Charles Bradlaugh was the Tony Benn of his era: a radical MP and inveterate campaigner who sometimes courted controversy; an advocate of political reform; an outspoken champion of causes such as atheism and republicanism. And much like Tony Benn, he was lionised by his supporters and detested by his detractors.
When Bradlaugh died in January 1891, hundreds of condolence letters poured in: from local branches of the National Secular Society, which he founded; from India, whose interests he had sought to represent in Parliament; from well-wishers and supporters; and from scores of radical working men's clubs. This deluge of correspondence has, rather wonderfully, been preserved among Bradlaugh's papers at the Bishopsgate Institute - which has very kindly given me permission to post a couple of the letters here.
The letter above came from the Mildmay Radical Club and Institute then at 36 Newington Green Road. It later moved to much grander premises on Newington Green and later still dropped 'Radical' from its name. The Mildmay Club still survives - and I've blogged about it before,
This blog is not so much about Bradlaugh as about the early history of the Mildmay Club - which is, shall we say, a touch opaque.
Among other letters sent to Bradlaugh's daughter at his death is this one, from exactly the same address as that given by the Mildmay Radical Club -
So the Balls Pond Secular Hall Society was also operating from 36 Newington Green Road. Secularism was then a substantial national movement, challenging the power and privilege of organised religion - and while there were competing strands within the secularist movement, Bradlaugh was their best known and best regarded leader.
The 'hall' on Newington Green Road was quite possibly simply a decent size room - perhaps rented for different purposes on different evenings. These small clubs would stage meetings, debates and entertainment - and the drink offered (some clubs were teetotal, but most made their money from alcohol) might simply be beer bought in gallon flaggons.
A web search on 36 Newington Green Road also produced some intriguing new information - from the other side of the world. Virginia Rundle in Sydney has a website devoted to her British forbears (many thanks for her permission to post the handbill below). Her great-grandmother Harriett Fuller is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington. According to her death certificate, she succumbed to typhoid on 29th April 1887 ... at 36 Newington Green Road. Her husband, John Fuller - described as a 'tenor vocalist' - was present at the death.
John Fuller was known as the 'silvery tenor' and performed with the Mohawk Minstrels - Virginia has researched in depth his performing years in London before emigrating to Australia. His children formed a family musical troupe. They not only lived at 36 Newington Green Road - they performed there.
Virginia has John Fuller's scrap book - and it contains the following notice of a performance at the Balls Ponds Radical Club at, as far as can be made out, 36 Newington Green Road. Although someone has written '1886' on the handbill, Virginia believes it dates from 1888. The performers were Fuller's and Ison's Juvenile Black Blossom Minstrels - all apparently youngsters under fourteen. The kids would almost certainly have been in "black face" - a form of entertainment which is now unacceptable but was popular at that time (and let's not forget that the Black and White Minstrel Show ran on BBC prime-time television until as recently as 1978).
This is another sliver of evidence indicating of how the roots of the Mildmay Club lay in the vibrant North London secular movement.
That's confirmed by an article in the Club and Institute Journal in 1951 - based in part on the recollections of a founder member of the Mildmay Club. It states: 'Sixty-two years ago, members of the Balls Pond Secular Club, Newington Green Road, ... saw their club "go on the rocks." While some lamented this catastrophe, others saw in it an opportunity. Sixteen of them subscribed ten shillings each towards the first month's rent, and thus it came about that the Mildmay Radical Club was formed.'
This article also reports that in 1891, the club bought 'an old mansion at 34, Newington Green comprising 12 rooms and with spacious grounds'. Most of this old pile - one imagines - was pulled down to make way for the grand premises built in 1900 which remain the home of the Mildmay Club.
