“Atheism and Blasphemy”: The case of George Jacob Holyoake, Cheltenham, 1842

George Jacob Holyoake

George Jacob Holyoake

On 24 May 1842, a lecture was given at the Mechanics’ Institute in Cheltenham, bearing the snappy title of “Home Colonisation as a means of superseding Poor Laws and Emigration”. The speaker, George Jacob Holyoake, was a teacher and lecturer from Birmingham who was an advocate of the socialist principles of Robert Owen.

Since 1841, Holyoake had been contributing articles to a journal published in Bristol by Charles Southwell, called the Oracle of Reason. Early in 1842, Southwell was arrested because of the anti-religious views aired in his journal, and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in Bristol Gaol. Holyoake took over the editorship of the journal, and in May 1842, decided to walk from Birmingham to Bristol to visit Southwell. He broke his ninety-mile journey by staying for one night in Cheltenham, and it was then that he gave his lecture.

The subject of Holyoake’s talk was not religion, but Owen’s idea of Utopian communities, in which associations of between 500 and 3000 people would settle together on allocated land and be largely self-sufficient, sharing the produce and profits from their work. At the end of the lecture, Holyoake invited questions from the audience, and a man named Maitland commented that while he had told them their duty to man, he had not told them their duty to God, and asked whether there would be any churches and chapels in these proposed communities. There are two versions of what Holyoake said in reply.

In his own account of the case, published in 1850 (The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography), Holyoake said that there was great economic distress in the country, and churches and religious institutions cost the nation about twenty million pounds annually. “Worship being thus expensive, I appeal to your heads and pockets whether we are not too poor to have God?” As a matter of political economy, he objected to building chapels in the communities. “If poor men cost the state as much, they would be put like officers on half-pay, and while our distress lasts I think it would be wise to do the same thing with diety.” Speaking of his own beliefs, he said, “Morality I regard, but I do not believe there is such a thing as God.”

A different version of what Holyoake had said was given two days after the talk, in a paragraph published in the Cheltenham Chronicle, bearing the headline: “ATHEISM AND BLASPHEMY”.  The piece stated that Holyoake had delivered a lecture on “Socialism, (or as it has been more appropriately termed Devilism)”, in which he had attacked the Church of England and religion generally for some time, before inviting questions from the audience. It went on to relate Maitland’s question and stated, “The Socialist then replied that he professed no religion at all, and thought they were too poor to have any. He did not believe that there was such a thing as a God, and impiously remarked that if there was, he would have the diety served the same as the government treated the subalterns, by placing him on half-pay.” Holyoake had gone on to make other similar “blasphemous and awful remarks, which we cannot sully our columns by repeating”. The writer finished by remarking that “to their lasting shame”, a considerable proportion of the audience had applauded the speaker.

At the end of the report was added an editor’s note, stating that there were “three persons in our employ who are ready to verify on oath to the correctness of the above statements. We therefore hope those in authority will not suffer the matter to rest here, but that some steps will immediately be taken to prevent any further publicity to such diabolical statements.”

By this time, Holyoake was in Bristol, where he was shown the above paragraph. In his 1850 account of the case, Holyoake said that the Cheltenham Chronicle was “commonly called the Rev. Francis Close’s paper, for it is the organ of his party”. Whether or not that influential clergyman was behind the critical paragraph, this newspaper in particular appears to have been very keen to see Holyoake arrested. In the Cheltenham Chronicle published on 2 June, another paragraph appeared, headed, “HOLYOAKE, THE BLASPHEMOUS SOCIALIST LECTURER”. This reported that at the town’s Petty Sessions held on 27 May, the magistrates had read the paragraph previously published regarding Holyoake’s lecture, and “expressed their opinion that it was a clear case of blasphemy. In order to check the further progress of his pernicious doctrines, the Superintendent of Police was ordered to use every exertion to bring him to justice.”

If Holyoake had stayed away from Cheltenham, he might never have been “brought to justice”, but on 1 June he came back, having decided to return to the town to defend his position and explain his beliefs further. He arranged to give another lecture at the Mechanics’ Institute on 2 June, this time entitled “Civil and Religious Liberty”. During the talk, a row of policemen stood at the back of the hall, and after he had finished, Superintendent Russell told Holyoake that he had been instructed to arrest him. Although Russell did not have a warrant, Holyoake eventually agreed to walk down to the police station, where he was kept for the night.

On the following day, Holyoake was taken before three Cheltenham magistrates, the Rev. D. Newell, R.Capper, Esq., and J. Overbury, Esq.  The Cheltenham Chronicle (9 June) reported that “George Jacob Holyoake, described as a Socialist lecturer and the Editor of the Oracle of Reason, was brought up charged with delivering Atheistical and blasphemous sentiments, at the Mechanics’ Institution, on the evening of 24 May last.” Solicitor J. Bubb, Esq. (described by Holyoake in his 1850 account as “a particularly gross and furious man”) preferred the charge of blasphemy and said he was doing so “upon the common or unwritten law of the land”, which stated that “any person that denied the existence of a God, or a Divine Providence, or was guilty of blasphemy, was liable to imprisonment, corporal punishment and fine.” Two witnesses were produced, both compositors employed at the Cheltenham Chronicle, who described what they had heard Holyoake say. Mr Overbury then declared that it had been proved that Holyoake had said he didn’t believe in the existence of a God, and used “most contemptuous expressions with regard to the Divine Being”.

