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"If truth were told more at length and space were greater, many women would have a place here.  No men could make the sacrifices they do for the advancement of the cause, were it not for the tolerance, or goodwill, or aid, of their wives.  The good a man may do is a good deal dependent on the acquiescence of his wife, who often suffers neglect that he may pay more attention to the welfare of others."

G. J. Holyoake, from. . . .
The Jubilee History of the Derby Co-operative Provident Society

"Where debate is forbidden the charlatan is king."

G. J. Holyoake, from. . . .
The Jubilee History of the Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society

" 'I blend the Holly with the oak!'
  'Twas thus the voice of Nature spoke,
  And, in fulfilment of her plan
  She gave us Holyoake, the man."

(extemporising during an interview.)


GEORGE JACOB HOLYOAKE (1817–1906), atheist and freethinker, self-proclaimed 'agitator', champion of the working class, and co-operator, was born at Birmingham on 13 April 1817.  His parents were in humble circumstances; his father George was a printer and his mother Catherine a button maker.  He received a basic education at a dame-school and at Carr's Lane Sunday school, later being apprenticed at the Eagle Foundry where he became a whitesmith.

    In 1831 Holyoake joined the Birmingham Reform League and began an active participant in political and social movements.  He attended meetings addressed by Robert Owen, who greatly influenced his thinking and his own lectures on socialism and co-operation.  In 1841, Charles Southwell started a weekly atheistic publication, the Oracle of Reason and was shortly thereafter arrested for blasphemy.  Holyoake responded by volunteering to edit the paper, and on his way to visit Southwell, who was imprisoned at Bristol, he delivered a lecture in Cheltenham on Owenite socialism.  During the lecture his reply to a 'loaded' question put up by a clergyman about the place of religion in proposed socialist communities led to his prosecution for atheism and to six months imprisonment in Gloucester gaol, thereby achieving the distinction of being last person in Britain to be imprisoned on such a charge.  Following his release Holyoake coined the term 'secularism' to describe his views, which he promoted in the journal that he established, The Reasoner.

"The proverb says, 'Manners make the man.'  No careful speaking man would say this.  There are persons whose manners are coarse or brutal at times, quick, hasty, abrupt and inconsiderate, who are yet tender, full of feeling for others and generous.  There are others who are all suavity and courtesy, whose souls are base and selfish.  Men must be judged by what they do, as well as by what they seem."

From . . . Public Speaking and Debate

    Holyoake's later years were spent as a writer, journal editor, bookseller and publisher.  He was a prominent in the campaigns for removal of tax on newspapers—becoming the last person to be indicted for publishing an unstamped newspaper, although the prosecution was dropped after the tax was repealed—and for electoral reform. He was also a zealous promoter of the co-operative movement and 'self-help' among the working classes, in which connections he is mainly remembered today.

"A stranger hardly knows what to make of Birmingham.  It is not teacup-shaped, like Rochdale, nor a cavity like Stockport, nor a ravine like Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Birmingham is neither quite flat nor properly elevated.  It is not a plate, nor a dish, nor a tea-tray, nor any compound of plane and rim.  It is a disturbed tableland, bounded by woods and blast furnaces.  If you could approach it via Hagley, you might mistake it for Derby; if you reach it through "Dudley Port," you would take it to be Sodom and Gomorrah in the act of undergoing destruction......It is precisely that kind of town where Co-operation should succeed."

From... The History of Co-operation


    Holyoake wrote extensively.  Among his more widely read books are 'The History of the Rochdale Pioneers' (1857, updated later to 1892); 'The History of Co-operation' (1875 and 1879; combined and revised in 1906), 'The Co-operative Movement of To-day' (1891) — all of which deal with the history of the Co-operative movement — and 'The Origin and Nature of Secularism' (1896).  His two-volume, and very readable autobiography, 'Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life', appeared in 1892, followed in 1905 by a further two volumes of autobiographical reminiscences, 'Bygones Worth Remembering'.  Collections of Holyoake's papers, diaries and other publications are held at the Bishopsgate Library and at the Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester.

"State Socialism seems one of the diseases of despotism, whose policy it is to encourage dependence.....The English working class, if not brilliant, have a steady, dogged, unsubduable instinct of self-sufficiency in them.  Being a self-acting race, they are alike impatient of military or spiritual mastery, or paternal coddling, and in their crude but manly and ever-improving way they make it their business to take care of the State, and not to call upon the State to take care of them."

From... The History of Co-operation

    Holyoake was well-acquainted with the leading Liberals of the period and in 1893 was made an honorary member of the National Liberal Club.

"The old pioneers of Co-operation stood up for liberty and relevance of speech.  Some thought toleration meant indifference to what opinion prevailed.  This was the mistake which some still make.  Toleration means anxiety for the truth: it means ardour for the truth: it means confidence in the truth.  It believes that truth, like fire, is excited by collision, and that no truth can be known to be true, save that which has passed through the ordeal of controversy.  Toleration means giving new truth fair play.  Intolerance, which is prohibition, gives it none.  The conditions of truth are now well ascertained to be liberty of expression, and of criticism; it is not he who is tolerant of these, but he who is intolerant of them, who is indifferent to the truth, and upon whom the stigma of looseness and latitudinarianism of mind ought to fall."

