Bradlaugh was a political activist and one of the most famous English
atheists of the 19th century.
Born into poverty at Hoxton, London, the son of a solicitor's
clerk, he worked in turn as an office errand-boy (from the age
of 12), coal miner's clerk, and (at 17) a soldier with the Seventh
Dragoon Guards stationed in Dublin (which was at that time part
of the United Kingdom). He resigned from the army in 1853.
By this time a convinced freethinker, Bradlaugh returned to London
in 1853, and became a pamphleteer and writer about "secularist"
ideas under the pseudonym "Iconoclast". He gradually
attained prominence in a number of liberal or radical political
groups or societies, including the Reform League, Land Law Reformers,
and Secularists. He was President of the London Secular Society
from 1858. In 1860 he became editor of the secularist newspaper,
the National Reformer, and in 1866 co-founded the National Secular
Society, in which Annie Besant became his close associate.
1868, the Reformer was prosecuted by the British Government for
blasphemy and sedition. Bradlaugh was eventually acquitted on
all charges, but fierce controversy continued both in the courts
and in the press. A decade later (1876), Bradlaugh and Besant
decided to republish the American Charles Knowlton's pamphlet
advocating birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private
Companion of Young Married People, whose previous British publisher
had already been successfully prosecuted for obscenity. The two
activists were both tried in 1877, and Charles Darwin refused
to give evidence in their defence. They were sentenced to heavy
fines and six months' imprisonment, but their conviction was overturned
by the Court of Appeal on a legal technicality.
Bradlaugh was an advocate of trade unionism, republicanism, and
women's suffrage, but unlike Besant, he opposed socialism. He
was a supporter of Irish Home Rule, and backed France during the
Franco-Prussian War. He took a strong interest in India.
In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton,
and claimed the right to affirm (instead of taking the religious
Oath of Allegiance), but this was denied, and he subsequently
offered to take the oath "as a matter of form". This
offer, too, was rejected by the House. Because a Member must take
the oath before being allowed to take their seat, he effectively
forfeited his seat in Parliament. He attempted to take his seat
regardless, was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the Clock Tower
of the Houses of Parliament.
seat fell vacant and a by-election was declared. Bradlaugh was
re-elected by Northampton four times in succession as the dispute
continued. Supporting Bradlaugh were William Gladstone, George
Bernard Shaw, and John Stuart Mill, as well as hundreds of thousands
of people who signed a public petition. Opposing his right to
sit were the Conservative Party, the Archbishop of Canterbury,
and other leading figures in the Church of England and Roman Catholic
at least one occasion, Bradlaugh was escorted from the House by
police officers. In 1883 he took his seat and voted three times
before being fined £1,500 for voting illegally. A bill allowing
him to affirm was defeated in Parliament.
1886 Bradlaugh was finally allowed to take the oath, and did so
at the risk of prosecution under the Parliamentary Oaths Act.
Two years later, in 1888, he secured passage of a new Oaths Act,
which enshrined into law the right of affirmation for members
of both Houses, as well as extending and clarifying the law as
it related to witnesses in civil and criminal trials (the Evidence
Amendment Acts of 1869 and 1870 had proved unsatisfactory, though
they had given relief to many who would otherwise have been disadvantaged).
The later history of the affair and its constitutional importance
in described in Bradlaugh v. Gossett.
Bradlaugh's funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners, including
Mohandas Gandhi. He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.