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'THE DEVIL'S FREEMASON': Richard Carlile and his Manual of Freemasonry

Lecture to the Friends of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Freemasons' Hall London, 19 March 2002.

In 1827, Robert Beverley, the Deputy Provincial Grand Master for the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, wrote to the Grand Secretary about the turmoil which had overtaken the Humber Lodge in Hull, the oldest lodge in the province. The lodge had decided to build a masonic hall. The landlord of the inn where the lodge had hitherto met was upset about his potential  loss of earnings. In a desperate attempt to prevent the lodge leaving his premises, the landlord arranged for two constables to be placed at the inn door on the evening of a lodge meeting. When the master appeared, the constables arrested him (on what grounds are not clear) and carried him off to prison.


After a great tumult, the master was released. The lodge decided, not surprisingly, to move elsewhere. The lodge's former landlord sought revenge. He persuaded three other members of the lodge, the most prominent of whom was a Brother Roach, to blackball everyone proposed for membership of the lodge, so that it would eventually collapse for lack of members. The rest of the lodge eventually realised what was going on, and expelled the blackballers.


Brother Beverley seemed to view these events with equanimity. The immediate occasion of his letter to Grand Lodge was an action of Brother Roach which he regarded as far more heinous. In  the words of the letter, 'Brother Roach, highly indignant at the scrape he has brought himself into, has commenced proceedings so unmasonic as in  my opinion to call loudly for some punishment. He takes about with him Carlisles publications on masonry, lends them to people, not masons, to read, and assures them all the secrets of masonry are there fully and completely exposed - and that anybody purchasing Carlile's book may know the whole secret for 2s 9d.'


This was not the only occasion on which publications by Richard Carlile figured in a lodge dispute. Curiously, the argument again involved the keeper of an inn used by a masonic lodge. In 1844, a formal complaint was made by the Master and Senior Warden of the Lodge of Hope and Charity in Kidderminster against Richard Smith, the landlord of the Black Horse Inn, where the lodge met. They accused Smith of calling the Senior Warden a damned liar and a hypocrite in open lodge. The Senior Warden, Dr William Roden, went on to add the following: 'On the same occasion, and whilst a Brother was being passed to the second degree, Bro. Smith had in his possession in open lodge a book called 'Carlile's Manual' which he opened inside the Book of Constitutions, as though to prevent notice. He was writing with a pencil either in the book itself, or a piece of paper placed in the book...I feel confident he was noting down those parts of the ceremony which differed from the Master's in the Chair and the system in Carlile's Book.' To support Roden's complaint, George Caswell, a past master of the lodge, added that Smith had produced 'Carlile's Manual of Freemasonry' in the smoke room of his inn.


In answering the complaints, Smith did not deny possessing Carlile's book. In fact, he said Dr Roden, who had brought the complaint, had on many occasions asked to borrow Carlile's book and had offered to contribute towards the cost of purchasing it. Moreover, Roden himself had used Carlile's manual when initiating masons. Smith further alleged that Caswell had also possessed Carlile's book, and had lent and sold copies to members of the lodge. Smith declared that he did not know it was an offence to possess this book, particularly as another member of the lodge had regularly offered to sell copies to newly initiated brothers.


This is the little red book which caused such controversy. It is one in a long line of publications which purport to reveal all the secrets of masonic ritual, passwords and signs. Carlile's Manual is one of the most long-lived of these publications, having first appeared in 1825 and been fairly continuously in print since 1831. Carlile's book is one of the most comprehensive of these exposures of freemasonry, containing in addition to craft and royal arch rituals those of many additional degrees. For some of the additional degrees, Carlile's publication is in fact the earliest evidence of their ritual. Although published by a non-mason, this book has proved to be one of the most successful publications dealing with freemasonry, possibly because, as at Kidderminster, it has been used by masons themselves in learning ritual, a testament to the care with which Carlile did his work. Diane and Rebecca tell me that, after Gould's History, Carlile's Manual is the book most frequently brought into the library here for evaluation.


One wonders whether any of the freemasons at Kidderminster noticed a curious report of a death in The Times in 1843, and connected it with the little book that they had been using in their lodge meetings. The Times reported the death of the eccentric gentleman Richard Carlile, and described how he had left his body to be dissected. Initially Carlile had stipulated that his body should be given to the famous surgeon Sir William Lawrence for dissection and that his bones should be afterwards burnt. Lawrence refused to have anything to do with this body, so Richard Grainger, a surgeon who was later a pioneer of sanitary reform, agreed to lecture on the body. A great crowd gathered in the old operating theatre at St Thomas's to view the proceedings, but the governors, hearing whose body was to be the subject of the lecture, refused to allow the dissection to proceed, for fear that it might suggest that the hospital supported the religious views of the dead man. This man, so notorious that, even when he was dead surgeons refused to dissect him, was the Richard Carlile who produced the Manual of Freemasonry. Why was he reviled in this way, and what connection did his work on freemasonry have with his other views?