The generally accepted account of the club's early history is given in the listed building entry on the Historic England website. This states:
'The Mildmay Club was founded on 18 August 1888 as the Mildmay Radical Club and was originally located at 36 Newington Green Road, Islington. The club was actively involved in radical politics and social campaigns. In 1894 it moved to new premises at 34 Newington Green, gifted in the will of two local sisters. ... The Mildmay Club was recognised as one of the largest and most politically active of the capital’s working men’s clubs.
On 27 October 1900 the foundation stone was laid for a new clubhouse designed by a member of the club, the architect Alfred Allen. The new building, which may have incorporated fabric from the existing houses on the site, included two halls, a reading room, meeting rooms and a billiard hall. ...'
Quite how the story of the sisters' will fits with the account of the club buying the existing building is not at all clear. Anyone know?
There's another intriguing element to the story, gleaned from the pages of Club Life, a weekly journal 'written by Clubmen for Clubmen'. It started in 1899 but the British Library's copies for that year, and for 1901, are too fragile for consultation. The issues for 1900 are available, and they make clear how prominent and successful the Mildmay Radical Club had become. The journal gives information about the Mildmay's political activities and more so about the entertainment offered there - and it also chronicles the step-by-step rebuilding of the club house.
Another prominent club whose activities are listed is the Bradlaugh Club and Institute at - you've guessed it! - 36 Newington Green Road. So all those years after the Mildmay Club had moved from Newington Green Road, their old premises were still the home of a working men's club, and to judge from the name, in the radical and secular tradition.
This blog started with Charles Bradlaugh - and it ends with the club that took his name. There's more to be discovered. All leads, information and help welcome.
I made a personal act of pilgrimage in Lahore this week - to the Bradlaugh Hall. This magnificent but sadly dilapidated building is where Freda Bedi - the English woman turned Indian nationalist whose biography I have written - first addressed a political meeting in her adopted home of Punjab.
It was the mid-1930s, and Freda was convinced by her Punjabi communist husband, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, to address a student rally at Bradlaugh Hall.
'B.P.L. said oh, you know, they want you to talk - it's nothing, you just talk as you talk at a debating society at Oxford. And when I got there I was petrified to find that there were 24,000 people waiting, and this crowd of 24,000 had a very definite opinion about what it should listen to and what it shouldn't. And if it didn't like the speaker it would start beating the ground with sticks and the soles of the feet and making a noise so the speaker would have to go down.
'Anyway, I decided that the reason they didn't like a number of speakers was that they couldn't hear them and the best thing would be to speak pretty loudly. ... So I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution and I suddenly began speaking ... in a very loud voice, and I can still feel the shock that went through the whole 24,000 heads when this slight western-looking person suddenly bellowed into the microphone, must have been out of sheer fright. And that established me as a speaker. I found I could go on speaking and not be drummed out of existence by the sticks and the feet.'
The 24,000 number is not to be taken too literally - but creeping inside the rotting hulk of the building, a rather perilous venture, you get a sense of the scale of the nationalist rallies so often held here. When Freda and other wartime political prisoners were released from jail in Lahore in 1941, Bradlaugh Hall was the venue for the Congress rally to mark their liberation.
It was a stormy and overcast day when I visited the hall - you can get an idea of how it looks when the sun shines from this photo, one of a series, which accompanied an excellent article in the Dawn newspaper a few years ago:
The hall has a fascinating, if somewhat opaque, history. It is very central - just off Rattigan Road and a few minutes' stroll from Government College where B.P.L. Bedi was once a student. And it's named after an English politician, Charles Bradlaugh (I once made a radio documentary about him - you can hear it here). He was a republican and atheist MP on the ultra-radical wing of Victorian liberalism who was famously detained overnight in the Houses of Parliament as part of a tumultuous struggle he staged to be allowed to affirm - rather than take a religious oath - when taking his seat in the Commons.
Bradlaugh took on the informal title when a Parliamentarian in the 1880s of the 'Member for India'. And he was one of the very few British MPs of his day to make the trip out to the biggest and most valued part of the Empire.
