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George Holyoake

George Holyoake
Born George Jacob Holyoake
(1817-04-13)13 April 1817
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England
Died 27 January 1906(1906-01-27) (aged 88)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Occupation Newspaper editor
Spouse(s) Eleanor Williams
Holyoake's name on the lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

George Jacob Holyoake (13 April 1817 – 22 January 1906), was a British secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor. He coined the term "secularism" in 1851[1] and the term "jingoism" in 1878.[2] He edited a Secularist paper, the Reasoner, from 1846 to June 1861, and a Co-operative paper, The English Leader, from 1864-67.[3]


  • Early Life 1
  • Owenism 2
  • Prosecution 3
  • Secularism 4
  • Co-operative movement 5
  • Miscellaneous 6
  • Memorials 7
  • Works 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Early Life

George Jacob Holyoake was born in Birmingham, where his father was a whitesmith and his mother a button maker. He attended a dame school, but began working half-days at the same foundry as his father at the age of eight and also learned the whitesmithing trade. At eighteen, he began attending lectures at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, where he discovered the socialist writings of Robert Owen and eventually became an assistant lecturer. He married Eleanor Williams in 1839 and decided to become a full-time teacher, but was rejected for promotion because of his socialist views. Unable to obtain a full-time teaching position, Holyoake instead took a job as an Owenite Social Missionary. His first post was in Worcester and the following year he was transferred to a more important position in Sheffield. [4]


Holyoake joined Charles Southwell in dissenting from the official policy of Owenism that lecturers should take a religious oath, to enable them to take collections on Sundays. Southwell had founded the atheist Oracle of Reason, and was soon imprisoned because of its contents. Holyoake took over as editor, having moved to an atheist position as a result of his experiences.

Holyoake was influenced by the French philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, notable in the discipline of sociology and famous for the doctrine of positivism. Comte had himself attempted to establish a secular 'religion of humanity' to fulfil the cohesive function of traditional religion. Holyoake was an acquaintance of Harriet Martineau, the English translator of various works by Comte and perhaps the first female sociologist. She wrote to him excitedly upon reviewing Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.


In 1842, Holyoake became the last person convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, held in April 1842 at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute, though this had no theological character and the incriminating words were merely a reply to a question addressed to him from the body of the meeting.

It took an intervention by his supporters to stop him being walked in chains from Cheltenham to Gloucester Gaol, and there was a formal memorial of complaint to the then Home Secretary, which was upheld. He was well supported by the Cheltenham Free Press at the time in his actions, but attacked in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Examiner. Those attending the lecture, which was the second in a series, moved and carried a motion 'that free discussion was equally beneficial in the departments of politics, morals and religion'.[5] In 1842 Holyoake and socialist Emma Martin formed the Anti-Persecution Union to support free thinkers in danger of arrest.[6]


Holyoake nevertheless underwent six months' imprisonment, and the editorship of the Oracle changed hands. After the Oracle closed at the end of 1843, Holyoake founded a more moderate paper, The Movement, which survived until 1845. Holyoake also established the Reasoner, where he developed the concept of secularism, and founded Secular Review in August 1876. He was the last person indicted for publishing an unstamped newspaper, but the prosecution was dropped upon the repeal of the tax.

In the 1850s Holyoake and Charles Southwell were giving lectures in East London. Harriet Law, then a Baptist, began debating with them, and in the process her beliefs changed.[7] She "saw the light of reason" in 1855 and became a strong supporter of Holyoake and a prominent secular speaker.