Carlile was one of a group of working class radicals who, in the early nineteenth century, produced the first English working class political and philosophical literature. He was a pugnacious republican and opponent of conventional religion, who popularised the works of the radical social philosopher and deist, Thomas Paine. By conducting a brave and determined campaign, supported by his family and dozens of associates, Carlile effectively broke government censorship of the book trade, and perhaps did more than any single man to create modern freedom of the press. He espoused and publicised a wide range of causes that seemed very outlandish at the time but which are now more commonplace, such as vegetarianism, alternative medical treatments, birth control, divorce, and equality for women. Yet he was a man of unpredictable views who managed to alienate many of his own supporters. His intellectual inheritance is in many ways puzzling - when, shortly after his death, members of the London Secular Society tried to raise funds for a monument in Kensal Green, they were unsuccessful, and only a handful of people attended the commemoration for the centenary of his death in 1943. It is only in recent years that Carlile's pivotal position in nineteenth century radical politics has become more evident. Carlile has, for example, emerged as something of a forefather of modern political protest. As a recent commentator Joss Marsh has put it: 'the Chartists' jailhouse refusals, the suffragettes' hunger strikes, the self-starvations and blanket rebellions of IRA terrorists and internees: all alike look back to Richard Carlile'.


When in 1939, S. J. Fenton published a pioneering study of Carlile in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum (this was the first modern scholarly account of Carlile, predating G.D.H. Cole's biography by four years, but is hardly known outside masonic circles), the Master of Quatuor Coronati lodge expressed relief that the only reason that Carlile was of interest to the lodge was his publication of the Manual of Freemasonry, so that the lodge did not have to concern itself with the rest of his activities. It is very easy to suggest that Carlile's interest in freemasonry was simply another of his many intellectual hobby-horses, akin to his enthusiasm for phrenology. However, it is striking that the Manual of Freemasonry is the only work of Carlile's prodigious output to have remained continuously in print. Moreover, Carlile went to a lot of trouble towards the end of his life to ensure that the book stayed in print, suggesting that he felt it was one of his most important achievements. Carlile's views on freemasonry are essential for understanding the later stages of his career, and explaining some of his views which alienated his supporters, particularly on trade unions. Finally, Carlile's publications on freemasonry are important for helping to understand his connections with other radicals.


Carlile was born in Ashburton in Devon in 1790. His father had been by turns a shoemaker, exciseman, teacher and soldier, and had published a book of mathematical adages, but drank heavily, and abandoned his wife and children. Richard's mother was deeply religious and tried to drill her beliefs into her children, but what Richard remembered most vividly about his Devon upbringing were what he called the wasteful activities of his teenage years, such as badger baiting, squirrel chasing, Oak Apple Day, and, above all, the burning of effigies of figures such as Guy Fawkes and, ironically the man who was afterwards to become Carlile's great hero, Tom Paine. Carlile received a very basic education at charity schools, and in 1803 became a tinplate worker, making pots, pans and other utensils. It was a bad trade to choose, as hand plate working was being undermined by competition from northern factories. Carlile struggled to make a living, moving first from Devon to Portsmouth, and then finally moving to London. In 1812 or 1813, under the influence of Anglican advocates of moderate deism, he briefly contemplated taking holy orders, but instead, he married Jane, the daughter of a poor Hampshire cottager. Within five years they had three sons.


From 1813 to 1817, Carlile worked for tinplate firms in Blackfriars and Holborn. London was at that time in a ferment of radical discussion and agitation, its streets crowded with tractsellers hawking William Cobbett's Political Register and other cheap papers aimed at working class radicals. Carlile was intoxicated by this heady atmosphere of debate and discussion. By the winter of 1816-1817, like many other workmen, he faced a bleak prospect as his employers reduced his hours. He began attending reform meetings, and in 1817 wrote his first essays. They were not very accomplished, prompting a comment from William Cobbett that 'A half-employed mechanic is too violent'. Nevertheless, in March 1817 Carlile gave up tin plate working to devote himself full-time to radical politics, selling such papers as The Political Register and the Black Dwarf. He afterwards remembered 'Many a day traversed thirty miles for the profit of eighteen pence'.


Among the contacts which  Carlile formed at this time was William Sherwin, who briefly published a radical journal called The Republican, and in 1819 produced the more substantial Sherwin's Political Register. The risks involved in publishing political literature of this kind were considerable. The 1799 Unlawful Societies Act, which required the registration of freemasons' lodges, also stipulated severe penalties, including transportation, for the sale of publications which breached various strict regulations. In March 1817, the Home Office ordered magistrates summarily to arrest the publishers of blasphemous and seditious writings. Sherwin and Carlile came up with an ingenious scheme. Carlile would be the nominal publisher of Sherwin's paper and run the various legal risks. In return, Sherwin would finance the publications, help provide copy, and give Carlile use of his premises in Fleet Street. Prison was evidently at this time a better bet for Carlile than starvation or the workhouse, and the arrangement with Sherwin enabled Carlile to launch himself as a radical publisher.


