Return to Home page

Charles Southwell (1814–1860): A Timeline

Charles Southwell (1814-1860), youngest and most controversial son of William Southwell (1736/7–1825) became well known in his day as an outspoken champion of ‘Free Thought’, both as a public speaker and as a writer. When in Bristol in 1841, he achieved notoriety after writing an article entitled ‘The Jew Book’ in the magazine The Oracle of Reason (of which he was the publisher and editor), in which he attacked what he regarded as ‘biblical depravities and inconsistencies’. In consequence he found himself on trial for blasphemy the following year, sentenced to serve a year in prison in Bristol jail and fined £100.

He later wrote many papers relating to Atheism and a selection of these along with publications on his life and work is set out in the Bibliography below.

Brief information on the more personal key events in his life, based on his biographical account in his privately published book The Confessions of a Free Thinker, supplemented by new findings identified by the author during the course of her research, is given in the Timeline below.

1814 Charles Southwell was born in St. Pancras, London, youngest son of William Southwell (1736/7–1825), musical instrument inventor and maker,and his final partner ‘Fanny’.
1825 His father, William Southwell Senior died aged eighty-eight and was buried at St Pancras Old Church. Charles says that he was eleven and a half years old at this time. He began work at the Broadwood factory as a trainee finisher, having turned down James Broadwood’s offer of training to become a tuner.1
1826–1830 He soon followed in his father’s footsteps in rejecting Christianity, having read a copy of Timothy Dwight’s Sermons, lent to him by a fellow workman.2

He confesses having led a somewhat dissolute life during his teenage years, living on the edge of poverty and refusing the offer of a home with one of his brothers, being totally unwilling to have any limits placed on his freedom of movement.
1831 Charles Southwell married Mary Seaton (not ‘Seaford’, the thinly disguised pseudonym he gave her in ‘Confessions’) at St Pancras Old Church on 23 July 1831.3 Within a very short time he discovered she was seeing an old flame and she defiantly told him she ‘only married him for a convenience’. His pride deeply wounded, he left her and a few months later began an affair with her aunt (aged thirty three) who tried to persuade him to marry her bigamously, promising not to give him away. Fearful of the consequences of being found out however, he refused. However, they nevertheless co-habited for six months.

Learning that his wife had become depressed and was very sick he agreed to take her back and she recovered. Shortly afterwards, both her parents died.
1832 At this time he opened his first bookshop in Westminster, specialising in radical socialist literature. It started to do well, he claims, but his wife once more became very sick and the bookshop failed for lack of attention. Soon afterwards his wife’s illness became terminal and she died. [The author has been unable to establish the exact date of Mary’s death, but it was most likely in 1833, given the length of time Charles mentions he had spent living with her aunt].
1835 Charles joined a branch of the British Legion and fought in Spain on the side of Queen Isabella against the Carlists for two years. He became very sick and returned to England in 1837.
1837 He recounts how he arrived in London penniless in this year and turned for help to his brother William, who he says, was ‘at that time a foreman and contractor working for Broadwood’. Being a kindly man, William welcomed his prodigal brother warmly and took him into his home. Charles returned to work in the Broadwood factory, but soon became involved with Robert Owen’s Socialist Missionary movement, first in London, then in Birmingham. He quickly became well known as an eloquent and impassioned speaker.
1839 Interestingly, in the light of his family history, an article in The Times on 29 October 1839 records his involvement in heated discussions on the subject of the unjust abandonment of wives, after an Owenite Lecture in London.4
1841 Whilst in Bristol editing a new Socialist publication, The Oracle of Reason, Charles wrote a blistering anti-semitic article “The Jew Book”. He was charged with blasphemy and sent for trial.
1842 In January 1842 he was tried and convicted of blasphemy in Bristol, fined £100 and sentenced to a year in prison. He reports that he served thirteen months in Bristol gaol and then returned to London.5
1843 The Holyoake archive at the Bishopsgate Institute holds a handbill for a dramatic performances of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Spitalfields Weaver’, hosted by the Rational Society in celebration of the liberty of Charles Southwell at the Rotunda, Blackfriars Road (7 March 1843).

Refusing to return to editing The Oracle of Reason, instead Charles became editor of a new publication The Investigator, which however quickly foundered.

During this year he embarked on a lecture tour in Scotland.
1844 In 1844 he took some premises in Charlotte Street, Blackfriars-road and gave lectures there. However, ‘after some time’ he found the premises were very unhealthy, sold the business and became the lessee of the ‘Canterbury Theatre’. This venture was also short lived and he returned to London to manage a lecture hall at Blackfriars.

