George Holyoake

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George Holyoake
George Jacob Holyoake

(1817-04-13)13 April 1817
Died22 January 1906(1906-01-22) (aged 88)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Burial placeHighgate Cemetery, London
OccupationNewspaper editor
Years active1846–1861
Known forInventing the word secularism.
SpouseEleanor Williams
RelativesAustin Holyoake (brother)
George Jacob Holyoake

George Jacob Holyoake (13 April 1817 – 22 January 1906) was an English secularist, co-operator and newspaper editor. He coined the terms secularism in 1851[1] and "jingoism" in 1878.[2] He edited a secularist paper, the Reasoner, from 1846 to June 1861, and a co-operative one, The English Leader, in 1864–1867.[3]

Early life[edit]

Holyoake's name on the lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

George Jacob Holyoake was born in Birmingham, where his father worked as a whitesmith and his mother as a button maker. He attended a dame school and a Wesleyan Sunday School,[4] began working half-days at the same foundry as his father at the age of eight, and learnt his trade. At 18 he began attending lectures at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, where he encountered the socialist writings of Robert Owen and later became an assistant lecturer. He married Eleanor Williams in 1839 and decided to become a full-time teacher, but was rejected for his socialist views.[5] Unable to teach full-time, Holyoake took a job as an Owenite social missionary. His first posting was in Worcester, but the following year he was transferred to a more important one in Sheffield.[6]


Holyoake joined Charles Southwell in dissenting from the official Owenite policy that lecturers should take a religious oath to enable them to take collections on Sundays. Southwell had founded an atheist publication, Oracle of Reason, and was soon imprisoned on those grounds. Holyoake took over as editor, having moved to an atheist position as a result of his experiences.

Holyoake was influenced by the French philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, notable in sociology and famous for the doctrine of positivism. Comte had himself attempted to establish a secular "religion of humanity" to fulfil the cohesive function of traditional religion. Holyoake was an acquaintance of Harriet Martineau, who translated various works by Comte and was perhaps the first female sociologist. She wrote to him excitedly on reviewing Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.


In 1842, Holyoake became one of the last persons convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, held in April 1842 at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute, though this had no theological character and the incriminating words were merely a reply to a question addressed to him from the body of the meeting.[7]

It took an intervention by supporters to stop him being walked in chains from Cheltenham to Gloucester Gaol, and there was a formal complaint to the Home Secretary, which was upheld. He was well supported by the Cheltenham Free Press at the time in his actions, but attacked in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Examiner. Those at the lecture, the second in a series, moved and carried a motion "that free discussion was equally beneficial in the departments of politics, morals and religion."[8][9] In 1842 Holyoake and the socialist Emma Martin formed the Anti-Persecution Union to support free thinkers in danger of arrest.[10]


Holyoake nonetheless underwent six months' imprisonment and editorship of the Oracle changed hands. After the paper closed at the end of 1843, Holyoake founded a more moderate one, The Movement, which survived into 1845.[11] Holyoake also founded the Reasoner,[12] where he developed the concept of secularism,[13] followed by the Secular Review in August 1876. He was the last person indicted for publishing an unstamped newspaper, but the prosecution was dropped when the tax was withdrawn.[7]

He retained his disbelief in God, but after the Oracle soon came to see "atheism" as a negative term, preferring "secularism". He then adopted the term "agnostic", when it appeared.[14]

In the 1850s Holyoake and Charles Southwell were lecturing in East London. Harriet Law, then a Baptist, began debating with them, and in the process changed her beliefs.[15] She "saw the light of reason" in 1855 and became a supporter of Holyoake and a prominent secular speaker.

After an 1877 split with Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, leaders of the National Secular Society (NSS), Holyoake, Charles Watts and Harriet Law founded the British Secular Union, which remained active until 1884.[16]

On 6 March 1881, Holyoake was a speaker at the opening of Leicester Secular Society's Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate, along with Harriet Law, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh.[17] He chaired the Rationalist Press Association in 1899–1906.[18]

Co-operative movement[edit]

Holyoake House in Manchester
Holyoake House in Manchester, home to Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative College.

