‘A Merry Christmas. Inside and Outside’ – Freethinker, Christmas Number 1882. Image Credit: bob Forder

In March 1883, George William Foote, the first editor of the Freethinker, was convicted for blasphemous libel at the Old Bailey and sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour. Shorter sentences were given to two colleagues, the proprietor, William Ramsey, and the printer, Henry Kemp.

The edition of the Freethinker for which Foote was imprisoned was the Christmas Number 1882. It featured satirical cartoons, including ‘A Merry Christmas, Inside and Outside’ (above) and ‘Moses Getting a Back View’, which showed the seat of God’s trousers (in reference to Exodus 33, 23). It also featured a satirical ‘Trial for Blasphemy’ by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, in which, as Foote later described it, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John appeared on trial for blasphemy in the Court of Common Sense, ‘charged with publishing all the absurdities in the four gospels.’ The judge, Lord North, was a Catholic. In pronouncing sentence, he regretted that Foote ‘should have chosen to prostitute his talents to the service of the Devil.’

The article below is by the interim editor, Dr Edward Aveling, a freethinker, lecturer in anatomy and biology, and unfaithful lover of Eleanor Marx. It describes the conditions which the prisoners faced. Although somewhat melodramatic in tone, the article reveals details of their treatment which are still shocking, given that their only crime was to have mocked religion. In particular, at the time of Aveling’s report, they were in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day. For the first month the only book they were allowed to read was the Bible.

The reference to the hearing before John Duke Coleridge, the Lord Chief Justice, is to a separate prosecution for blasphemous material published in an earlier edition of the magazine. This charge was eventually dropped.

All in all, it was a difficult decade for freethinkers. At the same time as Foote was in prison for blasphemy, Charles Bradlaugh, President of the National Secular Society, was fighting to be allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons, despite his declared atheism.

It is remarkable to think that, only 140 years ago, citizens of a supposedly liberal country like Britain could have been so vindictively punished for offending against an idea. The Freethinker hopes that in 2022, the rhetoric of outrage and offence will not lead to a renewed criminalisation of satire and dissenting views in the UK, whether about religion or anything else.

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