This web version was produced October 2005 by G. P. Jelliss (and revised August 2006). Subheadings have been introduced into the text to break it into sections. The footnotes are placed where they are cited in the text.
F. J. Gould's History of the Leicester Secular Society is an important account of one of the most significant independent Freethought organisations in Britain. What now makes the Society unique is that it alone still flourishes and occupies its original premises, the Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate, Leicester. While the Hall is not the only such building to have survived, that in Nottingham for example has, no others are any longer owned, rented or used by provincial secular societies.
The History was published in paperback in 1900, there being only a single edition, although it was issued in two forms, A5 and large paper, the latter appears to have been for presentation purposes and may have been produced at the express wish of Gould himself. (The few copies of the large paper form I have seen have all been hardbacks). Long out of print and difficult to find, the Freethought History Research group decided it was of such importance that a reprint was called for. Although primarily intended for members a limited number of additional copies have been printed for sale to the public. This is not a facsimile issue but the text has been completely reset. The opportunity has been taken to make some minor modifications to make it read better. However, all the factual material is as written by the author.
The Leicester Secular Society has always been an independent organisation and did not amalgamate, as did many independent provincial societies, with Charles Bradlaugh's National Secular Society. For the most part it has enjoyed good relations with the NSS, although some friction developed over the decision of Bradlaugh and Besant to republish Charles Knowlton's birth control work, Fruits of Philosophy. George Jacob Holyoake had been a great influence on the Leicester Society and was a close friend of the leading figure in it, a wealthy local industrialist, Josiah Gimson, who sided with Holyoake against Bradlaugh, although the latter continued to be popular with many rank and file Society members, and to be invited to address the Society on many occasions. This is one aspect of the history of the Leicester Secular Society that Gould diplomatically omits.
In addition to the text I have included as an addendum the text of an article Gould wrote on the Society that was published in the April 28, 1918, issue of The Freethinker, which I encountered while indexing the paper for that year, as it includes some useful additional snippets of information. Not least that it was Josiah Gimson who selected the people to be commemorated by the five busts set on the exterior of the Hall, and which, though he does not mention the fact, became known as the five saints.
Frederick James Gould was born in Brighton in 1855. His parents were evangelical Anglicans and their son became a choir boy at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. He became a Sunday School teacher and went on to take up teaching as a career, becoming the headmaster of a church school in Great Missenden in 1877. In 1879, having developed doubts about aspects of religion, he resigned his post and moved to London where in the same year he married. He worked as an assistant in a Board School in the working-class area of Bethnal Green, but was transferred to a school in Limehouse because his openly expressed critical comments on religion, published in Charles Watts' Agnostic Journal had come to the notice of his employers, the London School Board. He became a close friend of Watts and through him Holyoake.
Although Joseph McCabe stated in his Rationalist Encyclopedia that Gould resigned his teaching post because the School Board had refused to exempt him from teaching religion, his personal papers show that this was not the case, and that he had been exempted. He resigned in 1891 because he had requested to be allowed to teach religion stressing its ethical rather than supernatural aspects, but his request had been turned down. In the 1880s he had joined the Ethical movement but increasingly began to involve himself with Positivism, or as its founder Auguste Comte described it, the Religion of Humanity. This had all the trappings of Roman Catholicism. There was a Great Being as a substitute for God, it had sacraments, prayers, hymns, a proposed calendar and even a substitute Virgin Mary (Comte's girlfriend Clotilde de Vaux). Little wonder that T. H. Huxley damned it as Catholicism without Christianity. Gould formally joined the Positivist Church of Humanity in 1902.
Gould had, as he clearly hints in his History, sought to promote Positivism within the Leicester Secular Society, and there is some evidence to suggest this lay behind the reason for his resignation from his post in 1908, though remaining a member. (This observation is based on a discussion with the late Tom Mosley who, though he lived in Nottingham, had close associations with the Leicester Society, even marrying the daughter of a leading member.) Gould had an intense dislike for atheism and in his biography even hints at being unhapy with the Rationalism of his friend Charles Wats, describing himself as only half a Rationalist, if not more (The Life Story of a Humanist, Watts, 1923, p.53).
Gould had become a full-time organiser at Leicester in 1899, following the resignation of Joseph McCabe, who had accepted the job with the Society on the assumption that he was to be mainly a lecturer, but then discovered that he was also expected to have a pastoral role much as a parson manages his parish, but, he states, he had never done parochial work, however the Society innocently assumed [he] had (Joseph McCabe, Eighty Years a Rebel, Girard, Haldeman-Julius, 1947, p.24). Gould was, by all accounts, a kindly, friendly and generous individual. Indeed, somewhat like certain Anglo-Catholic Christian Socialist ministers found in late 19th century inner-city parishes. Leaving aside his Positivist beliefs, Gould was a good organiser and had a flair for parochial work. His little History does him credit.
Leicester has always been distinguished by its self-reliant and progressive spirit. With its name is linked the memory of Simon de Montfort who played so great a part in laying the foundations of our House of Commons. But the worth of a town, as of a man, must be measured, not only by its commercial activity, its zeal in building schools, and its political vigour, but also by its attitude towards those deeper questions which only brave men and women care to discuss. In this respect, Leicester may claim a good record.
For many years a section of its population have maintained a necessary and honourable protest against the errors of the popular religion. The only religion worth living is that which Thomas Paine described in one short and noble sentence, "To do good is my religion". This religion will be left purer and stronger when theology has been swept away. That is why Secularists, whether known as Atheists, Agnostics or Rationalists, must pass judgement on theology. They criticise it because they believe that the Religion of Humanity, the religion which does not waste its powers in working for an unseen world, will help men and women towards better material and moral conditions. In token of this criticism and of the demand for a better earthly life the Secular Hall stands in Humberstone Gate.
As long ago as 1785 the freer spirits of the town had asserted their love of political liberty by establishing the Revolution Club, so named in honour of William of Orange. In 1789 Leicester Dissenters agitated for the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts. About this time Richard Phillips (the founder of the Permanent Library) was selling Paine's works and other democratic literature at his shop at the corner of Gallowtree Gate and Humberstone Gate. He was imprisoned for eighteen months in the Borough gaol for doing so.
1. Paine corresponded with John Hall, a resident of Leicester. One of his letters, dated November 25, 1791, is addressed to him at Mr. John Colman's, Shambles Lane, Leicester. This is reprinted in Moncure Conway's, Life of Paine.
Another independent spirit was George Bown who was arrested in 1795 for seditious practices. Three years previously as secretary of the Constitutional Society (an association of reformers), he had signed a manifesto which demanded a more complete representation of the people in Parliament, and had laid down the principle that all civil and political authority is derived from them, and that the end of all government is, or ought to be, the happiness of the people.
Between 1830 and 1850 the socialism of Robert Owen and Chartism roused the people of the country to a sense of their wants and possibilities, political, economic and intellectual. The church had no enlightening message and the priesthood could provide no strong succour to working men struggling against social evils. Therefore, they began to question the authority of the Church and doubt the usefulness of the doctrines of God and a future life.