After a split with Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, leaders of the National Secular Society (NSS), in 1877 Holyoake, Charles Watts and Harriet Law founded the British Secular Union, which remained active until 1884.[8] On 6 March 1881 Holyoake was one of the speakers at the opening of Leicester Secular Society's new Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate, Leicester. The other speakers were Harriet Law, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh.[9]

Holyoake retained his disbelief in God, but after the Oracle soon came to regard "atheism" as a negative word - hence his preference for "secularism". Holyoake adopted the word "agnostic" when that was coined.[10]

Co-operative movement

The grave of George Holyoake, Highgate Cemetery, London

His later years were chiefly devoted to the promotion of the working class co-operative movement. He served as President of the first day of the 1887 Co-operative Congress.[11] He wrote the history of the Rochdale Pioneers (1857), The History of Co-operation in England (1875; revised ed., 1906) and The Co-operative Movement of To-day (1891). He also published (1892) his autobiography, under the title of Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, and in 1905 two volumes of reminiscences, Bygones worth Remembering.

He died at Co-operative Union in Manchester.[13] Holyoake House was opened in 1911, and also houses the National Co-operative Archive: a second collection is also held at Bishopsgate Library.[14]


Holyoake coined the term "jingoism" in a letter to the Daily News on 13 March 1878, referring to the patriotic song "By Jingo" by G. W. Hunt, popularised by the music hall singer G. H. MacDermott.[15]

He was the uncle of the independent MP and convicted fraudster Horatio Bottomley and contributed towards the cost of Bottomley's upkeep after he was orphaned in 1865.[16]

New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was related to him.[17]


Holyoake is listed on the south face of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.


  • Rationalism A Treatise for the Times (London: J. Watson, 1845)
  • The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England A Fragment of Autobiography (London: J. Watson, 1850)
  • Christianity and Secularism Report of a Public Discussion Between Rev. Brewin and G. J. Holyoake (London: Ward & co., 1853)
  • Rudiments of Public Speaking and Debate or, Hints on the Application of Logic (New York: McElrath & Barker, 1853)

See also


  1. ^ Holyoake, G.J. (1896). Origin and Nature of Secularism, London: Watts & Co., p.50.
  2. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 113
  3. ^ Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (University of Manchester, 1974), available via Google Books
  4. ^ 
  5. ^ Turner, C M, Thesis (PhD), 'Politics in Mechanics' Institutes 1820-1850', University of Leicester, 1980, and references therein
  6. ^ Barbara Taylor, ‘Martin , Emma (1811/12–1851)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 10 Sept 2015
  7. ^  
  8. ^ Jellis, George (9 March 2011), Harriet Law (1831-1897),  
  9. ^ Gimson, Sydney A. (March 1932). "Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society". Retrieved 2013-08-27. 
  10. ^ "Holyoake eventually came to adopt Huxley's label "agnostic"" (Berman 1990, p.213); "The later Holyoake felt that the new label "agnosticism" more exactly suited his atheological position." (Berman 1990, p.222)
  11. ^ "Congress Presidents 1869-2002" (PDF). February 2002. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  12. ^ "George Jacob Holyoake (1817 - 1906) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 2009-09-03. 
  13. ^ Collection Description of the Holyoake archive, held at the National Co-operative Archive, Manchester, UK
  14. ^ Collection Description of the Holyoake archive, held at the Bishopsgate Institute, London
  15. ^ Martin Ceadel, Semi-detached Idealists: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1854-1945 (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 105.
  16. ^ Matthew Parris, Kevin Maguire, "Great parliamentary scandals: five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo", Robson, 2004, ISBN 1-86105-736-9, p.85
  17. ^  


  • Berman, David (1990). A history of atheism in Britain: from Hobbes to Russell, London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04727-7.
  • McCabe, Joseph (1908). Life and Letters of George Jacob Holyoake (2 vols). London: Watts & Co. [Incorporates A contribution towards a bibliography of the writings of George Jacob Holyoake, by C.W.F. Goss, pp. 329–344.]

External links

  • Oxford Reference Online Premium –
  • George Jacob Holyoake biography & selected writings at
  • Works by George Jacob Holyoake at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about George Holyoake at Internet Archive
  • Secularism 101: Defining Secularism: Origins with George Jacob Holyoake
  • Archival material relating to George Holyoake listed at the UK National Archives
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