Bradlaugh for Northampton
This terracotta statue of Charles Bradlaugh, one of the most renowned of Victorian radicals, stands in the middle of a roundabout in the constituency he represented in Parliament: Northampton.
Bradlaugh was a proselytising atheist, a Republican, an advocate of birth control, a campaigner for social justice, political reform and a free press and an advocate of Irish and Indian nationalism. And he was at the centre of one of the all-time-great Parliamentary dramas - when he was repeatedly returned by the electors of Northampton and repeatedly denied permission to take his seat in the House of Commons.
Bradlaugh aroused strong emotions - to his followers he was the bravest of the brave, a courageous opponent of privilege (you can get a flavour of how he was viewed by the inscriptions, from a song 'Bradlaugh for Northampton', around the base of the statue); to his detractors he was a Godless, self-promoting knave. He was certainly impetuous - but he also succeeded in challenging some of the most profound injustices of his era.
I was in Northampton for a walk organised by the Bradlaugh Society to mark the 150th anniversary of his first Parliamentary candidacy in the town. And where better to gather to celebrate the life of an unbeliever and contemptuous critic of clerical privilege than the steps of the town's main church, the commanding All Saints.
The other building shown - with the boarded-up white arches (and yes that is a kilted piper playing) - was the hotel overlooking the market square which Bradlaugh repeatedly made his campaign headquarters.
We had the chance of visiting Northampton's awe-inspiring Guildhall and also the town's library where, in the Carnegie Room, there is a portrait of Bradlaugh in the closing months of his life -
Bradlaugh contested the seat of Northampton an astonishing eight times. He was not local to the area but was invited to contest by local radicals. It was in many ways a promising seat. Although Northamptonshire was a county of large landed estates, the town had a strong non-conformist tradition and the workers in its principal industry, the boot and shoe trade (which still survives in attenuated form) were decidedly radical.
On the first three occasions that Bradlaugh stood - the general elections of 1868 and 1874 and a by-election later in 1874 - he lost. That third defeat was regarded by his supporters as unjust and irregular, and there was rioting in Northampton's market square. But in 1880 - now endorsed by the local Liberal establishment - he was elected to represent this two-member constituency.
There then unfolded a turbulent and unseemly drama. Bradlaugh as an atheist asked to affirm to take his seat. This was refused. He then said he would take the oath. This too was refused on the grounds that he had made clear that the oath had no meaning to him. He was on one occasion forcibly removed from the chamber and indeed detained overnight in the Houses of Parliament.
Three times, he was either expelled as an MP or chose to resign in protest about not being allowed to take his seat. On all three occasions he won the ensuing by-election ... though on one occasion his majority was cut to the bone. It became a cause celebre. He was finally allowed to take the oath in 1886, and two years later legislation allowing members to affirm was passed. The prolonged stand-off took a toll on Bradlaugh - he died in 1891 at the age of 57. I told his story many years ago in a radio documentary for the BBC World Service.
Today's walk ended, suitably enough, in the part of town which was Bradlaugh's political stronghold: the boot-and-shoe quarter. A disused shoe factory there (I chanced across a man who once worked there - he said it was where Church's made women's shoes) has been turned into a pub and named TCB, 'The Charles Bradlaugh'. And there we toasted his memory and achievements.
The weather was kind for the walk - warm thanks to Northampton's Bradlaugh Society for organising it, and a call-out for their campaign to save the Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore. Bradlaugh became known as the 'Member for India' because of his willingness to raise India's grievances in Parliament and his links with the Indian National Congress. Lahore's Bradlaugh Hall - built from 1900 - was named in tribute to him. It was where many landmark nationalist meetings and protest gatherings were held and is part of Lahore's political as well as architectural heritage - but the hall is now in a state of acute disrepair ... as you can see -
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