George Jacob Holyoake

In the Friend, 15 September 2017, Amanda Woolley – a member of Watford Meeting – reviewed Professor Stephen Yeo’s new book: A Useable Past?: Victorian Agitator. It has been written, Andrew Bibby adds in the Co-operative News, with the aim of answering the question: could Holyoake’s life and work help co-operative and associated movements to move forward in the modern world?

Amanda writes:

In 1842 George Jacob Holyoake became the last person in this country to be convicted of blasphemy in a public lecture, delivered at the Cheltenham Mechanics Institute. In reply to a question from the audience, he had wondered that, in view of the cost of the church, whether we were not too poor to have a God. This reply cost him six months in prison.

Working as a whitesmith in a Birmingham workshop from the age of nine, Holyoake became an Owenite socialist, educator and journalist by his early twenties. He spent most of his later years promoting the cooperative movement, which he believed would lift the working class from poverty.

He should also be recognised for coining the word ‘secularism’ (in 1851), which indicates both his resistance to formal religion and his interest in the importance of belief. For good measure, he also claimed to have originated the term ‘jingoism’ in 1878.

This biography will appeal to anyone who is concerned with the history of socialism, cooperation and the challenge to established religion that fermented at that time; but, additionally, Stephen Yeo describes how his own re-examination of Holyoake’s statements and beliefs, 100 years after his death, has given rise to the idea of ‘a religion of cooperation’ as an imagined future for the cooperative movement. How has the original secularist spawned this idea?

Stephen Yeo records that George Jacob Holyoake used the phrase ‘secularism, a religion which gives heaven no trouble’ at the opening of the Secular Hall in Leicester in 1882.

Whilst the cooperative movement existed to promote material security for working-class people, George Jacob Holyoake believed that it also encouraged a less tangible common purpose. To quote the author, he ‘was an advocate of unity and union based on common interest in Societies, secularist as well as cooperative, out of which the dynamism and adhesiveness of a this-worldly faith could develop’. George Jacob Holyoake wrote that such societies and other self-help organisations were ‘to supply the material and social conditions under which, whatever of goodness (relative or absolute) exists in human nature, may manifest itself unchecked’.

In common with Quakers, and some other Protestant churches, he wanted to ‘reappropriate’ religion and remove it from priests and other professionals, and to rely on experience, rather than so-called expertise. The biographer finds that his subject’s writings ‘are studded with intriguing references to Quakers’. George Jacob Holyoake recorded that his father (also a whitesmith) never uncovered his head when he approached his employers, unlike his fellows, and this was ‘not disrespect, but self-respect’.

He wrote admiringly of George Fox, of Thomas Paine, and the Quaker reformer John Bellers. Amongst his contemporaries, he praised the ‘wisdom without patronage’ shown to the workforce by a Quaker businessman from Derby, John Ellis. He and John Bright, the Quaker industrialist and MP for Rochdale, both apparently respected each other, despite some disagreements.

Stephen Yeo plans two further volumes in this history series A Useable Past – The History of Association, Cooperation and un-Statist Socialism in 19th and early 20th century Britain. In this first volume, his final questions include these: whether the moral idealism pursued by George Jacob Holyoake can be incorporated once more in cooperative and mutual enterprises, and whether this can give rise ‘to a cooperative ethic – even a spirituality – looking for the grace of gods rather different from today’s trinity: the individual, the family, and the nation?’

A Useable Past?: Victorian Agitator, George Jacob Holyoake by Stephen Yeo is published by Edward Everett Root Publishers at £65 hardback (ISBN: 9781911204572) and £49.50 pb






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