In December 1889, Bradlaugh sailed to Bombay to give the opening address at the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress. Yes, that's the same Congress - in institutional terms at least - as the political party which dominated politics once India gained independence, until the recent rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP that is.
Bradlaugh was by then very unwell, in part because of his ceaseless campaigning. Part of the purpose of the trip to India was the supposedly restorative sea passage. He spent not more than two weeks in India and health concerns meant that he wasn't able to fulfil his ambition to travel around the country. And it's clear - in spite of what some local historical sources say - that Bradlaugh never made it to Lahore.
Four years later, in 1893, the annual session of Congress was held in Lahore - and was presided over by Dadabhai Naoroji, who was also a member of the House of Commons (the Liberal MP for Finsbury Central). That seems to be when fundraising started to construct a hall in Lahore not under the direct control of the colonial authorities and so able to be used for nationalist gatherings.
The inaugural stone was laid in 1900 - nine years after Bradlaugh's death - by a prominent nationalist Surendranath Banerjee. Once completed, it became associated with Lala Lajpat Rai, who established the National College in the hall buildings. Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary regarded as perhaps India's foremost martyr of the struggle for independence, attended this college and almost certainly spoke here.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah are among many prominent political figures said to have addressed their followers at the Bradlaugh Hall. It was perhaps the foremost venue in Lahore for nationalist meetings during the first half of the twentieth century.
The hall is slightly hidden away and not fully visible from the main road. That perhaps explains its survival more-or-less in tact - though some extensions were added when the building was, apparently, used as a steel mill after independence.
Although it's supposed to be sealed off, with the help of local historian Faizan Naqvi, I was able to get inside the cavernous hall, which was both awe-inspiring and, given the poor upkeep, deeply depressing.
A detailed study of Bradlaugh Hall - posted below - describes it as 'a gem among all the colonial period building of Lahore' and points to the window design in particular as a remarkable amalgamation of western and local styles. The architecture is certainly, well, non-standard - but its importance lies in the use to which it was put rather than the integrity of its design.
The building is certainly imposing, and given its centrality to the nationalist movement in what was then the capital of undivided Punjab, I do hope it has a secure future.
At the moment, the structure seems broadly sound, but many of the remarkable wooden window fittings are crumbling and the roof is peppered with holes. It was a rainy day when I visited, and floor of the hall - happily constructed of brick - was an array of puddles.
The building is under the control of a curious hangover from the Partition era, the Evacuee Trust Properties Board. After the steel mill closed, the building was apparently used as a school - and although it is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years, my ramble round the interior revealed educational posters of a fairly recent vintage and even a blackboard with some maths sums still clearly legible.
There is now a Save Bradlaugh Hall campaign which deserves support - though there's work to be done to develop clear plans for any future use of the hall and the source of funds to repair and adapt the structure.
But such a magnificent and historic meeting place - a location so redolent of the nationalist movement in Lahore - surely deserves a generous measure of tender loving care ... and cash.
LATER: a piece based on this blog was broadcast on the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent on 27 February 2020. Here's the audio:
The place I stay in Chennai is just a few yards from Murrays Gate Road. Needless to say, there is no gate on Murrays Gate Road. But there is an old gatepost. It's often obscured by the stand of a press wallah (no, not a journalist - a guy who does ironing on the street). But there's still a single, solitary hinge. And if there was a gate attached to the post, it wouldn't be across one of the entrances to the smart houses and blocks of flats along here, but would restrict access to one of the roads on what's now known as Venus Colony.
So was this once 'Murray's Gate'? Well, there's is no conclusive proof - but this may be the last remnant of one of Madras's grander colonial-era houses, the home of a leading British barrister who supported Indian nationalism. More particularly this was where one of the leading poets of the turn of the century - nineteenth-into-twentieth that is - took her own life: Laurence Hope aka Violet Nicolson aka Adela Florence Cory, about whom I have blogged before.