On July 29, 1839 in Leicester, George Fleming, an Owenite propagandist, opened a Social Institute in Hotel Street. The hall could hold two hundred people and was above a grocer's shop. Here Fleming taught not only Owen's principle that the formation of character depended on nature at birth and the action of circumstances, but asserted that in the New Moral World it would be in the interest and happiness of everyone to act upon the precepts of Christianity. But he took care to add that he meant the religion taught by Christ and not the Christianity professed in modern times. A report of the hall's opening ceremony appears in the Owenite journal, New Moral World, signed by W. P. Throsby. The following evening Fleming gave a two-hour lecture on the Owenite system and the audience, among whom were many respectable females, teachers of infant and private schools, could not be restrained from manifesting, by enthusiastic cheering, their appreciation of the new system.
A few weeks later Owen himself visited Leicester and gave four lectures, each followed by discussion. Owen spoke with much frankness and stated his conviction that all religions in the past had been marked by a fundamental error in their neglect of the power of circumstances over character, and stated that in his opinion neither the Old nor New Testament was a revelation from God.
The seeds of Freethought were thus sown in Leicester, and narrow-minded people hinted that it was not genteel to attend lectures at the new hall. Mr. J. Hart, a member of the Leicester Secular Society, related how his father was threatened with discharge by an orthodox employer (one of the shining lights of Bond Street chapel) because he allowed his son to visit the Social Institute on Sunday evenings.
Among townspeople who supported Owenism were Messrs. Billson, J.Barlow and T.Willey. The charge of the Leicester district was undertaken by the Social Missionary, James Rigby, who joined deistic doctrine with his socialistic teaching, and who was violently attacked in an address at the Leicester Theatre (April 1840) by the notorious man Brindley. It was this individual who later applied his abusive method to Charles Bradlaugh. Meanwhile, the socialists zealously carried on their activities which included lectures, discussions, classes in elocution and dancing, etc. at the hall in Hotel Street. One of Owen's Social Missionaries was the eloquent George Jacob Holyoake, who for more than half a century has been an inspiring force in advanced thought in Leicester, making frequent visits to the town, where his Freethought journal, The Reasoner, was eagerly read weekly.
Leicester was caught up in the wave of Chartist excitement. Thomas Cooper, the Chartist poet, once lived here and held open air meetings in Humberstone Gate. At times the air became dangerously charged with the terror of revolution, and cavalry was summoned to keep peace in the town.
Another prominent individual in the liberal circles in Leicester at this time was the aforementioned George Bown, who often lectured and conducted discussions at the Social Institute and the Mechanics Institute. Many young men owed a moral and intellectual debt to him and when, in 1858, at the advanced age of 88, he died, his admirers raised an obelisk to his memory. This now stands in the Leicester Cemetery and bears an inscription which is so superior to the theological common-places usually found that it merits quoting:
"Here lies one who never feared the face of man.
That, when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night
Scourged to his dungeon; but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams".
Of the thoughtful young men who used to meet to debate religious and social questions we may mention the following: James Thompson (author of a History of Leicester), William Throsby, James Plant, James Perry, Joseph Chamberlain, William Glover, Josiah Gimson and W. H. Holyoak.
When the Social Institute closed and the Mechanics Institute was found to be too restricted intellectually, the inquiring minds found a home in the Discussion Class conducted by Mr. Dare in the Leicester Domestic Mission Hall in All Saints Open.
2. The class was established for the benefit of a group of working-men in February, 1850. A history of its proceedings was published by Benjamin Hill in 1859.
The choice of subject ranged from The Absolute and the Infinite to Capital Punishment, Teetotalism, The People's Charter, Fair Rents and Charges, Popular Education, Secularism, etc. The right of free speech was always respected. For thirty-five years the group took an annual walk to Bradgate Park on the last Saturday in July. The debates were still recalled, and among those who participated were Josiah Gimson, Michael Wright, J. Sladen, T. Coltman and J. H. Smith. It was on this ground that some of the elements of the Secular organisation were prepared.
G. J. Holyoake kept in touch with the Rationalist thinkers in Leicester. In 1842 several people were imprisoned in various parts of the country for criticising the Christian creed and an Anti-Persecution Union was formed with Holyoake as secretary and editor of its journal, The Movement. From this we learn that in February 1844 a committee of the organisation was formed with W. H. Holyoak as secretary in Leicester, W. Cook as treasurer, and J. Chamberlain and G. Read as auditors. Amongst subscribers were Messrs. Plant, Gimson, Cook, Hall, Chamberlain, and Mr. Coltman, a very ancient friend of the persecuted. A Petition was sent to Parliament containing 1650 signatures protesting at the imprisonment of Thomas Paterson and Henry Robinson. In 1845 a discussion class was carried on by Freethinkers at Mr. Knox's house at 11, Church Gate. Knox used to sell publications such as The Movement, New Moral World and The Northern Star. In 1852 G. J. Holyoake held a two-night's debate with Mr. Cecil at the Mechanics Institute, this year being the one during which the term Secularism came into vogue as meaning a philosophy of life which ignores theology.
In The Reasoner, April 6, 1853, appears the following:
'Leicester Secular Society, 148, Belgrave Gate. Lecture and Discussion every Sunday Evening'.
No explanation is given of this sudden emergence of the society.*
* See note at the end. (RWM)
The notice is repeated until June then disappears to reappear again in 1861. In a more or less casual way a group of Leicester Freethinkers would meet at the home of W. H. Holyoak, 18 Belgrave Gate, from where he also sold general and Freethought literature (see appendix). In The Reasoner for January 27, 1861, is the following:
Leicester:- At a meeting held at the Russell Tavern, Rutland Street, on Sunday evening, January 7th, Mr. W. Holyoak in the chair, the following resolutions were carried; 1st. 'That there be a Society formed, and that it be named the Leicester Secular Society.' 2nd. 'That the subscription be 1s. per quarter.' 3rd. 'That meetings of the Society be held in the large room at the "Russell Tavern", Rutland Street, every Sunday evening (for the present) at half-past six o'clock. There were twenty-two members enrolled.
3. At the time of the original publication of this booklet the tavern's site was occupied by the Queen's Hotel at the corner of Rutland Street and Charles Street.
One of the first proceedings of the society was to celebrate Paine's birthday, and one of the earliest lectures was by J. J. Harrison on The Formation of Character. Sunday evening meetings continued for some time, but after April, 1862, the Society ceased to announce its meetings in The National Reformer and organised work declined for a considerable period. A revival took place in 1867. In the August 26 issue of The National Reformer appears a record of a meeting held at the Russell Tavern to consider the formation of a Secular Society, Mr. Bailey being in the chair. On September 1, Messrs. Ainger, Ross, Barradaile, Johnson and Sharpe were elected as a committee, with J. Sketchley as secretary, and J. Gimson treasurer. It was resolved to secure a room and establish a library, and the subscription was fixed at 2d. per week at least. The secretaries who signed reports of the society from 1867 to 1871 were Joseph Sharp, G. Ross, A. Richard, C. Corbett, W. Waring, H. Martin and Mrs. Deborah Ross. From 1867 onwards there has been no break in the continuity of the society.
