George Holyoake

As I stand on the doorstep of my home in Inge Street I can look across the road and see the door of Number One Inge Street. This is where the Holyoake Family lived. The son, George, was born in 1817 so he was 25 years old when I was born, but he had already moved away, having married Eleanor.

He was well educated, having attended what was called a “dame school”. He had been taught to be a tinsmith, by his father who seemed to have his own business. At eighteen he began attending lectures at the Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute, where he discovered the socialist writings of Robert Owen and eventually became an assistant lecturer. George had radical views that he probably got from his mother and although he wanted to be a teacher he was prevented from doing so because he was a self-proclaimed socialist, at the time when this was frowned upon.

George Jacob Holyoake

In 1842, Holyoake became the last person in Britain to be convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, held in Cheltenham. He underwent six months’ imprisonment

George went on to become a leading light in the Co-operative movement and he also campaigned for the removal of the “newspaper tax” which was perceived as a “tax on knowledge”.

He also coined the term “jingoism” in a letter to the Daily News in 1878, referring to the patriotic song “By Jingo” by G. W. Hunt. He died at the age of 89.

When he was in his 70s he cast his mind back to the scene that greeted him each day as a teenager when he stepped onto the pavement in Inge Street and looked to his left across Hurst Street.

This is what he wrote:

“Before our door where I was born stood, on the opposite side, a considerable clump of well-grown trees, amid which was a hatter’s working shop.

On the adjacent corner of Hurst Street stood the Fox Tavern, as it stands now; but then the sign has been newly painted by a one-armed, short, quick-stepping, nervous-faced, dapper artist; and a very wonderful fox it seemed to me ……

Below the Fox Tavern was a ‘Green’; at the bottom was a garden belonging to a house with a gateway where one of my father’s sisters lived. The garden fence was not a dead wall, but a low wood paling, through which the children could see the flowers in the garden. From the end of Inge Street the trees of the parsonage ground made a small wood before us, and apparently in their midst, but really beyond them arose the spire of the ‘Old Church’, as we called St Martin’s.

On summer afternoons and moonlight nights the church spire, rising above the nestling trees, presented an aspect of a verdant village church in the midst of the busy workshop town.

Down through the ‘Green” the way led to Lady Well Walk, where more gardens lay and the well was wide clear and deep.”

By the time this was written much of what George Holyoake remembered had gone, to be replaced by more courts of small houses, shops and factories. With the exception, of course, of the Fox Tavern (thank goodness) and the spire of St Martins.

A plaque commemorating the fact that George Holyoake lived at No 1 Inge Street. This is sited in the foyer of the Hippodrome Theatre, which now stands on the spot.


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