Martyrdom of a Freethinker: Blasphemy, Secularism and the Trials of G. W. Foote
From Leeds WIKI
The aim of this project has been to assess the trial of G. W. Foote and his associates W. J. Ramsey and Henry Kempe for blasphemy in 1883. The trail was instigated after Foote published the Christmas 1882 number of his magazine the Freethinker, which contained a series of ‘blasphemous’ articles and cartoons. In this assessment a number of questions shall be addressed. Why was the Freethinker singled out for prosecution? What was the response from the public to the trial and the sentence? And what was the significance of the trial for British Secularism?
In order to answer these questions I have examined newspaper coverage from around the UK, the official documentation of the court proceedings and Foote’s own account of the trial, aptly titled Prisoner for Blasphemy. The trial clearly stimulated a national debate and coverage of the trial extended to newspapers from Cornwall to Dundee and Belfast. Through these sources the perspectives of the public, the authorities and the protagonists in this story can all be heard.
It seems surprising that, when in Britain today Secularism, religious tolerance and a free press are seen as something to be proud of; the story of G. W Foote and the Freethinker has been largely neglected by historians. While great attention has been paid in literature and history alike to the works of prominent thinkers, radicals and nonconformists such as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell and T. H. Huxley, to name but a few, scholarship on the grassroots radicalism expressed in the pages of the Freethinker is scarce.
There are however a few works of note on the topic. David Nash’s Blasphemy in Modern Britain: 1789 to the Present is a detailed study of the evolution of the Blasphemy Laws in Britain and devotes a chapter to the prosecution of the Freethinker and the role it played in redefining ‘blasphemy’ in British courts. Also of note is Joss Marsh’s Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture and Literature in Nineteenth Century England. Marsh analyses significant blasphemy trials throughout the nineteenth century and also dedicates a number of Chapters to the trial. However other than this, detailed study of the Freethinker trial seems hard to find, leading Marsh to comment that the trial has “vanished into an Orwellian memory hole.” 
In order to assess the reasons why the Freethinker was singled out for prosecution it must be viewed in the context of the political and religious climate of the late nineteenth century. Britain had both national and international concerns. The Paris Commune of March 1871 showed that Europe was by no means free from revolutionary and radical spirit nearly a century after the French Revolution. The government was facing growing disquiet in Ireland over the issues of Home Rule and Land Reform. A fear of the potential involvement of Anarchist and Socialist ideologies was also bubbling under the surface which arguably led to the quick passage of the Explosives Act in 1883.
It is in this context that we must view the rise of freethought and the Secular movement in Britain which was embodied in the National Secular Society (N.S.S.). Many of its most prominent members such as G. W. Foote and Charles Bradlaugh were not only atheists, a creed long associated with European revolutionary thought, but also avowed Republicans. It is not surprising therefore that the British government would be wary of their voices being heard.
Religion in Nineteenth-Century Britain
After a period of religious dissent and crackdowns on nonconformists throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century Britain was becoming more tolerant. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 allowed Catholics and other Nonconformist groups to enter into public and civil office. By 1858 the Jewish community was also becoming accepted into British society when they became able to sit in Parliament without taking a Christian oath. Callum G. Brown brands Britain between 1800 and 1963 as a “highly religious nation...a deeply Christian country of unprecedented churchgoing levels and the most strict rules of personal conduct.”
However, this was also a time when the works of influential writers questioning not just christianity but religion as a whole were circulating within the elite elements of society. Works by Thomas Paine most obviously, but also other deistical and increasingly atheistical thinkers were gaining influence and were being discussed and debated. The Freethinker was to take these ideas and offer them to the masses.
British Secularism and the Freethinker
In the late nineteenth century atheists were a persecuted minority. They could not bury their dead with non-religious services, could lose custody of their children, could not sit in parliament until Bradlaugh’s Affirmation Bill was finally passed in 1888, and could not express their views without the fear of imprisonment.
While the theological and philosophical elites did engage in the movement, British Secularism emerged as a working-class phenomenon, its leaders focusing on the most contentious religious and political issues of the day. The Secularist’s notion that religious authority was a means of social control saw them gain support amongst the working class. By 1882 the N.S.S had 120 local branches around the country, and claimed a national audience of sixty thousand. The bulk of fee-paying members were from industrial working-class areas such as London but most predominantly Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Leeds.
