Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939 - Working-class Politics 1850-69 – Chartism and Secularism
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Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939
Working-class Politics 1850-69 – Chartism and Secularism
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Working-class Politics 1850-69 – Chartism and Secularism  

Chartism was the main political ‘culture’ of working people in the Black Country from the end of the 1830s until 1860. Chartism reached its peak here in 1842 when a combination of a campaign for the collection of signatures on the 2nd Petition and a general strike amongst miners and other workers made Black Country Chartism stronger than in almost any other area of Britain. If it had been as strong elsewhere the Charter would almost certainly have had to be granted by the government and democracy would have come to Britain decades earlier. Chartist influence declined thereafter, but until its final demise in 1860 it remained the only organisation and philosophy capable of mobilising working people to political action.  

Secularism co-existed with Chartism in the decade 1850-60 and when Chartism disappeared, Secularism inherited its mantle until the early 1870s when a powerful Republican movement arose which was swamped by the Great Depression. It took another ten years before a new Socialist movement arose with the emergence of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League, together with the reformist Fabian Society.

One activity holding Chartists together after 1847 was the Chartist Land Company. This was an immense scheme of Feargus O’Connor involving many thousands of people who made weekly contributions for plots of land on Chartist estates. When they had a fully paid-up £1 share they were entitled to enter a ballot for plots of land on one of five estates. The two-fold aim was to settle workers on the land and also give them a vote as free-holders. O’Connor cut corners to develop the scheme and in 1848 Parliament declared it illegal. By then, however, most of the estates were operating and 15 members in the Black Country and two in Birmingham were allocated land at O’Connorsville in Hertfordshire, Charterville (Minster Lovell in Gloucestershire), Low Bands and Snigs End in Worcestershire, or Great Dodsford near Bromsgrove. This last estate was of particular concern to the West Midlands Chartists who made regular visits and gave assistance when crops failed, new tools were needed etc.  

There was also a substantial Chartist revival from 1855 following the disasters of the early part of the Crimean War, during which prices rose sharply. During the period, Bilston was the strongest Chartist centre, but from 1857 to 1860 Dudley took the lead. Here there was an effective nucleus of activists old and new, led by Samuel Cook.  

Chartist influence was also strong in the trade unions. But when Ernest Jones gave up the struggle in 1860, Black Country Chartism was left high and dry without national leadership.  During the 1850s Chartists were being reluctantly forced into the realisation that Votes for Working Class Men could only be achieved with broader organisation involving the middle class. This despite the doublecross of 1832 when the middle class had given themselves the vote and denied it to working people.  

Dudley was the first town to act. In 1851 a Temple of Investigation is known of through Samuel Cook’s famous posters which he displayed in his draper’s shop window at the top of the High Street. A resolution to support a modified form of the People’s Charter was published ‘by order of the Religious and Political Union at the Temple of Investigation’. By 1852 Chartists there were organised into a Dudley Mutual Improvement Society. In January 1853 in successive weeks there were lectures on Land Nationalisation, Paley Refuted, and Secularism, two of which were given by local Chartists.  By the mid-1850s Secularism was well established in Eclectic Institutes across the country and served by John Jacob Holyoake’s paper The Reasoner. When this paper first appeared in the late 1840s it was said to be ‘a weekly paper for Utilitarians, Republicans and Communists’. This shows the Owenite Socialist origins of Secularism. In 1854 and 1855 Dudley secularists met every Sunday at 6pm. at Dudley Hall of Investigation.  

In January 1856 a conference in Birmingham, initiated by Christopher Charles Cattell, the leading Birmingham secularist, resolved that ‘all friends of free thought should co-operate with the Birmingham and West Midlands Eclectic Society’. Further information could be had from Mr Whittall of York Street, Wolverhampton and Mr Wallwork of Flood Street Dudley. Both of these were Chartist activists. In July there was news of Dudley secularists attending a religious meeting on ‘The Absurdities of Atheism’. By October ‘a number of friends met each week at Mr Silk’s’. These included Silk, Wallwork, Cook, Foster, Smart, Davis, Finney and Weeks. At least the first three were Chartists of long standing.  

From 1860 Chartism disappeared and the main Secularist newspaper became Charles Bradlaugh’s National Reformer. In response to enquiries regarding the policy of the paper, Bradlaugh wrote in 1862:  

Editorially, as to religious questions, the paper is and always has been...the Advocate of Atheism; it teaches that all the religions of the world are based upon error; that humanity is higher than theology; that knowledge is far preferable to faith; that action is more effective than prayer; and that the best worship man can offer is honest work, in order to make one another wiser and happier than heretofore. In politics we are radicals of a very extreme kind; we are advocates of manhood suffrage, we desire shorter Parliaments; laws which are more equal in their application to master and servant; protection from the present state of laws which make pheasants more valuable than peasants; we desire the repeal of all laws against blasphemy... we advocate the separation of Church and State, and join with the financial reformers in their efforts to reduce our enormous and extravagant national expenditure.  

Such a policy continued the programme of the Chartists and joined with the Black Country ‘infidel’ tradition which dated back to Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, later continued by the Owenite Socialists of the 1830s. The hostility to the Church of England is explained by its unfailing support for reactionary national governments and also the role of local clergy as JPs administering the Master and Servants Acts (which made almost every trade union activity illegal) as well as laws depriving working people of all other political rights. The main Methodist body was equally hostile to working class aspirations and it was only among the more submerged sects, notably the Baptists, that there was any sympathy. This atheism of Bradlaugh’s was more to the liking of the Black Country militants than the more cautious Secularism (a word he coined) of G.J. Holyoake and his Reasoner newspaper which had led the Secularist movement until then.  

By 1862 Silk seems to have moved to Birmingham and was active in the movement there. In May there was a notice of Secularism in Oldbury where Mrs Harriet Law (herself a convert to atheism from the Baptists) gave two lectures at the local Temperance Hall. The first was on ‘God’s Relations with His Chosen People’ and the second ‘Difficulties with Christianity’. Daniel Wallwork was advertised as lecturing the next week on ‘What is Secularism?’. The notice of the meeting was signed by Daniel Wallwork, so it can be assumed that this activity was initiated from Dudley or Birmingham.  

There are few reports of Secularism in the Black Country for the next three years and it seems that working class political activity did not develop in these years of unsatisfactory trade, mass unemployment, a considerable growth of trade unions and bitter strikes.  

Activity revived in 1866. In July there were meetings in Willenhall and Wolverhampton. In Willenhall Robert Key lectured on ‘Infidelity and Christianity’ to a ‘good audience’. In Wolverhampton Joseph Barker lectured on ‘Objections to Christianity’ but to a ‘poor audience’. In November it was announced that the National Reformer could be purchased in Walsall from E. Scholey at the Temperance Coffee House, 68 Dudley St. and C. Whitney, newsagent of Perks Street. Scholey was a Chartist stalwart who had run the Temperance Coffee House in Dudley Street from at least 1855.  

In 1867 Secular activity was sufficiently widespread for Birmingham to take another initiative to create district organisation with the Birmingham and Midland Secular Union. J. Morris the Birmingham secretary hoped this would appeal to secularists in West Bromwich, Smethwick, Oldbury, Wednesbury, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Bilston, Brierley Hill, Dudley and Stourbridge. In each of these towns there had been reports of secular meetings in the recent past. A subsequent meeting was called attended by Silk and Bentley of West Bromwich and Gilbert of Willenhall. ‘Several friends from Smethwick, Coseley and Brierley Hill gave in names of potential members’.  In November West Bromwich reported two lectures by the national leader, Charles Watts who was touring the area. The first was ‘The Orthodox Doctrine of Atonement, is it in Accord with Justice and Right Reason?’. The second was ‘The Bible and Science; wherein do they Differ?’. The latter was with special reference to a recent Church Congress held in Wolverhampton. Another report by J.T. Scattergood claimed that West Bromwich was breaking new ground. Christians had been invited, ‘but they studiously avoided Watts’. They had assured Scattergood that they had prepared material to come, but had been called away to attend to the sick. Scattergood then invited them to several nights’ debate.  

