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HOLYOAKE, George Jacob (1817-1906)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0372 HOLYOAKE
Held at: Bishopsgate Institute
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Full title: HOLYOAKE, George Jacob (1817-1906)
Date(s): 1831-1985
Level of description: Fonds
Extent: 24 boxes and miscellaneous items
Name of creator(s): Holyoake, George Jacob (1817-1906) freethinker and co-operator


Administrative/Biographical history:

Holyoake, George Jacob (1817-1906), freethinker and co-operator, was born in Birmingham in April 1817, the second of thirteen children and eldest son of George Holyoake (1790–1853), a printer, and Catherine Groves (1792–1867), a horn-button maker. He received a basic education at a dame-school and Carr's Lane Sunday school. For thirteen years until 1839 he worked at the Eagle Foundry, becoming a skilled whitesmith, and in 1836 joined the Mechanics' Institute, where he developed an interest in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and phrenology. On his marriage on 10 March 1839 to Eleanor (Helen) Williams (1819–1884), daughter of Thomas Williams, a small farmer from Kingswinford, he looked for a teaching post. Despite his experience as an assistant at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, he found promotion there and elsewhere blocked by his association with Robert Owen, to whom he had been attracted in 1836. He therefore sought employment from the Owenite Central Board, which appointed him stationed lecturer at Worcester in October 1840, moving him on to Sheffield the following May. The couple's first child, Madeline, was born in May 1840, and a second daughter, Helen (Eveline), followed in December 1841.

In November 1841, Charles Southwell, the Bristol social missionary, started a weekly atheistic publication, the Oracle of Reason. A month later he was arrested for blasphemy and Holyoake volunteered to edit the paper. On his way to visit Southwell in Bristol gaol in May 1842 he stopped in Cheltenham to lecture on Owenite socialism. A flippant reply to a question about the place of religion in the proposed socialist communities led to his prosecution for blasphemy at the assizes in August 1842, where he was sentenced to six months in Gloucester gaol. The death of Madeline in October 1842 put an emotional seal on his intellectual conversion to atheism.

On release Holyoake taught and lectured among the Owenites in London until May 1845, when he went to Glasgow for a year. Two sons were added to the family at this time, Manfred (1844) and Maltus (1846). As Owenism collapsed with the failure of the Queenwood community, remnants of the movement looked to Holyoake's obvious organizational talents to provide a new lead. He had already edited The Movement (1843–1845) and the Circular of the Anti-Persecution Union (1845) but his greatest achievement was The Reasoner, which ran weekly from June 1846 until June 1861 and intermittently thereafter. Around this paper he developed the social teachings of Owen into a new movement which in 1851 he called secularism. Holyoake's public image at this time was far more extreme than the reality. In London he was moving among those advanced liberals who wrote for and supported Thornton Hunt's Leader and were associated with the free-thinking South Place Chapel. His acquaintances now included John Stuart Mill, George Henry Lewes, Francis Newman, and Harriet Martineau, while some former colleagues accused him of prevarication in religious and political matters. Although still an atheist, he wished secularism neither to deny nor assert the existence of God. Those who believed religion a barrier to progress thought this a betrayal of principle. For Holyoake the sole principle was individual freedom of thought and expression without interference from state, church, or society.

In 1849 Holyoake, with his brother Austin Holyoake, established a printing firm which in 1853 took over James Watson's publishing business, conducted by the brothers at 147 Fleet Street until 1862. Here in 1855, as members of the Association for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge, they helped secure—through defiance of the law—the repeal of the Newspaper Stamp Act. The Reasoner collected funds to support European republicanism, and in 1860 Holyoake was secretary of the committee formed to send volunteers to assist Garibaldi in Italy. In politics he was a member of nearly every leading society for reform from the revived Birmingham Political Union in 1837 to the Reform League in 1867, including the last executive of the National Charter Association in 1852. Through his correspondence and personal acquaintance with Liberal MPs he began to build those bridges which created the popular Liberal alliance of the 1860s. Above all, collaborating with former Owenites and Christian socialists, he worked to establish the co-operative movement. His most effective propaganda, Self Help by the People (1858), told the story of co-operation in Rochdale since 1844 and largely created the myth of the Rochdale Pioneers.

