Biography

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Richard Carlile (1790-1843)

This article was written by George Jacob Holyoake and was published in 1886


Richard CarlileRichard Carlile, freethinker, was born 8 December 1790 in Ashburton, Devonshire. His father was a shoemaker, who had some reputation as an arithmetician, and published a collection of mathematical and algebraic questions. He became an exciseman and fell into bad habits. His son Richard was four years of age at the time of his death.

Carlile was educated in the village free school, where William Gifford, afterwards editor of the ‘Quarterly Review,’ had been a scholar. He was taught writing, arithmetic, and sufficient Latin to read a physician's prescription. For a time he was in a chemist's shop in Exeter, but left on being set to perform some office incompatible with the dignity of one who could read a prescription. For a time he coloured pictures, which were sold in the shop kept by his mother. Her principal trade customers were Gifford & Co., brothers of Robert, afterwards attorney-general and lord Gifford. Carlile was eventually apprenticed to Mr. Cumming, a tinman, a hard master, who considered five or six hours for sleep all the recreation necessary for his apprentices. Carlile frequently rebelled against this injustice. He had an ambition to earn his living by his pen. In the meantime he worked as a journeyman tinman in various parts of the country.

In 1813 he was employed at Benham & Sons', Blackfriars Road, London; in 1816 at the firm of Matthews & Masterman of Union Court, Holborn. There he saw for the first time one of the works of Thomas Paine, whose effigy he had helped to burn when a boy. Excited by the vigour of the ‘Rights of Man’ and the distress of the time, he wrote letters to newspapers, but only with the result of seeing a notice in the ‘Independent Whig,’ a ‘half-employed mechanic is too violent.’ He wrote to Hunt and Cobbett without interesting them. In 1817 the ‘Black Dwarf,’ a London weekly publication, edited by Jonathan Wooler, first appeared. This periodical was much more to Carlile's taste than Cobbett's ‘Register,’ and was continued till 1819. The Habeas Corpus Act was then suspended, and the sale of obnoxious literature exposed to dangers which only stimulated Carlile.

He borrowed £1 from his employer, bought with it a hundred ‘Dwarfs,’ and on 9 March 1817 sallied forth from the manufactory with the papers in a handkerchief. He traversed London in every direction to get newsvendors to sell the ‘Dwarf.’ He carried the ‘Dwarf’ round several weeks, walking thirty miles a day at a profit of fifteen pence and eighteen pence. When Steill, the publisher of the ‘Dwarf,’ was arrested, Carlile offered to take his place. ‘I did not then see,’ he said later in life, ‘what my experience has since taught me, that the greatest despotism ruling the press is popular ignorance.’ He printed and effected the sale of 25,000 copies of Southey's ‘Wat Tyler’ in 1817, in spite of the author's objection. The ‘Parodies’ of Hone being suppressed, Carlile reprinted them, and also published in 1817 a series of parodies by himself, entitled ‘The Political Litany, diligently revised, to be said or sung until the Appointed Change occurs;’ ‘The Sinecurists' Creed;’ ‘The Bullet Te Deum;’ ‘A Political Catechism;’ ‘The Order for the Administration of Loaves and Fishes.’ These publications cost Carlile eighteen weeks' imprisonment in the king's bench prison, from which he was liberated without trial on the acquittal of William Hone.

In 1818 Carlile published the theological, political, and miscellaneous works of Paine, together with a memoir. He was prosecuted, and he published other works of a similar character. By the end of October 1819 he had six indictments against him. In November he was sentenced to £1,500 fine and three years' imprisonment in Dorchester gaol. In the middle of the night he was handcuffed and driven off between two armed officers to Dorchester, a distance of 120 miles. His trial lasted three days, and attracted the notice of the Emperor Alexander of Russia, who thought it necessary to issue a ukase to forbid any report of it being brought into his territory. During this imprisonment he was ordered to be taken out of his cell half an hour each day. He resented the exhibition by remaining two years and a half in his room without going into the open air.

Carlile busied himself in gaol with the publication of a periodical called ‘The Republican,’ which he began in 1819 and continued till 1826 (14 vols.) The first twelve volumes are dated from Dorchester gaol. Mrs. Carlile resuming the publication of this and other of her husband's works was sentenced in January 1821 to two years' imprisonment, also in Dorchester gaol. But Carlile still managed to publish his writings, and at once issued a report of his wife's trial. The same year a constitutional association was formed for prosecuting Carlile's assistants; £6,000 was raised, and the Duke of Wellington put his name at the head of the list. The sheriff of the court of king's bench took possession of Carlile's house in Fleet Street, furniture, and stock in trade, but Carlile's publications still issued from the prison.

In 1822, in the week in which Peel took possession of the home office, a second seizure was made of the house and stock at 55 Fleet Street, under pretence of satisfying the fines, but neither from this nor the former seizure was a farthing allowed in the abatement of the fines, and Carlile was kept in Dorchester gaol for six years, from 1819 to 1825 — three years' imprisonment being taken in lieu of the fines. His sister, Mary Anne, was fined £500 and subjected to twelve months' imprisonment from July 1821, for publishing Carlile's ‘New Year's Address to the Reformers of Great Britain’ (1821). Carlile published a report of her trial.

