Leicester Secular Society

Sections on this page: PrefaceA Century of ProgressIntroduction: Radical LeicesterOrigins of the Society and the HallSecularists, Believers and SocialistsReferencesEnd.

A Century of Progressive Thought:

The Story of Leicester Secular Society

by Gillian Hawtin

first published 1972

[As part of the website layout changes, three section headings have been introduced. (GPJ August 2006)]



by Lord Fenner Brockway


What is told here is part of the essential story of the last hundred years. Beneath the great historical developments — the beginning of democracy, the consolidation of capitalism, the communist revolutions, the rise and fall of empires, two world wars — there was a great turmoil of thought. It erupted from Darwin and his survival of the fittest, balanced by Kropotkin's mutual aid; advanced to Marxism and the class struggle, balanced by social democracy; disintegrated the superstitions of theology, balanced by a dynamic social ethic; released national and racial consciousness, balanced by a striving for internationalism. Each of these human streams gathered round them social forces, movements and parties which reflected them. Almost unnoticed in this maelstrom of events were small groups concerned in analysing what was happening, listening to the exponents of new thought, putting aside dogmatism, seeking only the truth.

These were small groups but were profoundly important. They were the crucibles of creation. What is now the commonplace thinking of universities, of established philosophers, of recognised sociologists, even of some religious leaders, was first discussed by these few. To them came William Morris, Kropotkin, Annie Besant, G.J. Holyoake, Charles Bradlaugh, J.M. Robertson, Bernard Shaw and, later, Bertrand Russell. They met and explored ideas; they were few, but their influence was great in the progressive movements of the time, in the early Co-operative movement, in the emergence of Socialism (much more fundamental then), and in the challenging forms of Radicalism whatever they were. Today new problems — Dissent with a big D, repudiation of the Establishment, disillusionment with political parties, the confused reaction of Youth, the conflict of Power (even Communist Power) and Liberty, the retention of economic colonialism when political colonialism has been overthrown. These command new thinking from this clash of minds. It was never more necessary.

It was natural, a hundred years ago, that the challenge to old ways of thought should begin with religions and that the group in Leicester should call itself a Secular Society. Darwinism had destroyed Genesis, but theology was still wedded to superhuman intervention, and bolstered up by myths, some much older than Christianity, such as the god impregnated birth, the supernatural miracles, and the physical resurrection. "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate" was accepted as a divine order and the underprivileged taught to look to a heaven after death as their salvation. It became imperatively necessary to liberate man from these superstitions if man was to win human fulfilment by his own effort in this life. This did not mean an absence of inspiration in beauty and even in universal consciousness. It did mean that religion was bigger than accepted theology and the creeds taught in a thousand churches. We concede gladly that many in the churches now appreciate this. Rationalism has begun to capture religion.

The Leicester Secular Society has an unique record. I spoke to it sixty years ago. I remember how impressed I was by its series of terra-cotta busts of Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus — what a group of Masters of liberal thinking and social ethics! I forget my subject, but I recollect the earnest tolerant discussion, the intense dedication to reach the facts and truth. From what Gillian Hawtin writes, that has remained its character. A great achievement.

I join in paying tribute to Leicester. It is sixty-five years since I first visited the city, and more recently I have enjoyed the open-minded radicalism of so many of its people. One thinks back to the First World War when Ramsay MacDonald, its M.P., was regarded by a large section of public opinion as a traitor. I went to his crowded meeting in the Corn Exchange when he explained his views. We had feared trouble but, although many did not agree with him, there was tolerance and an admiration of his courage. We should begin to say that what Leicester thinks today the nation should think tomorrow.

Gillian Hawtin has written a story which will be of fascination not only to the members of the Leicester Secular Society and to Leicester itself, but to all who revere liberty of thought and are interested in its historical growth. I salute those who established the Society and those who have so faithfully kept it going. They are among the Pioneers.

Fenner Brockway
Written in Algeria, celebrating the tenth anniversary of its independence,
June, 1972



by Gillan Hawtin

[Gillian Hawtin, B.A., F.S.A.(Scot.), who became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1964, died on 28 February 1994. (GPJ)]


Introduction: Radical Leicester

In the centre of Leicester stands the premises of a remarkable, indeed an unique, institution. This is the Secular Hall at 75 Humberstone Gate, which within a few years will celebrate its century. It was opened in 1881, when, as for the previous decades of the Victorian era, religion was an active factor in everyday life. The historian, R.C.K. Ensor, has stated that this was the most religious of centuries, and so it was, especially if we include a certain amount of religiosity or sheer hypocrisy under that name. The present day fashion to draw attention to the seamy side of XIXth c life, to the 'other Victorians', must not blind us to the existence of much sincere orthodoxy. This — High Church, Broad Church, Low Church, dissenting — had as its counterpart a growing body of positive disbelief. This had historic origins in XVIIIth c deism, in the works of such polemicists as Thomas Paine, the Rev. Robert Taylor (the 'Devil's Chaplain'), Carlile and Hetherington, was stimulated by Darwinianism and the Higher Criticism of the mid-century, and took the slightly variant forms of atheism, agnosticism or Secularism.