Carlile seized his chance enthusiastically, and flooded the streets of London with cheap political publications. Apart from the Weekly Register, Carlile also published political parodies by William Hone, Robert Southey's Wat Tyler (disavowed by its now respectable author on its first appearance), and many pamphlets designed to show that Britain was, in Carlile's words, 'a continued mass of Corruption, Falsehood, Hypocrisy and Slander'. Above all, Carlile published the works of Tom Paine, and Carlile's growing reverence for Paine is evident in his decision to name his third son after his hero. In 1817, Carlile was imprisoned for the first time, for blasphemy and sedition, committed by publishing an article maintaining that the poor were enslaved politically. On his release, Carlile returned to his publishing activities with renewed fervour. He also played an energetic part in the Westminster election campaign of the celebrated radical politician Henry Hunt.


At this stage, Carlile was indistinguishable from many of the other London radical figures engaged in the struggle for parliamentary reform. In the words of Carlile's biographer, Joel Wiener, ' His obduracy was beginning to mark him out for advancement, but as yet he did little more than to repeat the ideas of others. Feelings of inferiority weighed heavily on him. He had a dumpy physical appearance; his West Country speech sounded awkward to London workers on those infrequent occasions when he attempted public oratory; and he was conscious of the inadequacies of his formal education. Yet singleness of purpose could, he realised, compensate for many defects'. It was the example of Paine which was responsible for the next stage in Carlile's development, and the study of freemasonry was to play a significant part in  this process.


Paine's writings had been vigorously prosecuted ever since their first appearance, and they were consequently difficult to obtain. Carlile, convinced that Paine's works were 'the only standard political writings worth a moment's notice', felt that, if only Paine could be readily available in cheap editions, the momentum for reform would be unstoppable. First of all, Carlile published Paine's political works. This was risky enough, but the first indication that Carlile was about to cross the rubicon came in 1818, when he published Paine's Essay on the Origins of Free Masonry. Although Carlile had previously published some anti-religious squibs, this was the first sign of his growing interest in religious matters.


Paine's short Essay on the Origins of Free Masonry is a good example of his strengths as a writer. Unlike many other writings on freemasonry at this time, it is detached, almost to the point of being sympathetic in tone, very clearly written, and thoroughly researched. Paine's proposition is laid out clearly at the beginning: 'It is always understood that Free Masons have a secret which they carefully conceal; but from everything that can be collected from their own accounts of Masons: their real secret is no other than their origin, which but few of them understand; and those who do envelope it in mystery.' The mystery was, according to Paine, as follows: 'Masonry...is derived, and is the remains of the religion of the ancient Druids; who, like the magi of Persia and the priests of Heliopolis in Egypt, were priests of the Sun. They paid worship to this great luminary, as the great visible agent of a great invisible first cause...'


Paine's suggestion that freemasonry was a remnant of the Druid religion was not a new one. It had previously been anticipated by eighteenth-century writers such as William Stukeley and John Cleland, the author of Fanny Hill. The Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781 by freemasons who sought to restore the druidical components to masonic ritual. The importance of Paine's essay on freemasonry lies instead in its relationship to his other religious writings. His essay formed part of a reply, unpublished at the time of his death, to an attack by the Bishop of Llandaff on Paine's infamous work, The Age of Reason. The Age of Reason, partly written while Paine was imprisoned in revolutionary France, was, at one level, a compelling attack on christianity, and, on the other, an argument for the necessity of a more generalised deistic religion. The Essay on Freemasonry developed this thesis further by arguing that Christianity was a perversion of the ancient worship of the sun, and that freemasonry preserved these tenets in a purer form. Paine favoured a return to the ancient sun religion, developing a new solar method of chronology which he used to date his letters. This aspiration to return to the old sun religion was to haunt radical freethought for much of the nineteenth century. The Essay on Freemasonry was unpublished by Paine when he died, but a version, omitting the more abusive comments on christianity, was published by his executrix in 1810. The Essay was afterwards reprinted in this expurgated form in French in 1812. Carlile's 1818 edition was apparently the first unexpurgated edition of Paine's Essay, and reflects the assiduousness with which Carlile tracked down texts of Paine's works. Carlile's version was to form the basis of all subsequent editions of Paine's Essay.


Having printed the Essay on Free Masonry, the obvious next step for Carlile was to produce a cheap edition of Paine's infamous Age of Reason. All previous attempts to publish this work in England had ended in the prosecution of the publisher. In December 1818, Carlile produced a cheap edition of The Age of Reason, aimed at the working class reader. Within a month, a prosecution against him for selling The Age of Reason  was brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Carlile responded by publishing further freethought tracts, and the government and the Vice Society worked together to bring a dozen prosecutions against Carlile between January and September 1819. Street vendors selling Carlile's publications were arrested, and his book stocks seized. The more Carlile was prosecuted, the more his business boomed. He moved to larger premises at 55 Fleet Street, which he christened 'The Temple of Reason', and which became the chief outlet for radical publications in London. He later recalled how 'I knew the face of almost every public man in London, by their coming into my shop for pamphlets'. Carlile was invited to join Henry Hunt as a speaker at a mass meeting for parliamentary reform at St Peter's Fields in Manchester. When the peaceful meeting was attacked by the Manchester yeomanry, Carlile saw their sabres 'cutting very near' him, and within minutes was surrounded by dying men, women and children.