Occasional meetings took place at the Temperance Hall, and there W. H. Holyoak read papers at two public conferences which were called in March 1867 to discuss the non-attendance of the masses at church. Christopher Charles (C. C. Cattell) frequently lectured to the Society in 1868-9. In May 1869, the little group founded the Leicester Secular Institute and Club at 43 Humberstone Gate. Newspapers and refreshments (tea, coffee, etc.) were provided, the subscription being 1d. daily, 3d. weekly or 1s. monthly. The Secular Society, which was practically identical with the Club, carried on its Sunday meetings at the same place; and a mutual improvement class showed the desire to make the society as much an educational agency as its small resources allowed. In January 1870, a working men's conference assembled at the Temperance Hall to discuss the burning question of education. Michael Wright advocated the programme of the National Education League, which aimed at excluding theological teaching from the Board schools. It may also be remarked that William Stanyon (whose sincere Christian beliefs have not hindered him for many years from sympathetic co-operation with the Secularists on social grounds) was at this time actively fighting the proposed Conscience Clause in the Education Bill. The years from 1870 to 1872 passed quietly but busily. Messrs Gimson, Wright, T. Coltman, Holyoak and other local Freethinkers delivering most of the lectures. Changes were now and then afforded by discussion or by special meetings at the Temperance Hall addressed by Mrs. Harriet Law or Charles Bradlaugh.
The growing energy of the Secularists was viewed with some dismay by the orthodox burgesses, and at a meeting of the Leicester Town Mission in December 1872, a gentleman observed that evangelical Christians had two classes to fight the Ritualists and the Secularists, adding that the publications of the latter were full of twaddle, but they were very industriously circulated among the young and among those who were uneducated or half-educated.
The good town missionary would have been yet more disturbed had he known that Josiah Gimson had recently started the bold idea of building a Secular Hall, G. J. Holyoake having been denied the use of the public room at the Three Crowns for a lecture.
Suppose, said Mr. Gimson to his friends, suppose we try to get a place of our own.
The proposal was taken up with faith and courage. On Sunday, November 18, 1872, a first collection netted £4 towards the scheme, and not long after Gimson suggested the formation of a Leicester Secular Hall Company, which was formally constituted on May 2, 1873. The following extract from its Memorandum of Association describes the primary aim of the Company:
"The erection of a building to contain a large hall, to be called the 'Leicester Secular Hall', a smaller hall, class and committee rooms, library and reading rooms, with suitable accommodation for a Secular Club and Institution; the adaptation or conversion of any buildings to the purpose aforesaid; the furnishing and fitting up of any such premises, and the supply of books, papers, and other requisites; the delivery of lectures and addresses on scientific, social, political, religious, or theological questions, with the design of stimulating inquiry and promoting instruction in these subjects, and of improving the condition of the Industrial Classes."
A plot of land containing about 2,000 square yards was purchased for £4,500. A portion of the ground was set aside for the Hall, the rest being held as a rent-yielding property which has proved of considerable value to the shareholders. We may set down some of the earliest shareholders: Josiah Gimson, Michael Wright, John Sladen, W. H. Holyoak, T. Coltman, Abraham Fitchett, G. J. Holyoake (who contributed a loan of £500). Meanwhile the Society had changed its modest lodging from 43 to 77 Humberstone Gate, a house which stood on the front line of the site of the Hall. The Sunday meetings were held in a large room over the stables at the rear.
In various ways the year 1873 seems to have been remarkable for the zealous efforts of the Freethinkers. At the Secular Discussion Rooms (as the rooms at No.77 were often called) the conferences were lively and miscellaneous. Discussion often turned on the sermons and lectures of local clergy. For example, G. J. Holyoake criticised Canon Vaughan's arguments against secular education. Other topics included the bible, miracles, industrial co-partnerships, and political economy. Charles Watts debated with James Flannagan at the Gladstone hall, Wharf Street, and Gimson met the redoubtable Brindley at the Temperance Hall to debate the question of Christianity versus Secularism. In this year the Society issued a summary of principles and rules showing that subscription was not less than 4d. weekly or 1s. 3d. monthly, while that of the Club was fixed at 3d. weekly or 1s. a month. The Club rooms were open daily from 10am till 1pm, the closing time being half an hour later on Saturday; on Sundays the hours were from 5pm until 10pm. The object of the Club was stated to be:
"to provide the members with such means of recreation, amusement, instruction and social intercourse as have a tendency to elevate the taste and contribute to their intellectual improvement, without being dependent for these purposes on the public house."
In 1874 a variety of social topics appear on the Sunday programme wages, capital and labour, the future of the working classes (G. W. Foote lectured on this theme), the advantages of good manners, etc. Some flutter was caused by George Bishop's visit to Leicester and his public renunciation of the secular opinions he had once advocated in the town. It is interesting to note the liberality of the Leicester Secularists in the following advertisement of a Sunday meeting: A Christian gentleman will address the Secularists to prove that Christianity is not a cunningly devised fable, but a solemn reality.
Dr. George Sexton came to Leicester in 1874, and his lectures on Spiritualism and Secularism were followed by warfare between him and Gimson in the local press. Classes in English grammar and logic were commenced and in the following year Mrs Harriet Law lectured on Who are the Infidels, J.S.Mill's Essays on Religion and The lions of science and the lambs of theology. The Society now ran smoothly and at the close of the year the Secularists had a series of Sunday afternoon lectures on the useful but unsensational subject of political economy. At the same time an elocution class was being conducted by Mr. Holland.
1876 witnessed stronger tokens of Freethought life than ever. Not only were members exchanging opinions at the Secularists rooms on politics, vaccination, poetry, art, literature, the Sunday opening of museums and so on, but other agencies were assisting the flow of liberal ideas. Mr. James Holmes, who was announced as "late preacher of the Gospel", delivered a series of addresses at the Temperance Hall on the fall of man, the ex-Secularist George Bishop replied to Bradlaugh's recent lectures in Leicester, and Bradlaugh himself discussed the divine inspiration of the bible with Robert Roberts from Birmingham. Mass meetings addressed by J. Allanson Picton and others were convened in favour of the disestablishment of the church. During the summer months the Society arranged several open-air meetings in Humberstone Gate, one of the themes being, "The World we live in, enough for our Study". A few days earlier the new Town Hall had been opened, and this civic development was an appropriate proof that Leicester was increasingly mindful of its secular interests and good government.
The humble meeting-place over the stables had now become inadequate. In September the Society hired the lecture room in the Temperance Hall and invited the public to come to afternoon and evening meetings addressed by G. W. Foote, J. H. Smith, J. Holmes, J. Gimson, H. Holland, Mr. Judge of Nottingham, and Mrs. Harriet Law, among others. The sound of controversy was hushed when W. Stanyon conducted a service on behalf of the Infirmary. In recording the events of 1876, we must not pass over the Rev. J. Page Hopps' settlement in the town in connection with the Great Meeting, both because the Unitarians have always honourably fought for religious liberty and because Mr. Page Hoops has consistently aided the spread of intellectual sweetness and light. In speaking of the Society's work at the Temperance Hall, a word of gratitude is due to J. H. Smith. This earnest colleague managed the Club, took charge of the literature stall at Sunday meetings, gave frequent lectures, and wrote several Freethought pamphlets, an example being The Belief in Immortality.