Watts had also visited Smethwick that week and had lectured on ‘Teaching the New Testament’.  1867 was the year of the second Reform Act which gave the vote to working men in towns. Again, there is little report of Secularist activity, although every Black Country secularist would be active in the wide-spread local agitation promoting the Bill.  

1868, in contrast was a year of much secular activity. Regular lectures occurred in Oldbury with the assistance of Birmingham Secular Society and its energetic secretary John Morris. Birmingham also initiated activity in Smethwick where a meeting was held at the Regent Concert Hall, Rolfe Street on the ‘Christians’ Heaven and Hell’. Morris also reported that Wolverhampton and West Bromwich were ‘moving notably in the right direction’.  

In February, J. Murray of Bilston contributed 5/-d. to the first of Bradlaugh’s many campaigns for election to Parliament as a member for Northampton. In the same month there was a long report of the activities of Dudley Secular Society. A public meeting at the Phoenix Assembly Rooms had drawn an attendance ‘much better than expected’. The speaker was Charles Watts who lectured on ‘Christianity – the Enemy of Science and Civilisation’ with H. Langstone in the chair. Two days later Watts lectured at the same place on ‘The Christian Doctrine of Atonement a Fallacy’. The attendance was much larger than before:  Christians yelled, shouted and hissed, but the speaker and the chairman held their ground and restored moderate order. The speaker severely castigated those of the meek and holy Jesus who so grossly misconducted themselves. A Mr Homer from Sedgley preached and whined for ten minutes, something which, perhaps, would have pleased a Primitive Methodist congregation, but which, was sadly out of place on a Freethought platform. The local preacher said that the mischief of free thought and all other evils were clearly traceable to the Devil. Watts reminded him that he was ignorant of the real origination of evil. His opponent warmly affirmed that nothing in the bible said that the Lord had created evil. Watts cautioned him on his triumphant certainty, but he maintained his proposition. Mr Watts then read the well known passage from Isaiah and handed the book to his crestfallen opponent amid such a burst of applause as seldom has been equalled. The man stared at the book in increasing wonderment and was silent. The incident produced a very marked effect on the Christian part of the audience who were transformed from tigers into lambs and afterwards behaved with extreme circumspection. Our friends were highly gratified at Mr Watts’ skill and zeal. There is a large field for the spread of Secular principles here and we hope our friends will lose no time. (J. Truman, Secretary)  This report captures perfectly the views and attitudes of Black Country Owenite Socialism of thirty years earlier.  In March 1868 John Jones, hairdresser, was reported as selling the National Reformer at Lea Brook Wednesbury. This is most likely to be John Jones the Bilston barber, who was a leading Chartist from the early 1840s. In West Bromwich the Assembly Rooms were crowded to hear iconoclast Charles Bradlaugh. In May Charles Watts was at the same venue.  In July there was a district complimentary dinner to Bradlaugh. In a series of toasts the health of the Queen was proposed and then Bradlaugh’s good health. A toast to a Free Press was followed by Mr Cook of Brierley Hill.  Hill proposed Secular Progress during which he spoke of the great progress that had been made since he was an inmate of Harmony Hall (the famous Owenite Socialist, co-operative colony in Hampshire from 1839 to 1845-GB). John Morris toasted Ladies and Strangers Present and Muir of Dudley (another Chartist) responded by thanking those who had attended from Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Walsall, Smethwick, Oldswinsford, Brierley Hill, Oldbury and Bell Broughton.  In August 1868 a notice by Jonathan Lane of Wednesbury announced that ‘a few staunch friends had met to see whether we can raise the banner of Secularism here’. It announced a further meeting at Mr Lowe’s 34 Cross Street the next Sunday. A society was formed with John Jones as secretary meeting every Sunday at 6pm at 34 Cross street. This was changed in November to 72 Portway Road.  Secularists also flourished at this time in Oldbury. They met every Sunday at what was now called the Freethought Temperance Hall and claimed that for their lectures and readings they had an average weekly attendance of 630. Wolverhampton also had regular meetings every Sunday evening at 6 pm. at 13 St John’s Square.  The year ended with the Lecture Room of the column of the National Reformer regularly advertising societies in Birmingham, Oldbury, Wolverhampton and Wednesbury.  As Secularism continued to flourish in to 1869 C.C. Cattell from Birmingham was again advocating district organisation, suggesting that it should be centred on Oldbury ‘which has a Temperance Room of its own’.  Birmingham Secularism had been for some time moving from the religious to the political field under the impact of such issues as the Reform Act of 1867, the land question, criticism of the monarchy, and education. But Black Country secularists, like their forerunners the Owenite Socialists of the late 1830s, stuck more closely to anti-religious propaganda. For instance, Birmingham Secularists were discussing such topics as the French Revolution, Political Economy, Malthusianism etc and stated that their plan was to vary their programme to discuss scientific, political and social questions instead of allowing theology a monopoly ‘and we find it answers very well’. In the Black Country by contrast, meetings in Wolverhampton which were still at 13 St. John’s Square, now called the Eclectic Hall, discussed such subjects as Geology and Scripture and at Oldbury, Cattell spoke on the Impossibility of Man’s Immortality.  In April in Oldbury a Midlands Secular Union was formed. Cattell, the leading Secularist in the region, was elected secretary and John Silk of West Bromwich, treasurer. Courses of six lectures were arranged for Oldbury and Wolverhampton. Cattell reported that a similar proposal to form a Midland Union eight years before had foundered and showed his hope of basing the Union on the more stable societies of the east Midlands, as well as the west Midlands, when he wrote ‘If Leicester and Nottingham, Dudley, Walsall, Wednesbury, Smethwick and many others wish for a union, we will be glad to hear from them’.  Later in the month E. Price, the Wolverhampton secretary reported that David Kirkwood, the Birmingham Secularist, had held meetings in the Eclectic Hall on Geology and Scripture and on the Antiquity of Man. There was no opposition to the meetings and the audience left well satisfied. Charles Watts was booked to lecture on the next Tuesday and Wednesday and Cattell on Sunday.  The Midland Secular Union continued to flourish from the Freethought Temperance Hall in Oldbury. In June, two lectures were reported by Harriet Law, twelve lectures had been arranged for the next three months and hopes were expressed that there would be open-air Sunday meetings at the Wren’s Nest and Dudley Castle grounds.  In West Bromwich, at the Assembley Rooms, there had been debates between Harriet Law and Mr T. Jackson. In Wolverhampton at the Eclectic Hall debates were also held and the National Reformer could be bought at 65 Snow Hill.  In July, Oldbury departed from religious themes to hear a lecture on the ‘80th Anniversary of the French Revolution’ but returned to more staple fare in August with Cattell lecturing on ‘Christianity – The Religion of Persecution’ and W. Johnson came from Edinburgh to tell people ‘How I became an Infidel’.  Towards the end of July the Midland Secular Union did arrange a summer meeting at the Wren’s Nest and Dudley Castle grounds and had a very detailed lecture on the geology of the area, which is outstanding and, of course, germane to the debate on evolution and the bible.  In the autumn of 1869 the Midland Secular Union was strengthened by Birmingham acquiring large premises of its own at St George’s Hall, re-named the Birmingham Secular Club and Institute. Financial help for this project came from as far away as Chipping Norton and Black Country donations can be identified with 10/-d from John Silk of West Bromwich and 5/-d from Smethwick.  Once the hall was opened Birmingham Secularists felt strong enough to assist neighbouring societies. In October a distribution of National Reformers in West Bromwich on a Saturday evening was advocated with the suggestion that other Secularists could help either by contributing papers or making a donation to help the upkeep of the hall.  In Oldbury the Midland Secular Union continued to meet with mixed fare. In October ‘...our friend from Dudley H.V. Mayer lectured on the ‘People’s Charter – Retrospect and Forecast’. He showed the causes of failure and concluded that all points of the Charter were in fair way of becoming the law of the land. Appreciation was shown by repeated applause. We understand that this is the first lecture given by Mr Mayer. It is sure not to be his last’. The last comment is difficult to understand in view of the fact that Mayer first appeared as H.V. Meira, leading Bilston Chartist in the mid-1850s. In November Cattell lectured on the Wonders of History, but the Union returned to religious themes the next week when J. Johnson of Wolverhampton spoke on the ‘Immortality of the Soul’ and ‘Modern Spiritualism’. At this time we are informed that the work of the Midland Secular Union had been confined to keeping the Oldbury hall supplied with speakers. But the organisation had been fairly supported and they now intended to expand their activities into towns that were doing little or nothing to advance the cause of Secularism.  In December at Oldbury a Mr Price lectured on ‘Thomas Paine’ and David Kirkwood on ‘Dr Livingstone’ and ‘John Stuart Mill’. G. Lines, the Oldbury secretary reported that a debating society met regularly and elocution classes had begun with recitations of such pieces as The Raven and the speech of Mark Anthony on the death of Caesar. At the Birmingham Secular Club and Institute, Mayer repeated his lecture on Chartism , ‘but his strictures of the physical force party brought criticism from the audience’. As well it might, since Chartists in Birmingham and the Black Country had supported Feargus O’Connor, the leader of the so-called physical force Chartists until O’Connor’s death in 1855.  1869 closed with much activity in the Black Country, although the Lecture Room column of the National Reformer advertised meetings only in Birmingham and Oldbury throughout the year and the Wednesbury and Wolverhampton entries disappeared in mid-November.  