Escaping from Manchester, Carlile published eye witness reports of the 'Peterloo Massacre' in the first issues of his new venture, a journal called The Republican. Joel Wiener summarises the importance of The Republican as follows: 'By the end of 1825, when The Republican  had run  its course after six contentious years, it had established itself as one of the premier working-class journals of the early nineteenth century'. But The Republican's greatest years were yet to come. Carlile's more immediate concern was a trial for blasphemous libel in publishing The Age of Reason. Since the 1790s, radicals had used such trials as a means of gaining publicity, and a great set-piece trial was an indispensable rite of initiation for a major radical leader. Carlile seized his chance gleefully. He read aloud lengthy extracts from The Age of Reason, which were entered verbatim into the court record, so that anyone printing the record of the trial, a public document, could print The Age of Reason without fear of prosecution. He attempted to summon the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and the Astronomer Royal as witnesses, so that he could interrogate them on the truth of certain passages in the Bible. Despite all these stunts, Carlile was found guilty on two counts of blasphemous libel, and sentenced to three years in Dorchester gaol and a fine of fifteen hundred pounds.


Carlile was imprisoned in Dorchester from November 1819 to November 1825. These were perhaps his greatest years. Carlile in a sense pioneered the prison protest. Just as Nelson Mandela was latterly able to use letters and faxes to work towards majority rule in South Africa while still in prison, so Carlile turned his gaol cell in Dorchester into a 'Repository of Reason' and the focal point of the struggle for freedom of speech. In return for a weekly payment, Carlile was given a light, airy room, containing a sink, bed and desk, as well as some oddments of furniture and a set of weights for training. These were donated by friends and supporters, who also sent him razors, hosiery, night caps and other gifts. Carlile was allowed to purchase his own provisions and hired two servants, one to run errands and the other to do laundry and cleaning. However, Carlile was kept away from other prisoners and visitors were discouraged. He was allowed only three hours exercise a week, and, when permitted this luxury, 'he was led out as a caged animal and exhibited to the gaze of the passing curious', degrading treatment which was remembered long afterwards in the small Dorset town.


Carlile developed a programme of rigorous mental and physical training. He read and wrote ceaselessly, constantly asking for supplies of books and periodicals. During the time of his imprisonment, he read thousands of books sent by his wife and friends. He bathed regularly at a time when this was an unusual habit, avoided alcohol, followed a vegetarian diet, used 'natural' herbal remedies when ill, and recommended the drinking of herbal tea. His aim in following such a regime was to make his personal behaviour moderate and temperate, but the immediate effect was to make him very fat.


In planning the battle for the freedom of the press from his gaolroom, the first footsoldiers deployed by Carlile were his family. He insisted that they should face the risks involved in continuing his publication activities. His wife Jane, though personally unsympathetic to her husband's political activities, loyally took over the publishing house, and was duly sent to join her husband in Dorchester for two years. Carlile's sister Mary-Anne then took over, and was also eventually dispatched to Dorchester. By this time, Carlile's gaolroom was getting rather crowded - he complained that 'locked up as I am with wife, sister and child I find it difficult to accomplish the necessary quantity of reading and writing'. He demanded that Jane and Mary-Anne should be completely silent, but they refused. The strains of this communal imprisonment contributed to the subsequent breakdown of Carlile's marriage.


From July 1821, Carlile asked for volunteers to sell his publications, and the 'battle of the shopmen' began. Dozens of working class volunteers offered to sell Carlile's publications, and more than twenty were convicted and imprisoned between 1821 and 1824. These volunteers altogether served more than two centuries in gaol. Carlile carefully directed their trials from Dorchester. These tactics were incredibly successful. By jamming up the courts and prisons, and keeping the issue of freedom of the press constantly in the public eye, Carlile simply wore the government out. By 1825, the attorney general had thrown in the towel. There were no more prosecutions for publication of The Age of Reason.


The kind of ingenuity used to defeat the government is evident from the clockwork apparatus known as 'invisible shopman' used at one stage in Carlile's shop in Fleet Street. Customers selected the name of a forbidden publication, which was then dispatched by a series of chutes, flaps and pulleys, so that the customers never knew who sold it to them Experiments were also made with speaking tubes. But the battle was not just about freedom of thought. Carlile was the first reformer to popularise the aggressively deist views of French Enlightenment thinkers such as Holbach and Volney. Supporters of Carlile formed themselves into debating clubs, known as Zetetic societies after the Greek word for truth, which engaged in 'infidel' anti-christian and scientific debate.