In January 1877, the Society celebrated the anniversary of Thomas Paine's birth, loyally winding up the banquet by toasting the Mayor and Corporation of Leicester. The year was also marked by local agitation for the Sunday opening of public institutions, a question not new to the town as some twenty or thirty years previously W. H. Holyoak had pleaded for the more rational observance of the first day, and had collected funds to defray the expenses of a Sunday band on the racecourse; but the authorities yielded to pious pressure and only allowed the experiment to go on for one short season. A demonstration in support of Sunday opening took place in February at which the speakers included Josiah Gimson, Michael Write, W. Stanyon, and the Revs. Page Hopps, Joseph Wood and A. F. Macdonald.
4. The Museum and Free Library were eventually opened to the public on Sundays beginning in January, 1891.
In justice to Mr. Stanyon we ought to record that in May he published a friendly criticism of the secularist policy, dwelling on three points: first, that our method lacked the converting and consecrating power of Christianity; second, that it did not present a concrete standard of morality as did the gospel; and third, that it spent too much time in criticism of the doctrine and practice of religious bodies, and too little time in useful social effort.
Early in 1878 lectures were given on subjects such as 'True Standard of Right and Wrong', 'Conduct; the Utilitarian Standard of Right and Wrong' and the 'Sanctions of Secular Morality'. Gimson gave a talk on 'The Ethical Teachings of Christ testify to the All-Sufficiency of Secular Conduct'. Mrs. Harriet Law was a frequent lecturer, and a novel and interesting discussion took place in October on 'How Secularists may sit and learn at the feet of Jesus'. Mr. Stanyon led off ; Mr. Gimson then maintained that Jesus was wholly and simply a secular teacher, while J. H. Smith argued that Christ was a mythical personage, and that his doctrine was essentially supernatural. 1879 opened with debates on Bad Trade, Food and Drink. On the latter subject a debate was introduced between Mr. Skinner of the United Kingdom Alliance, and in the course of the argument Mr. Coltman wisely urged that we should strike at the root of the drinking evil by encouraging a habit of self-control in all things. The Sunday closure of public houses was also a subject of eager discussion.
On the whole the Society led a somewhat quiet existence during 1880, the Temperance Hall lectures going steadily on along the old lines, while active hands were erecting the new hall in Humberstone Gate. Some diversion was caused by the visit of the Church Congress to the town at which the Archbishop of York enlivened the proceedings by a criticism of existing forms of unbelief. The society, however, went on serenely with the building of the hall and on several Sundays discussed disestablishment. Canon Vaughan eyed the progress of the work with some misgiving, and lectured on 'Modern Substitutes for Christianity'. He attacked Spencer's Data of Ethics and appealed to Christians to prove by their lives that all the good elements of Positivism and Secularism could be "lived out only in the strength of Christian faith".
The long series of meetings at the Temperance Hall was now about to terminate, the Society was looking forward to the inauguration of the building which was to become its abiding home.
The Hall was designed by W. L. Sugden of Leek. It occupies the ground once covered by Nos. 75 and 77, Humberstone Gate. The style is a free treatment of Flemish Renaissance. The ground floor is laid with hard buff Darley Dale stone, the front is composed of brownish-red Coalville bricks, with projections of red Mansfield stone. In the carved capitals of the five stone pillars which carry the front on the ground floor are to be read the names of Socrates, Jesus, Voltaire, Paine and Owen, and in the corresponding niches above are placed terracotta busts of these individuals modelled by A. L. Vago.
5. It was first intended that bronze belts round the pillars should be inscribed with quotations from their works.
The walls of the lecture hall, staircase and lobbies are finished in red and white bricks and glazed and hand-painted tiles. The roof and gallery are entirely of wrought woodwork. On the first floor are the lecture hall (66ft long, 31ft wide and 30ft high) and various committee rooms. On the ground floor are grouped the club room, book store, a reading room (the latter having been partitioned off from the club room since the opening of the hall). Below these is a skittle ally, about 55ft x 22ft. The entrance gates are of wrought iron.
It is not to be thought that the five worthies commemorated were chosen as supreme teachers of secular doctrine. They stand in a general way for wholesome criticism, for revolt against priestly pretensions, and for endeavours after a happier social environment. They are types of general moral and intellectual activities. Of course the bracketing of Jesus with Freethinkers such as Voltaire, Paine and Owen, caused much searching of hearts in the town. "I was considerably surprised and shocked", wrote an indignant correspondent to a local paper, "to see the name of Jesus in such a position, and I am altogether at a loss to find how the Secularists can claim him as a teacher and expounder of their views of life". Mr. Gimson defended the novel arrangement of the busts in a series of letters to the Secular Review in January 1882, his contention being that Jesus enjoined the performance of right actions towards our fellowmen as our first duty, and that his gospel was moral rather than theological, and therefore secularistic.
The Hall was opened on Sunday, March 6, 1881, the company present included Mrs. Harriet Law, Annie Besant, Mr. & Mrs Theodore Wright, Josiah Gimson, Charles Bradlaugh, and G. J. Holyoake, all of whom spoke at the ceremony, as did Michael Wright, James Thomson ('B. V.'), Robert Porter, R. A. Cooper, W. Larner Sugden, George Minson and John Wright of Whitton. Daniel Baker and Charles Watts were unavoidably absent.
Mr. Gimson gave the inaugural address at the morning meeting, pointing proudly to the perfect openness of the society's platform and hoped it would attract women and the young. Mrs. Theodore Wright recited a poem by James Thomson. Mr. Holyoake observed that the new hall would maintain two things, first, not only the right but the duty of Freethought; second, The Religion of Certitude. By "religion" he meant "the simple creed of deed and duty, by which a man seeks his own welfare in his own way, with an honest and fair regard to the welfare of others. And by Certitude he meant "the employment of material means" as distinct from theological. Mrs Besant affirmed that the hall had been raised for the investigation and proclamation of truth in relation to questions political, scientific, social and theological.
Mr. Theodore Wright opened the afternoon session. Mr. Bradlaugh (who was engaged in contesting his right to take a seat in the House of Commons) traced the progress of Freethought, and hoped for a time when the avowal of opinion would not interfere with their common rights as citizens. The silver-tongued Mrs Law (always a favourite with the Leicester secularists) praised the uses of scepticism, and saw in the supporters of the hall a real Salvation Army. At the evening meeting R. A. Cooper of Norwich presided and an overflow meeting was held in the clubroom, where the speeches were repeated. Mrs. Besant touched on the theme of morality. Not on the church, she said, but on humanity should be laid the foundation of a true moral creed. Let children be trained up to moral habits without religion, and when they got older they would not lose faith in their fellow-creatures. Mr. Bradlaugh reviewed the political situation, and left the hall at the conclusion of his speech in response to telegrams announcing that his case (in connection with the Parliamentary oath) was to come on in the High Court of Justice the next morning. Mr. Holyoake expressed his delight at being able, after forty years' exposition of the principles of Secularism, to see so beautiful an edifice erected in the interests of the cause. The last speaker was Mrs.Law. Music, both vocal and instrumental, frequently enlivened the programme of three meetings.