Atheism is as old as theism. Agnostic, as is generally known, is a term coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, and Secularism was particularly elaborated by George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906). He was born in Birmingham, worked his early years in an iron foundry, like many of his class and generation secured some education in the mechanics' institute and by the early 1840s had abandoned his early orthodoxy, and become an Owenite missionary. Robert Owen, factory owner of New Lanark, educational reformer and Utopian Socialist, not all of whose ideas have even yet, as Dame Margaret Cole remarks, been worked out, had divided England into nine districts or 'dioceses'. Holyoake was appointed to the Sheffield area. It was, however, when giving a lecture on 'Home Colonies' (i.e. socialistic communities of which Ralahine, Orbiston and Queenwood, Hants., are possibly the best known examples) in the Cheltenham of the Rev. Mr. (later Dean) Close, that Holyoake uttered the few innocuous sentences in joke that landed him in Gloucester Gaol for six months, and made him the victim of the 'last trial for atheism' in England. On release, Holyoake went to Glasgow, won £50 as a prize for some masonic lectures and, despite the general poverty of his hand-to-mouth existence, invested the lot in a paper of his own, The Reasoner (1846 - c.1861). In this, and in pamphlets, he formulated his philosophy of Secularism, which can perhaps most briefly be described as an attempt to elaborate a positive morality of a rationalistic order without reference to any future state of being. It was intended to be a less negative or merely destructive philosophy than atheism.

"Radical Leicester", as Patterson has justly called it, has always been a centre of non-conformity both in the political and narrowly religious senses, and in the widest and more general meaning of the word. Professor Jack Simmons tells us that:—

"In the fifteenth century it was an important centre of Lollard teaching, and later on, like most towns in the Midlands and East of England, it bore a strong Puritan character..." [1]

That indefatigable early woman traveller, Celia Fiennes, obviously approved when in 1698, she noted, "Here are a great many dissenters in this town". Of the XlXth c., Professor Simmons continues:—

"The politics of Victorian Leicester were lively and very often bitter. It was a stronghold of Radicalism. Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, kept a shop in Church Gate; there were serious Chartist riots in the town in 1842 and again six years later." [2]

In his latter years, Holyoake, who had been associated with the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers since before the opening of the famous Toad Lane Store, probably gave the major part of his time to the Cooperative movement. He became its G.O.M. and its historian — not a very satisfactory one, but since he was about the earliest, by no means without interest, in his Histoty of Co-operation, he wrote:—

"There is one town (Leicester) where social views early took root—where a few men of strong understanding, of unusual dispassionateness, have, during more than two generations, maintained public interest in social ideas. What may be called the Leicester principle of controversy is to question and try all assertions." [3]

Though these words were written of Co-operators, they would apply with equal faimess to Leicester secularists, and, in fact, in the very same paragraph, Holyoake goes on to speak of the engineer Josiah Gimson's public spiritedness in meeting in debate a then well-known representative of theism, Dr. Brindley. The present writer has been proud to be an Honorary Member of the Leicester Secular Society for some years and enjoys addressing it from time to time, so is in the position to assert that "the Leicester principle of controversy" is still the same today as in Holyoake's time!

Against this background it is not unfitting that Leicester is today the only city left in the country which can boast its own fine hall entirely devoted to secular propaganda. Such secular halls were once found in not inconsiderable numbers especially in Midland and northern cities.


Origins of the Society and the Hall

Secularist lecturers were frequently in the '40s and '50s denied the use of Halls. Apart from the fact that the most commodious were often attached to religious bodies, clerical authorities put pressure on lay landlords and cases of broken contracts are fairly frequent. A room over the bar was not unusually engaged, but publicans were afraid for their licenses. These difficulties led to a movement among Secularists to build their own meeting places, from the pennies of the infidels, much as the coppers of the believer built the ubiquitous non-conformist chapels of the same era.

The refusal of a hall in the '70s was less frequent but still occasionally took place, and the immediate cause of building of the Leicester Secular Hall was the denial to George Jacob Holyoake, who had been a visitor to the town since l843, [4] of the use of the public room at the 'Three Crowns' for a lecture.

Josiah Gimson [5] was a mechanical engineer and head of an engineering business in Leicester, who had early come under the influence of the idealist rationalism of Owen and Holyoake. Ever a leading mover among the Leicester Secularists, Gimson now suggested a hall of their own. The Leicester Secular Hall Company was formally constituted on the 2nd May, 1873. [6] The earliest shareholders included Gimson himself. G.J. Holyoake contributed a loan of £500 and was also a shareholder. Another was W.H. Holyoak [7] his friend, but not (as the slight variation of spelling denoted) a relation, and well-known in Leicester, as a freethought bookseller. A plot of land of some two thousand square yards was purchased for £4,500. It will be obvious that the site value has much appreciated in recent years.

