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A piece of cobblestone thrown during the so-called ‘Bradlaugh Riot’ of 1874, when Charles Bradlaugh, an outspoken atheist, lost a by-election in Northampton, deemed by many supporters to have been an injustice. It was the third time Bradlaugh had run for the seat and been unsuccessful, but he remained unperturbed, and was successfully elected MP for Northampton in 1880. What followed was a now infamous battle to take his seat in the House of Commons, from which – as an atheist unable to swear on the Bible – he was barred. Years of campaigning finally resulted in the Oaths Act 1888, which allowed for oaths to be solemnly affirmed, rather than sworn to god. Although humanists today – and many then – would likely not condone rioting as a means of protest, the willingness of individuals to participate in collective action to call for change has been a bedrock of freethought and radical history. It should also be noted that Bradlaugh himself did not incite anyone to riot. In fact, the Daily News reported that the ‘violence of feeling’ among the disappointed electors bubbled over in spite of his ‘pacific exhortations after the declarations of the numbers’. The cobblestone therefore serves as a reminder of the swell of popular support for Bradlaugh among the radicals of Northampton, who returned him year on year even as he was prevented from taking his seat in Parliament. Many other humanists and freethinkers throughout history have protested their right to affirm, without reference to a deity in which they do not believe. These efforts form part of a long history of work for the equal rights of the non-religious, by high-profile figures like Charles Bradlaugh, and conscientious individuals largely lost to history.

This object appeared as part of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects.

Made by Heritage Creative