The Secular community produced a number of publications at this time such as the Secular Chronicle, Secular Review, National Reformer and the Agnostic Annual all with varying degrees of success. G. W. Foote was one of the N.S.S’s leading figures, becoming president in 1890, and his Freethinker was the most outrageous and forward of all of these publications. Foote’s witticisms, ridicule and use of cartoons to attack the core values of Christianity, combined with the very affordable price of one penny, threw his atheistic and Secular beliefs out for the masses to absorb or be repulsed by. It was the deliberately confrontational nature of the Freethinker that would arguably lead to it’s author's arrest and sentence to twelve months confinement with hard labour.
Why was the Freethinker Prosecuted?
On the 26th of February 1883, after two separate trials, the first resulting in a hung jury, the second passing a sentence of guilty for Blasphemous Libel, Henry Kempe was sentenced to three months imprisonment, W. J. Ramsey was sentenced to nine months and G. W. Foote as editor of the Freethinker was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour. As the sentence was passed the gallery of the Old Bailey erupted with cries of indignation and had to be cleared by the city police in a scene that had “seldom been witnessed in Court.” The three men had defended themselves on the basis that the Freethinker was a “free expression of opinions” and that there was no reason for it to be prosecuted whilst other works of a similar nature escaped the courts. Why then was it the case that the Freethinker was singled out as a ‘blasphemous’ publication? The response to the trial as seen through contemporary sources suggests a variety of possibilities.
One suggestion, advanced both by contemporary observers and since by historians is that the trial of the Freethinker amounted to political censorship of the press. Foote deliberately targeted the working class, selling his Freethinker for the “people’s price” of one penny. The atheism espoused on it’s pages had long been linked to European radicalism in the political mindset of Britain. Certainly the government were not adverse to censoring radical publications, the United Irishman had been seized in 1882 over fears it would spark an Irish uprising.
Evidence can be seen in the press coverage of the trial that suggests the public saw the actions of the government as the repression of press freedom. A typical example from The Leeds Mercury reported that the trial “is a social event of considerable importance. That there should be any interference with freedom of opinion in this country...will be strongly contested by all true Liberals, whether in politics or theology.”
During his trial, Foote also suggested that the prosecution was nothing more than press censorship. In his defence speech at the first trial, as recorded by the Daily News, Foote addressing the jury claimed “that they were the court of appeal on all questions affecting the liberty of the Press, or the right of free speech and free thought” and that these prosecutions were only commenced against “men who were friendless and endeavoring to speak to the masses of the people, and for the purpose of keeping them in social and political subjection.”
However, there were others in the press who strongly disagreed with this view. One column in the Birmingham Daily Post claimed that it was “not for honest vindication of their own views, but for the gross and gratuitous insult to the religious convictions of others–that they were indicted.” The London correspondent for the Manchester Times wholeheartedly agreed with this position stating “the feeble attempts to represent the prosecution as a blow aimed at freedom of thought have signally failed.” It should also be noted that the Birmingham Daily Post remained hostile to the Freethinker across the whole period. For example, while most described Mr. Justice North, the judge presiding over the case as ‘vindictive’, ‘excessive’ and generally unpleasant, the Birmingham Daily Post described him as ‘suave’, ‘effective’ and ‘gentle’
Not all coverage in the newspapers was supportive and many reports reveal that the religious community at large was indeed offended by the Freethinker and the atheistic views it represented. On examination of contemporary reporting we can see both liberal Christian views expressed and more condemning ones. Furthermore the indictments themselves and the court proceedings suggest the prosecution was spurred by genuine offence taken to the satirical nature of the Freethinker. The summons for Foote and his associates to appear at court charged the men as “wicked and evil-disposed persons” who aimed to “vilify Almighty God, and to bring the...Christian Religion into disbelief and Contempt.”
It is hardly surprising that Christians were offended since that is precisely what the Freethinker aimed to do. In it’s very first issue published in May 1881, it stated “The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ...It will rage relentless war against superstition in general, and against Christian superstition in particular...it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.”
