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Kensal Green, opened in 1833, was London’s first commercial cemetery, and the originator of the city’s ‘Magnificent Seven’. These suburban cemeteries were conceived in part to relieve the major overcrowding of parish burial grounds in urban London, and inspired by Paris’ Père Lachaise. The initiator of Kensal Green Cemetery, barrister George Frederick Carden, had visited Paris in 1821, and had seen the commercial potential of garden cemeteries: tranquil, sanitary places for the burial of individuals from society’s middle and upper classes.

The Cemetery, opened as the General Cemetery of All Souls, provided a consecrated Anglican section and an unconsecrated section for dissenters. The first burial took place on 31 January 1833. Kensal Green Cemetery is the final resting place of a number of notable figures in humanist history, as well as home to the Reformers’ Memorial, ‘to the memory of men and women who have generously given their time and means to improve the conditions and enlarge the happiness of all classes of society’. Many of these were freethinkers.

Kensal Green’s Humanist Heritage

Harriet Marian “Minny” Stephen (née Thackeray; 1840–1875)

Harriet Marian Stephen (née Thackeray) (1840-1875) – first wife of Leslie Stephen, who herself possessed a sharp wit and keen sense of observation.

Sir George Birkbeck (1776-1841) – physician, philanthropist, and pioneer of adult education. Founder of Birkbeck, University of London.

James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) – critic, essayist and poet, whose epitaph reads: ‘Write me as one that loves his fellow men’.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) – a member of the West London Ethical Society, whose personal philosophy motto, ‘do the best for the most’, underpinned his significant philanthropy.

Henry Hetherington (1792-1849) – freethinker and devoted champion of the rights of the working class.

[Memorial to] Robert Owen (1771-1858) – reformer and secularist, remembered on the memorial as one whose ‘life was sanctified by human affection and lofty effort’.

Richard Carlile (1790-1843) – radical bookseller and defender of the freedom of the press.

Harold Pinter (1930-2008) – playwright, activist, and humanist.

Reformers’ Memorial

Erected to the glory of men and women who have generously given their time and means to improve the conditions and enhance the happiness of all classes of society. They have felt that a far happier and more prosperous life is within the reach of all men, and they have earnestly sought to realize it. The old brutal laws of imprisonment for free printing have been swept away and the right of selecting our own law makers has been gained mainly by their efforts. The exercise of these rights will give the people an interest in the laws that govern them, and will make them better men and better citizens.

Inscription on the Reformers’ Memorial
Robert Owen Memorial Obelisk at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, c. 1900 / People’s Collection Wales © Robert Owen Museum 2021

Now a Grade II listed monument, the Reformers’ Memorial was erected by Joseph W. Corfield in 1885, and added to by his daughter, Emma Corfield, in 1907. Located in the Cemetery’s non-conformist section, it sits alongside the memorial to philanthropist, socialist, and proponent of ‘rational religion’ Robert Owen. Many of those listed were freethinkers and humanists, motivated to campaign for reform by a love of humanity, and a desire to improve the world for others.

Among these are:

  • Robert Owen (1771–1858)

    Social reformer, secularist, and proponent of ‘rational religion’.

    See: Robert Owen

  • Frances Wright (1795–1852)

    Writer, lecturer, freethinker, feminist, abolitionist, and social reformer, who founded an experimental community inspired by the ideas of Robert Owen.

    See: Frances Wright

  • Thomas Spence (1750–1814)

    Radical and revolutionary, who devoted his life to individual liberty and freedom of the press. Spence’s contemporary, Francis Place, described him as: ‘a very simple, very honest, single-minded man’ who ‘loved mankind and firmly believed that the time would come when it would be wise, virtuous and happy’.

    See: Thomas Spence Society

  • Mary Hennell (1802–1843)

    Writer and reformer, associated with the Rosehill Circle.

  • Francis Place (1771– 1854)

    Francis Place was a social reformer and leading figure in the Chartist movement, fighting for the political rights and freedoms of the working class.

  • Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)

    Author and freethinker, who was closely associated with William Johnson Fox and the radical circle at South Place.

  • Benjamin Flower (1755–1829)

    Radical journalist and political writer, and father of Eliza and Sarah Flower, actively involved with South Place.

  • Barbara Bodichon (1827–1891)

    Educationist, artist, and women’s rights activist. Bodichon was a founder of Girton College, where many humanists and freethinkers were educated, and worked.

  • Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883)

    Economic historian and campaigner for social welfare, including through active support of trade unions and co-operation. Toynbee Hall, a university settlement, was named in his honour, and many humanists were actively involved there and in other settlement projects.

  • W. K. Clifford (1845–1879)

    Mathematician and philosopher, famous for his statement – made in ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877) – that: ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’.

  • C. Dobson Collet (1812–1898)

    Freethinker, Chartist, and campaigner against the so-called ‘taxes on knowledge’. He was a musical director at South Place Chapel, and his daughter, Clara Collet, an economist and civil servant, spoke for the East London Ethical Society.

  • Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891)

    Politician, activist, and atheist, who founded the National Secular Society in 1866. His efforts to take his seat in Parliament by making a solemn affirmation, rather than swearing an oath, resulted in the Oaths Act 1888, extending the right to affirm to atheists.

    See: Charles Bradlaugh

  • Richard Congreve (1818–1899)

    Philosopher and positivist, who founded the London Positivist Society, and the Comtist Church of Humanity.

    See: Richard Congreve

  • William Morris (1834–1896)

    Artist, designer, poet, translator, socialist, and atheist.

    See: William Morris

  • Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)

    Sociologist, philosopher, and early advocate of the theory of evolution, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to explain the principle of natural selection.

  • Wathen M.W. Call (1817–1890)

    Freethinker, poet, and writer; an advocate of positivism and a friend of George Eliot. In Final Causes: A Refutation (1891), he wrote:

    If I am asked how I account for the existence of matter or force, my answer is: I do not account for them. As regards their origin, we live in a darkness that may be felt. We are born out of mystery into mystery, and we must be content to live and die in ignorance, for the problem is insoluble.

  • Francis Newman (1805–1897)

    Classical scholar, moral philosopher, and President of the Vegetarian Society 1873–1883. Newman rejected traditional Christianity, and his final work Mature Thought on Christianity (1897), was posthumously edited by secularist and reformer George Jacob Holyoake.

  • Hodgson Pratt (1824–1907)

    Peace campaigner, and major figure in the co-operative movement. Co-founder, in 1880, of the International Arbitration and Peace Association. Buried in Highgate Cemetery.

  • Lydia Becker (1827–1890)

    Lydia Ernestine Becker was a suffragist, science advocate, and correspondent of Charles Darwin. A leading champion of women’s rights, Becker also applied her observations of plant life to arguments against notions of innate differences between men and women, particularly in areas of intellect, capacity, and sexual behaviour.

  • Josephine Butler (1828–30 December)

    Josephine Butler was a suffragist and social reformer, who campaigned for women’s rights to education, the abolition of coverture in British law, and an end to human trafficking. Although religious herself, Butler’s efforts to repeal the misogynistic Contagious Diseases Acts were supported by a number of humanists and freethinkers, notably Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and Harriet Martineau. A bust of Josephine Butler was displayed in the Ethical Church, symbolising the esteem in which she was held by members of the Ethical movement.

  • Anna Swanwick (1813–1899)

    Anna Swanwick was an author, feminist, and Unitarian, who lectured for the London Ethical Society (the UK’s first) on ‘Poets and Poetry as Moral and Spiritual Teachers’. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

  • George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906)

    George Jacob Holyoake was a secularist, co-operator, writer, and editor. He coined the term ‘secularism’ in 1851, and his daughter, Emilie Ashurst Holyoake, went on to play an active role in the Ethical and trade union movements.

