Leicester Secular Society


Harriet Law (1831-1897)

Harriet Law was and ardent supporter of and campaigner for secularism. She was one of the speakers at the opening of Secular Hall in 1881. Here is a brief account of her life, mainly by our former webmaster.

Notes on Harriet Law by George Jellis

Mrs Harriet Law was born Harriet Teresa Frost in Essex in 1831, had a Baptist upbringing and became a Sunday School teacher. When G. J. Holyoake spoke at Philpot Street, Whitechapel, in the East End of London, she tried to argue against him in defence christianity, but in 1855 "saw the light of reason" and became one of his most active supporters.

In 1859 she became a salaried lecturer for the secular movement. Lectures she gave at Hebden Bridge in 1870, on Martin Luther and Tom Paine, were noisily disrupted by local christians and she was punched in the face while making her way back to the hall through a large mob. When she lectured in Woolwich on "How I became a freethinker and why I remain one", an outraged writer in the local press attacked it as "the infidel lecture".

She edited the Secular Chronicle (1870? - 79) in which she included profiles of freethinking women, such as Mary Wollstonecraft. She even considered the biblical Eve to be a freethought heroine! - For encouraging Adam to partake of the tree of knowledge.

In 1866 she stood as candidate for president of the newly formed NSS against Bradlaugh, Robert Cooper and John Watts. However, because of her involvement in socialism and trades unionism she was edged out of influence in the NSS by Bradlaugh.

She was mandated to represent "The Central Section of Working Women" at the 5th Congress of the International Working Men's Association at the Hague 1872. She is listed as the only woman on the General Council 1869 and 1878. Harriet Law’s proposition moved at the General Council meeting of August 17, 1869 would have meant the transfer of the Church’s property and income to schools.

In 1877, following disagreements with Bradlaugh and Besant, she, Holyoake and Watts left the NSS and set up the British Secular Union which lasted to 1884.

Harriet Law was one of the speakers, alongside Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, G. J. Holyoake and others, at the opening of Leicester's Secular Hall on 6th March 1881.

Some sources

Most of hese were provided by George with the article above, with an addition by John Catt and explanatory notes by FF

Karl Marx records Harriet Law's involvement in the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, on the 'Church Budget', and, as a member of the General Council, she was a signatory to Marx's Address to the National Labor Union of the United States (both 1869).

Harriet Law's (among others) Mandate from the Central Section of Working Women to represent them at the General Congress at The Hague (1872). This lists the demands for women workers.

Harriet Law is included in the list of members of the General Council of the International Society in an Interview with Karl Marx by H., of the Chicago Tribune on January 5, 1879.

George writes

The 'Woolwich incident' was reported by Terry Liddle (in, I think, the NSS newsline).

The date of birth and other information in the first three paragraphs above are based on my notes of an excellent lecture by Laura Schwartz on "Infidel Feminism: Harriet Law and the Victorian Freethought Movement" given at Bishopsgate Institute, London, on 8th December 2007.

Laura Schwartz's lecture seems to have disappeared from the Bishopsgate website, but her article Remember Harriet Law from earlier the same year is available and worth a read.

Recently an entry for Harriet Law has appeared on Wikipedia. (You'll also find Harriet's Law but that is something (not completely) different - it's the Equality Act, 2010 championed by Harriet Harman.)

... and finally

In an email clarifying some points for an update to this page, George writes:

I think Harriet Law was an admirable person and it's a pity there is so little information preserved about her. No portraits or date of death for instance. [Update 9 March 2013: The archivist at Bishopsgate Institute Harriet Law reports via GPJ that Harriet Law died in 1897]

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Page updated 19 January 2014