New College of the Humanities

Book Review: Dare to Stand Alone

Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh
Bryan Niblett
Kramdart Press  400pp  £19.99  ISBN 978 0 9564743 0 8

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Charles Bradlaugh stood against much that was dear to Victorian Britain: an outspoken atheist in a seriously Christian culture; a republican in a deeply monarchical country; and an advocate of birth control in a society prudishly reticent about sex. In 1876 Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were prosecuted for publishing a pamphlet advocating the use of birth control. Born in 1833, scorned and vilified through much of his life, he died in 1891, exhausted and prematurely aged yet honoured and lamented in Britain and across the world.

This remarkable man is best known for his fight to take the oath and to sit as an atheist in the House of Commons. Elected for Northampton in 1880, he was allowed neither to affirm his allegiance nor swear the oath, as the Conservative opposition exploited the ‘Bradlaugh Case’ to disrupt Gladstone’s second ministry. Not until 1886, after repeatedly being returned for Northampton, was he finally permitted to take his seat. He then became a prodigiously active member, with several important pieces of legislation to his name, not least the Oaths Act of 1888 which removed all remaining religious barriers to citizenship in Britain. He was also recognised as ‘Member for India’, whose native cause he championed with passion.

Bradlaugh came from Hoxton in east London, the son of a poor solicitor’s clerk. Despite only the most elementary education he acquired an unrivalled knowledge of the law and an ability to take on and beat the highest legal brains in the land. Professor Niblett is a lawyer and his appreciation of Bradlaugh’s knowledge and skill in this profession provides one of the strengths of the biography. Bradlaugh was a radical and a freethinker, the champion of the individual small man against the most powerful in the land. A master of the art of peaceful protest and a firm respecter of the rule of law, he challenged the fundamental assumptions of the Victorians and beat them with their own weapons, using reason against prejudice and right against might.

As leader of the Secularists he was first and foremost a popular lecturer and journalist. His National Reformer was a serious democratic and freethinking journal that weekly poured forth his ideas and built a loyal following from 1860 until his death. Historians have often overlooked the fact that he was acknowledged to be one of the greatest public speakers of his generation, able to attract and hold vast audiences both indoors and out, the heir to such gentlemen orators and journalists as Feargus O’Connor. Yet he was equally able to establish himself as an effective and respected parliamentarian: possibly the first ‘working man’ to achieve this.

Remarkably this new book is only the third to provide a serious account of Bradlaugh’s life, partly because his major campaigns have fallen out of fashion among historians and partly because his descendants for years kept his papers private to safeguard the reputation set out in the two-volume biography, Charles Bradlaugh: a Record of his Life and Work (1895), written shortly after his death by his daughter. Walter Arnstein was the first to gain access to these papers, resulting in his The Bradlaugh Case (1965). David Tribe, then president of the National Secular Society, of which Bradlaugh was the founding president in 1866, was able to use them for his President Charles Bradlaugh, MP (1971) after which they were put on public deposit. Now Professor Niblett has used them to narrate a detailed (though not exhaustive) account of Bradlaugh’s life. Though lacking in footnotes the scholarship (excepting a few minor errors) is sound and the text extremely readable. Bradlaugh has at last found justice and, one hopes, a more secure place in the history of mainstream Victorian Britain.

Edward Royle is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of York and author of Revolutionary Britannia? Reflections on the Threats of Revolution in Britain, 1789-1848 (Manchester University Press, 2000).

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