Holyoake's later years were mainly spent on the working-class co-operative movement. He served as President for the first day of the 1887 Co-operative Congress.[19] He wrote a history of the Rochdale Pioneers (1857), The History of Co-operation in England (1875; revised ed. 1906) and The Co-operative Movement of To-day (1891). He also published (1892) an autobiography entitled Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, and in 1905 two volumes of reminiscences, Bygones Worth Remembering.[20][21][7]

The grave of George Holyoake, Highgate Cemetery, London

Holyoake died in Brighton, Sussex, on 22 January 1906, and was buried in the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery in London. The grave lies in a north-east section, off the main paths, and is not readily accessible, but visible between graves on the east side of the main central-north path, behind George Eliot's grave.

The Co-operative Movement decided to build a lasting monument to him: a permanent home for the Co-operative Union in Manchester.[22] Holyoake House was opened in 1911 and also houses the National Co-operative Archive. A second collection is held at Bishopsgate Library.[23]

Other aspects[edit]

Holyoake coined the term "jingoism" in a letter to The Daily News on 13 March 1878, referring to the patriotic song "By Jingo" by G. W. Hunt, popularised by the music hall singer G. H. MacDermott.[24][25] Referring back to this he wrote, "I had certainly intended to mark, by a convenient name, a new species of patriots... [whose] characteristic was a war-urging pretentiousness which discredited the silent, resolute, self-defensiveness of the British people."[26]

Holyoake was the uncle of an independent MP and convicted fraudster, Horatio Bottomley, and contributed to the cost of Bottomley's upkeep after he was orphaned in 1865.[27] The New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was related to him.[28]


Holyoake is listed on the south face of the Reformers' Memorial in London's Kensal Green Cemetery.

The National Secular Society unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Holyoake on Friday 17 August 2018. It is mounted on the front of a newsagents' at 4 Woburn Walk in Bloomsbury, London, WC1H 0JL, as part of the Marchmont Association's scheme of local history commemorative plaques.[29]

Holyoake Road in Headington, Oxford, Holyoake Walk in Ealing, London, Holyoake Terrace in Penrith, Cumbria and Holyoake Terrace in Sevenoaks, Kent, are named after George Holyoake.[30][31][32]


