Ever heard of Florence Nightingale or Charles Darwin? Of course you have, or you would not have started reading this, but my book is not about them, or many other famous radical thinkers. Many succeeded in convincing people in their lifetime. This book will introduce you to people who were equally as radical but were less successful in their own lifetime, and only became important post mortem.
Our first chapter is a case in point- the subject is Britain’s most famous vegetarian Anna Kingsford. Her life was varied and interesting, and her refusal to conform went much further than not eating meat. She was a founder of British theosophy, an anti-vaxxer and a believer in equal marriage. Readers of this chapter might understand way vegetarianism retains its slightly unorthodox tint in the present century.
Chapter two features another campaign against cruelty, in the form of the most famous Anglo-Irish campaigner against vivisection Frances Power Cobbe. She was a socially well placed journalist (and a member of Conservative Party) who used gruesome words and pictures to condemn animal cruelty. She was also a campaigner for woman’s rights in the area of domestic violence, property rights and the vote and openly lived in a same-sex relationship for much of her life.
Our next woman was definitely a radical, despite being the wife of an Irish Presbyterian minister who would have been very angry indeed with the ideas of Kingsford or Cobb. This is Ann Jane Carlile, who fought against the demon drink in Britain and Ireland. She fought against the hugely powerful drinks industry, tried to empower working class woman by removing the debilitating effect of alcohol from their lives and diets. Even if she does not sound like you kind of person, if you read the chapter you may at least come to admire her.
Temperance was radical in itself because it gave a voice to women. Spiritualism was the same, and our Victorian radical in this area is Florence Cook. It does not matter is she was a fraud, and her radicalism was unconnected with the truth of her beliefs. Spiritualism was a radical movement; it defied traditional religion and was organised largely by women. Florence’s story shows a woman who was well aware what she could achieve with the tool of spiritualism.
Talking about the dead (rather than merely talking to them) we come to our first double chapter on Sir Henry Thompson and Isabelle Holmes. Henry Thompson was about as ‘establishment’ as you could be, and somebody like that was needed to achieve what he did; he brought cremation to Britain. He did not make it popular; by 1902, there had only ever been 4,409 cremations, 2,653 of which had taken place in one crematorium in Woking. Cremation represented barely 5% of interments even as late as the 1930s in the UK. Cremation only overtook traditional burial in 1967. Isabelle Holmes is by far the most obscure of our Radical Victorians; she campaigned for new open spaces for the poor of London, and was one of the first to point out that the dead were hogging all the available land. She supported cremation, and went on to have a career in local government, which although unremarkable in our time, was a trailblazing effort for the middle class females of the time. This was the part of the book I liked writing the most; I had brought her back from total obscurity!
Our next double chapter is on woman’s legal rights, including the right to vote; the twentieth century suffragette movement has deep roots in Victorian times. The chapter features a Pankhurst- Richard Pankhurst , and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy. Richard has been overshadowed by his wife and daughters, probably rightly, but he was as committed as they were, if not so well organised. Wolstenholme-Elmy was a feminist campaigner who has been saved from obscurity by a successful campaign to erect a statue in Congleton, where she lived in sin with her partner Ben Elmy until her woman’s rights ‘friends’ pressurized the pair into marriage.
Birth control is the subject of the next double chapter, containing a name you might know and a name you probably do not; Annie Besant and George Drysdale. Drysdale’s views on sex, sexuality and birth control where utterly shocking in mid-Victorian Britain; at the time he did not put his name to the book because she was afraid of his mother’s reaction. As part of his belief in free love her advocated free and shameless contraception; the more famous Besant did so with slightly different motives in mind, and the book tells the story about how she came to her freethinking and radical conclusions.
Edward Truelove will be a new name to almost everybody. He was a printer and book seller in London and fought all of his life for a free press, fighting laws against sedition, blasphemy and obscenity. He published and distributed the work of Drysdale and worked with Annie Besant. He knew every radical in London and he was perhaps the only person who was on speaking terms with both Florence Nightingale and Karl Marx. He was imprisoned for four months in the fight for a free press. He wore prison uniform, pick oakum and sleep on a hard plank bed. He was sixty-eight.
Our central figure, the man who holds the book together, is Charles Bradlaugh, Britain’s most famous atheist. He was part of a radical free speech movement and knew Drysdale, Truelove, Besant and Wolstenholme-Elmy. He made atheism an acceptable intellectual conclusion for future citizens, at considerable personal effort and cost, which is described in the chapter.
Our next radical Josephine Butler was a campaigner for the rights of woman and is well known for her organised opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts. The Acts themselves were the most egregious example of the sexual double standard of the Victorian era. It was an anti-prostitution action in the major military towns which focused only on woman, regulating theirs action and punishing only them when apprehended.
A man who worked with Butler on her radical campaigning was William Thomas Stead, known as W.T. As well as being a famous victim of the Titanic accident in 1912, he was Britain’s first campaigning ‘tabloid’ journalists who made his name exposing the sexual mistreatment of women and children. He had other interests too; spiritualism, Esperanto and world peace being only three of them.
Members of the Church of England could be radical, but could not be successful. Our Christian socialist radical is Stuart Headlam. He was a curate who liked actresses and dancers, believed that the kingdom of heaven belonged as much to them as the rich and powerful, and started one of the first socialist groups of any kind in Britain. He was a believer in free speech; when Charles Bradlaugh was in trouble with the authorities for refusing to swear an oath to God, Headlam wrote and offered him the blessings of Christ.
If you are interested or supportive of the British Labour Party (full disclosure; I am an active member) then the chapter on Socialism will ring a bell. It contains a common and an uncommon name. James Kier Hardie was a child coal miner and trade unionist who is the first name in Labour party History; Henry Hyndman was a rich and privileged lawyer who converted to Marxism and represented another strand in the development of socialism. If you wonder why the Labour Party is such a ‘broad church’ today, it is because it still has to accommodate the different views of these two people.
The next chapter busts the myth that Queen Victoria and the monarchy were a fixed a popular point in the era named after her. Republicanism did exist – Bradlaugh, inevitably, was a republican but the most famous one of the era was the wealthy liberal Charles Dilke, and he spearheaded, rather reluctantly, a brief frenzy of mass republicanism which only lasted a few years but left a lingering republican sentiment in Britain which has existed but not rarely thrived since. Dilke had other radical inclinations, but it was his brief republicanism and a messy divorce case which ruined his prospects. He is our only radical Cabinet Minister, and the only one who was ever talked about as Prime Minister.
Finally, a man who actively disliked today, rather than forgotten or celebrated. This is the eugenicist Francis Galton; indeed he invented the word, from the Greek meaning ‘to live well’, which sounds uncontroversial and even positive, but this is not the case. His name is linked with racism and genocide, a proto-Nazi; but the whole story is much more complicated than that. The number of people who shared his views is remarkable; while people today may think they completely reject ‘selective breeding’ of humans, the truth is more complicated, and therefore more interesting.
Please suggest the book to your library.
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