Charles Watts (secularist)
27 February 1835|
|Died||16 February 1906
|Occupation||Writer, lecturer, publisher|
|Relatives||Charles Albert Watts (son)|
Life and career
He was born in Bristol into a family of Methodists, and showed precocious talents, giving his first lecture at the age of 14. At the age of 16 he moved to London, and worked with his elder brother John Watts (1834-1866) in a printing office. Through this work the two brothers came into contact with freethinkers including Charles Southwell and Charles Bradlaugh. John Watts became an active proselytiser for secularism, and in 1863 was appointed editor of the National Reformer, a radical periodical founded by Bradlaugh, with Charles as assistant editor. In 1864 the brothers formed a publishing business, Watts & Co.
John Watts died from tuberculosis at the age of 32. Charles Watts took charge of the publishing business and toured the country, delivering hundreds of lectures on theological, social, and political issues. He declared himself an atheist and, with Bradlaugh and others, helped found the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866. In 1876, he was appointed full-time editor and publisher of the National Reformer. He also wrote and published a wide range of pamphlets on secularism and republicanism, and wrote the first systematic history of freethought, eventually published in book form as Freethought: its Rise, Progress and Triumph. His wife, Kate Eunice Watts, often travelled with him and also wrote pamphlets, including The Education and Position of Woman and Christianity: Defective and Unnecessary.
In 1877 Charles Watts broke with Bradlaugh over the pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy, which had been written by American physician and atheist Charles Knowlton, and which promoted birth control and discussed human sexuality. The pamphlet was published for the first time in Britain by Watts' publishing company, with an introduction by Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, and Watts, Bradlaugh and Besant were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Watts dissociated himself from Bradlaugh and pleaded guilty, claiming that he had not read the document. He was released, resigned from the NSS, and, with George Holyoake and George Foote, formed the British Secular Union, a short-lived rival group. Watts became editor of the Secular Review founded by Holyoake.
In 1882, he travelled for the first time to the United States to lecture, and also visited Canada, where he was invited to take up residence. He emigrated to Toronto in 1883, leaving his son Charles Albert Watts in charge of his publishing interests in Britain. Charles Watts then became the leader of the secularist movement in Canada, founding and editing Secular Thought in Toronto, and also regularly went on lecture tours of the US. He returned in 1891 to England, where his son had by then established the periodical Watts's Literary Guide (the forerunner of the New Humanist magazine) to promote secularist activities. Charles Watts rejoined the NSS and continued lecturing, as well as cooperating with Foote on the journal, The Freethinker. He returned to the US and Canada, with Foote, to lecture in 1896, and again visited the US in 1899.
He died in England in 1906 at the age of 70. His son, Charles Albert Watts, remained active in the secularist movement, helping to develop the Rationalist Press Association.
- Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791-1866, Manchester University Press, 1974, ISBN 0-7190-0557-4
- Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Biography of Charles Watts, American Atheists
- Jonathan Rée, The blasphemers of Johnson's Court, New Humanist
- G. H. Taylor, A Chronology of British Secularism, National Secular Society, 1957