In summarising this phase of Black Country secularism the following points can be made. The first is the contrast already drawn with Birmingham, where Secularism was stronger, of the Black Country emphasis on anti-religious propaganda rather than political discussion. This, as I have suggested elsewhere regarding Owenite Socialism, reflects a different religious tradition. In Birmingham, a progressive religious culture dates back at least to the English Revolution of the 1640s and the influx of Dissenters after 1660. This tradition was continued by Joseph Priestley and other Unitarians during the French Revolution and passed on to George Dawson and others into the period under review. In addition, the Church of England clergy were relatively weak in Birmingham. In the Black Country, on the other hand, the clergy of the established church were the ‘black slugs’ epitomised by Luke Booker, the vicar of Dudley. They were religious terrorists preaching heaven and hell on Sunday and lay terrorists during the week, fining and imprisoning workers under the Master & Servants Acts in their roles as JPs. Progressive christianity was woefully weak in the Black Country compared with Birmingham and the ideological struggle against Christianity and its teachings presented an intellectual stimulus to working people for which there were few other outlets.  The second distinction is the greater continuity between Chartism and Secularism in the Black Country compared with Birmingham. This is a minor surprise as there was virtually no continuity between Owenite Socialism and Chartism in the Black Country thirty years earlier.  Finally there is the question of the influence of Secularism. It is clear that Secularists were mainly working-class people, self-educating themselves through their life time experience. This spanned a most difficult period of the decline of the mass movement of Chartism and the expansion of the national economy as Britain became the Workshop of the World. It is also clear that Secularists were only small groups. But at a time when the mass of working people stubbornly continued hostile or indifferent to religion, when political and trade union rights continued to be withheld, when social conditions were appalling and unemployment widespread (particularly through the 1860s), the influence of Secularism was important as keeping a bridge open over which working class ideology and practice passed from the Utopian socialism of Robert Owen and the mass movement of Chartism to the modern Socialism that emerged in the 1880s.   Bibliography: From Chartism to Secularism 1850-1870  The earlier labour movement has been dealt with by me in: The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750 to 1867 and Social Conditions in the Black Country 1800-1900. The Introduction to Chapter 1 of the present book summarises some of this material.  The most important contribution to Black Country labour history for the later period is: Eric Taylor – The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1863-1914 (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis Keele University 1974). A copy of this is available at the library of the Wolverhampton University, Dudley campus.  The secular movement has to be researched almost entirely from its newspapers. The two most important of these for Chapter 1 have been: The Reasoner (the paper of G.J. Holyoake) and the National Reformer (the paper of Charles Bradlaugh).  The remarks concerning the difference between religion in Birmingham and religion in the Black Country were given as a paper to the International Conference of Historians of the Labour Movement and published as Arbeiterbewegung – Kirche – Religion by Europaverlang, Vienna 1991.  

Chapter 2

Republicanism and Retreat 1870-1884

Secularism and Republicanism 1870-1874

The period examined below started with the Great Boom of the early 1870s. This was the only period of a substantial raising of the standard of living since a similar rise in the years 1845-54. The boom was followed by the Great Depression from 1874 to 1895 which saw the decline of coal mining and the virtual disappearance of iron making as the flooding of the mines, the depletion of ironstone and the failure to change from iron to steel making devastated the Black Country. Such devastation was to be repeated almost exactly one hundred years later.  

In 1871 the Midland Secular Union still flourished from the Oldbury Freethought Temperance Hall at Oldbury. The National Reformer could still could be obtained at Scholey’s in Walsall, from John Jones the Wednesbury hairdresser and at 65 Snow Hill, Wolverhampton. It was still available at Cox’s in West Bromwich High Street and from Mayer at 3 Wolverhampton Street, Dudley. In January there was a Thomas Paine Tea Party at Oldbury, reported by J. Lines.

At Wolverhampton, in February, Oliver Trumper was trying to re-establish organisation in the town by calling a meeting at 36 Oxley Street. They had no meeting place, ‘but our principles are flourishing’, he maintained. Meanwhile Bradlaugh was in the Black Country. He gave three lectures at the Public Hall, Wednesbury ‘to crowded audiences’, GHR reported. In Walsall, Bradlaugh lectured at the Temperance Hall on the 6th and 7th of February. E.A. Scholey enthused:

Many came as enemies and went away friends. Others came to grumble and find fault, but are now lavish in their praise. The lecturer made the meeting by his own right of conquest and when a working man gave a vote of thanks he wisely told the audience that the best way of thanking Bradlaugh was to advocate the principles he taught in their factories and workshops.

The opening of a new Republican Club in Birmingham in February heralded the development of a new, powerful movement that was to arise from Secularism and develop parallel with it for some years.

Wednesbury was now becoming a centre of district Secular organisation. The engagement of Harriet Law for two lectures at the Public Hall, Earps Lane, was reported by another new activist T. Battison. In April a Conference occurred presided over by Mayer which formed a South Staffordshire & East Worcestershire Secular Union. Representatives were elected as follows: Dudley – Mayer, Wednesbury – Battison, West Bromwich – John Silk, Walsall – W. Upton, Wolverhampton O. Trumper, Bilston – J. Bailey. Officers elected were president Mayer, treasurer Bray and secretary pro.tem. C. Charles (C.C. Cattell). It is difficult to assess the significance of this new organisation in view of the fact that the Oldbury Union continued to operate. It seems significant that the new organisation should have the weight of the leader of the Birmingham secularists, Cattell, behind it, but no outward sign of tension between the two district organisations can be detected. 1871 was, however, the year that Bradlaugh resigned as the president of the National Secular Society due to overwork and financial problems, although he continued to edit the National Reformer. The NSS declined from that time and never again became the powerful, centralised society that it had been.