The rate of liquidation of fines established by the crown was twelve months for every £500. In 1825 it was reported that the cabinet council had come to the conclusion that prosecutions should be discontinued. No more persons were arrested from Carlile's shop, and yet none of his publications had been suppressed. The last nine of his shopmen arrested were detained to complete their sentences, varying from six months' to three years' imprisonment, Sir Robert Peel refusing to give up a single day. After his release Carlile published the earlier numbers of a new weekly political paper called ‘The Gorgon,’ and from January 1828 to December 1829 edited a sixpenny weekly serial called ‘The Lion’ — a record of the prosecution of Robert Taylor, author of the ‘Devil's Pulpit.’

Carlile sought to establish freedom of speech, and in 1830 engaged the Rotunda, Blackfriars Road. Most of the public men in London out of parliament attended the discussions, and a liberty of speech never before known in England was permitted. The French revolution of 1830 gave further impetus to free speaking on the platform. Later, Carlile's house in Fleet Street was assessed for church rates. When his goods were seized he retaliated by taking out the two front windows to exhibit two effigies of a bishop and a distraining officer. After a time he added a devil, who was linked arm-in-arm with the bishop. Such crowds were attracted that public business was impeded. Carlile was again indicted, but the court was at least externally courteous. Carlile defended himself with good sense, but was sentenced to pay a fine of 40s. to the king and give sureties of £200 — himself in £100 and two others in £50 —for his good behaviour for three years. As he refused to give sureties or ask others to become sureties, he entered with his accustomed spirit into three years' more imprisonment. Before sentence he made a deposition in court stating the grounds of his determination, and that, ‘though anxious to live in peace and amity with all men, there did exist many political and moral evils which he would through life labour to abate.’ Thus, with a further imprisonment in 1834-5 of ten weeks for resistance to the payment of church rates, he endured a total imprisonment of nine years and four months. He saw that the humiliation of the press could only be removed by resistance.

In 1819 Castlereagh had proposed a law which would have inflicted transportation on Carlile for a second offence. Edwards, a clever spy, frequented his house for months, and made him a full-length model of Paine, with a view to win his confidence and involve him in the Cato Street conspiracy. When Thistlewood was seized it was intended to arrest Mrs. Carlile, her husband being then in prison, to suggest his complicity with Thistlewood. His shopmen were arrested so frequently that he sold his books by clockwork, so that the buyer was unable to identify the seller. On a dial was written the name of every publication for sale, the purchaser entered and turned the handle of the dial to the publication he wanted; on depositing the money the book dropped down before him. The peril of maintaining a free press in those days brought Carlile the admiration and sympathy of powerful friends unprepared themselves to incur such risks. The third and fourth years of his imprisonment produced him subscriptions to the amount of £500 a year. For a long period his profits over the counter were £50 a week. Once, when a trial was pending, Mrs. Carlile took £500 in the shop in one week. But Carlile had a passion for propagandism, and incurred liabilities which exhausted all his resources. So long as he vindicated the political freedom of the press Cobbett said, ‘You have done your duty bravely, Mr. Carlile; if every one had done like you, it would be all very well.’ But when he sought to establish the theological and even the medical freedom of the press, Cartwright and others deprecated his proceedings as mischievous or immoral.

Carlile married in 1813 one several years older than himself. Out of his slender wages of thirty shillings a week, even when he had several children, he continued to contribute to the support of his mother. This first led to domestic differences, which asperity of temper on his wife's part increased, and in 1819 a separation was agreed upon as soon as he had means of providing for her, which did not occur until 1832, when he was able to settle upon her an annuity bequeathed to him by Mr. Morrison of Chelsea. Otherwise Mrs. Carlile was not without good qualities. She had business talent, which her husband never acquired, and though having but little sympathy with his opinions, she resented the oppression directed against him, and resolutely refused to compromise him or discontinue selling his publications, though it subjected her to two years' imprisonment.

Carlile died on 10 February 1843, in his fifty-third year, from an illness brought on by excitement in search of a child who had wandered from his door in Bouverie Street, London. Sir William Lawrence, the author of the ‘Lectures on Man,’ saw him in his brief illness. He left his body for anatomical purposes to St. Thomas's Hospital. He followed the example of Bentham in desiring to remove by his own example the popular prejudice against dissection. Carlile was abstemious, habitually diffident, but bold under a sense of duty. He practised free speaking, and, what was rarer, never objected to its being used by others towards himself. Although he ordinarily spoke with hesitation, he attained eloquence in vindicating freedom. He had suffered so much that he not unnaturally became convinced that suffering was the only qualification for a public teacher, and doubted the integrity of those who had dared nothing. The ferocity with which he was assailed drove him to extremes in self-defence, which, however, were temperate when compared with the insolence of his powerful assailants; but in him it was deemed license, in them respectable indignation. His merit was, that he chose the method of moral resistance and accomplished by endurance what violence could not have effected. He lived to discern that sensation is not progress and denunciation is not instruction, and by his want of consideration in speech he created a dislike of the truth he vindicated. The faults of Carlile will be forgiven in consideration of his having done more than any other Englishman in his day for the freedom of the press.


Also see: Michael Laccohee Bush - The Friends and Following of Richard Carlile: a study of infidel republicanism in early nineteenth-century Britain (Twopenny Press, 2016)

 


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