Meanwhile a flood of publications issued from Dorchester gaol, which, it was claimed, was the only place in the country where true freedom of expression could be found. Of these productions, the most influential was The Republican, which was avidly consumed by Carlile's supporters throughout the country. In 1825, in opening the twelfth volume of The Republican, Carlile declared that 'my last effort in Dorchester gaol will be the annihilation of Free Masonry, at least, such an exposure of it, as will shame sensible and honourable men from joining it, and draw many from it'. He wrote breathlessly to one of his Sheffield supporters saying that he was 'full of Masonry', and asking him to send twelve of the best steel pens to furnish him for the battle. He urged another correspondent not to be ill until the exposure of freemasonry was complete. He promised to provide 'the only correct history of masonry', which would be a great blow to superstitition. By exposing masonry as empty tom-foolery, he would also, by analogy, expose christianity: 'I shall strike the very roots of masonry, and, in so doing, I shall un-christianize thousands'.


Throughout the second half of 1825, The Republican was filled with transcripts of the rituals not only of craft masonry, but also of the Royal Arch and many additional degrees, interspersed with Carlile's comments. Many features distinguished Carlile's exposure from earlier works. First, it was explicitly linked to Carlile's attacks on the monarchy and religion, and used the kind of mocking rhetoric and satire which characterised radical publications of the period. There were dedications and open letters to George IV, urging him to give up his position as Grand Patron of Masonry and patronize mechanics' institutes instead. Carlile notes 'I recollect reading...of the Duke of Sussex toasting his mother, as the mother of six masons. If she had been the mother of six practical house-building masons, it would have been more to her credit...'


However, despite the acerbic tone of Carlile's commentary, he also provides a wide-ranging and well-informed account of the history of freemasonry. He had assembled a comprehensive masonic library at Dorchester, including the works of William Preston, George Oliver, Samuel Hemming and Waller Rodwell Wright, together with earlier exposures such as Jachin and Boaz and works by non-masons, such as Thomas de Qunicey's essay on the origins of freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. He had obtained part of the library of William Finch, a tailor from Canterbury who published commentaries on masonic ritual. Although Finch was only following the lead given by Preston and others, he fell foul of Grand Lodge, and eventually died, crushed, in Carlile's view, by the opposition of Grand Lodge. Carlile remembered as a young man sheltering from the rain in Finch's bookshop, and being fascinated by the masonic prints and emblems displayed there. Carlile made very intelligent use of the materials he had assembled in Dorchester. For example, he was one of the first authors to emphasise the distinction between operative masonry and the modern speculative freemasonry which developed from 1717. In reprinting the so-called Leyland-Locke manuscript from Preston, he expressed doubts about the authenticity of the document because of the appearance of words such as 'chemistry', the grounds on which the document is indeed today considered a forgery.


The most remarkable feature of Carlile's exposure is the accuracy of the printing of the ritual and its comprehensiveness. His skills as a textual critic are evident from the care with which he blends information from various books, particularly Hemming and Finch. He also made extensive use of manuscripts provided by some of his supporters who had been masons. For example, a Bristol mason who wrote a letter of support to Carlile signed 'Hiram the Second' was probably the source of  the bye-laws of the Baldwyn Encampment printed with the Knight Templar ritual. Carlile's frequent complaints about the cost of this 'masonic trash' suggest that he also purchased manuscripts containing ritual of additional degrees. A 1796 attack on the additional degrees, A Word to The Wise,  notes that the masonic Knights Templars often read their ritual from manuscript, suggesting that it was not of any great antiquity. Finch and others also sold manuscript copies of ritual, charging by the line, and some of these rituals were acquired by Carlile.


As Carlile's study of freemasonry developed, its tone changed. Again, the most important influence was that of Paine. At first, Carlile argued that there was not a shred of antiquity in masonic ritual. But, on rereading Paine's Essay on Freemasonry, Carlile felt that Paine was right in suggesting that freemasonry in some way reflected ancient forms of religion. Carlile decided that masons had forgotten the true significance of their craft, and that he would have to teach it to them. 1825 was to be for masons AL (the year of light) 1. Carlile declared that: 'I shall masonify masons, not only by teaching them what is morality, about which they talk without understanding; but by showing them what is the real meaning of all their boasted secrets, about which they talk without understanding'.


The twelfth volume of The Republican was perhaps the first exposure of masonic ritual directed at a large working-class audience. The weekly circulation of The Republican was at that time about 12,000 (with a much higher readership), and, as Carlile's discussion of freemasonry gradually unfolded, it was avidly followed by his supporters. One correspondent wrote that 'Thy blow at masonry is a masterpiece, and when completed will be one of the best books for lending out that could be put in a library. I know several who intend to avail themselves of the residing of it by that means'. Susannah Wright, a Nottingham woman who had been imprisoned for selling Carlile's books, sent details of an Oddfellow ritual supplied by her husband. Another correspondent sent a Druid ritual. Again, the versions of these rituals in The Republican are among the earliest such texts surviving for these organisations. Carlile went on to expose God, by displaying a provocative caricature in the window of his Fleet Street shop, which caused unruly crowds to gather.