  • Rationalism: A Treatise for the Times (London: J. Watson, 1845)
  • The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography (London: J. Watson, 1850)
  • Christianity and Secularism Report of a Public Discussion Between Rev. Brewin and G. J. Holyoake (London: Ward & Co, 1853)
  • Rudiments of Public Speaking and Debate or, Hints on the Application of Logic (New York: McElrath & Barker, 1853); 9th edition, revised & enlarged. 1904.
  • The Trial of Theism (London, 1858)
  • The Principles of Secularism (London, 1870)
  • The History of Co-operation in England: Its Literature and its Advocates (Volume I Volume II) (London: Trübner & Co, 1875)
  • English Secularism: A Confession of Belief (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1896)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Holyoake, G.J. (1896). English Secularism: A Confession of Belief. Library of Alexandria. pp. 47−48. ISBN 978-1-465-51332-8.
  2. ^ Noah Feldman 2005, Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 113.
  3. ^ Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791–1866, University of Manchester, 1974. See Google Books.
  4. ^ McCabe, J. (1922), George Jacob Holyoake, United Kingdom: Watts
  5. ^ "George Holyoake". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 16 December 2020.
  6. ^ "George Holyoake".
  7. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  8. ^ Turner, Colin M. (January 1980). Politics in Mechanics' Institutes 1820–1850 (thesis). University of Leicester. hdl:2381/35680.
  9. ^ "Notes of Mr Hunt reporter August 15 1842, The Trial of George Jacob Holyoake on an Indictment for blasphemy". British Library main catalogues. British Library.
  10. ^ Barbara Taylor, "Martin, Emma (1811/12–1851)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 10 September 2015.
  11. ^ Rectenwald, Michael (June 2014). "Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism". British Journal for the History of Science. 46 (2): 235–238. doi:10.1017/s0007087412000738. JSTOR 43820386. S2CID 145566942.
  12. ^ Rectenwald, Michael (June 2013). "Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism". The British Journal for the History of Science. 46 (2): 237–238. doi:10.1017/s0007087412000738. JSTOR 43820386. S2CID 145566942.
  13. ^ Rectenwald, Michael (2016). Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 71–106. ISBN 978-1-137-46389-0.
  14. ^ "Holyoake eventually came to adopt Huxley's label "agnostic" (Berman 1990, p. 213). "The later Holyoake felt that the new label "agnosticism" more exactly suited his atheological position." (Berman 1990, p. 222).
  15. ^ Taylor, Barbara (1 January 1993). Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Harvard University Press. p. 283. ISBN 978-0-674-27023-7. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  16. ^ Jellis, George (9 March 2011), Harriet Law (1831–1897), Leicester Secular Society
  17. ^ Gimson, Sydney A. (March 1932). "Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society". Retrieved 27 August 2013.
  18. ^ Adam Gowans Whyte (1949), The Story of the R.P.A. 1899–1949. London: Watts & Co., p. 93.
  19. ^ "Congress Presidents 1869–2002" (PDF). February 2002. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 May 2008. Retrieved 10 May 2008.
  20. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob (1892). Sixty Years of An Agitator's Life. Vol. I. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018 – via Internet Archive.Holyoake, George Jacob (1892). Sixty Years of An Agitator's Life. Vol. II. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  21. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob (1905). Bygones Worth Remembering. Vol. I. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018.Holyoake, George Jacob (1905). Bygones Worth Remembering. Vol. II. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  22. ^ Collection Description of the Holyoake archive, held at the National Co-operative Archive, Manchester, UK Archived 13 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Collection Description of the Holyoake archive, held at the Bishopsgate Institute, London.
  24. ^ Martin Ceadel, Semi-detached Idealists: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1854–1945 (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 105.
  25. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob (1892). Sixty Years of An Agitator's Life. Vol. II. London: T. Fisher Unwin. pp. 217. Retrieved 23 June 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  26. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob (1892). Sixty Years of An Agitator's Life. Vol. II. London: T. Fisher Unwin. pp. 235. Retrieved 28 January 2022 – via Internet Archive.
  27. ^ Matthew Parris and Kevin Maguire, "Great parliamentary scandals: five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo", Robson, 2004, ISBN 1-86105-736-9, p. 85.
  28. ^ Geering, Lloyd. "In praise of the secular, part 3 of 4: The value of being secular" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 January 2018. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  29. ^ "National Secular Society unveils blue plaque commemorating Holyoake". 20 August 2018.
  30. ^ "Origins of Headington Street Names". 21 June 2019.
  31. ^ Hounsell, Peter (2005). The Ealing Book. Historical Publications Ltd. p. 110. ISBN 9781905286034.
  32. ^ "Holyoake Terrace and The Development of Social Housing in Sevenoaks". September 2013.


  • David Berman (1990), A history of atheism in Britain: from Hobbes to Russell, London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04727-7
  • Joseph McCabe (1908), Life and Letters of George Jacob Holyoake, 2 vols. London: Watts & Co. It includes A contribution towards a bibliography of the writings of George Jacob Holyoake, by C. W. F. Goss, pp. 329–344.)
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Holyoake, George Jacob". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 622.
  • Michael Rectenwald (2013), "Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-century Scientific Naturalism". The British Journal for the History of Science 46, no. 2: pp. 231–254. Found at JSTOR here.
  • Michael Rectenwald (2016), Nineteenth-century British Secularism Science, Religion and Literature. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Ray Argyle (2021), Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland

External links[edit]