The new district Union met monthly and in June advertised a public meeting with Charles on ‘The Bible – An Immoral Book unfit for Schools’. In August the Union met to re-elect its Committee and decided on delegates for the National Secular Society national conference, which was held that year in Birmingham. The officers elected were: Oliver Trumper – president, George Berry – treasurer, H.V. Mayer – secretary. A committee was also elected of Pattison, Cartwright, Davis, Gilbert, Huins, Holland, Ridgeway and Upton. Mayer was elected as their delegate to the conference. But it was lamented that, ‘the only matter for regret is that so many who are known to entertain our views remain aloof and do not share its labours or contribute to its fund’.

When the National Secular Society conference was held in September at St George’s Hall, the Black Country delegates were Mayer of Dudley, Radford of Oldbury, Cartwright of Tipton and Trumper of Wolverhampton. During the period of the conference Bradlaugh gave three lectures in Wednesbury and also lectured in Wolverhampton on ‘The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick’. Of this meeting Oliver Trumper reported that the audience was largely of working men and this was the first time that Bradlaugh had lectured in Wolverhampton. ‘It will help unite working men’ he concluded.

In October there was criticism of the vicar of Dudley, the Rev W. Rayner Cosens and the Union was arranging for Charles Watts to visit the area.

The continued existence of the Midland Secular Union centred on the Freethought Temperance Hall at Oldbury indicates a growing strength and influence of Freethought in the Black Country, although the fusion of the two centres would probably have been better. Indeed this was suggested at one of the regular tea parties held at Oldbury.

Towards the end of October 1871 the first Republican Club in the Black Country was inaugurated at Walsall. It met on the same premises as the Secularists in Scholey’s Temperance Coffee House in Walsall and Scholey was elected secretary pro.tem.

In November at the monthly meeting of the S. Staffs & E. Worcs Secular Society at Wednesbury the main business was to make arrangements for Watts’ coming tour. At the same meeting , ‘Miss C. Louisa Trumper, the daughter of our president, admirably recited Shelley’s song to the Men of England (page 93 of the Secularists Manual) and received much applause’. In the evening there was a public lecture by Mayer on Prayer and Providence.

Watts lectured in November and rather than tackling the Vicar of Dudley, his programme clearly showed how rapidly Republicanism was developing in the Black Country. In Wednesbury he was due to speak on ‘Monarchy’, in Walsall on ‘Republicanism’, in Oldbury on ‘Government and the People’, in Tipton and in Wolverhampton on ‘Two Hundred Years of English Monarchy’. Mayer hoped that ‘friends of freethought, republicanism and national thought,’ would attend.

Agents for the National Reformer in the Black Country at this time were Mayer at Dudley, Scholey Walsall, Jones Wednesbury, Battison at 5 New Street and Cox in High Street West Bromwich and Oliver Trumper at Stafford Street, Wolverhampton.

Republicanism appears to be an exotic bloom to flourish in Britain, especially at a time when the great Victorian expansion was culminating in the frenzied boom of 1870-74. Its flowering was brief – it was destroyed by the Great Depression – but its roots ran deep and it also reflected the widespread poverty and unease that continued to exist at the height of Britain’s economic supremacy.

Republicanism was a legacy from the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and looked to the anti-monarchical systems that had emerged from the American and French Revolutions. Central to Republicanism was the land question. The great aristocratic landed estates had vastly prospered during the Victorian expansion and had been added to by the great industrial estates of the Earls of Dudley and others. If the workers in the towns had not participated fully in this vast increase in wealth, the condition of farm labourers was even worse varying from deep poverty to actual starvation. The urban poverty continually stimulated movements for a return to the land as freeholders with a vote. In Chartist times it was Feargus O’Connor’s Land Plan; in the 1860s it was a Home Colonisation movement demanding the break-up of the landed estates by Land nationalisation. In the countryside Joseph Arch had at last been able to organise farm workers with his Agricultural Labourers’ Union which drew heavily on urban sympathy and solidarity. For a while rural living standards were raised, but the Union collapsed with the agricultural crisis which was part of the Great Depression.

Hostility to the landed interest was extended to the monarchy, seen as the apex and prop of aristocracy. The retirement of Victoria from public life after the death of Albert in 1861 had demonstrated that monarchy was unnecessary and the antics of the heir apparent hardened opinion. Finally, entwined with monarchy and aristocracy was the Church of England the disestablishment of which was the aim of every Dissenter. This also tended to strengthen the forces of Secularism and Atheism.

The begetter of the Republican movement was the Land & Labour League formed in the autumn of 1869. This replaced the Reform League whose work had largely been completed in 1867 although there was considerable dissatisfaction with the results of the Reform Act. For a time the newspaper of the movement was the Republican. In November 1870 the paper printed the programme of the Land & Labour League. This included Land Nationalisation, Home Colonisation, national secular gratuitous and compulsory Education, paper money to be issued only by the State, a direct and progressive tax on Property in lieu of all other taxes. reduction of the hours of Labour and Equal Electoral Rights with Payment of Members.

References to the Black Country in the Republican in 1871 mainly concern correspondence with the paper. For instance in reply to R. Peters of West Bromwich in March, he is thanked and told that the parcel (of Republicans presumably) had been sent. It goes on ‘Remember it is the poor themselves who must fight the battle of right against might. Press onwards and upwards. Success is everywhere worshipped. Our time will come.’ Peters wrote again in April and was told, ‘We endorse the major portion of your letter. We hope to be in a position soon to visit your locality. Nothing would give us greater pleasure than to meet your half-faced Liberal representatives, as you so rightly designate them. We thank you for your earnestness.’ In May, Oliver Tromper from Wolverhampton was writing to the paper and was told, ‘Soon we hope to be in the position of visiting you for lecturing purposes. Meanwhile, thanks.’ In the same month Tromper reported that the nucleus of a Republican Club had been formed in Wolverhampton of about 50 members. Correspondence was to be addressed to Tromper at 88 Stafford Street.

In July J.B. (presumably J. Bailey) of Bilston was told that his letter had been replied to, and R.B. of Horseley Heath, Tipton was chided, ‘We sincerely regret the state of your health which aggravates the despondency of the tone of your letter. We do not hide from ourselves that what you say of your own orders is lamentably true.’ In August J.P. of Wolverhampton was advised, ‘Procure Lewis’s Physiology of Common Life.’

The Republican newspaper disappeared in 1872 and we return to the National Reformer for information on the Secular and Republican movements.

Secular activity continued strongly into 1872. In Oldbury, at the Freethought Temperance Hall, regular meetings included the monthly tea party where fifty people were catered for in February. Reports throughout March from the secretary John Swan reported members meeting to decorate the Hall, a progress report – ‘much business has been conducted to raise the Society from the state of embryo in which it has been for so long’ – and a meeting which opened with another reading of Marc Anthony’s speech over Caesar.

In Wednesbury the S. Staffs and E. Worcs Secular Society continued meeting monthly at Wednesbury. In March they agreed to support George Odger (one of the so-called Junta of trade union leaders centred on London – GB) in support of certain clauses in a Ballot Bill in parliament (another of the Chartist Six points). They also sold a quantity of Internationals (presumably the International Herald then replacing the Republican as the organ of the Republican movement).

Regular meetings of the Walsall Republican Club included one in June when we are told that a ‘meeting was taken over’, and a resolution passed unanimously that ‘Antipas failed to impeach Republicanism and this proves that B and Sir Charles Dilke are mistaken.’ B is presumably Bradlaugh, but the present author cannot match the erudition with which the working men of the 1870s discussed the minutia of Roman republican politics.

