We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891), by Walter Sickert, exh. New English Art Club 1890 Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891), by Walter Sickert, exh. New English Art Club 1890
Bradlaugh, Charles (1833–1891), politician and freethinker, was born on 26 September 1833 at home at 31 Bacchus Walk, Hoxton, London, the eldest of seven children born to Charles Bradlaugh, a solicitor's clerk, and his wife, Elizabeth Trimby, a former nursemaid. He was baptized at St Leonard, Shoreditch, on 8 December 1833, and educated at local elementary day schools and St Peter's Sunday school, Hackney Road, where he became a teacher.

While preparing for confirmation in 1849, Bradlaugh questioned the doctrines of the church. Pressure to conform caused him to leave home and he took lodgings with Elizabeth Sharples Carlile, the widow of Richard Carlile, and her family at the Warner Street temperance hall. He gave his first public lecture—‘The past, present and future of theology’—10 October 1850. Having failed to earn his living as a coal merchant, in December 1850 he enlisted in the 7th dragoon guards and was posted to Ireland. This had a deep effect on his political views. In 1852 his father died, and the following year a legacy from his great-aunt was used to purchase his discharge; he took a job as errand boy (and was soon promoted to clerk) with Thomas Rogers, a solicitor of 70 Fenchurch Street. On 5 June 1855 he married Susannah (Susan) Lamb Hooper at St Philip's, Stepney. Their first child, [see under ], was born on 30 April 1856 at their home at 4 West Street, Bethnal Green; followed on 31 March 1858, and Charles on 14 September 1859.

Bradlaugh lived a double life: professionally, he was a skilled lawyer, though nominally only a solicitor's clerk; privately, he was also a free thought and radical lecturer with a growing national reputation. To protect his employer's name, in 1855 he adopted the pseudonym Iconoclast, with which he kept his identities apart until 1868. From November 1858 he edited a free thought periodical, The Investigator, which failed in August 1859, and he was then invited to co-edit the National Reformer, with which his name was associated as editor (1860–64; 1866–1890) and owner (from 1862) until his death. Bradlaugh also became noted in radical politics: at the Hyde Park Sunday trading riots (July 1855); in support of Felice Orsini, the would-be assassin of Napoleon III (1858); and in campaigns for an extension of the franchise in Britain (from 1859).

The Bradlaughs moved from Bethnal Green to 3 Hedger's Terrace, Cassland Road, Hackney, in 1857 and to Elysium Villa, Northumberland Park Road, Tottenham, in 1859. After a brief return to the City at 12 St Helen's Place, Bishopsgate, in 1862, they settled in 1864 at Sunderland Villa, next door to their former Tottenham address, and advertised for a second servant. Having failed to secure articles from Rogers, in 1858 Bradlaugh was apprenticed clerk to Thomas Harvey, who also refused to article him and eventually went bankrupt. He then moved to Montague Leverson, a radical with equally dubious business dealings, who articled him in June 1862, but the two men parted in 1864. After this, Bradlaugh supplemented his earnings from lecturing and journalism with freelance legal and financial work, notably for the Naples Colour Company (1866–9). He was soon several hundreds of pounds in debt and his wife was becoming an alcoholic in the company of a former army friend, the poet James Thomson. In 1870 Sunderland Villa was given up, and Susan Bradlaugh and the two girls went to live with her parents in Midhurst, Sussex; young Charles died of kidney failure in July; and Bradlaugh himself rented two rooms at 29 Turner Street, Commercial Road, Stepney, where he dedicated himself full-time to propagandism.

During this period of crisis Bradlaugh took a leading part on the executive of the Reform League (1865–7) and formed the National Secular Society with himself as president (1866), a post he was to retain (except during 1871–4) until 1890. In 1867 he helped the Fenians draft their manifesto, and in 1868 he was prosecuted for failing to deposit a surety of £400 in respect of the National Reformer, which led in 1869 to the repeal of this last ‘tax on knowledge’. In 1870 he took up the cause of the French republicans, influenced by the republican Vicomtesse Mina de Brimont Brassac, through whom he became acquainted with Prince Jérôme Napoleon, who lent him money. His reputation as a leading radical was further enhanced in the 1870s, when he led the short-lived republican movement in Britain and published his two most successful lectures, The Land, the People and the Coming Struggle (1871) and The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick (1872); he also founded the National Republican League in 1873.

In 1868 and twice in 1874 Bradlaugh unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary seat at Northampton, and he made financially unsuccessful lecture tours of the United States in 1874 and 1875. A legacy of £2500 enabled him to move in February 1877 from Turner Street to 20 Circus Road, St John's Wood, quite near Annie Besant, who had joined the National Secular Society in 1874 and become his closest friend. Susan Bradlaugh died in May 1877 and Alice and Hypatia moved in with their father. Further notoriety came in 1877, when Bradlaugh and Besant began the Freethought Publishing Company to re-issue Charles Knowlton's birth-control pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy (1832), which had been prosecuted for obscenity. After a trial which gave extensive publicity to the idea of birth control, Bradlaugh and Besant were sentenced to six months' imprisonment but the verdict was quashed on a technicality.