From... The History of Co-operation

    George Jacob Holyoake died at Brighton on the 22nd of January 1906; his ashes are interred in Highgate cemetery. He was twice married.  First, in 1839, to Eleanor Williams (1819–1884) with whom he had four children (Madeline, born in May 1840, died during Holyoake's imprisonment; Helen, in December 1841; two sons, Manfred and Maltus followed in 1844 and 1846); second, in 1886, to Mary Jane Pearson (1845–1906).

"Folly is a contagious disease, but there is difficulty in catching wisdom."

G. J. H.


Plaque attached to the wall of the Co-operativesUK
head office, Holyoake House, Manchester.


"Vindictiveness of the enemy harmed the movement by making many resentful and retaliative, prone to follow the advice of St. Just, who destroyed many excellent reformers by his maxim that they who attempt half measures dig their own graves.  But St. Just's maxim did not keep him alive long enough to observe that they who insist upon whole measures while they are only half supported, commonly get themselves and their cause into the sexton's hands very early.  Only theorists talk of truth being immortal—I have seen it put to death many times."

From... The History of Co-operation



    Sir.—In all the reports I have seen of the proceedings in the Insolvent Court on Saturday morning, when Commissioner Phillips asked me "whether I believed in God," I am reported to have said, "I was not prepared to answer the question;" whereas what I did say was this:—"I am not prepared to answer that question with the brevity the Court will require."
    Why I declined to enter upon a question understood in so many different senses was that I took the Insolvent Court to be a Law Court, and not an Ecclesiastical Court.  Besides, Mr. Commissioner Phillips was not legally justified in asking me a question which every lawyer will own I was not bound to answer at all.
    In the recent case, "Russell v. Jackson," my oath, tendered under the conditions of Saturday, in the Chancery Court was taken without dispute.
    The insertion of this brief note will greatly oblige your obedient servant,
                               GEORGE JACOB HOLYOAKE.

1, Woburn-buildings, Tavistock-square, Dec. 8.


    Sir,—Sir Robert Peel, in replying to Lord Stanley, last evening in the House of Commons, did me the honour to refer to me, but in terms which, in justice to Lord Stanley as well as to myself, I trust you will permit me to correct.
    The hon. baronet said,—"Mr. Holyoake goes about the country lecturing against the Bible.  Only the other day he was about to lecture in Doncaster, but there was a universal feeling against it, and the Mayor, who had given his authority for the use of the building, was obliged to withdraw it."
    That I "go about the country lecturing against the Bible" would at no time have been a successful description of me.  Two-thirds of my life has been devoted to social and political questions.  It is 18 years since I spoke in Doncaster upon anything approaching a theological topic.  The last time I was there was five or six years ago.  Then the building was not refused me; the Mayor did not "withdraw his consent;" the "universal feeling was in my favour; and the subject was Temperance.
                   I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
                                                       G. J. HOLYOAKE.
147, Fleet-street, E.C., April 1.


    Sir,—being one of the vice-presidents of the national Reform League, convening the meeting on Wednesday, at St. Martin's-hall, it is but justice to Lord Elcho to answer his appeal in the papers where the question arose.
    As to testimony, I may say there needs none.  His Lordship's conduct is his character.  Nothing could be franker, manlier, or more respectful than treating a meeting of working men as his peers, going down to them, and assuring them of his regret that he unwittingly wronged them.  The best friend of the working class need not wish more than that they in like case may be found willing to do as much.  I need not say that I differ widely from lord Elcho's political views; but I discern that he means us justice through general enfranchisement, counting chief the right of citizenship as a means of political duty, regarding advantages as quite secondary.  But as respects industrial rights, which the resolution of the trades, signed by Mr. Odgers, and published by Mr. Howell, questioned, I know of no fairer friend than lord Elcho.  It has fallen to me frequently to seek the assistance of members of Parliament, for one cause or other of the people.  We of the working classes, having no votes worth counting upon, and rich in nothing but barren respect, for fairness shown to us, must, I often think, be wearisome and profitless persons to know; but I can testify that few members of Parliament listen with more patience, reason with more courtesy, or aid, where we can make out a case, with more readiness than Lord Elcho.  For his support of Mr. Clay's Bill, which proposes to enfranchise the intelligence of working men—the most honourable and useful proposal made in my time, raising, as it would, knowledge to the rank of a political necessity— we all owe Lord Elcho respect and gratitude.

Yours faithfully,  G. J. HOLYOAKE.

232, Strand, W.C., April 12.




WHAT memories hover round this hallowed spot,
    So long connected with these honoured names,
For Smithies, Cooper, ne'er can be forgot:
    These noble men with still more noble aims.
Men do not die, although their bones may rot —
    Their deeds live after them and show their worth;
The truths they teach and fearless do die not;
    The good remains which they have brought to birth.
O valiant soldiers on a bloodless field,
    Ye dauntless, true, heroic Pioneers,
What glorious harvests now your victories yield!
    Your fame shall brighter grow through coming years;
        For through the grand example you have shown,
        The masses everywhere have happier grown.

A voice has spoken from your graves to-day;
    A comrade lingers still to tell your worth,
    And keep your memory green upon the earth;
And hold your standard high amid the fray.
Nor shall that voice be lifted up for naught:
    True hearts still answer to the call of truth,
    And forward press, in spite of toil and ruth,
To carry out the principles ye taught.
Ere long those truths their world-wide way shall win,
    Cast out the demon Self, and end the strife.
E'en now we see that glorious day begin,
    The toilers enter into larger life:
        A foretaste of the Golden Age to be,
        When men shall all be truly good and free.

David Lawton


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