The opening of the hall created a wave of excitement in the town. There in Humberstone Gate was a visible challenge to all theologians and an assertion of the principle that human destiny is shaped not on the knees of the gods but in the hearts and brains of men and women. A popular Leicester preacher edified his congregation with remarks on the five busts. The real prophets of Secularism, he averted, were Owen, Paine and Voltaire. Socrates was doubtless ashamed to be in such company. He was somewhat mystified by the respect shown by the Secularists to Jesus. "I suppose", he said, "there is something in the life and teachings of Jesus which, even in them awakens a dim perception of the beautiful and true". In like manner Canon Vaughan raised an alarm in a lecture at St.Martin's Church. Alluding to the promoters of Secularism he said, "Even if they themselves feel able to resist the enervated, demoralising, influences in their denials of God and immortality, and to live virtuous and honourable and useful lives in the strength of, or in spite of, their own Agnostic principles, yet who can doubt what the tendency of those denials and disavowals must be, and that from their new Hall in Humberstone Gate there will radiate influences most injurious to morality amongst us.
At this point we sadly pause to refer to the loss sustained by the society through the deaths of Michael Wright and Josiah Gimson. Mr. Wright died on September 18, 1881, aged 63 years, and was followed to the grave in Leicester Cemetery by a large procession of friends. G. J. Holyoake, who spoke the parting words, glanced at the Owenite, Chartist and Secular movements, and at the part the deceased had taken in their furtherance. Michael Wright, he said, "was always a pioneer. A conviction of what was right and true was to him an inspiration. Courage was as natural to him as his integrity. He always stood up for what he believed. The smallness of the party he joined never troubled him. The difficulties before it never disconcerted him. Opposition, or even personal peril (which he unhesitatingly encountered) only made him more resolute. He was a man of whom an energetic town may be proud. He had always a generous hand, a stout heart, and a bright nature. It was his good fortune to be happy in his home. She who was the partner of his life shared also his generous enthusiasm in efforts for public improvement. He had reason also to be proud of his family, and he had left them a memory which they cherished; and a name which was an honourable inheritance".
The death of Josiah Gimson occurred on September 6, 1883. He was born in Leicester on November 29, 1818. The deceased was a Town Councillor, and the Mayor and various members of the Council joined in the funeral procession, which also included representatives of the Leicester Secular Society (he had been its president for several years), and other public bodies, his employees, co-operators and many ladies. On the following Sunday a memorial service was held at the Secular Hall, which was densely crowded. T. Coltman presided and Mrs. Theodore Wright recited Leigh Hunt's Abou ben Adhem, and Mr. Holyoake gave an address in the course of which he said, "Mr. Gimson's heart was always in public affairs; and that is the one mark of a citizen above the common crowd, that he does take part in public affairs, and not for personal but public service. Whether it was Liberal representation of the borough, the repeal of the tax on knowledge, or, later on, the tax on travelling, Mr. Gimson was still a helper. He stood up for the sanitation of the town, for open parks, for open libraries, for open museums (all forms of the sanitation of the mind). He was for bright coffee taverns for the people, for cooperative devices which tend to establish equality without revolution, and equalise fortunes without dynamite. In these and similar ways material improvement was to him religion, the only religion which has ever yet brought good to man. This hall", said Holyoake, "is his monument. It testifies to his taste, his earnestness, his judgment of effect, and his generosity, for he did not forget it in his death. Though many men of high name have passed in years gone by from among you, seldom has a manlier, a more honest or more remarkable citizen been laid in a Leicester grave".
6. The connection of the family with the society has been intimately maintained through Mr.Gimson's son, Sydney, who having served as secretary since 1884, was elected president in 1888, and has occupied that office until the present time (December, 1899).
Gimson bequeathed for the purposes of the society a fund which yielded a supplementary income of £100 for ten years. In 1890, at the suggestion Thomas Allsop, the committee anticipated the lapse of this revenue in 1893 by issuing an appeal for £500 in order to secure the continuation of a like income until 1899, when it was believed that the hall and institution would become self-supporting. The appeal was responded to by, among others, Professor T. H. Huxley, and resulted in the collection of the sum required.
In surveying the chief activities of the society since 1881, we naturally commence with the Sunday lectures and think it may be said that no other institution in the town has afforded the public the opportunity to hear men and women of various schools of thought expound their views. Amongst those who have occupied the platform are:
Annie Besant. Henry Crompton. Mrs. C. Bradlaugh Bonner. Philip Dawson. Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, Mrs. Henry Fawcett. Wordsworth Donisthorpe. Dr. Drysdale. Miss Mary Hart. F. Feroza. Countess Kearney. G. W. Foote. Miss Mary Kingsley. Lawrence Gronlund. Mrs. Harriet Law. W. W. Collins. Miss Rosamund Dale Owen. Auberon Herbert. G. J. Holyoake. Dr. Alice Vickery. H. M. Hyndman. Rev. C. E. Escreet. Prince Kropotkin. Rev. F. W. Ford. J. H. Levy ("D"). Alfred Milne. Joseph McCabe. Rev. Stewart Headlam. Rev. J. Page Hopps. Rev. Brooke Lambert. William Morris. Rev. C. H. Shuttleworth. Wallace Nelson. Rev. C. W. Stubbs (Dean of Ely). A. Ransom. Rev. J. E. Symes. J. M. Robertson. The Marquis of Queensbury. "Saladin" (W. S. Ross). George Bernard Shaw. Dr. T. R. Allinson. William Archer. Charles Bradlaugh. Harry Snell. Dr. Carson. Thomas Slater. Stepniak (Serge Michaelovitch Kravchinski). Joseph Symes. Edward Clodd. Dr. Stanton Coit. Charles Watts. Dr. Moncure Conway. Felix Volkhovsky. Dr. Washington Sullivan.
Notes with reference to a few of the above may be added. Our Society was the first public body to invite Stepniak to address an English audience. He offered to speak in French, but the engagement was postponed, but by the time of the distinguished Russian's visit to Leicester he was able to speak in English. Prince Kropotkin had on one occasion agreed to speak to the Society but had cancelled the engagement and went to France, where he became involved in a miners' agitation and was imprisoned for three years. Felix Volkhovsky delivered in our hall one of his first lectures in Britain.
Our Society was one of the earliest to offer its platform to the Fabians, including, of course, the inimitable Bernard Shaw. William Morris delivered his lecture on 'Art and Socialism' for the first time in our hall, and it was published by Messrs. Larner Sugden and Barrs. A week later he was followed by H. M. Hyndman, and he again by J. Page Hopps, who spoke on 'Sensible Socialism'. The series of addresses afterwards published under the title, Fabian Essays in Socialism, were delivered in our Hall, having previously been given in London.