The Morning Post was a paper that shared the religious conservatism of the previously cited Birmingham Daily Post, telling its readers “we have no hesitation in saying that publications such as those for which the defendants have been convicted and most deservedly punished could not be tolerated in any civilised society.” However the Manchester Times was a little quick off the mark when it commented “almost unanimous approval has been given to the sentences passed by Mr. Justice North...they wantonly issued foul and disgusting insults against the religious beliefs of the community at large.” In fact a close examination of the press coverage of the trial reveals that most, while agreeing with the initial prosecution of the Freethinker were still condemning of the excessive sentences passed on the defendants and encouraged a nationwide debate on the Blasphemy Laws.
An article in the Pall Mall Gazette entitled “What Ought to be Blasphemous Libel?” seems to sum up the feelings of the press at large. Whilst critical of the Freethinker and its publishers, it held a liberal Christian stance. The article refers to the Freethinker as an “objectionable print” and the tone of the article suggests that it’s writer would consider the publication offensive. However, the paper was highly critical of the behaviour of the judge in the case, Mr. Justice North, writing that “A judge in a blasphemy case should be scrupulous to abstain from any display of theological prepossessions, and Mr. Justice North’s lament concerning the prostitution of “talents given by God to the work of the Devil” might well have been spared” The paper also comments on the “disgraceful condition of the law” and agrees with Foote’s suggestion that while the Freethinker was prosecuted, other elite writers and thinkers could express the very same views with impunity. It was this more liberal view that prevailed in the press at the time of the case. While suggesting that the Freethinker was indeed offensive and blasphemous, the sentences were excessive and the law needed reforming as in its current state seemed to pray only on the lower classes.
Literary and Aesthetic Style
One suggestion proposed by Joss Marsh is that it was the literary style employed by Foote in the Freethinker and his innovative use of cartoons as a ‘weapon’ to ridicule religion, that allowed the publication to be singled out for prosecution. Other newspapers did not start frequently using illustrations until the founding if the Daily Mail in 1896. Foote recognised that his use of humour as a means to discredit religion was enough to provoke the courts against him, lamenting “Why should one man be allowed to deny miracles, and another man be imprisoned for laughing at them? Must we regard long-faced scepticism as permissible heresy, and broad-faced scepticism as punishable blasphemy?” Foote’s very use of ridicule was divisive even within the Secular community, we learn from The Standard’s report of the first trial that William Bradlaugh and another high profile Secularist, Annie Besant, ceased their support of the Freethinker once Foote began publishing the cartoons.
The Freethinker began using cartoons early in 1882 with a series called “Comic Bible Sketches” after Foote saw similar items in a French periodical. In his first indictment the image “Divine Illumination” alone earned three counts. The 1882 Christmas number of the Freethinker would use illustrations to their maximum effect when the series “New Life of Christ” was published. The cartoons used in the Freethinker used real lines from the bible and accompanied them with a humorous illustration often taking the words at their most literal. Of particular note is the cartoon "Moses Getting a Back View" in which we see, emerging from the clouds, what appears to be God's behind in patched trousers. An ambiguous protrusion from his rear – depending on how the reader perceives it – could be a loose bit of material or a classic example of early British toilet humour. Another depicts the Baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by the three wise men, interpreted as three donkeys.
Contemporary newspapers suggest that the public also saw the prosecution as a result of the literary and aesthetic style of the Freethinker. The Birmingham Daily Post commented that “it is a perversion of language to call coarse ribaldry and gross cartoons of such publications as the Freethinker freedom of speech, and to plead for them the liberty of the press.” The Pall Mall Gazette quoted Mr. Justice Macaulay who likened the Freethinker’s defence to a man running up and down the streets naked and claiming he “is exercising his right to locomotion.” again showing the reaction of many to the perceived obscenity of the cartoons.
However, the fact that many saw the prosecution in this light led to questions over the charge. The debate now became a national one of whether ‘blasphemy’ and ‘obscenity’ were interchangeable in the eyes of the law and indeed whether either should even be seen as a criminal offence. The weekly journal Justice, reflecting on the trials the following year, around the time of Foote’s release, quoted the opinion of judge Mr. Justice Stephen’s who wrote that “Mr. Foote was sent to prison not for blasphemy but for vulgarity” and commented “it was monstrous that Mr. Foote and Mr. Ramsey should be put in goal for what at most was an offence against good manners.” It certainly seems the case that the very nature in which Foote expressed his views had an influence on why he found himself serving twelve months imprisonment.