At the end of 1825, Carlile was unexpectedly released from Dorchester gaol. In the final numbers of The Republican, Carlile had published some attacks on christianity by the Rev. Robert Taylor, one of the most bizarre figures in the radical world at this time, and, on his release from Dorchester, Carlile formed a close alliance with Taylor. 

Taylor had drifted into the priesthood after graduating from Cambridge, and was appointed to a post in a country parish in Sussex. On meeting a deist there, Taylor was easily won over to his views. Taylor became convinced that all religions derived from sun worship and that Christianity, by substituting Christ for the sun, was blasphemous. He wrapped up these ideas in an elaborate panoply of spurious astrological and etymological learning. Becoming a pariah in  the English church, Taylor went to Dublin, which soon became too hot to hold him. Pitching up in London, he began to preach at deist gatherings, held as mock services on Sundays. Taylor was a natural showman, and an ebullient speaker. He often wore baroque clerical attire which shocked his audiences. Henry Hunt called him 'The Devil's Chaplain'. Taylor's sermons were reprinted under the title 'The Devil's Pulpit', with the epigram 'and a bonnie pulpit it is'. Much of these sermons read like a kind of mocking music hall patter, as in this extract on John the Baptist:


John the Baptist! John the Baptist! How d'ye do, Johnny? Where d'ye come from? Who are you when you're at home? What d'ye mean by making ducks and drakes of the people - by sousing them i' the horse-pond? What d'ye mean by the kingdom of heaven being at hand?


The lecture concluded with Taylor gobbling like a turkey.


Carlile's study of freemasonry had convinced him that it concealed ancient deist truths. Taylor's arguments reinforced his conviction that the value of christianity was also in its allegorical representation of ancient moral truths. Just as Carlile had taught masons the true meaning of masonry, so he and Taylor would now teach the true meaning of christianity. Carlile and Taylor set out on 'infidel missions', and Carlile became prone to even more extreme statements, such as (prefiguring John Lennon) 'I am the Jesus Christ of this Island, and of this age'. In truth, a more appropriate label might have been, by analogy with the title given to Taylor, 'The Devil's Freemason'.


In May 1830, Carlile and Taylor's partnership reached its climax when they opened the Rotunda in Blackfriars Road, which became the focus of radical and freethought activity during the period leading to the passing of the Reform Act in 1832. The Rotunda was a large complex containing a theatre, lecture rooms, refreshment and game rooms, which later became the Surrey Institute. Taylor spoke two or three times weekly, presenting what can only be described as multi-media presentations, with the signs of the zodiac painted on the dome of the theatre, and spectacular use of lighting and theatrical effects, particularly during Taylor's most popular performances, Raising the Devil and Sons of Thunder.  Taylor was sometimes accompanied by a female chorus playing guitars. From the time the Rotunda opened, Carlile was keen that Taylor should examine the allegories of freemasonry, and Carlile hoped it might even be possible publicly to enact masonic rituals at the Rotunda.


Eventually, in 1831, Taylor was ready to give a course of lectures on freemasonry. Thus, at the supreme moment of the Reform crisis, the main centre of radical activity in London was preoccupied with the spiritual allegories of freemasonry. Taylor's aim in these talks is clearly explained at the beginning: 'I shall prove Free Masonry to be the combined result of the Egyptian, Jewish and Christian superstitions, and absolutely identical with the celebrated Eleusinian mysteries of Greece, the Dionysian mysteries, or the Orgies of Bacchus, and the Christian mysteries of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, which are absolutely not more different in any respect from each other, than the customs and forms of any Lodge of Freemasons in England may be from those of a Lodge in any of the nations of the Continent'. Carlile urged freemasons to attend Taylor's lectures, pointing out that they coincided with a quarterly communication. He attempted to hire Freemasons' Hall so that Taylor could repeat his lectures to a masonic audience. Taylorís lectures were printed in The Devil's Pulpit, and also issued separately. They continued to be read for many years afterwards. The copy of The Devil's Pulpit in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry was issued as late as 1881-1882 by the Freethought Press, run by Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant. Although the Library's copy of the separate issue of Taylor's Discourses on Freemasonry doesn't have a date or place of publication, it looks as if it was also issued by Bradlaugh and Besant at about the same time. 


To accompany Taylor's lectures, Carlile reissued the material from volume twelve of The Republican as a separate book, entitled An Exposure of Freemasonry: or, a mason's printed manual, with an introductory Key-stone to the Royal Arch of Freemasonry, considerably revising and refining his edition of the rituals. Anxious to stress the allegorical meaning of freemasonry, Carlile inserted new introductions, omitting the attacks on freemasonry itself and stressing its spiritual interest. As Carlile put it, 'My great object is here to instruct Masons as well as others, and not to give them offence. They ask for light. Here is light. They ask for fellowship. Here is the only basis of fellowship'. Carlile's aim was the same as Taylor's: to expose the ancient mysteries preserved in freemasonry. To quote Carlile again, 'the Key Stone of the Royal Arch of Freemasonry is the ancient science of the zodiac, with its moral counterpart of human culture made mysterious in its secret and priestly associations; which is also the science of all religions that pretend to revelations; and also of the religion of the Druids, and of all the Pagans from Hindostan to Rome'.