Not the least interesting series of addresses given under our roof was that delivered by a special deputation from the Guild of St. Matthew in 1883. The Rev. J. C. Denison opened with an examination of Strauss's view of the Apostle Paul. The Rev. C. E. Escreet spoke on 'Labour's Prayer', interpreting the Lord's Prayer as an inspiration of humanity for all time, and especially for a nobler life on Earth. Canon Shuttleworth gave reasons for not becoming a Secularist. Mr. C. G. E. Malin lectured on 'Russian Nihilism'. The Rev. S. D. Headlam expounded the church catechism as a manual of valuable secular doctrine. Professor Symes discoursed on Buddha and A. W. Crickmay on 'Christianity and Fraternity'. Mr. F. Verinder examined the early Christian teaching on wealth, G. G. Harrison on the 'Bible and Inspiration, the Rev. F. W. Ford glanced at the relation of Christianity to the 19th century and the Rev. Brooke Lambert compared the Republic of Plato with the Republic of Christ.
Not the least esteemed of our long succession of lecturers was Thomas Slater, who died on June 25, 1894. He was born in Barnoldswick, Yorkshire, on September 15, 1820, where he learned his trade as handloom weaver. In 1853 he moved to Bury. He was a close friend of Bradlaugh and intimate with G. J. Holyoake. For ten years he was a member of Bury Town Council and an energetic co-operator. In 1885 he accepted an invitation to become Manager of our Society, his son William being his assistant and in charge of the Society's bookstore. When this arrangement finished he continued to reside on the premises with his son and, as worker and lecturer, he won the respect of a wide circle of acquaintances. He had a passion for books and possessed a library of 3,000 volumes. His cremation at Manchester was attended by many sorrowing friends.
Pleasant memorials of men connected with the Society's history are preserved in the Hall in the form of portraits of Josiah Gimson, Michael Wright, G. J. Holyoake, Thomas Slater and Charles Bradlaugh. When the latter died in 1891 ten of our members attended his funeral in Woking. Another personality who should not be overlooked is James Thomson the poet who died in June 1882.
While the lecturers are drawn from a rich variety of schools of thought, it is yet to be noted that the Society remains strictly neutral in political questions and the relative merits of individualist or socialist methods of civic government. Only on such semi-political issues such as the oath question, blasphemy prosecutions or secular education would the Society officially declare its opinions.
Music has always been appreciated at Society meetings. A choir was formed for those at the Temperance Hall, and some kind of musical service has been maintained ever since. The present choir-master is Mr. Johnson Lowe, who was engaged by the Society in 1885, and re-engaged after an interval of some years in 1895. Sunday afternoon concerts were given at the Hall in 1881-2, and the help of a band was then (and occasionally since) enlisted. A hymn book specially designed for the use of the Society was compiled in 1882, the compilers being a little group of members with Positivist sympathies, viz. Messrs. Findley, Malcolm Quin and Berry. The book ran out of print in 1899 and a new selection, Hymns of Modern Thought (Houghton & Co), has been issued for the use of this and other societies edited by Miss E. J. Troup.
A Sunday school was established in December 1883, under the charge of Thomas Wright and maintained for some years. It lapsed owing to various difficulties, but was revived in March 1894 and has since continued in regular working order. The number of younger children on the role is about 80. These assemble in the afternoon, and a senior class (ages 15-18) meets in the morning.
From time to time weekly evening classes in shorthand, dancing, elocution, etc., have been attempted, but this side of the Society's work did not receive systematic attention until 1898, when Joseph McCabe conducted classes in French, astronomy, psychology, comparative religion, etc.
The institute contains a library of some 800 volumes, due to the generosity of a blind gentleman named Coltman. Although a Roman Catholic he was impressed by the earnestness of the Secularists and promised that when they secured a permanent home he would provide them with a library. He kept his word, and the present collection of philosophical, scientific and historical works was chiefly purchased by his gift of £100. The library is open free to the public every Sunday from 10am to 4pm, an arrangement that has been in force since May 17, 1885, and it deserves remarking that the Secular Society was the first to open a library free to the Leicester public on a Sunday. Studious readers will here find a set of works of high class and solid interest, the authors including Buckle, Lecky, Darwin, Spencer, Tyndall, Humboldt, G. H. Lewis, J. S. Mill, Gibbon, Hume, Froude, Grote, Carlyle, Bain, etc. On the reading room tables may always be seen an ample display of newspapers and periodicals.*
*The library was largely disposed of several years ago, but more recently the Society has commenced to restock it (RWM).
The bookstore has been in the charge of W. H. Holyoak since the opening of the hall, except for the period 1885-6 when, for twelve months Thomas Slater was manager. Mr. Holyoak holds his tenancy direct from the Company. Mr. Holyoak first established a Freethought bookstore in Leicester at the suggestion of G. J. Holyoake. Many older townsmen will remember the thought-provoking placards he used to display in his shop window at 18 Belgrave Gate. He has been a familiar figure in Leicester for more than half a century. He was born in the county in January 1818. His father migrated with his employers (a lace firm) to Chard in Somerset and his son worked there as a factory hand for some years, picking up what knowledge he could by diligent reading in his scanty leisure time. While a youth he was persuaded to go to the Social Institute in Hotel Street, where he was much impressed by the instructive addresses of George Bown. From that period Mr. Holyoak has remained a staunch and consistent democrat and Freethinker. He has been a member of the Secular Society from its commencement, assisted its business and supplied visitors with advanced literature.
The Society is mindful of the material as well as the intellectual welfare of its members, and has two agencies for the relief of distress. One is the Leicester Secular Sick Club, established in 1886. Membership is open to men and women, the subscription of two pence being payable on each Sunday evening. The sick pay is 6s. per week for eight weeks and 3s. per week for the next four weeks. The surplus funds are distributed among the members after each December audit (less 2s. each which is placed in a reserve fund). This arrangement does not allow the club to deal with cases of chronic illness beyond an allowance of £1 a year. A levy of 6d. per member is made in the event of a death, the money being paid either to the next-of-kin or to any person indicated by the deceased in a nomination-book specially kept for the purpose. Visitors to the sick are appointed half-yearly. It is the custom of the Club to hold one of its semi-annual meetings on Christmas morning, thus consecrating to a good secular service a day which is popularly associated with a theological festival.
The other relief agency is the Benevolent Fund, formed in July 1892, by a few members belonging to the Sick Club. It is managed by a joint committee drawn from the general committee of the Society and from its own subscribers. The subscription is not less than two pence a month, and aid is given, after friendly inquiry, to members who have experienced difficulties through sickness, accident, unemployment, strikes and lock-outs. Mention should also be made of the Old Peoples' Dinner, a festival which has been kept up each Christmas season since 1884. On these occasions about 150 persons are entertained. Another pleasant event is the anniversary of the opening of the Hall, which takes the double form of a supper every first Monday in March, and appropriate speech-making on the first Sunday nearest March 6. Very successful flower shows have been in the hall from time to time, these shows being visited by thousands of townspeople.
In addition to the club proper, recreation is provided for by social evenings (singing, recitations, dancing, etc.), a dramatic society, a swimming club for men and boys, and a cricket club.
The latter now pursues its course like any other orthodox association of cricketers, but there was a time when it created more than a nine-days' wonder throughout the length and breadth of the country. This occurred in 1885. The plot of ground known as the Pasture had been placed at the disposal of the citizens for the purpose of recreation. The Corporation purchased the land from St. Margaret's Vestry, and the Act of Parliament in describing the enclosure as intended for popular pastimes made no exceptional reference to Sundays. The Secular Cricket Club considered it had now a favourable opportunity of showing its conviction that the first day of the week might profitably be devoted to amusement, outdoor as well as indoor. Nine of the members accordingly went to the Pasture on Sunday morning June 7, 1885, and began to play. This unconventional act did not pass unobserved by the eyes of church- and chapel-going Leicester. A large crowd looked on in amazement and Police-Sergeant Gee warned the supposed "law-breakers" that cricket was not permitted on the Pasture on Sundays, and the players retired after their names had been taken by the police.
