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Along with Conway Hall, London, Leicester’s Secular Hall is one of the only two remaining spaces purpose-built for freethinkers in the UK – a place whose architecture and interior still testify to the values of secularism and humanism it was built to cement and inspire. The symbolism and significance of the building, opened in 1881, was later vividly described by humanist and pioneer of moral education F.J. Gould, who had been Secretary of the Leicester Secular Society for nine years. It was, he suggested, ‘an assertion of the principle that human destiny is shaped not on the knees of the gods but in the hearts and brains of men and women’.

In 1935, he wrote in The Literary Guide (now the New Humanist):

The Society was really a very small group, but it had such vitality that in 1872 it gave birth to a Secular Hall Company whose proud aim was to erect a Freethought temple, with Assembly Hall, Library, Club-rooms, etc., to stimulate inquiry on all public issues, including theology, and to “improve the condition of the Industrial Classes.” Orthodox Leicester quivered in anxiety as it watched the rise of the house of heresy, designed by Larner Sugden of Leek. At an Anglican Church Congress the Archbishop of York flung out warnings against the diabolic spirits of Unbelief, Secularism, Agnosticism, Positivism. On went the building, in buff stone, red brick, glazed tiles, wrought woodwork, tinted windows; and the Assembly hall invited five or six hundred listeners. Baptists frowned, and Methodists fidgetted on their Evangelic cushions. The Pioneers continued serenely, and they adorned the frontage, facing Humberstone Gate, with busts of Robert Owen, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Socrates, and (added in a purely Humanist temper on the suggestion of Josiah Gimson) Jesus the Carpenter… An eager multitude attended the opening on March 6, 1881, and listened to Josiah Gimson, Holyoake, Bradlaugh, Mrs. Besant, Mrs. Harriet Law, and to Mrs. Theodore Wright’s recitation of a poem by James Thomson. Two lines of the poem ran :—

Our creed is simple: All men are one Man
Our sole commandment, Do what good you can.

If busts could speak, I believe the five would have cried “Hear, hear!”

Image: Leicester Secular Hall in 1900, from The Life-Story of a Humanist by F.J. Gould (1923)

Read more

Leicester Secular Hall: a History by Ned Newitt (2022)

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