Humanist Freethinker: Robert Carlile



On December 9, 1790, freethinker and tireless free speech champion Richard Carlile was born in Ashburton, Devon, England.

After attending charity schools, Carlile began working at 13. In 1813, Carlile moved to London. He was jailed for selling political satires in 1817.

Carlile, a freethinking deist, then published an inexpensive version of The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, and The Deist, a pioneering and popular freethinking weekly.

Carlile was prosecuted for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1819 by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He became a cause celebre during two trials in the Guildhall where he defended himself. He was convicted and sentenced to pay £1,500 and spend three years in prison.

Carlile’s prison stay was doubled after he refused to pay the fine. He spent six years, until 1825, at Dorcester prison, where he published freethought tracts with wide circulation and influence, including reprints of freethinkers such as Voltaire, Shelley, Byron and Bentham.

He took over publication of the weekly Republican, a major freethought periodical with a circulation of 4,000 to 5,000, in 1822, also from prison.

Carlile’s wife, Jane, and sister and many supporters were imprisoned for disseminating Carlile’s tracts. A campaign, called the “war of the shopmen,” continued until Carlile, his workers and vendors were released.

Carlile opened up a shop to print and promote freethought literature, and teamed up with “Rev” Robert Taylor in the late 1820s, on freethought speaking tours. Together, they opened the Rotunda in London, a hub of dissent.

Both men were arrested and convicted of various blasphemies in 1831. Carlile continued organising and writing from prison, with the help of Eliza Sharples, known as “Isis,” who became his common law wife (or “moral mistress”) after he separated from his first wife.

Carlile spent more than a decade of his life in prison. Carlile’s gallant fight was “the greatest fight ever waged for a free press and free speech,” according to freethought biographer Joseph McCabe, lessening future prosecutions. His influence and cachet with other reformers gradually diminished and his final years were spent in great poverty.

He is remembered for his pioneering support for birth control, women’s suffrage and rights (which he called for in the 1820s), against child labour, for parliamentary reform and his one-man fight to free speech. He died in 1843.

He is quoted by Ira Cardiff in What Great Men Think about Religion (1945) as saying: “The fable of a god or gods visiting the earth did not originate with Christianity.”


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