In August the S. Staffs & E. Worcs SS held its AGM and elected T. Battison as president, R. Cartwright vice-president, H.V. Mayer secretary and G. Perry treasurer. The new committee was Upton, Holland, T. Davies, Silk, J. Jones, Huins, Ridgway and Wilson.

In October 1872 we have the first notice of the West Bromwich Republican Club when D.A. Beckett of Hallam Place was elected president and the splendidly named Secularist, H. Voltaire Squires of Union Street, Spon Lane as secretary.

In early December there was a slight hiccup at Wednesbury when Battison announce that in view of the small attendance at the usual monthly meeting of the S. Staffs & E. Worcs SS he was calling a special meeting. The matter seems to have been settled by electing A. Holland of 1 Pipes Meadow, Bilston as secretary and F. Wilson and Ridgway as auditors.

By the end of the year Oldbury was still holding its monthly tea parties and weekly meetings. the Guide to the Lecture Rooms column in the National Reformer advertised regular activity at Oldbury, Wednesbury, Walsall and West Bromwich Republican Clubs and Walsall announced the opening of a Sunday Reading Room at 68 Dudley Street where E.A. Scholey was the manager.

In January 1873 there were fuller details of the Walsall Sunday Reading Room. It was open from 4pm to 10pm and there were lectures from 7pm to 9pm. The S. Staffs & E. Worcs SS January lecture was by J. Clayton on ‘Patriotism’. Bradlaugh was also brought to Wednesbury where he lectured on ‘The Bible in India’, ‘The Bible in China’ and ‘The Bible in Egypt’.

In February there were tea parties at Oldbury and Wednesbury and Cattell lectured on ‘Republicanism’ at the Walsall Sunday Reading Room.

In March there was a special meeting of the S. Staffs & E. Worcs SS to consider two important matters. The first was to elect delegates to the first Republican Conference being held in Birmingham on 11 and 12 May. The other matter was to commence taking shares for the building of a Secular Hall in Wednesbury, ‘Members are increasingly determined to have our own Hall. Our friend Mr Maybury has promised to take 100 shares’. In further business, W. Pratt was instructed to write to Willenhall Trades Council urging the importance of electoral reform and requesting them to take action in favour of Sir Charles Dilkes’ motion for enquiring into the inequalities of the electoral system and Trevelyan’s bill to extend household suffrage to the counties. Perry then reviewed recent parliamentary proceedings and a discussion followed in which Blinkhorn, Newman and Pratt participated. It was then arranged for J. Kay to deliver a lecture at the Walsall Temperance Hall and the next lecture at Wednesbury on The Doings of Parliament. After all this business had been transacted A. Holland gave a lecture on ‘Secular and Compulsory Education, the only way of Benefitting the Labouring Classes’.

Later in March 1873 Radford reported from Oldbury that Kirkwood of Birmingham had given a lecture on Phrenology and had ‘explained the heads of half a dozen people.’ This seems a little late to be championing a pseudo-science which had been popular with the Owenite Socialists, but was then losing its appeal, even though one of its strengths was that it postulated equality between male and female brains. Lectures the two following Sundays at Oldbury were Secularism and its General Tendency on Mankind, by Cox of Birmingham and Spenser and his Fairie Queen by J. Parsons.

Among the matters dealt with at the Walsall Penny Sunday Reading Room in April was the receipt of printed copies of the Petition of the borough MP, C. Forster, in support of Trevelyan’s reform Bill. Also there were lectures on The Age of Shams, and Co-operatives. At Wednesbury in April at a meeting of the S. Staffs & E. Worcs SS twenty two shares were added to the 100 already subscribed for the proposed Secular Hall and a good attendance was urged for the next meeting which would elect a Committee and a treasurer. R. Cartwright was elected as a delegate to the Birmingham Republican Conference in Birmingham. In Birmingham H.V. Mayer of Dudley was lecturing on Why I became and why I remain a Secularist. Later in April at the monthly Oldbury tea party ‘songs from Macauley, Southey and others were rendered by Messrs. Radford Jnr, Cox and other gentlemen’. The Oldbury lecture for the week had been given by Willetts on the Bible and Science, and the same lecturer was due to speak the following week on Prehistoric Man.

In Wolverhampton on 30th April there was a debate at the St. James’ School rooms on ‘What is God’, The Rev J.E. Gladstone, vicar of St. Matthews and the Rev E. Geare, vicar of St. George’s, plus other clergymen and scripture readers spoke for the Church. Stanley of Wolverhampton and Reddalls of Birmingham led for the Secularists. Almost 100 were present at a ‘very animated discussion’ which lasted until 11-30pm. Reddalls then challenged the churches to twelve more nights of debate on ‘Is there a God’ and ‘Is the Character of the Bible God Reliable?’. ‘The ministers, thinking discretion the better part of valour refused to meet anyone who thought that matter was eternal and did not think that there was a God’, the report from Cookson ended.

In May in Oldbury it was announced that contributions were about to start to a national fund to send Republicans to Parliament. Bradlaugh also spoke in the town on ‘Ireland 1793-1873’. Irish politics had a direct bearing on Republicanism in England. The first Irish Land Act of 1870 only highlighted the problems of Irish absentee land owners of vast estates and the eviction of tenants, problems which Gladstone feared would be ‘imported over the water’ to England. Near the end of this meeting Thomas Davies a veteran Socialist and Chartist ‘who had been out of work for some time through trying to befriend someone else’, said that he was resolved to go to America. This took members by surprise and not wishing to lose a good friend resolved in starting him in some business. G. Perry has promised him a situation and other members have contributed largely to his support. This. we hope, is one of the things that Secularists are always ready to do.’ Holland reported. Bradlaugh also spoke on Ireland to a ‘fair audience’ at the Public Hall, Wednesbury.

The Republican Conference of May 1873 took place in Birmingham largely because C.C. Cattell had been the driving force behind the initiation of the movement, although by the time of the Conference, Bradlaugh was the leading figure largely seen as ‘the coming Cromwell.’ and it was the national Secular leaders who dominated the Conference.

Black Country delegates came from Bilston, the S. Staffs & E. Worcs Secular Union, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. The Conference set up a national Republican League and thrashed out a programme of Universal Suffrage, a cautious policy of support for a Republic and Land Reform, abolition of the House of Lords, separate Parliaments for England, Scotland and Ireland if requested, the replacement of the standing army by a citizen force, and the establishment of a national system of compulsory, gratuitous, secular and industrial education.

The main Black Country contribution to the Conference came from H.V. Mayer the Dudley Chartist who put a damper on the proceedings thus:

... A Republican myself, I long to see my political aspirations realised. But I am not enthusiastic enough to overlook the obstacles on the way. To deliberately propose to subvert the institutions of a country bespeaks either a considerable amount of confidence, audacity or rashness... I want Republicans to thoroughly comprehend the importance of the change they propose, and to estimate correctly the chances of effecting it... In this England of ours, any political movement must commend itself to the understanding of the nation at large – must be able to challenge the critical consideration of the intelligent and influential, as well as enlist the sympathies of the many... The battle of principles once begun must go on to the end. At every turn new opponents will arise, and fresh objections be urged. The cautious will enquire as to the legality of the thing. The prudent as to its feasibility, the philosopher as to its value, and the statesman as to its expediency... You will have to take into account too, the deplorable apathy of the people themselves... It is no libel upon them to say that six tenths of them –

Don’t care two Injions For perlitical opinions.

After much more in like vein Mayer’s natural optimism prevailed and he concluded ‘Meanwhile, having committed yourself to the cause, let there be no feebleness in you efforts... The task you assay is arduous and great; the difficulties in your way are numerous and formidable, but with courage, energy, patience and perseverance most things are possible.’