In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected junior Liberal MP for Northampton. He applied to substitute an affirmation for the oath on grounds of unbelief. A select committee ruled against this, so Bradlaugh asked to take the oath, which was also refused. He became a symbol of people against parliament. Opposition to him was based partly on political expediency by a small group of Conservative back-benchers and partly on outrage against his atheism, republicanism, and advocacy of birth control. For five years he outwitted the best legal brains in several court cases to defend himself from heavy fines for having voted without being first sworn. He successfully recontested Northampton in 1881, 1882, 1884, and 1885, and on four occasions pleaded his case at the bar of the house. A government bill to change the law was defeated by three votes in 1883 and not until after the general election of 1886 did the speaker overrule opposition and allow Bradlaugh to take the oath. In 1888 he secured an act to permit parliamentary affirmations.

By this time Bradlaugh's opposition to socialism, publicized on 17 April 1884 in a debate with H. M. Hyndman on Will Socialism Benefit the English People?, had made his radical individualism appear less threatening. He was a hard-working MP, who gathered evidence for the royal commission on market rights and tolls, secured a select committee on perpetual pensions, sat on the royal commission on vaccination (1889), and championed native rights in India, which brought him recognition as back-bench ‘member for India’. In December 1889 he attended the Indian National Congress in Bombay.

Bradlaugh was one of the best orators and champions of the popular cause in Victorian Britain, but by the late 1880s he was increasingly out of touch and ill with cardiac asthma and hereditary kidney weakness (Bright's disease). He died at home in Circus Road on 30 January 1891 and was buried next to his daughter Alice (who died of meningitis in 1888) at Brookwood necropolis on 3 February. He was survived by Hypatia, who married Arthur Bonner, a printer, in 1885.

Edward Royle


H. B. Bonner and J. M. Robertson, Charles Bradlaugh: a record of his life and work … with an account of his parliamentary struggle, politics and teachings, by John M. Robertson, 4th edn, 2 vols. (1898) · D. Tribe, President Charles Bradlaugh, MP (1971) [incl. full bibliography of Bradlaugh's writing] · W. L. Arnstein, The Bradlaugh case: a study in late Victorian opinion and politics (1965); repr. as The Bradlaugh case: atheism, sex, and politics among the late Victorians (1983) · F. D'Arcy, ‘Charles Bradlaugh and the world of popular radicalism, 1833–91’, PhD diss., U. Hull, 1979 · E. Royle, Radicals, secularists and republicans: popular freethought in Britain, 1866–1915 (1980) · E. Royle, ed., The Bradlaugh papers (1975) · J. P. Gilmour, ed., Champion of liberty: Charles Bradlaugh (1933) [with a bibliography compiled by H. B. Bonner] · J. Saville, ed., A selection of the political pamphlets of Charles Bradlaugh, with a preface and biographical notes (1970) · Humanity's gain from unbelief, and other selections from the works of Charles Bradlaugh, ed. H. B. Bonner (1929) · R. Manvell, ed., The trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh (1976) · E. Royle, ‘Charles Bradlaugh, free thought and Northampton’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 6 (1978–83), 141–50 · R. E. Quinault, ‘The Fourth Party and the Conservative opposition to Bradlaugh, 1880–1888’, EngHR, 91 (1976), 315–40 · J. Rich, ‘The Bradlaugh case: religion, respectability and politics’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 21 (1975), 38–51 · N. H. Sinnott, ‘Charles Bradlaugh and Ireland’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 2nd ser., 77 (1972), 1–24 · National Reformer (8 Feb 1891) · baptism cert.


Bishopsgate Institute, London, corresp., papers, and family papers · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. · Hackney Archives, London, papers · Shoreditch Public Library, Pitfield Street, London, artefacts |  BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MS 44111 · BL OIOC, letters to William Digby, MS Eur. D 767 · Co-operative Union Archive, Manchester, letters to George Holyoake · Glos. RO, corresp. with Sir Michael Hicks Beach · Northampton Library, Thomas Adams MSS, relating to Bradlaugh's election contests · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Sir H. B. W. Brand · TNA: PRO, papers relating to Regina v Bradlaugh and Besant


A. Millière, photograph, 1866–9, repro. in Gilmour, ed., Champion of liberty, facing p. 32 · W. Sickert, oils, exh. New English Art Club 1890, National Liberal Club, London [see illus.] · W. Sickert, pencil drawing, 1890, NPG · W. Sickert, oils, 1891, Man. City Gall. · F. Verheyden, bronze bust, 1893, repro. in Gilmour, ed., Champion of liberty, facing p. 102; stolen from Brookwood necropolis, Woking · C. Holding, plaster bust, 1894, National Secular Society, Bradlaugh House, 47 Theobald's Road, London · G. Tinworth, terracotta statue, 1894, Abington Square, Northampton · F. Verheyden, bust, marble, 1897, Shoreditch Public Library, Pitfield Street, London · J. Collier, portrait, 1918; photograph, South Place Ethical Society, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London · H. Furniss, pen-and-ink caricature, NPG · F. C. Gould, double portrait, chalk caricature (with F. O'Driscoll), NPG · S. P. Hall, pencil drawings, NPG · Spy [L. Ward], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (12 June 1880) · W. Strang, etching, BM, NPG · cartoons, repro. in Gilmour, ed., Champion of liberty · photographs (between the ages of twenty and fifty-seven), repro. in Gilmour, ed., Champion of liberty

Wealth at death  

£4586 4s. 0d.: probate, 21 March 1891, CGPLA Eng. & Wales