AIM25 : Click here to go back to the AIM25 homepage
Archives in London and the M25 area

British Humanist Association

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0372 BHA
Held at: Bishopsgate Institute
  Click here to find out how to view this collection at ›
Full title: British Humanist Association
Date(s): 1887-2014
Level of description: Fonds
Extent: 334 boxes, 5 volumes, 3 bundles
Name of creator(s): British Humanist Association


Administrative/Biographical history:

The British Humanist Association has its origins in the ethical movement established by Felix Adler in America in 1876. The aim of the ethical movement was to 'disentangle moral ideals from religious doctrines, metaphysical systems and ethical theories'. Ten years later, the movement was brought to Britain by Doctor Stanton Coit who became a minister of the South Place Ethical Society and later established the West London Ethical Society. In 1896 the Union of Ethical Societies was formed creating a central body to which local societies could affiliate and send representatives to the annual Congress. From 1920 the organisation was known as the Ethical Union. The Ethical Union was involved with moral education, repeal of the blasphemy laws, penal reform and neighbourhood community work. They also assisted the women's movement and drew attention to racial, colonial and international problems by initiating and supporting effective action. Searching for alternatives to religious worship also led to the formation of the Ethical Church by the Stanton Coit in Bayswater, operating from c.1909 to c.1954. The immediate origins of the British Humanist Association stem from the 1962 annual conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. British representatives concluded that there was a need to establish a national Humanist body to incorporate the growing number of local and university Humanist groups. At this point the central point of contact and unity between the local societies remained the Ethical Union. A Humanist Council had been established in the 1950s to promote greater collaboration between secularist groups at a national level (representatives from the Ethical Union, Rationalist Press Association and National Secular Society were invited to sit on the Council) but it was disbanded by the mid-1960s. Further attempts were made to move towards greater collaboration in 1957 when the Rationalist Press Association and the Ethical Union formed the Humanist Association. The name ‘British Humanist Association’ was registered in 1961 and co-operation between the Ethical Union and Rationalist Press Association was formalised in 1963 with the inaugural dinner of the British Humanist Association at the House of Commons in May. Following the creation of the British Humanist Association there was an immediate rise in membership and local group activity. University humanist groups also became more active instituting the Humanist Student Federation. Harold Blackham, an influential figure in the ethical movement and a former assistant to Stanton Coit, was appointed Executive Director of the British Humanist Associations serving from 1963 to 1968. Despite the joint commitment to the British Humanist Association in 1963, both the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association retained their individual identities: the Ethical Union in West London was concerned with public relations, and the Rational Press Association, in Drury Lane, with publishing. By 1965 collaboration between the Ethical Union and Rationalist Press Association was to become more difficult following amendments to the charity laws. The Ethical Union was removed from the charity register on a technical point. This necessitated the Rationalist Press Association, because of its own charitable status, to pull out of the joint running of the British Humanist Association. The issues surrounding charitable status led to the creation of the Humanist Trust in 1967 and the incorporation of the Ethical Union into the British Humanist Association. The Humanist Trust became a charitable organisation focused on funding educational activities, whilst the British Humanist Association (now solely operated by the former Ethical Union) was able to pursue political lobbying and campaigning. The battle for charitable status for the British Humanist Association continued and was eventually won in 1983. From its origins the British Humanist Association's activities have been wide and varied. These have included the publication of pamphlets, books and periodicals, arranging conferences, promoting campaigns and organising local groups. The Association also calls for and promotes new thinking, research and experimentation in moral and religious education, along with helping Humanist parents and teachers. It also seeks a fuller and fairer representation of Humanist views in broadcasting , the press and government. The British Humanist Association is linked internationally with the International Humanist and Ethical Union and has been affiliated to the United Nations Association and supported Freedom from Hunger and similar campaigns. It was also involved in establishing the Humanist Housing Association, the Agnostics Adoption Society, the Social Morality Council (now transmuted into the Norham Foundation), and a Humanist counselling service. Education continues to be a priority and many books, newsletters and literature are produced. The British Humanist Association members receive the official newsletter of the Association, Humanist News, and since 2001, The New Humanist, (published by the Rational Press Association). Presidents of the British Humanist Association: - Sir Julian Huxley, (1963-1965) - Professor AJ Ayer, (1965-1970) - Edmund Leach, (1970-1972) - George Melly, (1972-1974) - Harold Blackham, (1974-1977) - James Hemming, (1977-1980) - Hermann Bondi, (1981-1999) - Claire Rayner, (1999-2004) - Linda Smith, (2004-2006) - Polly Toynbee, (2007-2013) - Jim Al-Khalili, (2013- )


Scope and content/abstract:

Archive of the British Humanist Association, including: papers of the British Humanist Association and it's predecessors bodies, The Union of Ethical Societies, The Ethical Union and the Humanist Association,1887 - c.2001; papers of the Humanist Trust, 1958 - 1996; papers of groups affiliated to the British Humanist Association and it's predecessor bodies, The Union of Ethical Societies and The Ethical Union, 1892 - 2007; Uncatalogued material of the British Humanist Association, c.2000-2014. (1887-2014)

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

No further arrangement at present.

Conditions governing access:


Please note, some records contain information closed under the Data Protection Act 1998. Please ask the Archivist for more information.

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.

Copyright is held by the British Humanist Association and other individuals/organisations including Charles Edridge, British Broadcasting Corporation, Granada Television, Associated Television Ltd, Oxfam and Press Association. In some cases, the copyright holder is unknown.

Finding aids:

Adlib catalogue and copy of handlist in researcher's area.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Deposited at the Bishopsgate Institute by the British Humanist Association, 22 October 2007 and regular subsequent deposits to present day.

Allied Materials

Related material:

The Bishopsgate Institute also holds the British Humanist Association Library including books, pamphlets and periodicals published by the BHA, along with more general works on humanism and rationalism.

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:
1 March 2017.

Related Subject Search

* To search for other records with similar subjects, tick any subjects above then click "Run New Search"

Related Corporate Name Search

* To search for other records with similar names, tick any names above then click "Run New Search"