And in a later incarnation this was the home of the Venus film studios, which played a crucial role in the development of Tamil cinema.
So, let's start at the beginning - unconventional as that may now be.
According to S. Muthiah's compendious and authoritative Madras Rediscovered, Murrays Gate Road led from Mowbrays (now TTK) Road to Dunmore House. This was where Leveson Keith Murray lived when he was Collector of Madras between 1822 and 1831.. He was born in Dunmor in Scotland; his father was the Earl of Dunmore and his brother succeeded to the title. Whether Murray had the house built or acquired it, we don't know.
No trace of the house - and, it seems, no picture or drawing of it - survives ... apart, perhaps, for this solitary gatepost. It's not unreasonable to assume that this once marked the entrance to Murray's home, Dunmore House - but it's not proveable beyond reasonable doubt.
By the end of the century, this was the home of Eardley Norton. He was born in India in 1852, educated at Oxford and returned to Madras to practise law in the High Court. Norton was not a conventional servant of Empire. He was a friend of the family which ran the Hindu and for a while wrote a column in the paper under a pseudonym. He was also aligned with the Indian National Congress and was reputed to have solicited the support for the Congress of the radical, atheist and republican MP for Northampton, Charles Bradlaugh.
Eardley rose to the position of Advocate-General of Madras - but his membership of the Imperial Legislative Council was short-lived ... he was obliged to step down after allegations of adultery. A two-volume biography of Norton has recently been published which will no doubt offer chapter and verse.
It seems that Eardley Norton was back in England on a visit when the poet Violet Nicolson - who wrote under the pseudonym of Laurence Hope - stayed here in 1904. Her husband, a retired general, required a routine prostate operation. He died. She was left bereft.
A new book about Hope - or rather the search for her elusive trail - tells us a little more about her stay in Madras. It's called Rapture's Roadway and the author is an Australian writer, Virginia Jealous. She records that Norton noted how the servants were alarmed by the manner in which Hope - after her husband's death - wandered around the grounds at night. 'In the garden, on the bark of many trees, she had written mysterious initials, and the end was terribly painful.'
A few weeks after her husband's death, Laurence Hope died by drinking corrosive poison. It was suicide. Her young son - then in England being cared for by relatives - was left an orphan. I don't believe in ghosts or anything of that sort, but I am tempted to wonder whether on any of my night-time walks around this part of Chennai I have communed with her restless spirit.
The Nicolsons, husband and wife, are buried in the large and haunting overspill cemetery of St Mary's Anglican church on Island, not far from Chennai's Central Station. I visited the grave a year ago, When I went back recently it was once more completely shrouded by grass and shrubs which I had to kick away before taking these photos.
Hope is best known for her beguilingly erotic, orientalist poetry - much of it about suffering, harm and loss. The best known is 'Kashmiri Song' - "pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar". It was set to music and while now it seems incredibly dated, a century ago this was one of the most popular songs of the era.
She was in many ways a transgressive figure - a woman who loved India, its culture and customs, and initially published as a man presenting her writings as translations from poems written (by others) in Pashto and Persian. Hope's renown as a poet increased in the years after her death - she was one of the best-selling poets of the Edwardian era, and although she was not well regarded by the literary elite, Thomas Hardy was among those who admired her work.
As for Dunmore House, Eardley Norton sold it in 1933 to the Maharajah of Pithapuram. Within another decade, and following another tragic death at this address, he had sold it on; the house was pulled down and much of the site developed with part of it becoming Venus film studios - as S. Muthiah has recorded.
By the early 1990s, the studios had closed and that site too was developed. The area remains known as Venus Colony, and 'Venus' still survives in the names of streets and blocks of flats.
Now most of the first generation of post-Dunmore House properties have themselves given way to newer, bigger buildings.
And as for that gatepost, it's about the last remnant - if remnant it is - of one of colonial Madras's great houses ... and more particularly of a tragic death of a poet who deserves to be remembered.
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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