William Hone,[2]

[2] Hone's most important service to popular culture was his issue of the Apocryphal New Testament, which, by coordinating work of the same kind, gave a fresh scientific basis to the popular criticism of the gospel history. As to his famous trial for blasphemy on the score of his having published certain parodies, political in intention, see Bk.I, ch.x (by Knight), of Harriet Martineau's History of the Peace.

who ultimately became an independent preacher. Taylor (1784-1844), a more remarkable personailty, underwent two terms of imprisonment for blasphemy - one year in 1828, in which he wrote his Diegesis - and two years in 1831-3. Thereafter a good marriage enabled him to retire from his labours and risks.