The Secular Society itself, however, went back some years. Holyoake's Reasoner, as did Bradlaugh's National Reformer from its inception in the l860s bore notices of secularist meetings up and down the country. In the issue of the Reasoner for 6th April, 1853, appeared this brief notice:—

"Leicester Secular Society, 148 Belgrave Gate.
Lecture and discussion every Sunday evening."

The notice was repeated until June that year, and then disappeared until 1861. In Reasoner No.766, of 27th January of that year, occurs mention of a meeting held at the Russell Tavern, Colton Street, on the Sunday evening of 7th January. The following resolutions (W.H.Holyoak in the chair) were carried:—

1st. That there be a Society formed, and that it be named the Leicester Secular Society.
2nd. That the subscription be one shilling per quarter.
3rd. That the 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.

Twenty-two members were enrolled. The NationalReformer carried an advertisement for the Society until April, 1862. The Society then seems to have gone somewhat into abeyance but was revived in 1867 and from that year there has been no break in its continuity. It was still meeting in the Russell Tavern, but the Committee and Officers of the Society, whose appointment is recorded in the National Reformer of 26th August of that year, resolved to secure a room and establish a library. By May, 1869, the Leicester Secular Institute and Club was established at 43 Humberstone Gate, described by F.G. Gould, the XIXth c historian of the Society as 'a modest lodging'. Later it moved to 77 Humberstone Gate, to a house which stood on the front line of the site of the present hall. Sunday meetings were held in a large room over some stables at the rear. The rooms at this address were often known as the Secular Discussion Rooms. When they proved inadequate the Society in September 1876 hired the lecture room at the Temperance Hall.

These homes were, of course, recognised as temporary, for, as we have seen, schemes to build the Hall were under way since 1873. Plans by W.L. Sugden, an architect of Leek, in a style described as 'a free treatment of Flemish Renaissance' had been approved, and by 1880 the building was achieving permanent reality. Soon all was ready for the grand opening fixed for Sunday, March 6th, 1881.[8] A distinguished Secularist gathering was present. James Thomson (B.V.) the poet and author of 'The City of Dreadful Night', Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, Mrs. Harriet Law, Gimson and George Jacob Holyoake. The address was given by Councillor Gimson (as he had now become), dedicatory poems composed by Thomson were recited and other speeches came from Mrs. Law, Mrs. Besant and Bradlaugh. [9] But it fittingly befell Holyoake, the originator and begetter of Secularism, to deliver the first opening words, an address entitled Secularism, a religion which gives heaven no trouble. [10]

A distinctive feature of the facade of the Hall is a series — five in all — of terra cotta busts, somewhat above ground level, representing Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus, sculpted by Vago. In 1900, F.J. Gould commented:—

"They stand in a general way for wholesome criticism, for revolt against priestly pretensions, and for endeavours after a happier social environment."

Holyoake wove observations on the characters of those the busts represented into his discourse. Today, the busts are a little weathered. On their first appearance they caused an uproar.


Secularists, Believers and Socialists

In general, what were the relations between Secularists and believers? In some respects the growing strength of Leicester Secularists alarmed the orthodox. Evangelicals considered they had two main enemies — the Ritualists and the Secularists! However, pleasant relations were established with the Unitarians, especially with the notable Victorian Unitarian, the Rev. J. Page Hopps, who in 1876 was established in the town in connection with the Great Meeting. Canon Vaughan felt bound to pay tribute to the useful lives led by the Secularists of Leicester, yet in his preaching he sounded a note of foreboding and feared "that from their new Hall in Humberstone Gate" would "radiate influences most injurious to morality amongst us".

During the 1870s and '80s, the controversy concerning the Sunday opening of places of entertainment, museums, and so on, was raging between such bodies as the National Sunday League on the one hand, and the Lord's Day Observance Society on the other. When the Secular Society tried to put on Sunday concerts it at first came up against the law of the land, but perseverance finally won a license which permitted them. On Sundays, too, the Secularists played cricket in defiance of local Sabbatarian opinion, at first expressed most vigorously, both verbally and otherwise, but one or two clergymen took the Secularists' part. So did Punch, for the matter was even commented on in that doyen of humorous journals!

In addition to cricket, the Leicester Secular Society provided many other facilities and activities, a reading room, a skittle alley, a sick club, a Benevolent Fund, a dramatic society and a swimming club amongst them.

