An Atheist in Gloucester Gaol, 1842-3

At the Gloucestershire Assizes held in August 1842, George Jacob Holyoake, a socialist lecturer, was sentenced to six months in Gloucester Gaol for committing blasphemy, after saying at a lecture in Cheltenham that he did not believe in God. I wrote about his case in a previous post, which you can read by clicking here. In Holyoake’s own account of the trial, published in 1851 (The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England), he described his time in prison.

George Jacob Holyoake, in later life.

George Jacob Holyoake, in later life.

Holyoake first entered Gloucester Gaol in June 1842, after being committed there by the Cheltenham magistrates to await trial, and remained there while he tried to organise bail. After his trial, Holyoake was returned to the Gaol and put in the “Fines” section (where most of the inmates were there in lieu of paying a fine or sureties). It is clear that the authorities were puzzled as to how to treat their new “guest”, who was not the usual sort of criminal. On his first morning, when everyone else went to prayers, Holyoake refused to go, and said if they wanted him to attend, they would have to carry him to the chapel. He also was disinclined to wear prison clothes, and said that if he must wear them, the guards would have to dress him every morning. He was left to wear his own clothes, and only attended chapel on Sundays, when a sermon was preached.

Holyoake had as little as possible to do with his fellow prisoners, although he spoke of a small gesture of kindness made to him when he first entered the prison to await trial. On going into the “general room” on his first morning:

“The prisoners surrounded me, exclaiming, ‘What are you in for?’ As I made no reply, another observed, ‘We always tells one another’. ‘Oh! blasphemy’ I replied. ‘What’s that?’ said one. ‘Aren’t you ‘ligious?’ said another…Seeing my loaf unbroken, and that I could not eat, ‘Here’, said four or five of them at once, ‘Will you have some of this tea, zir?’ – which was mint-tea, the reward of some extra work, and the nicest thing they had too offer.”

When Holyoake returned to the gaol as a convicted prisoner, he avoided the company of his fellow inmates, as he disliked having to listen to “recitals of depravity such as I had never heard before, and do not wish to hear again.”

Holyoake had some interesting comments to make on the officials he came into contact with at the gaol. The Governor at that time was Captain Mason, who held the post from 1836 to 1862. Holyoake wrote that Mason was:

“A type of gentleman, official and conventional, whose qualities were instructive. Bland, imperturbable, civil and firm, he was never weak and never rude…I watched his manners with pleasure – he governed the gaol like a drawing room, excepting that the desserts were not quite the same…Possibly he had nerves and sensibility, but these articles were not in common use. They were kept under lock and key, and never brought out in the routine of official duties. As blandly and courteously as he wished me good morning, he would have conducted me to the gallows had instruction to that effect reached him. He would have apologized for the inconvenience, but he would have hung me while I was still saying, ‘pray don’t mention it’.”

The Visiting Magistrates who supervised the running of the prison took a great interest in Holyoake, and some of them asked for interviews with him in order to question him about his beliefs and to try to persuade him to see the error of his ways. Gloucestershire’s Senior Magistrate then was Mr Bransby Cooper, who had formerly represented Gloucester in Parliament. Cooper had many conversations with Holyoake, who wrote of him (in The History of the Last Trial…) that he was:

“A man of venerable and commanding aspect, generous to a fault in matters of humanity, harsh to a fault in matters of religion…One minute he would growl at me like an unchained tiger – the next he would utter some word of real sympathy…He had the voice of Stentor, and though at first his savage roar shook me, at last I acquired an artistic liking for it, and his voice was so grand that I came to the conclusion that he had a natural right to be a brute.”

In a later work, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (published 1892), Holyoake described Cooper as, “A man of great stature, great tenderness, great humanity, and like Lord Byron, a man of tumultuous passion, with a voice like the Plymouth Sound.”

The Prison Chaplain was the Reverend Robert Cooper, who was the son of Mr Bransby Cooper. The Revd Cooper served in the role from 1822 to 1850. In Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, Holyoake wrote of the Chaplain that he:

“Had the kindly nature, but none of the force of character of his father. He was merely a regulation clergyman, who believed he had spiritual duties to discharge; but his piety was like cold water – it gave you the discomfort of dampness, and when dry again you were as you were before. Still I retain respect for him. He had none of that spite of piety I had hitherto experienced, and was only disagreeable as a matter of official duty.”

Of the Prison Surgeon, Mr Thomas Hickes, Holyoake had little to say, except in an article he published in the Oracle of Reason after his release (reprinted in The History of the Last Trial…). Holyoake’s health had suffered in part due to the poor prison diet and he had been frustrated by the surgeon’s refusal to order additional food for him, without first referring to the Governor. In the Oracle of Reason he wrote:

“I gladly admit, that his manner was always very kind, but I complain that his answers were always very indecisive. What he recommended he seldom prescribed and professed that he must consult the governor when he should have consulted only himself.”

In his article in the Oracle of Reason, Holyoake made observations on the conditions inside the gaol. His worst recollection was of the state of the reception cell in which he spent his first night, sitting on the edge of the bed:

“Those are happy who are ever preserved from the reception cells of Gloucester Gaol. Of the one in which I was put, the floor was filthy, the bed was filthier, and the window was filthier still, for in the window was – what I sicken to write – a rag full of human excrement. And of the bed, a prisoner assured me that when he lay in it the lice crept up his throat off the corners of the blanket which covered him.”

Holyoake wrote that the prison diet consisted of bread, gruel, and potatoes, with boiled rice substituted for potatoes twice a week. “After I had been in prison nine weeks I was, by the rules, allowed a small portion of salt beef on Thursdays and Sundays. The gruel was little remarkable for its delicate and little celebrated for its nutritious qualities, and known by the luxurious cognomen of ‘skilly’. The rice had a blue cast, a saline taste and a slimy look. The beef I could not often taste, seldom chew, and never digest.”

He also complained of the lack of exercise inside the prison walls:

“The yard in which I walked was so small, that I always became giddy, through the frequent turnings, before I became refreshed. The governor sometimes permitted the “Fines-Class” in which I was, to walk in his garden; but the occasions came seldom and lasted not long – and I was previously so enervated by confinement, that the unusual exercise thus taken, threw me into a slight fever.”

As for the Chapel, Holyoake described the building as “a cold place” and sympathised with the prisoners who, unlike himself, were not able to get out of attending prayers every morning:

“The prisoners are assembled every morning to hear prayers, on empty stomachs, after sixteen hours’ confinement in their night cells. On the ‘long prayer’ mornings, they are detained in chapel three-quarters of an hour, and the penitentiary men, on their return to their cells, find their gruel on the floor, gone cold in their absence.”

George Jacob Holyoake was released from Gloucester Gaol on 6 February 1843, having served his six months’ sentence. In a letter he wrote to the Cheltenham Free Press (reprinted in The History of the Last Trial...) he wrote:

“How my imprisonment is supposed to affect me toward religion I cannot tell. I only know that I have no change of sentiment to own…After this, I can only say, that I have greater difficulty than ever in believing that humanity is the associate of piety; and if Christianity has no expounders more attractive than those I have fallen in with, the day of my conversion is still distant.”

The Prison Chaplain’s attempt to present Holyoake with a bible on his release from the gaol failed.


G.J. Holyoake, The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography (1851). (Available as an e-book from Google Books and other sites)

G.J. Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (1892). (Available on

© Jill Evans 2015


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