Carlile was also increasingly influenced by the researches of Godfrey Higgins, a retired soldier who settled in West Yorkshire and became an energetic social reformer. Higgins was a pioneering scholar of comparative religion, and sought again to demonstrate that all religions derived from an ancient sun religion. Higgins became a mason to investigate the ritual of freemasonry for himself; though he refused to join the Royal Arch or Knights Templar for fear of compromising his scholarship. Carlile recalled a conversation with Higgins in which Higgins had said that there were only two masons in England - the Duke of Sussex and himself. Carlile responded that he and Taylor were the third and fourth (he afterwards dropped the reference to Taylor when they fell out).


In 1836, the Exposure was reissued by Carlile's son Alfred as The Manual of Masonry. The title Manual of Freemasonry was finally adopted when the work was first issued in a single volume in 1845.  The Library and Museum of Freemasonry contains the most comprehensive collection in the country of the different editions of Carlile's work, and the introductions to the successive editions from an essential key to understanding the development of Carlile's thought. Carlile increasingly to emphasised the moral allegory of freemasonry, as well as its importance in understanding the history of religion. This played an important part in the development of Carlile's later view of the Bible, as an allegory of the creation of man's intellect. In his later years, Carlile began to see all religion as the story of the struggle of the good man to communicate knowledge. From this, it was a short step for Carlile to identify himself with Christ, Mohammed or Buddha: a man whose great struggle in life had been to communicate knowledge to others.


Carlile and Taylor suffered further long periods of imprisonment, and were eventually unable to keep the Rotunda going. Carlile, disappointed by Taylor's self-pitying behaviour in prison, fell out with him. Carlile's marriage also finally broke up, and Carlile entered on a 'moral marriage' with one of his supporters, declaring that reform should begin at home and that amicable separations should be permitted. Carlile's views of marriage, and his advocacy of birth control, alienated some of his supporters; further divisions were created by Carlile's views on trade unions. Carlile's reasons for opposing trade unions were closely linked to his views on freemasonry. Carlile had a long-standing antipathy to political associations of any kind, declaring that 'they are a field for noisy and worthless men to declaim in' and stating that 'nine out of ten of all the associations of the country  are arrangements for the profit of a public house...' But stories of the use of initiation rituals and secret oaths by trade unions horrified Carlile. 'There is one thing very desirable to be done at once for and by these trades' unions', he wrote, `and that is to break up their secret character, their oaths and ceremonial nonsense.' When the Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested for carrying out such an initiation, Carlile ran a caricature of the ceremonies on the front page of his periodical, The Gauntlet. `A greater piece of quackery has never been played off upon mankind', he thundered. To the Tolpuddle men, he declared: 'You have degraded yourselves. I present you today with a picture of your degradation.' If you want nonsense, said Carlile, why pay more when you could buy his exposure of freemasonry for five shillings?


Through the difficult struggles of his last years, the main thread which ran through Carlile's life was his Manual of Freemasonry. One aspect of the publication of the Manual illustrates how Carlile was concerned to keep it in print. Like many reformers of his generation, Carlile was anxious to emphasise his moral respectability. The borderline between the blasphemy of which Carlile was accused in printing Paine and obscenity through pornographic publication was a fine one. Some radical printers felt that freedom of the press meant freedom to publish pornography as well. Thus one radical printer William Dugdale not only printed Shelley's banned poem Queen Mab, but was also one of London's leading pornographers. Carlile felt such activities were disreputable, and fell out with his sons when they worked with Dugdale. Nevertheless, towards the end of Carlile's life, the Manual of Freemasonry was printed by Dugdale. It seems that Carlile may have been sufficiently anxious to ensure that the Manual stayed in print, that he was willing to countenance its publication by a printer of whom he disapproved.


Although Carlile's Manual was bought by many masons, its impact on freemasonry was apparently limited. Carlile reported that a secretary of a London lodge had told him that all the signs and passwords were changed because of his exposure, but there is no evidence that this happened. Carlile also claimed that his publications had led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party in the United States following the murder of William Morgan, but again there is no evidence to show that Carlile's publications had much influence on events in America. Shortly after the Manual was reissued in book form by Carlile, George Claret began printing masonic ritual, a process which led eventually to the emergence of the modern official ritual books. Carlile's work may have encouraged Claret to proceed, but the publications of, for example, William Finch had already paved the way for this work. Similarly, the appearance of the Freemason's Quarterly Review in 1834 may have been partly prompted by a feeling that institutional freemasonry should also make use of the power of the press, but this is only tangentially connected with Carlile.