In 1861, after twenty years of writing and provincial lecture tours, Holyoake was physically and emotionally exhausted. Many secularists were turning to the more vigorous leadership of Charles Bradlaugh. He had family responsibilities and social and intellectual aspirations beyond his limited means. His wife, who retained her religious beliefs and took little part in his public life, was bronchitic and in the mid-1860s moved out to Harrow, while her husband retained lodgings in London. They had three further children: Maximilian Robespierre (1848–1855), Francis George (b. 1855), and Emilie (b. 1861), of whom only the last was later to join him in his public work.

Increasingly Holyoake's life was spent in journalism, writing and lecturing for Liberalism and the co-operative movement. He offered himself for parliament in 1857 (Tower Hamlets), 1868 (Birmingham), and 1884 (Leicester), but each time withdrew before the poll. He was acquainted with most of the leading Liberals of the day, and in 1893 was made an honorary member of the National Liberal Club. As a consistent supporter of co-operation he was elected to the first central board in 1869, published a two-volume History of Co-Operation (1875, 1879), and presided over the Co-operative Congress at Carlisle in 1887. He was a staunch advocate of co-partnership in industrial production and of the international co-operative movement, attending the inaugural congresses of the French and Italian movements in Paris (1885) and Milan (1886) respectively. He also visited North America in 1879 and 1882 to collect information for a settlers' guide book.

Though no longer fully active in the secularist movement Holyoake continued to champion moderation against what he interpreted as Bradlaugh's dogmatic atheism, debating the subject with Bradlaugh in 1870 and reiterating his position in The Origin and Nature of Secularism (1896). When Bradlaugh republished the Fruits of Philosophy in 1877 Holyoake supported Charles Watts and the British Secular Union, and in 1899 became first chairman of Charles Albert Watts's Rationalist Press Association.

Holyoake died on 22 January 1906 in Brighton, Sussex.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of co-operator and secularist George Jacob Holyoake, 1831-1985, including correspondence to and from Holyoake regarding various topics at all stages of his career, including press cuttings of correspondence with Dr Kalley and correspondence between Holyoake, Austin Holyoake and Thomas Cooper, 1837-1943; series of engagement diaries kept by Holyoake, including brief handwritten notes on daily events and ephemera, including handbills, press cuttings and letters concerning meetings, lectures and public and political events pasted into pages, 1847-1905; printed material relating to all aspects of Holyoake's career, including handbills for lectures and addresses by Holyoake and meetings of co-operative societies, secularist organisations and other political movements, press cuttings of letters by Holyoake to the national and local press, various articles by Holyoake and others, and reviews of addresses and works, circulars and miscellaneous ephemera produced by Holyoake and supported movements, and various handwritten documents regarding Holyoake's political and personal life, 1831-1978; press cuttings of serialised articles and columns written by Holyoake for various national, local and international newspapers and periodicals, including London Correspondence, Town Talk, Private Correspondence, Our London Letter and other articles produced for the Brighton Guardian, Agricultural Economist, The Sun and the Co-operative News, along with press cuttings regarding the opening of Holyoake House in Manchester and the unveiling of the Holyoake Memorial at Highgate Cemetery, London, 1867-1911; loose press cuttings collected and compiled by Holyoake and relating to his life and work, including cuttings concerning visits to America and Canada, co-operation, co-operative congresses and festivals, co-operative societies, parliamentary reform and other miscellaneous cuttings concerning lectures and letters by Holyoake, secularism, republicanism, atheism and other various topics, 1857-1911; miscellaneous publications and notebooks by Holyoake, including manuscript drafts of works, early notes on lectures and their content, predominantly at the Birmingham Mechanics Institute, log books containing diary notes and thoughts, papers relating to the London Atheistical Society, accounts relating to Fleet Street House, London and press cuttings of letters by Holyoake written under the name `Ion', 1838-1861; miscellaneous manuscripts relating to Holyoake's life and career, co-operation and secularism, along with press cuttings and ephemera, including material relating to mathematics, Brighton, spiritualism, trade unions, grammar, the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee, the Social Economist, along with papers relating to Holyoake's arrest in 1842, Fleet Street House, London, the Congress of Social Reformers, Leeds Secular Society, the Thomas Allsop Prize Essay Competition and the Polish Legion, 1839-1978; galley proofs of printed copies of articles by Holyoake on various topics, 1893; press cuttings and extracts from journals concerning biographical details of Holyoake, his life and work, along with articles and obituary material published following his death in 1906, 1875-1917; minute books of the Travelling Tax Abolition Committee, of which Holyoake was Chairman, including handwritten minutes and printed statements, circulars and Committee documents pasted into each volume, along with loose circulars, ephemera and press cuttings concerning the Committee and its work, 1877-1901; minutes and papers of the Garibaldi Special Fund Committee, including Central Committee minutes, muster roll, ephemera, press cuttings and fund certificates recording members of the British Legion of excursionists to Italy, along with more general material relating to Garibaldi, Italian Unification and reaction in England, including cuttings from the Illustrated London News and secondary articles, 1860-1985; circulars, ephemera and press cuttings regarding to the Holyoake Testimonial Fund, including letters to subscribers, fund reports and a programme for a performance by the Victoria Dramatic Club in aid of the Fund, 1853-1889; four photographs of Holyoake taken late in his life, n.d.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
English, Italian

