Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh

Ferdinand Mount writes:

Bryan Niblett is a barrister, computer scientist and judicial arbitrator, and he is nicely attuned to his subject. This excellent biography, the first for nearly 40 years, makes us understand why Bradlaugh deserves more than a footnote in political and legal history. His contemporaries understood this well enough. Half a dozen biographies were published in his lifetime and several more after his death. His funeral procession to Brookwood Crematorium required three special trains and was attended by many young men who were to be heard much of in the next century, notably Gandhi and Lloyd George. Lord Queensberry was also present, to bear witness to his loathing of ‘Christian tomfoolery’. So was Walter Sickert, who painted the enormous portrait of Bradlaugh that now hangs in Manchester Art Gallery. To the last, Bradlaugh remained a pioneer of customs we now take for granted, his daughter Hypatia arranging for him to be buried in one of the London Necropolis Company’s earth-to-earth coffins made of papier-mâché. Bradlaugh had called her Hypatia after the fourth-century bluestocking who was said to have been the last librarian of Alexandria and who was martyred by a fanatical Christian sect, her body mutilated with pottery shards. He was never less than consistent. To later generations, though, Bradlaugh’s impact has faded. His long struggle to be admitted to his seat as MP for Northampton without swearing the oath has come to seem a dusty curiosity, a picturesque hiccup in our seamless progress towards a secular world. It didn’t appear that way at the time. Niblett’s lucid and painstaking account of the saga forms the centrepiece of his book, and is not to be missed. In retrospect, Bradlaugh’s seemingly unpatterned clashes with the authorities look more like a neat row of milestones on the road from the pre-modern polity to the one we now live in. Every battle he threw himself into turned into a test case. He was often rebuffed at first. Yet in the long term he mostly prevailed, and his prevailing unblocked a remarkable sequence of changes in attitudes, practices and institutions.

(LRB 30 June 2011)