Following the Conference, the S. Staffs & E. Worcs Secular Society ordered two hundred copies of the main speeches of the Conference. Ten shillings was also donated to George Reddalls who was publishing a new local paper, the Secular Chronicle from Birmingham. Shares for the proposed Secular Hall now stood at 124, the treasurer G. Perry, reported.

After the Conference, Secular and Republican activity continued as before. At West Bromwich Republican Club a debating class was to meet every Sunday and had been inaugurated by Squires reading a paper on Republicanism.

Scholey reported from the Walsall Sunday Reading Room that attendances had been small in recent weeks, but he expected a very large meeting the next week when friends and advanced Liberals would meet respecting the generous offer of W.H. Duignan, the Walsall solicitor, to donate £100 to a working class candidate for Walsall parliamentary constituency and £25 per annum if he were elected.

Activity continued at the S. Staffs & E. Worcs SS during July and August at Wednesbury. Cattell spoke on the ‘Land Question’ and promised to return to continue the subject. Officers were elected – Battison (president), Cartwright (vice-president, Moses (secretary) and G. Perry (treasurer). The new committee was Messrs. Jones, Thompson, Ridgway and Holland. At the close of this meeting, ‘A Mr Goodhead, a stranger to us, offered us a room at the expense of 3/-d. a week fitted with fireplace and gas. He also promised to sell a piece of land between Darlaston and Wednesbury for £140 and would take twenty shares in the Secular Hall project if his offer were accepted.’ This matter was referred to the Committee.

In Walsall Scholey was contemplating new schemes. Truthseekers of all shades of opinion were respectfully invited to a special meeting on a Sunday afternoon in the Billiard Room at 68 Dudley Street to consider forming a society for the investigation of all political, sociological and theological subjects. Republicans, Socialists, Spiritualists and all in favour of unfettered discussion were earnestly invited to attend. This meeting resulted in the formation of a Walsall Free Discussion Society with W. Pratt as secretary pro.tem. At its first discussion at the Temperance Coffee House, S. Parry opened on ‘What should be our Future Policy?’. They had done wrong in the past, Parry claimed, by supporting men and not principles. Every man and woman should be allowed a vote. Other speakers were Mr Stringer and J. Pratt. The Walsall Free Discussion continued to meet and seems to have replaced both the Republican Club and the Secular Society in that town.

In the last months of 1873 Burns reported from Bilston that two or three selections by the Secular Glee Club had elicited ‘much approbation’, at the Oldbury Free Thought Temperance Hall where a meeting had been held on Poetry.

The Guide to the Lecture Halls column in the National Reformer in the first week of January 1874 listed the following:

Oldbury Secular Society, Sunday evenings 6-30pm Freethought Temperance Hall, Portway Road.

S. Staffs & E. Worcs. Secular Union, Sunday evenings 7pm at Perry’s, Portway.

Walsall Free Discussion Group.

Wolverhampton Republican Club, First Tuesday every month 8pm at the Committee Room, St. George’s Hall, Garrick St. Pres: T. Stanley, Sec: H.V. Squires, Wednesfield.

West Bromwich Republican Club, Every Wednesday 8 pm at the People’s Hall, Pit Street. Pres: J.L. Reece, Victoria Street. Treasurer: W. Adams.

Spon Lane. Corresponding Sec: T.J. Maxwell, George Street, W. Smethwick.

Financial Sec: D.A. Beckett, Hallam Place.

In February 1874 Walsall Free Discussion Group celebrated the birthday of Thomas Paine. In Wolverhampton a meeting had been held at 35 Culwell St. where songs had been sung selected from the Secularist Manual followed by a lecture on Paine by the secretary J. Cookson. At this meeting Flaganin, a Christian, had been present and the question of forming a Secular Society had been put off until March. ‘Flanagin had kindly invited us to meet at his house at 13 Stafford Street.’ The March meeting, however, was again at Culwell Street where. John Cookson read an article from the Republican Herald on Local Preaching. April’s meeting was scheduled for 32 Green Lane, Dudley Road.

Walsall seemed to have been encountering difficulties. In March Professor Allwood spoke on ‘Spiritualism’ and there was no other report until May when a series of lectures by Wedgwood were adjourned until September.

In July G.W. Foote, the national speaker, lectured in Oldbury and the S. Staffs & E. Worcs Secular Union started a series of discussion on ‘Population’ introduced by Cartwright who met with considerable opposition from Holland, Bailey, Jones and Pratt. The series was continued by Holland in August. The Neo-Malthusian view that Malthus had been right and population should be controlled by contraception was highly controversial and an issue on which the Secular movement was to split in 1876. But we are not told here which sides the Wednesbury secularists took.

In September Scholey announced the reopening of the Walsall Free Discussion Group with a library and a wide range of ‘advanced’ papers. Secularists, Republicans, Internationalists and other ‘thorough goers’ would find a platform ‘where all could fully and fearlessly express their views.’ Later in the month there was a meeting to discuss sending delegates to an Electoral Reform Committee.

In Oldbury a meeting was called at the Freethought Temperance Hall to discuss measures to extend Secular organisation in the district. Mayer of Dudley, Cartwright of Tipton, Pratt of Walsall and Reddalls of Birmingham would attend, it was said. When the meeting took place it discussed the desirability of forming a Secular Union or devising other means of utilising the Oldbury hall for Freethought purposes. The meeting decided that nothing could be done at the time and the matter was referred to a conference in Birmingham. But there is no report of the conference and by the end of 1874 only Birmingham Secular Club appeared in the National Reformer’s Guide to the Lecture Rooms, such activity as there was in the Black Country going unrecorded.

Depression and Restructuring 1875-1884

By the end of 1874 the Great Boom of 1870-74 was coming to an end and the chill winds of the Great Depression were beginning to blow. The Depression brought working class advance to a halt as masters (as they were still called) strove to transfer the worst effects of falling markets and declining profits on to their employees.

Secularism continued to be the main working class political movement, but Republicanism never got as far as a second annual conference and disappeared as an organised force.

The later 1870s also saw changes in the Secular movement. Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society declined as he resigned from the executive and went to America to recoup his debts (1871-74). But after his return to England to unsuccessfully fight the Northampton parliamentary seat, he once again revitalised the NSS. But then he plunged the Society into the difficult neo-Malthusian birth control issue by publishing in 1877 Dr Charles Knowlton’s pamphlet Fruits of Knowledge. For this Bradlaugh was immediately prosecuted and found guilty. Although on appeal he found a legal loop-hole, the question of publicising birth control split the movement and leading Secularists such as Holyoake, Watts and G.W. Foote withdrew from the NSS to form their own British Secular Union with their own publication the Secular Review.

In Birmingham the Secularists insulated themselves against these problems with two innovations, which also strengthened, to a lesser extent, the Black Country movement. The first was the publication of a local paper the Secular Chronicle from August 1872 to January 1876. The second was the success of an appeal to build their own hall which resulted in th opening of Baskerville Hall (named after the famous Birmingham printer and freethinker) at The Crescent, Cambridge Street in September 1877.

The existence of two national societies and two national newspapers seems to have had little effect in the Black Country, all Societies reporting activities to both papers. The existence of the Birmingham paper the Secular Chronicle gave a very important local outlet for advertising Black Country activities and was also used extensively by H.V. Mayer and Francis Neale for scholarly articles on various aspects of Secularism.

