Richard Carlile

On this date in 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. A freethinking deist, he 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 £1500 and spend three years in prison. Carlile’s prison stay was doubled after he refused to pay the fine. He spent 1819-1825 at Dorcester prison, where he published freethought tracts with wide circulation and influence. He took over publication in 1852 of the weekly Republican, a major freethought periodical with a circulation of 4,000 to 5,000. Carlile’s wife Jane and his sister and many supporters were imprisoned for disseminating his 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 organizing and writing from prison with the help of Eliza Sharples, known as “Isis,” who became his common-law wife. They had at least four children.

Carlile spent more than a decade of his life in prison. He is remembered for his pioneering support for birth control, universal suffrage, parliamentary reform and free speech advocacy. He died in 1843 at age 52.

Freedom From Religion Foundation