According to James Secord, during this period he had lived with a married woman named Mrs Gordon (formerly Mrs Rowen).6 This information presumably comes from the writings of Thomas Paterson, whom Charles accuses in ‘Confessions’ of having made a ‘foul attack’ on his second wife.7 In the same publication he later refers to having been with his wife for five years at the time of her death in 1849. In a [unpublished] letter to Holyoake in 1845 he made reference to her thus:
‘Give my best wishes to Mrs. H. and don’t forget to tell my old friend Nockles Mrs. S and I often wish he were safely ensconced in the Paragon drinking our splendid tea and coffee’.8
Based on this evidence, it appears he must either have remarried, or at least professed to be married, by that time.
1849 Though the author has been unable to locate any record of a marriage between the couple, she has identified and obtained a copy of the death certificate of Jane Southwell (wife of Charles Southwell, Gentleman), who died of cancer of the uterus at Webber-street, Blackfriars-road in January 1849.9 This provides clear confirmation that Jane had taken his name and they had been living together as man and wife. When referring to her death, in Confessions, Charles says ‘we lived together and for each other, more than five years, when death snatched from me the dearest friend and kindest companion I ever knew’.
1851 In Confessions, Charles says ‘Since her death, [his late wife] I have loved, do love another more intensely than I could love her ...’
1852 The author has identified a third (previously unreported) marriage for Charles. On 30 November 1852 he married Mary Ann King, daughter of Robert King, butcher, at St Mary’s Stratford, Bow, Middlesex. Both bride and groom are shown in the parish register entry as being ‘of full age’. The groom’s father’s name and occupation are given as ‘William Southwell, pianoforte maker’.
1855 Charles left England, sailing on the British Trident from Liverpool for Australia – but without his wife, Mary Ann, whose name does not appear on the passenger list. The author has been unable to discover what happened to her.

Charles arrived in Melbourne in July and after attempting to embark on a theatrical career (appearing as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’) he decided to run for election to the Legislature. He was denounced by the Melbourne Press when his views of religion became public knowledge.
1856 After this debacle, Charles moved on to Sydney and there joined Foley’s theatrical troupe, travelling on with them to Auckland, New Zealand.

After quarrelling with them, he proceeded to found another radical newspaper, the Auckland Examiner.
1857 Foley’s theatrical company failed in this year and Charles once more tried his hand at theatrical productions, leasing the Theatre Royal – an enterprise which also failed.
1859 In 1859 a ‘handsome 7-octave PIANO, Walnut Case, quite new, by [William] Southwell [junior], Baker-street, London’ was advertised in the Daily Southern Cross by Mr. S. Jones for sale at his auction house in Auckland on October 4 and 25, 1859.10 It seems likely that this example of his brother William’s work was sold by Charles, who by then was once more in a very impecunious situation.
1860 Charles died on 7 August 1860, after what was described in his death notice as a ‘long and serious illness’. He is buried in Auckland, New Zealand, where his gravestone may be seen.

Some years after his death an interesting account of his activities by W H J Seffert appeared in The New Zealand Herald 3 December 1887.

He left behind a partner, said to have been his widow, Elizabeth Edge. However, the author has been unable to locate a record of any marriage ceremony. Since no trace of his wife Mary Ann has been located, whether or not he had been free to marry again remains an open question.

Bibliography – Selected Works by Charles Southwell

Southwell, Charles. An Apology for Atheism: Addresssed to Religious Investigators of Every Denomination. London: James Watson, 1846.

Southwell, Charles. The Confessions of a Freethinker. London: Printed for the Author, ca. 1851.

Southwell, Charles. The Investigator! The Impossibility of Atheism Demonstrated: with Hints to Nominal Atheists: In a Letter to the Freethinkers of Great Britain. London: James Watson, [ca. 1850].

Southwell, Charles, ed. The Lancastershire Beacon. Manchester: A. Haywood, August 1849 – January 1850.

Southwell, Charles. Superstition Unveiled ... Abridged by the author from his ‘Apology for Atheism’. London: E. Trulove, 1854.

Selected articles about Charles Southwell

Cooke, Bill. ‘Charles Southwell: New Zealand’s First Freethinker.’ The New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist (Spring 1998).

Dillon, Miles. ‘The First Wife’s First Husband.’ New Zealand Genealogist (March/April 1998): 90–91.

Royle, E. ‘Southwell, Charles.’ In Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals, Vol. 2: 1830–1870. Ed. J O Baylen & N J Gossman. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984.

Secord, J. A. ‘Southwell, Charles.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Smith, F. B. ‘Charles Southwell.’ In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1:401–402. Auckland: Allen & Unwin; Auckland University Press, 1990.

1 The Confessions of a Free Thinker, ca. 1851.
2 The Confessions of a Free Thinker, ca. 1851; also cited by J A Secord, “Southwell, Charles”: Dictionary of National Biography.
3 Parish register of St Pancras Old Church.
4 The Times (17181) 24 October 1839, 6.
5 The Confessions of a Free Thinker, ca. 1851.
6 J A Secord, “Southwell, Charles”, Dictionary of National Biography. Professor Secord’s exact source is not cited directly, but his list of consulted sources includes T Paterson’s Letters to infidels (1846).
7 The Confessions of a Free Thinker, ca. 1851.
8 Unpublished letter from Charles Southwell to G J Holyoake, 18 October 1845. (Letter No. 145, Co-operative Archives, Manchester, consulted by the author by kind permission).
9 Jane Southwell (wife of Charles Southwell, Gentleman) died at 1, Webber Street, Blackfriars Road, aged 36 years on 9th January 1849; cause of death: cancer in the womb. (Death certificate of Jane Southwell). Registration District: St George the Martyr, Southwark. Certified Copy DYB 592645, held by Margaret Debenham.
10 Daily Southern Cross, 30 September 1859, 2; repeated 4 October 1859.
Copyright © Margaret Debenham 2013-2019. All rights reserved.     Website design : Michael Debenham & Alexander Tse Debenham. Webmaster