System of arrangement:

The George Jacob Holyoake Archive is divided into the following 13 sections:

HOLYOAKE/1: Correspondence

HOLYOAKE/2: Diaries

HOLYOAKE/3: Printed Material

HOLYOAKE/4: Press Cuttings Volumes and Serialised Articles

HOLYOAKE/5: Loose Press Cuttings

HOLYOAKE/6: Publications and Notebooks

HOLYOAKE/7: Miscellaneous Manuscripts

HOLYOAKE/8: Miscellaneous Articles

HOLYOAKE/9: Biographical Material

HOLYOAKE/10:Travelling Tax Abolition Committee

HOLYOAKE/11: Garibaldi Special Fund Committee

HOLYOAKE/12: Holyoake Testimonial Fund

HOLYOAKE/13: Photographs

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

Photocopying and digital photography (without flash) is permitted for research purposes on completion of the Library's Copyright Declaration form and with respect to current UK copyright law.

Finding aids:

Adlib catalogue an copy of handlist available in the researcher's area

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Deposited at the Bishopsgate Institute by Holyoake's daughter, Emilie Holyoake-Marsh after her father's death in 1906.

Allied Materials

Related material:

The Bishopsgate Institute also holds printed collections compiled by George Jacob Holyoake, including books and pamphlets. Further archival material is held at the Institute in the following collections:
- Bradlaugh papers: correspondence with Charles and Hypatia Bradlaugh (14 items), 1873-1901.
- Howell Collection: letters to George Howell, 1896-1904.

Further material relating to George Jacob Holyoake is held at the following repositories:
- National Co-operative Archive: correspondence and papers (c4340 items) , 1835-1906 / letters to E.O.Greening / letters to Robert Owen, 1850-1858.
- Duke University, William R.Perkins Library: letters and papers, 1873-94.
- British Library: letters to W.E.Gladstone, 1864-1897 / correspondence with and relating to Harriet Martineau, 1851-1877.
- Bradford Central Library: letters (16) from W.H.White, 1865-1903.
- Manchester University, John Rylands Library: letters (8) to John Howard Nodal, 1882-1901.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Entry compiled by Stefan Dickers

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
24 August 2005

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