Yet, in a sense, these were all peripheral activities, the Hall existed to debate freethought and every burning issue of the day. Among subjects of lectures and debates were all those common to the freethought platform of the last century — Biblical criticism, the supernatural element in religion, determinism and free-will, and the like, as well as such topics as temperance, industrial co-partnership, the adulteration of food and many others.

In these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that lecturers in the Hall included a most distinguished array of names.. Some were minor Secularists such as Christopher Charles (pseud.), then quite well known, though long since forgotten, or rather more prominent Secularists such as Mrs. Harriet Law, editor of the Secular Chronicle, and central figure of the group of Birmingham Secularists, Dr. Joseph Sexton (who later turned to spiritualism), Joseph Symes, Dr. Drysdale or G.W. Foote. J.M. Robertson, the historian of freethought, spoke here. So did Moncure Conway, biographer of Paine and of South Place, Finsbury. The Hon. Auberon Herbert, [11] who sometimes came to the town as a Co-operator, also came as a Secularist lecturer. In June 1898, Joseph McCabe, who had left the Roman Catholic Church as recently as 1896, was given a full-time appointment by the Society as an organising officer, a post he held until April the next year.

Several political figures of note appeared here. Once Kropotkin came. H.M. Hyndman, the Marxist founder of the Social Democratic Federation, spoke in the Hall. The Society was one of the earliest to offer its platform to the Fabians and the "Fabian Essays", originally given in London, were later re-delivered at Leicester Secular Society. Thus George Bernard Shaw was here and so was William Morris, whose 'Art and Socialism' was delivered for the first time in Leicester Secular Society Hall. There are, besides, passing contacts with other eminent Victorians.

In its history over the decades, the Hall and Society have adapted various modes of financing their continued activity. An appeal for funds in 1890 elicited response from, among others, Thomas Henry Huxley. Addressed from Eastboume, and dated 13th February, 1891, a short note accompanying his contribution referred to "his full sympathy with the objects of the Society".

* * * * * * *

This then is a brief sketch of a remarkable Society, in its historical setting. Has the Society relevance today? Surely, yes! The form of Secularist activity will necessarily be different from the 'Bible-bashing', the anti-clericalism and the critical opposition to orthodoxy that it took in earlier years. But never was there more need for the 'alternative voice'. Independence of spirit is the necessary guarantee of that liberty which is the life blood of all healthy societies. The mass media think for us. The permissive society allows us to indulge our senses perhaps too much for the good of our thoughts. Postage is expensive. Fares increase. Books reach prohibitive prices. Fees are slapped on museum entrance. Administrative law increases at the expense of parliamentary democracy. Industrial relations are in crisis. Race hatred is around the corner. Newspapers die.

To think, to talk, to argue, that way alone lies sanity and life, it is in the firm belief that tolerant discussion is the way of peace and enlightenment, for us, as for the earlier illustrious members of the Leicester Secular Society, that, as it approaches its second century, that Society is providing an increased programme of lectures and activities. The topics will not be those of the nineteenth century. They will be those of the twenty-first century!



[1] Simmons, J., The City of Leicester, 1960, p.10.

[2] Ibid., p.13.

[3] Holyoake, G.J. History of Co-operation, London, 1906 edition,p.209.

[4] Ibid., pp.629.30.

[5] Josiah Gimson, b.1818, often gave considerable financial assistance to the journalistic enterprises of Holyoake, Bradlaugh, Watts and Foote. He died in 1883. McCabe, in his Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists, also gives sketches of the lives of his two sons. Sydney Ansell Gimson (b.l860) followed his father in the engineering business, and was from 1883 president of the Leicester Secular Society, and William Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), Owenite rationalist, was a noted architect of the nouveau art school and an artistic disciple of William Morris.

[6] Many of the following facts and figures are cited from F.G. Gould's History of the Leicester Secular Society, 1900, now [1972] o/p. The present writer's debt to this work is obvious.

[7] Holyoak was born in the County in 1818. Holyoake suggested he establish a freethought bookshop. This he did, at 18 Belgrave Gate, but from the opening of the Hall had his shop there, leasing it directly from the Leicester Secular Hall Company. [GW gives his initials as W.J. but I believe W.H. is correct. (GPJ)]

[8] The Anniversary is marked by a special lecture each year.

[9] The oath controversy was then at its height, and he was soon called away on urgent business. Holyoake and Bradlaugh, who had quarrelled over the commencement of the National Reformer (see Holyoake's Warpath of Opinion) had been brought together and (rather fragilely) reconciled in the Bell Hotel, then a few doors away on the opposite side of the street. The Bell was demolished in the late 1960s.

[10] Holyoake's address was afterwards published separately in pamphlet form.

[11] In 1877 the Co-operative Congress was held in the Museum Hall, Leicester, and the Hon. Auberon Herbert was present. This was the first year that a sermon was preached before the Delegates and one observes the somewhat ironic fact that the preacher was Canon Vaughan, who had such mixed feelings about the Secularists.