In 1875 both the Walsall Free Discussion Group anchored at Scholey’s and the S. Staffs & E. Worcs Secular Union met regularly. In July 1875 new ground was broken by George Reddalls, editor of the Secular Chronicle, and John Russell with a meeting at Oldswinford and Lye Waste. The report shows the problems of proselytising:

Secularists are so great a curiosity in this neighbourhood that the people stood at the doors of their houses and congregated in little groups to have a look at us... We heard one old lady explaining that we had come from Birmingham to ‘raise the Devil’. Another described us as ‘Beelzebub’s imps’. Mr Anthony Watkins, explaining that we had come from Birmingham to ‘raise the Devil.’ Mr Anthony Watkins – the only Freethinker in Oldswinford – had kindly placed a piece of land at our service, and here, in the morning Mr Reddalls delivered a lecture on ‘Why I reject Christianity’, to an audience of about 500, including some women. Scarcely had the lecturer started speaking than a number of women assembled behind a hedge and set up a hideous howl, accompanying their voices with the hammering of tea trays with stones, and with the ringing of bells. Nothing daunted, however, Mr Reddalls went on with his discourse, which was attentively listened to despite the frantic efforts of the pious female zealots to prevent him being heard... In the afternoon, the writer delivered a lecture at Lye Waste which was attentively listened to by about 800 or 900 people on ‘The Bible – Is it True?’ without a single interruption... In the evening about 900 people assembled at the same place to hear Mr Reddalls lecture on ‘Popular Misconceptions concerning Secularism’. The greatest order prevailed during the evening... We took with us a large quantity of freethought leaflets and back numbers of the Secular Chronicle for distribution, and they were so eagerly sought after that we regretted not having taken more.

John Russell ended his report by suggesting that friends in districts around Birmingham who had no Secular Society should contact the editor of the Secular Chronicle with a view to establishing a Midlands Secular Union.

From this activity a Stourbridge branch of the National Secular Society was formed in 1876, with G. Baker as secretary. At the end of the year Scholey published a long list of books donated to the Walsall Sunday Reading Room.

In 1877 Stourbridge & Walsall reported meetings regularly to the National Reformer, and the Secular Review carried reports of activity in Bilston. Charles Watts lectured at the Town Hall in October on Secularisn the True Gospel for Mankind. and the secretary, A. Holland, hoped that this would be the first of many meetings.

In 1878 the Walsall Sunday Reading Room was advertised as being open on Sunday evenings from 4pm to 8pm for the discussion of social, political and theological topics and ‘a variety of interesting works lie on the table for the perusal of visitors.’ Stourbridge was still active with a picnic in July and they were probably responsible for a meeting at Kidderminster Town Hall at which a presentation was made to Annie Besant (one of the new leading lights of the Secular world.) In December 1878 there was a large meeting at Birmingham organised by the Malthusian League at which the platform of the Birmingham Secular Society was ‘shared with friends from Wolverhampton, Dudley, West Bromwich and several intervening towns and villages.’ In Walsall in July 1878 a petition signed by about 50 Secularists was taken to Forster, the town’s MP urging him to use his influence on behalf of Edward Truelove, who had been jailed for four months for publishing birth control literature.

In July 1878 John North from Kidderminster reported that together with Stourbridge friends they had taken a river trip from Stourport and had then discussed the question of premises for meetings. In one of the few references to the split in the Secular movement North states, ‘After experiencing the spirit animating one section of the Secularist party, we have resolved neither to help nor to hinder until we are convinced that a better and more conciliatory spirit prevails.’ It is the National Secular Society here criticised for in the same month it was advertised that both Birmingham and Kidderminster had joined the British Secular Union

For 1879 and 1880 no reports of activity have been found in the National Reformer and no Black Country organisations were advertised in the Lecture Room column. But from the Secular Chronicle we learn that Holland was still holding the fort in Bilston reporting ‘an excellent’ tea party commemorating the birthday of Thomas Paine and requesting books and periodicals.

In January 1879 a Midland Social Democratic Association was formed in Birmingham. The leading spirit seems to have been John Sketchley, a veteran Chartist. In April he was appealing to hear from friends in Oldbury, Smethwick, West Bromwich etc. This was the first intimation of the re-birth of Socialism at the depth of the first stage of the Great Depression. The Birmingham Secular Chronicle regularly reported its meetings.

Also in April the British Secular Union conference took place in Birmingham at Baskerville Hall. Delegates were present from Birmingham and Kidderminster and Black Country delegates were Mr & Mrs Adams from for West Bromwich and John Silk from Smethwick. This indicates the split of the movement in the Black Country.

In September Scholey re-opened the Walsall Sunday Reading Room after the summer break with its ‘library of 3,000 books on political, social, Freethought and other subjects. The meeting also discussed the possibility of forming a Secular or Freethought Association connected with the building.’

In March 1880 at Kidderminster both the National Secular Society and the British Secular Union had branches as well as there being non-society Secularists. These all worked harmoniously together to successfully promote the candidature of H.V. Squires to the local School Board. In July in Bilston a meeting was held to approve the use of Mr Farley’s Cocoa and Coffee House at Horseley Fields, ‘the landlord having opened it to us free of charge’. A. Holland was still the secretary. In August at the annual conference of the British Secular Union held at Sheffield only Mr & Mrs Adams of West Bromwich were present from the Black Country.

1881 opened with a Wednesbury and District branch of the National Secular Society meeting at Mrs Griffiths’ Oddfellows Arms, James Bridge, with readings from Byron’s Vision of Judgement and a Petition in favour of Bradlaugh, who had won the first of three bye elections at Northampton for recognition of the right of an atheist to be a member of Parliament.

In January 1881, among a long list in the Secular Review of ‘gentlemen who will be pleased to enrol members’ was H.V. Mayer of 3 Wolverhampton Street, Dudley and W. Adams of Spon House, West Bromwich. In March a report of a meeting in West Smethwick to listen to Cattell speaking on ‘What the Government ought to do for Ireland’, was signed ‘JS’, who might well have been John Sketchley. In April, John Cartwright for the Wednesbury and District National Secular Society reported to the Secular Review that at the last meeting they had read the report in the National Reformer of the debate between the Rev Hatchard and Annie Besant and afterwards had ‘solos performed on the pianoforte.’ Relations between the NSS and the BSU were clearly improving as Bradlaugh’s struggle for his Parliamentary seat focused attention on the fight for free speech rather than the right to publish birth control material.

At the fourth annual conference of the British Secular Union in August, Mr & Mrs Adams and John Silk attended from West Bromwich, and there was an unnamed delegate from Dudley. At this time William Adams was advertising in the Secular Review as a watchmaker selling the cheapest watches in the world, he claimed. He sold Geneva men’s watches at 17/6d and ladies’ watches with flowered dials between 17/6d. and 45/-d.

In 1882 while Secular activities flourished in becomes more difficult to pick up Black Country reports. From the Secular Review we learn only that the Walsall Sunday Reading Room remained open from 3pm to 6pm with discussion from 6pm to 8pm. There are no reports in the National Reformer until the autumn when activity of the West Bromwich and District Secular Society at 32 Queen Square is reported by the secretary W. Mole. In September W. Cox lectured on ‘Morality with or without the Bible’ and in November the society heard ‘an able essay on Shelley’ and then unanimously voted to join the National Secular Society. Scholey also reported that at the Sunday Reading Room in Walsall in December there had been an ‘animated discussion’ on Henry George’s Progress and Poverty which was then beginning to exert an immense influence on radical politics.

In 1883 there were regular reports in the National Reformer of activity in West Bromwich. Also in September Wolverhampton Secular Society came to life when a committee met to consider whether to take a regular meeting place. They decided in the affirmative and the first meeting was at the Old Temperance Hall, Bilston Street, when W.W. Collins lectured on ‘Does Death end All?’.

1884 is the year of the split in the Secular movement when many turned to Socialism and formed branches of the Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League. The rump soldiered on with their anti-religious propaganda, many of their leading figures, such as Bradlaugh, bitterly anti-Socialist. Thus they removed themselves from the centre of radical politics where they had been since the decline of Chartism, to the periphery where they remain to this day; sympathised with, but not necessarily supported by, all those who live by Humanist principles, but who do not feel the need to indulge in militant, anti-religious propaganda.