Sentence and Imprisonment
The excessive sentences given to Foote, Ramsey and Kempe were met with shock across the country. The shouts from the spectators in the gallery of the Old Bailey were echoed by the public at large. The Dundee Courier reported that Dr. Edward Aveling, “who was announced to deliver a lecture tonight on the comedies of Shakespeare, was so overcome by the news, which reached him on the platform” that he had to be forgiven his address “His feelings, he said were not in accordance with the subject of his lecture. Had he chosen the tragedies of Shakespeare instead, he would not have laboured under the present difficulty.” Other reports reveal how the public massed in support of the defendants following the sentence. In Plymouth (Foote’s home town) “a Committee has been formed there...for promoting a national agitation for the immediate commutation of the sentence...Advanced Liberal and Freethought associations throughout the country are already in telegraphic communication upon the subject, and forms of memorial to the Home Secretary are being printed.” reports the Manchester Times.
Certainly the reaction of the press and the public displayed a national desire for reform, one paper reported “it is confidently expected that the result of the trial will be that the law which makes an indictment for blasphemy possible will be radically altered before any long space of time has elapsed.” Interestingly, at the head of the agitation for the repeal of the blasphemy laws was a Reverend, William Sherman and frequent reports can be seen of ‘crowded’ and ‘bustling’ meetings with the Reverend chairing.
After the sentence was passed Sir William Harcourt, the Home Secretary, was inundated with letters and petitions demanding their release, he was even challenged in parliament on the issue. Some even sent letters to Gladstone, the current Prime Minister. One open letter addressed to Harcourt, sent by Dr. Aveling appeared in the pages of the Daily News in which he wrote “Two judges have disagreed as to the charge against these men... Memorials signed by thousands of people have appealed on their behalf; the most influential men in science, philosophy, literature, religion, have signed these memorials; the opinion of the press has been almost unanimous as to the barbarity of the sentence.”
The trial of the Freethinker propelled the issues of both the blasphemy laws and indeed the rights of atheists in general into the public eye. The Social Sciences Congress that took place in Huddersfield that year had a debate on “Should the existing law as to blasphemy be amended?” Prior to the start of the debate the speaker felt compelled to suggest that the discussion should not be centered purely around the Freethinker trial, such was the publicity it had received. Clearly the trial had turned G. W. Foote and his associates into martyrs for the cause of freethought and Secularism.
The response from the public at large and the authorities was noticeably different. Before the prosecution Harcourt had long wished to suppress the Freethinker, David Nash comments that the “dedication of Harcourt to securing a conviction and the full measure of punishment” became an "enduring theme" throughout the Foote case. It is not surprising therefore that despite the public outcry he did nothing to diminish the sentence. The Northern Echo stated that Harcourt “refusing to modify the outrageous sentence passed in the Foote blasphemy case” was an “unpleasant surprise.” from a man otherwise "admired."
However, following the second trial in which they were found guilty, a third prosecution was brought against them. This time in front of the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Coleridge. The outcome of this trial was deemed to be an outright success and triumph of freethought. This time Foote was able to address the jury in the manner he wished and was able to quote from a number of works of what he called ‘permitted blasphemy’ without the interruptions of the judge (something Mr. Justice North was highly criticised for). The works included Paine, Mills and Huxley and through this Foote managed to prove that “the offence of blasphemy...has been committed by authors of high mark and good standing in society” and his speech was referred to as “a masterpiece of its kind.” Lord Coleridge’s ruling was celebrated throughout the Secular community as a victory in the fight against religious oppression. Coleridge ruled “I now lay it down as law, that, if the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without a person being guilty of blasphemous libel” However it should be noted that the Blasphemy Laws remained an anachronistic stain on the statute books until the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act in 2008.
