James Watson

On this date in 1799, James Watson, who became a much-imprisoned freethought publisher, was born in Yorkshire. As a young worker in Leeds, he joined a radical reading club and became a freethinker. At age 23, Watson moved to London to assist publisher Richard Carlile at his shop, taking over when Carlile was imprisoned in 1822. Carlile had expressly opened the shop to publish and sell periodicals that would challenge "Six Acts," a suppressive law passed in 1819. Watson was arrested in 1823 for selling Elihu Palmer's Principles of Nature, and was sentenced to a year at Cold Bath Fields prison for blasphemy. He took advantage of his confinement to read rationalist writers. Released in April 1824, he learned the skills of the printing trade directly from Carlile, and also worked for another radical publisher, Julian Hibbert. In 1827, Watson joined the Owenites (see Robert Owen), and became an agent for Owens' Cooperative Trading Association. In 1830, Watson opened his own publishing house, specializing in handprinted and bound volume-classics by freethinkers such as Thomas Paine, Lord Byron and Shelley, selling for one shilling each. In 1831, the irreverent publisher organized a feast to counter a government-ordered fast. In 1832, he began publishing Working Man's Friend, an unstamped newspaper (stamp laws had a chilling effect on publishers of newspapers and pamphlets), for which he was sent to prison for 6 months in 1833. For selling Poor Man's Guardian, Watson was imprisoned 6 months in 1834-35. In the 1840s, Watson campaigned against blasphemy laws, and, with G.J. Holyoake, published the anti-Christian journal, The Reasoner. D. 1874.

“I am happy that I can aid those admirable men, both living and dead, who by their pens or their tongues have aided the great cause of human liberty and universal happiness.”

—James Watson, "A Voice from the Bastille," February 23, 1833

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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