Holyoake asked if it was customary in Cheltenham to bring persons up without a warrant. Mr Capper replied that any person would have been justified in taking him up for using such blasphemous language, without any warrant. Mr Overbury said that whether Holyoake was of no religion was of no consequence to them, “but your attempt to propagate the infamous sentiment that there is no God, is calculated to produce disorder and confusion, and is a breach of the peace”. Holyoake responded that it was customary in other towns, “where bigotry existed to a greater extent than it did here”, for regular notice to be given. Capper responded, “We refuse to hold an argument with a man professing the abominable principle of denying the existence of a Supreme Being.” Capper also remarked that Holyoake was “only actuated by a love of notoriety”, which led Holyoake in his 1850 work to describe this magistrate as a “brutal old man”. Holyoake was called to find £100 bail for himself, plus two sureties of £50 each, for his appearance at the next county Quarter Sessions. In the meantime, he was to be held in Gloucester Gaol.

It was proposed that Holyoake should be made to walk in handcuffs from Cheltenham to Gloucester, but some of his friends protested, and it was agreed that he could go by train, if he paid the fares for himself and two accompanying policemen. The same Cheltenham friends then sent a memorial to the House of Commons, protesting at Holyoake’s treatment by the authorities, criticising not just the attempt to make him walk in handcuffs from Cheltenham to Gloucester, but also the conduct of the Cheltenham magistrates, which “indicated a predisposition to punish Mr Holyoake, independently of any evidence which might be offered in defence of his own conduct.”

After sixteen days in Gloucester Gaol, Holyoake managed to arrange bail, but had to return to Gloucester quite soon after being released, in order to attend the Quarter Sessions. In the meantime, though, it had been decided that his trial should be take place at the Assizes rather than the Quarter Sessions. This meant that instead of facing a bench of magistrates, some of whom would have been those same Cheltenham gentlemen who had committed him, he would be tried by an independent judge.

The trial of George Jacob Holyoake took place on 15 August 1842, before Justice Erskine. Holyoake had elected to defend himself. He was charged that on 24 May, at the Mechanics’ Institution, Cheltenham, he “maliciously, unlawfully and wickedly did compose, speak, utter and pronounce, and publish with a loud voice, of and concerning Almighty God, the Holy Scriptures, and the Christian religion, these words following, that is to say, “I (meaning Holyoake) do not believe there is such a thing as God; I would have the Diety served as they (meaning the Government) serve the subalterns, place him (meaning Almighty God) on half pay”, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal and reproach of the Christian religion, in open violation of the laws of this kingdom, to the evil example of all others in the like case offending, and against the peace of our lady the Queen, her Crown and dignity.” Holyoake pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution case was that Holyoake had conned innocent people into attending his lecture by pretending it was about one subject, then spoke about something completely different, namely his hostility towards religion. The only witness to give evidence was one of the Cheltenham printers, James Bartram, who repeated the evidence he had given at the magistrates’ hearing. Holyoake cross-examined the witness closely, but could not get him to agree that he was in fear of losing his job, or that he had been coached as to what to say in his evidence.

After the prosecution case had ended, Holyoake began his speech for the defence. He made some good points, including that the evidence showed he had given the talk he had advertised, and had only made his remarks concerning religion when asked a question at the end. Unfortunately, he also tried to explain the values of socialism to the jury, quoted from poetry and political tracts, and read out numerous testimonials in his favour, and in total he spoke for nine hours. When he had finished, the jury quickly found him guilty, and Justice Erskine sentenced him to 6 calendar months imprisonment in Gloucester Gaol. Holyoake protested: “My lord, am I to be classed with thieves and felons?” The judge replied, “No; thieves and felons are sentenced to the Penitentiary, you to the Common Gaol.”

And so Holyoake went down to the cells, and was then taken to Gloucester Gaol to begin his sentence. In his later publications concerning this case, he spoke extensively about his time in gaol, and had some interesting things to say concerning the staff and visiting magistrates he encountered there. This part of his story will be related in a separate post.



Cheltenham Chronicle, 26 May, 2 June, 9 June, 16 June and 18 August 1842

G.J. Holyoake, The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography (1850)


Dictionary of National Biography

© Jill Evans 2014






2 thoughts on ““Atheism and Blasphemy”: The case of George Jacob Holyoake, Cheltenham, 1842

  1. Pingback: Holyoake’s Journey of 1842 | btsarnia

  2. Pingback: An Atheist in Gloucester Gaol, 1842-3 | Gloucestershire Crime History

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