The real interest of Carlile's work on freemasonry lies in the way it offers new perspectives on the radical tradition in Britain. It is difficult to find strong lines of continuity in British radical thought, but an interest in freemasonry appears to be one such thread, which has been largely neglected. This interest began with Paine and his essay on freemasonry, but it is also evident in the work, for example, of William Hone and George Cruickshank, who made liberal use of masonic symbolism in their satirical publications. From Paine, there is a link through Carlile to the modern secularist movement. Carlile was very close to George Jacob Holyoake, who was imprisoned for blasphemy because he opposed the use of public money to build churches. Holyoake was very interested in the Oddfellows, and, to the outrage of the Oddfellows, won a competition for composing new lectures for use in Oddfellow ceremonies. Holyoake's interest in freemasonry is apparent from his proposal that the London secular guild should be a 'freemasonry in freethought'. When the young freethinker Charles Bradlaugh was thrown out of his home, Carlile offered him lodgings. Bradlaugh was to become an active freemason, joining a craft lodge in Tottenham, and resigning in protest at the appointment of the Prince of Wales as Grand Master. Bradlaugh was, of course, closely associated with Annie Besant who introduced co-Masonry into England. In 1896, Moncur Conway, an associate of Bradlaugh and Besant, produced the modern edition of Paine's Essay on Freemasonry, thus bringing the wheel full circle. Conway Hall in Theobald's Road was named after Moncur Conway, and Conway Hall, with its Sunday morning rationalist lectures,  may be regarded as the modern descendant of Carlile and Taylor's Rotunda.        


At first sight, Carlile's career is very difficult to sum up, but there is one strong thread running through it which can be easily overlooked. Carlile's passion was the written word and the printed book. Like all his generation of working class publishers and pamphleteers, he was intoxicated by the power of the printing press. This is nowhere better expressed than in one of his letters to George IV printed in The Republican, with which I would like to end:



When the art of printing was discovered, there arose, on the part of those who ruled the people of Europe, a great dread of printed books. The first book submitted to the press was the bible, and a printed Bible then had precisely the same or a more terrifying effect, than the printed investigation of the Bible called the 'Age of Reason'...

I counsel you to throw off all dread of printed books and to send out a flaming proclamation, inviting all to free discussion, upon all subjects. We shall then hear nothing but the cry of 'God Bless the King: we have gotten a wise king at last'.


I am, Sir, your prisoner,


For printing books,


Richard Carlile.'    



Further Reading  

This lecture is heavily reliant on the excellent biography of Carlile by Joel H. Wiener, Radicalism and Freethought in nineteenth-century Britain: the Life of Richard Carlile, Contributions in labor history no. 13 (Westport, Conn, and London: Greenwood Press, 1983). Wiener is unusual among labour historians in that he gives full weight to Carlile's interest in freemasonry. Prior to Wiener's full treatment, the best biography of Carlile available was the anniversary publication by G.D.H. Cole, Richard Carlile, 1790-1843, Fabian Biographical Series, no. 13 (London: Victor Gollancz and Fabian Society, no. 13, 1943). The biography by Guy Aldred, Richard Carlile, Agitator: his life and times (London: Pioneer Press, 1923) is a hagiographical exercise by a writer operating very much in Carlile's own tradition. All modern writers on Carlile have overlooked the important article by masonic historian S. J. Fenton, 'Richard Carlile: His Life and Masonic Writings', Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 49 (1952), pp. 83-121, where Fenton achieved the extraordinary feat of talking to a masonic lodge about Carlile while also, in the words of one member of the lodge, 'steering his course so as to avoid the Scylla and Chrybdis of Religion and Politics'. Fenton's article includes a detailed bibliography of Carlile's writings on freemasonry, with a full listing of different editions of the Manual. A large selection of Carlile's papers are in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, and I am grateful to the Curator of Manuscripts there for providing me with microfilms of them. The Home Office files in the Public Record Office (particularly the HO 42 class) naturally contain a great deal of material about Carlile.


On Robert Taylor, see I.D. McCalman, 'Popular Irreligion in early Victorian England: infidel preachers and radical theatricality in 1830s London' in Religion and Irreligion in Victorian Society: Essays in Honour of R.K.Webb, ed. R. W. Davis and R. J. Helmstadter (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 51-67. McCalman's works are helpful in placing Carlile in the context of radical activity generally; see particularly: Radical Underworld: prophets, revolutionaries and pornographers in London, 1795-1840 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); 'Ultra-radicalism and convivial debating-clubs in London, 1795-1838', English Historical Review 102 (1987), pp. 309-333; 'Unrespectable Radicalism: Infidels and Pornography in early nineteenth-century London', Past and Present 104 (1984), pp. 74-110. Other important works placing Carlile in the context of the infidel and republican tradition are: Joss Marsh Word Crimes: blasphemy, culture, and literature in nineteenth-century England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Frank Prochaska, The Republic of Britain 1760-2000 (London: Allen Lane, 2000); Edward Royle, Radical politics, 1790-1900. Religion and unbelief (London: Longman, 1971); idem, Victorian infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974); Edward Royle and James Walvin, English Radicals and Reformers 1760-1848 (Brighton: Harvester, 1982); The infidel tradition : from Paine to Bradlaugh, edited by Edward Royle (London: Macmillan, 1976).