    See: George Jacob Holyoake

  • John Kells Ingram (1823–1907)

    John Kells Ingram was an Irish economist, poet, and mathematician. Ingram was an admirer of Auguste Comte, and a positivist. In 1900, he published Outlines of the History of Religion, which also gave expression to his belief in the secular ‘Religion of Humanity’, and his hope that the ‘moral unity of mankind be ultimately realised’ through the spread of positivist ideals.

  • Joseph Priestley (1733– 1804)

    Joseph Priestley was a chemist, philosopher, and political theorist, who – believing in the free exchange of ideas, toleration, and equal rights for religious dissenters – helped to found Unitarianism in England. He was also influential on the ideas of philosophers such as Jeremy BenthamJohn Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer.

  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

    Thomas Paine was a writer, political activist, philosopher, and revolutionary, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was a significant influence on the American Revolution. His ideals of self-governance and international human rights were born of the Enlightenment, and epitomised in his famous proclamation in Rights of Man (1791) that:

    Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.

    During the wave of prosecutions for blasphemous libel during the first half of the 19th century, many booksellers were prosecuted for selling – among other works – the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine.

    See: Thomas Paine

  • William Hone (1780–1842)

    William Hone was a writer, bookseller, and satirist, who exerted a significant influence in the fight for press freedom in England. In 1817, he was tried on three separate charges, including libel on the Prince Regent (George IV), and for publishing the Sinecurist’s Creed, a parody of the Athanasian creed. According to Hone’s entry in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:

    The prosecution took the ground that the prints were calculated to injure public morals, and to bring the prayer-book and even religion itself into contempt. But there can be no doubt that the real motives of the prosecution were political; Hone had ridiculed the habits and exposed the corruption of the prince regent and of other persons in power.

    Hone defended himself in court, and was acquitted on all counts: a verdict enthusiastically received by his supporters, and a victory for press freedom.

  • John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

    John Stuart Mill was a philosopher, political economist, MP, suffragist, and civil servant. A proponent of utilitarianism, he was one of the 19th century’s most influential thinkers.

    See: John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill

  • Major Cartwright (1740–1824)

    John Cartwright was a prominent campaigner for parliamentary reform, and devoted advocate of universal suffrage. In 1812 he helped to create the first Hampden Club in London, initiating a movement for reform which grew to include 150 active clubs by 1817. He was recognised for advancing humane, collaborative reform, adopting the motto ‘Hold fast by the laws‘.

  • Richard Carlile (1790–1843)

    Richard Carlile was a journalist, bookseller, and champion of press freedom. A declared atheist, Carlile spent years imprisoned on charges of blasphemy and seditious libel, gathering a network of supporters and continuing to defend the right to freedom of belief and expression.

    See: Richard Carlile, Robert Wedderburn, Susannah Wright, Matilda Roalfe

  • William Lovett (1800–1877)

    William Lovett was a Chartist and Owenite, who championed radical, egalitarian reforms alongside other prominent figures such as Henry Hetherington. Lovett founded the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, an ultimately unsuccessful vision of practical Chartist education, including a network of schools, halls, and libraries.

  • Henry Hetherington (1792–1849)

    Henry Hetherington was a printer, publisher, bookseller, journalist, and lifelong advocate of radical social reform. A freethinker, Hetherington was active in a vast number of reformist efforts during his lifetime and, on his death, was carried to Kensal Green Cemetery in a hearse bearing his own words:

    We ought to endeavour to leave the world better than we found it.

    See: Henry Hetherington

  • William Johnson Fox (1786–1864)

    William Johnson Fox was a journalist, editor, and leader of the (then) Unitarian congregation at South Place Chapel, which later became South Place Ethical Society. A liberal thinker and active reformer, Fox gathered around him a circle of freethinkers which included Harriet Martineau, Robert Browning, the Flower sisters (Sarah and Eliza), and John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill. Fox’s progressive ideals and open-mindedness in religion helped pave the way for South Place’s developing humanism: still in existence today as Conway Hall.

    See: William Johnson Fox

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