In Birmingham secular activity continued strongly from Baskerville Hall reported regularly by the Secular Review and less strongly by the Birmingham NSS from the Alexandra Hall, Hope Street, judging by reports in the National Reformer. But in the Black Country the former paper tells us of a Wednesbury branch of the NSS meeting at the Coffee House, Upper High Street whose secretary was Mr Smith and the Wolverhampton Secular Society meeting at the Assembly Hall, Charles Street, Stafford Street every Sunday at 7pm and whose annual general meeting took place in August. In addition a Midlands Counties Secular Association was also reported whose secretary was R. Porter of Bilston. Wolverhampton Secular Society continued to meet through 1885 and the last notice for it in the Secular Review is March 1886.

The National Reformer in 1884 reported both Wolverhampton and Wednesbury activity, but by the end of the year there were no advertisements or notices of any Black Country activity. Even that great Walsall stronghold of E.A. Scholey’s Coffee House in its many guises seems to have departed after 30 years of unbroken service to progressive causes. By 1885 neither Birmingham nor Black Country secularism could report regular activity.


It is clear that there was a direct link between Chartism and Secularism in most Black Country towns. This is in direct contrast with the relationship between Owenite Socialists and Chartists in the 1840s when there was scarcely any overlap between them. Stable Secular organisation was achieved in those towns where there was a committed core of cadres. Elsewhere, there existed isolated militants, and beyond that a core of inactive, but informed sympathisers. On this base there was always the possibility of breaking through to the mass of the population, most of whom were ‘infidels’ in the sense of their indifference to religion and who had no reason to love the clergy of the established church. This core of rationalist opinion, joined to other radical political opinion exerted a constant pressure on reactionary local political and religious circles for the extension of the franchise and for social amelioration. This became quite threatening in the later 1860s during a decade of surprisingly high unemployment.

The boom of the early 1870s gave a respite to the authorities but it also gave rise to the last great radical attempt to unite middle-class progressives with working class organisation in the Republican movement. Here Joseph Chamberlain was a key local influence almost embracing Socialism at a time when he stood poised to take over the leadership of the Liberal Party.

The Great Depression destroyed Republicanism, and Chamberlain U-turned to become the leader of Imperialism. It took ten years of Depression before the new Socialism was able to break through in 1884. Against this background, the fortunes of Secularists in individual towns can be summarised.

Black Country secularism began in Dudley, the town where Chartism was strongest at the time of the demise of the national movement in 1860. Dudley seems to have been fertile in devising organisations through which the three main strands of religious criticism, extension of the franchise and radical politics could be pursued. But after the death of Samuel Cook in 1861 and the disappearance of Daniel Wallwork it was never again the leading Secular centre, even though it retained the militant and intellectual H.V. Mayers.

Wolverhampton never seems to have assumed a leading role. The town was most active in the period 1866-73 when public premises were established at the Eclectic Hall and a Republican Club set up. This was the period when there was an identifiable leader in Oliver Tromper. Wolverhampton secularism again developed at the very end of the movement in the early 1880s.

West Bromwich adjoins Birmingham and could rely on assistance from that town where Secularism was stronger. The movement does not seem to have developed until the later 1860s when it met regularly at the Assembly Rooms. The town also developed a Republican Club and the Secular movement remained active in the later 1870s. Towards the end of the movement West Bromwich became the centre of district organisation. The leading West Bromwich secularists were Mr & Mrs Adams whose energy and financial assistance helped ensure continuous organisation from at least 1867 to 1884.

Walsall is notable for its anchor man A.E. Scholey who provided from his Temperance Rooms facilities for all progressive causes from Chartism in 1855 up to the disappearance of Secularism in 1884. After a short peak in 1871-73 with Republican politics, both the Secular Society and the Republican Club seem to have been replaced by the Walsall Free Discussion Group. Despite difficulties, it is clear that Secularism had a permanent presence in Walsall during this period.

Stourbridge secularism seems to have developed strongly only from the middle 1870s when the movement as a whole was tending to decline. Its importance was in being able to stimulate activity in surrounding areas such as Oldswinford and the chain and nail districts of Lye Waste, Cradley etc. Activity in Stourbridge coincided with organisation in the adjacent town of Kidderminster (which is not in the Black Country). Stourbridge had been an important centre of Owenite Socialism in the 1830s-40s.

Secular activity was reported from almost every Black Country town and village at some time. But the greatest surprise is the development of consistent district organisation in the two ‘minor’ towns of Wednesbury and Oldbury.

Oldbury was near to Birmingham and its organisation seems to have been set up by the latter town in 1867, although there had been reports of Secular activity from 1862. The existence of its Freethought Temperance Hall gave it, like Walsall, a public face in the town. Further research on the history of this institution would be useful. The district organisation in Wednesbury was set up a few years later in 1871. It had no regular premises of its own, but it did have an anchor man in John Jones, probably the ex-Bilston, Chartist barber and activity was reported from Wednesbury as early as 1868. Wednesbury had also been an important Chartist centre and in 1843 became the only Chartist organisation in Birmingham or the Black Country to build its own Hall.

It is tempting to see the Midland Secular Union in Oldbury and the S. Staffs. & E. Worcs. Secular Society at Wednesbury as an expression of the national split between the National Secular Society and the British Secular Union, but the national split occurred later, in 1876. By the time of the Stourbridge-Kidderminster development in the later 1870s, the national and local splits do seem to have coincided, and the overtures of Wednesbury to Oldbury in 1881 was probably an attempt to heal this split as well as a commonsense appeal for one district organisation at a time when the movement was rapidly weakening.

Finally an attempt must be made to assess the influence of Secularism during these years when Britain was the Workshop of the World. It is clear that Secularism posed no fundamental threat to the capitalist system in the way that Chartism and some earlier working class movements had. The anti-religious base of Secularism was not broad enough to mobilise support to change society, and the Chartists had been very careful to avoid this narrow base. But, as we have seen. conditions in the Black Country required a robust critique of religion. This had been shown time and time again, notably at the time of the French Revolution with the influence of Thomas Paine and with Owenite Socialism in the 1830s-40s. Secularism was not strong enough to initiate the main reform movements of the time, but its members played important parts in supporting the main campaigns of the times. These issues included church rates, campaigns to abolish income tax, opposition to the Poor Law and support for the Peace Movement; also opposition to colonial wars, support for the defeated revolutionaries of 1848, massive support for Garibaldi and support for the north in the American Civil War. This was climaxed by the struggle for the second Reform Bill of 1867. Black Country support for these movements has been detailed in my Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750-1867. After 1867 the Secularists came into their own with the campaign for the Education Act of 1870 and this was followed by the rapid growth of the Republican movement. This proved to be the peak of the influence of Secularism.

Two points only can be made here. Firstly that even the presence of Secularism in the Black Country has never before been investigated and secondly its influence was clearly not inconsiderable. Its long-term significance is in having provided a bridge from the old Socialism of Owenism and Chartism to the modern Socialism emerging after 1884. In this respect its importance was clearly crucial.

Bibliography: Republicanism and Restructuring 1870-1884

This chapter has been written almost entirely from the Secular newspapers: the National Reformer; the Republican (1871-72); and the Secular Chronicle, the local Birmingham paper 1872-76, and the Secular Review, the paper of G.J. Holyoake, Charles Watts and G.W. Foote who withdrew from the National Secular Society in 1877 as a result of the birth control controversy which Bradlaugh embraced, and formed the British Secular Union.

For the history of Secularism in Birmingham, from which town much Black Country Secularism was initiated and where it was stronger than in the Black Country see my Birmingham Working People – A History of the Labour Movement in Birmingham 1650-1914.