The Secularists then issued a notice saying they would test the legality of the question by playing again. On the afternoon of June 21, wickets were pitched in the sight of a large number of onlookers, some of whom thrust themselves in amongst the players and prevented the progress of the game. Threats of pitching the Freethinkers into the river were made, but these truculent sallies were relieved by the laughter which arose when the ball was driven into the water by a vigorous blow and rescued by a dog. The animal's opinions evidently leaned on the side question of liberality on the Sabbath question! Thomas Wright appealed to the police to protect the players but they declined to do so.
The situation became acute and exiting on Sunday, June 28. Mr. Wright informed the Sanitary Committee (who then had the management of the ground) that he and his friends would continue to assert the public right to use a public recreation place for public recreation. The committee timidly expressed the hope that no conflict would arise between the police and the people. Shortly after 2pm. Mr. Wright proceeded to the Pasture and stumps were fixed. A thousand people, including a sufficient mixture of Sabbatarian roughs, hustled round and hindered play. A second wicket was pitched and the same tactics repeated. A drunk seized Mr. Wright and suggested they should have a ------ swim together, and the crowd added suitable volleys of oaths. Mr. Stephen (representative of The Standard) tried to shield Mr. Wright, but was chased across the Pasture by the orthodox mob. The following day the magistrates dismissed a summons against one of the crowd who had assaulted Mr. Sam. Wooley.
Sunday, July 14, saw a renewal of the conflict. Play began at 10am, and after continuing for about three-quarters of an hour it was again broken up by the defenders of the faith. A prominent minister in the town aided and abetted the rioters. In the course of a sermon he said: "A man may claim nothing but his rights and yet make himself so injurious that his conduct is an outrage on all good feeling. I do not know any law which would forbid a man standing at a street corner and making faces at everyone who passed. Yet he would deserve to be tarred and feathered by the indignant mob for doing it. Sunday cricketers are guilty in a way hardly less offensive than this". Sydney Gimson replied in a letter to The Free Press: "Is this the language that should come from a Christian gentleman? The language of the people who obstructed cricket on the Pasture has been simply disgusting, and their actions brutal. I have always said so far that religion could not be blamed for their behaviour, as they were simply drunken or foolish riots, and I insisted that no true Christian would defend their behaviour. I am exceedingly sorry that Mr *** should have given reason for violent Atheists to say that Christians were to blame, and I am convinced that if he had been down on the Pasture and heard the talk and seen the behaviour of the people he would repent of much in his sermon".
It is significant to note that at this very time the Commons of England had again expelled Mr. Bradlaugh from the House to which his Northampton constituents had lawfully elected him. The Corporation of Leicester made no attempt to prosecute the alleged Secularist lawbreakers, who had of course broken no law. The Rev. H. R. Haweis published a defence of Sunday cricket, though he deprecated the action of the Secularists as unnecessarily defiant, and Punch delivered a neat rebuke to the Sabbatarian in the following paragraph:
"Recreation and Rowdyism. A party of athletes, assembled the other day in the Abbey Meadows at Leicester to play cricket, were prevented by a mob from pursuing their game. Granted that the right of any who have the might to enforce the observance of Sunday as a Sabbath, does that authorise them to stop a game of cricket? It surely stands to reason that persons engaging themselves in pure play are distinctly doing "no manner of work".
The Rev. A. D. Taylor, a Devonshire rector, openly applauded the Leicester Secularists, and stated that he himself had endeavoured to start a Sunday cricket club in his own parish, but bigotry had compelled him to close it.
Another religious difficulty cropped up in connection with Sunday music. The corporation desirous of checking "free and easy" entertainment in public houses secured an Act of Parliament which was so loosely worded as to necessitate even chapels, temperance halls, etc., applying for a Lord's Day licence. Our Society possessed the usual licence, which did not permit music on Sunday, Christmas Day or Good Friday. A prosecution was initiated against the president, Thomas Wright, for holding Sunday afternoon free concerts. The magistrates took the view that there was no intentional breach of the law and were satisfied with the payment of bare costs. During the progress of the case Mr. Wright announced that at the approaching licensing sessions he would apply for a licence which would cover Sundays. He endeavoured, at first unsuccessfully, to induce the proprietors of the Temperance Hall, secretaries of Sunday schools, etc., to co-operate in the application for licenses, but at length the orthodox people fell into line on the question, and the additional licenses were obtained.
As already recorded, the Society and the Club have for many years formed a kind of twin-organisation. When the Hall was erected parts of it were allocated to the Club, which has at its service a comfortable room, a billiard table, a piano and a refreshment bar.
7. The cost of the table was about £80, and the money was raised by inducing members to take up ten shilling shares. All receipts from players' were paid into the treasury, from which the share money was recouped at intervals, the particular shares being chosen by ballot for repayment. In about two years the cost of the table was repaid.
The Caretaker of the Hall is Manager of the Club. On the death of William Slater in January 1893, his widow was appointed Manageress and continues in that office to the satisfaction of the Society in general. The club rooms (including the library) are open from 8am to 11pm, and on Sundays from 4pm to 10.30. Throughout the greater part of the year the choir-master conducts a more or less informal sort of concert each Saturday evening, and on Mondays once a month. It is not too much to say that the secular club is one of the best conducted institutes of the kind in Leicester. People experienced in the ways of the world are aware of the problems that beset a Club. The orthodox cut the Gordian knot by disassociating themselves altogether from the sale of alcoholic liquors, but they are notoriously out of touch with the non-teetotal working class. The Leicester Secular Society has boldly grappled with the difficulty by providing a bar under the same roof with a library, classrooms and lecture hall. As might be expected, a tendency to lay too much stress on the Club side of the Society's life has always to be guarded against. In 1884 the need for closer contact between the two became apparent, and the wise step was taken of placing the whole of the premises except the bookstore in the tenancy of the Society (the Club and Society having previously been co-tenants). The affairs of the Club are directed by a sub-committee of the general committee of the society. In October 1898, the rules were modified so as to allow persons to join the Society without taking up membership of the Club.
In March 1898 the Society resolved to appoint an officer who should act as the organising and pastoral centre of the institute and secured the services of Joseph McCabe in June of that year. McCabe had spent twelve years in a monastery, where he was known as the Very Rev. Father Antony, but in 1896 he left the Catholic Church and declared himself a Rationalist. After nearly a year of able work in the interests of the Society he resigned in order to devote himself to literary pursuits. He was succeeded in April 1899 by the present writer.
The most earnest members of the Society are precisely those who are most conscious that it still has many lessons to learn and many as yet untried tasks to fulfil. Unlike the Christian Church, which has a fixed creed and a fixed textbook of the religious life, Rationalism never forgets the need and duty of development. The Leicester Secular Society bears in mind the need and duty of development. It bears in mind the importance of evolution both in the race at large and within the borders of its own institute.