The late nineteenth century was a time when open and avowed atheists were the only people still subject to the brutality of laws governing opinion. It is in this context, argues Joss Marsh, that we must consider the Freethinker and must recognise that it was “born out of frustration at a critical moment in history.” “Blasphemy” Foote declared “is simply skepticism expressed in plain language and sold at the people’s price.” The Freethinker took the idea of ‘plain language’ and forwardness to it’s extreme at a time when people were not ready for such blatant attacks on the Christian religion, which many saw as the backbone of orderly society. However, by offering himself up for martyrdom he was able to expose the hypocrisy of the law and the government. Not only this, but he publicised it to the masses. Arguably had he not received such a shocking sentence, his trial would have faded into insignificance. However, the outrage of the public at large won support for the Secularist agenda from across the country. The three trials culminated in Lord Justice Coleridge’s landmark ruling that altered the legal definition of blasphemy. It was a ruling that lasted from 1883 until 2008. Furthermore, without Foote and his colleagues Britain may well not be the tolerant, inclusive and secular nation which it prides itself on today.
- Joss Marsh, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 4
- Marsh, p. 128.
- Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 9.
- Marsh, pp. 132-3
- Marsh, pp. 131-2.
- Edward Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), p. 58-9.
- Manchester Times, March 10, 1883.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online, "February 1883, trial of GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE WILLIAM, JAMES RAMSAY, HENRY ARTHUR KEMP",(ref, t18830226-359), <www.oldbaileyonline.org> [accessed 20/5/2013].
- G. W. Foote, Prisoner for Blasphemy (London: Progressive Publishing Company, 1886), p. 17.
- Franklyn K. Prochaska, ‘Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason Revisited’ Journal of the History of Ideas, 33, 4 (1972), pp.516-576 (p. 576).
- David Nash, Blasphemy in Modern Britain: 1789 to the Present (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), p. 130.
- The Leeds Mercury, March 6, 1883.
- Daily News, March 2, 1883.
- Birmingham Daily Post, March 7, 1883.
- Manchester Times, March 10, 1883.
- Birmingham Daily Post, March 5, 1883.
- Foote, p. 31.
- Freethinker, vol. 1, no. 1, May 1881.
- The Morning Post, April 26, 1883.
- Manchester Times, March 10, 1883.
- Pall Mall Gazette, March 2, 1883.
- Pall Mall Gazette, March 6, 1883.
- Marsh, p. 143.
- Foote, p. 53.
- The Standard, April 14, 1883.
- Marsh, p. 141.
- Birmingham Daily Post, March 7, 1883.
- Pall Mall Gazette, March 2, 1883.
- Justice, March 15th, 1884, p. 1.
- The Dundee Courier and Argus and Northern Warder, March 2, 1883.
- Manchester Times, March 10, 1883.
- The Bury and Northwich Post, and Suffolk Herald, March 6, 1883.
- Daily News, May 15, 1883.
- The Belfast Newsletter, October 5, 1883.
- Nash, p. 130.
- Northern Echo, September 18, 1883.
- Pall Mall Gazette, April 26 1883.
- Marsh, p. 3.
- Marsh, p. 139.
- Marsh, p. 127.
The Belfast Newsletter, October 5, 1883
Birmingham Daily Post, March 5, 1883
Birmingham Daily Post, March 7, 1883
The Bury and Northwich Post, and Suffolk Herald, March 6, 1883
Daily News, March 2, 1883
Daily News, May 15, 1883
The Dundee Courier and Argus and Northern Warder, March 2, 1883
Freethinker, vol. 1, no. 1, May 1881
Justice, March 15th, 1884
The Leeds Mercury, March 6, 1883
Manchester Times, March 10, 1883
The Morning Post, April 26, 1883
Northern Echo, September 18, 1883
Pall Mall Gazette, March 2, 1883
Pall Mall Gazette, March 6, 1883
Pall Mall Gazette, April 26 1883
The Standard, April 14, 1883
Foote, G. W., Prisoner for Blashemy, (London: Progressive Publishing Company, 1886)
Old Bailey Proceedings Online, "February 1883, trial of GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, WILLIAM JAMES RAMSAY, HENRY ARTHUR KEMP", (ref, t18830226-359), <www.oldbaileyonline.org> [accessed 20/5/2013]
Brown, Callum, G., The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (London: Routledge, 2001)
Marsh, J, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
Nash, David, Blasphemy in Modern Britain: 1789 to the Present (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999)
Prochaska, Franklyn K., ‘Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason Revisited’ Journal of the History of Ideas, 33, 4 (1972), pp.516-576
Royle, Edward, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980)