Two things furnish pledges of the Society's ultimate success. In the first place, its essential principle is that of self-reliance. It calls upon all the best elements of human nature to assert themselves and cooperate for the spread of truth, justice and peace. There is in this principle a stimulus which supernatural religion fails to supply. The one works from within; the other feebly appeals from without. Rationalism relies upon the moral judgment, while theology depends upon the commandments of God. In the second place, the Society's platform is an open one. Heretic and believer, mystic and social reformer, the scholar and the shrewd but unlettered working man, are all alike welcome to set forth their opinion of our teaching. In this clash of though with thought the spirit of liberty delights. Out of this free and manly interchange of ideas the society will gain suggestions for its own moral and intellectual improvement.
This article appeared in The Freethinker (Vol.37. No.17. 1918). It was written by Gould in response to one on the Society by John Smith, who wrote as 'Mimnermus', which had been published in the April 21 issue of the paper (Vol.37. No.16). (RWM)
The friendly hand of "Mimnermus" has given us an interesting account of the Leicester Secular Society (Freethinker, April 21). As I was secretary and organiser of the institution, 1899-1908, and am still a member, though located in a very churchy London suburb, perhaps I may be allowed to add a few more notes. So long ago as 1883, when the chair was taken for me by Thomas Wright (son of Michael Wright, one of the founders) I gave my first lecture on its platform, and, a year after, George Jacob Holyoake presided when I lectured the second time. And as, only a few months ago, I had the pleasure of talking to the Sunday school, as well as speaking to the adults, in the old familiar hall, the reader may agree that I ought to know something of (as Patrick Geddes would say), the Place, the Work and the People.
I doubt if any hall in Europe or America, or elsewhere, quite fulfils for its social environment just such a function, both intellectual and municipal, as this at Leicester. Perhaps it would be difficult now to establish another of like pattern. When it was founded (1881), movements which are now strong labour, free libraries, Sunday lectures and the non-theological press were relatively weak, and eager spirits discovered in the hall at Humberstone Gate a unique centre for learning and discussing new ideas on religion, history, literature, economics and the rest. Leicester has since developed a big socialist activity; it has a fine shoe trade's hall; it possesses some thirty council schools, a group of free libraries and a good museum open on Sundays. This social and civic life has been all the time, and for nearly forty years, leavened with a wide-viewing Freethought. There are churches and chapels in the town quite juvenile compared with the Secular Hall, and the present generation, accustomed to the sight of this Rationalist cathedral, only smile at the recollection of orthodox groans that greeted the opening in 1881.
I have used the phrase "wide-viewing Freethought", because I had in mind the five busts which adorn the building, and which were selected by the Father of the place, Josiah Gimson. The five busts represent Robert Owen, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Socrates (sic) and Jesus. When the bust of Jesus appeared, and smiled engagingly at Leicester's priests, non-conformists and shoe-hands, the local clericalism passed many sleepless nights. But time heals all, and I remember that a distinguished Baptist of the town attended one of our secular bazaars, and handed me, as secretary, ten pounds; and to make the gift more golden, his mace-bearer attended him. Often, as I have passed those remarkable five busts, I have spiritually saluted Josiah Gimson for his choice. To me, they symbolize Socialism, English Common-sense, French wit, Greek Philosophy and Catholic Poetry; though I rather fancy to Councillor Gimson (Josiah was a member of the Town Council), the figure of Jesus would have stood for what he called Christian Secularism. Yet "Mimnermus" will agree, if no one else does, that poetry and Secularism ought to go well together. And this reference to poetry calls to mind the fact that a portrait of the poet Thomson, B.V., hangs in the hall. It was given by Mr. John Barrs, with whom Thomson lived once a guest at Kirby Muxloe, near Leicester, and who, as Jack, appears jocularly in Thomson's lines on "Belvoir Castle".
As descriptive reporter, I might fill columns with tales of the debaters, co-operators, socialists, individualists, critics, artists, scientists, clergy and cranks, who, as members, or lecturers, or visitors, have fluttered in and out of Larner Sugden's red-brick temple for more than a generation, and helped to preserve the soul of Leicester from decay and dullness. Many I have only heard tell of; many I have known face-to-face; and at the graves or cremation rite of many, I have uttered a serious, but never gloomy, farewell.
1. Yes, but it perplexes one why Freethinkers should approve (and rightly so) of funeral addresses, but attempt little or no provision for ceremonial marriage, or for the welcoming of infants.
Some brisk young veterans (if the term may pass) still recall the early and stormier days of the society. One such is William Lee, whom I lit upon in a remote Nottinghamshire village recently, still permeating his neighbours with progressive notions, and thrilling the local adult school with sensible questions.
2. Mr.Lee is father-in-law to Joseph McCabe.
Another such is William Wilber, who never forgets the bible which he studied in Christadelphian days, and who can make excellent use of scripture in discussion. Long would be the list if I named the sons and daughters of the Hall who are worthy of honourable mention. Such, for example, was William Holyoak, the ancient bookseller, who was born in the time of George III, whose soul was staunch as granite, whose manner was simple and gentle, and who cheered us up with quavering ballads. Yet another was Mrs. Perkins, who, unskilled in book-learning, possessed vigorous common-sense, and an extraordinary spirit of devotion to the Society. For bazaars, "socials", teas, operetta-preparations, excursions, and the like, she had a genius of resource, enthusiasm, and good temper, and no saint of the Middle Ages surpassed her genuineness of service.
I would sooner not say anything at all about the Leicester Secular Society if I had to omit the name of Josiah's son Sydney, the president for many years past. When I was an officer of the institute, a sort of etiquette would have prevented my praising him. But now that I am removed from his immediate circle, I trouble not to ask his august permission, and I affirm here that he is a most honest and just man, a capable and straightforward administrator; and, as a town councillor (though I am sorry he does not belong to the same party as I do), he is respected and valued by people of all shades of opinion. He can give you his reminiscences of William Morris, who lectured in the Hall some thirty years ago or more. If he wrote a book of anecdotes, he would enliven it with little tales of visitors to the Hall platform Holyoake, Foote, Watts, Touzeau Parris, Joseph Symes and many others, over whom now hangs the purple banner of death; and I am glad that so many co-workers still live to lend his Society the aid of their voices. As he sits in his well stocked library, and conjures up the faces of living or dead comrades in the great Thought Exploration, to which Leicester has so richly contributed, he must have a large vision of fellowships, and behold a gallery crowded with brave and genial figures. Yet none is more brave and genial than himself. I know that I speak for a multitude when I express that wish that he may, many and many a time, still preside at the Sunday evening meetings in the Secular Hall, and look down on the people who come to listen, to criticize, to appreciate and to applaud.
Smith had relied on Gould's pamphlet for his factual data. In a letter commenting approvingly on the 'Mimnermus' article (The Freethinker, Vol.38. No.18), the Society's president, S. A. Gimson, drew attention to the fact that the Society records show the year of its first meeting was actually 1851, but when Gould wrote, the original minute book of the Society had been misplaced. It was found after the History had been published. (RWM)