Atheist Evangelist to Australia: Joseph Symes, 1841 - 1906
Talk to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 12 December 2006
Joseph Symes, as you might expect, did not believe in ghosts: he disapproved of ghosts! I don't believe in ghosts. So why has the fellow been haunting me for 29 years - driving me to spend countless hours on researching his life, then writing about him and speaking about him?
Joseph Symes was tall, with a sallow complexion and a wispy beard. He wore glasses, and usually addressed public meetings in an old black frock coat. He was an archetypal nineteenth-century popular lecturer in public halls and mechanics' institutes, and a dedicated editor and writer who was prepared to work 15 hours a day and travel to the ends of the earth. He sometimes sounded like a mixture of a demagogue, a tragi-comedian and an Old Testament prophet. Like a lot of earnest radicals and reformers, he tended to take himself too seriously, but he was also capable of a wry sense of humour. An example of this is a quip he made in writing in November 1884: "Don't be too severe on my foes. Remember 'god hath made them so'." But let us go to his beginning.
Joseph Symes was born in England at Portland, Dorset, on 29 January 1841, and became very proud of having the same birthday as Thomas Paine, born in 1737. Encouraged by his strict Wesleyan mother, Symes entered the Wesleyan College at Richmond, Surrey, in 1864, and then went to Scotland to start his probationary circuit in 1867. In 1871 he married his first wife, a widow named Matilda Wilson (née Weir). She was about eight years older than him: he was 29, she was 37.
Symes's eager, serious temperament soon succumbed to the epidemic of religious doubts that affected many earnest Victorian intellectuals. In his case contributing factors were the Franco-Prussian War, the declaration of Papal Infallibility, exposure to Unitarian views, and the lot of the rural poor. In 1872 Symes refused ordination and found employment for a time on the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Weekly Chronicle, and while in that city he assisted the Agricultural Labourer's Union and became a lecturer to the Northern Union of Mechanics' Institutes. In 1876 he found the cause for which he had been searching; and on 17 December of that year he spoke for the first time as its official lecturer in Newcastle. Symes's cause was the National Secular Society, founded in 1866 by Charles Bradlaugh. In May 1876 he started writing for Bradlaugh's National Reformer (under a nom-de-plume), and he was soon appointed an official N.S.S. lecturer in the provinces, a task which Symes undertook with frightening energy:
"A score of times have I gone from Newcastle, Leeds or Birmingham to London, lectured morning and afternoon in the streets, parks, and other public places, often in the rain ... At night I have lectured in the Hall of Science [in Old Street, London] . . . and then home by the night mail train."
Joseph Symes had joined the secular movement at a critical time. For at the beginning of 1877 Charles Watts, the National Reformer's printer, was prosecuted for selling copies of a pamphlet, Fruits of Philosophy, by Charles Knowlton, which dealt with birth control. Watts, in order to mitigate the full rigours of the law, decided to plead "in point of law guilty" to the resulting obscenity charge. As they regarded Watts's plea as faint-heartedness, Bradlaugh and Annie Besant decided to republish the pamphlet as a test case for press freedom and the right to popular information on contraception.
Bradlaugh and Besant were in turn prosecuted for republishing the Knowlton pamphlet. But in the months leading up to their trial a major rift developed in the secularist ranks between, on the one hand, the Bradlaugh-Besant supporters and the neo-Malthusians (as advocates of birth control were called), and, on the one hand, supporters of Charles and Kate Watts, opponents of contraception, "respectable" freethinkers, and minor factions with a grudge against the Bradlaughite leadership. Symes soon chose his side:
"When I read the Fruits of Philosophy it opened my eyes considerably: and although I disagreed with a few things in it, I could not help thinking that it was written with a thoroughly good intention, and was well calculated to be a useful thing. I never for a moment hesitated; and so sprang into the fight and defended the action of Mr Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant with what ability and earnestness I could command."
So he promptly joined Bradlaugh and Besant's "Defence Committee", and, in addition, travelled and lectured in an effort to rally secularists in the provinces to Bradlaugh's cause. The showdown came in May 1877, at the N.S.S. Whitsun conference at Nottingham. Symes, representing the Northern, Seghill and Plymouth Branches (all solidly pro-Bradlaugh) spoke in favour of retaining the presidency (and subsequently Bradlaugh as President); but when the time came for taking a vote, tempers were so heated that counting hands proved unreliable and uproar ensued. George Jacob Holyoake, who had coined the term secularism, was in the chair, but seemed unable to restore order, and Bradlaugh was about to walk out (which would have been disastrous for his side).
Symes at this point got up and managed somehow to make himself heard. He proposed that the members and delegates should file between two chairs to be counted. The meeting agreed, and with Harriet Law (editor of the Secular Chronicle) and Symes as tellers, the vote was taken. The Bradlaughites won by a margin of seven votes! Their success did not prevent a schism in the secularist ranks, but it ensured that the mainstream movement was firmly behind the leadership when the Fruits of Philosophy trial came to court. The eventual success of the publishers enabled the Malthusian League (established largely by members of the N.S.S., South Place Institute and the Dialectical Society) to flourish, and, according to Bradlaugh's Australian biographer David Tribe, "from that date the large Victorian family began rapidly to dwindle." Nearly 30 years later Symes looked back on the incident with touching pride:
"We have succeeded in our neo-Malthusian crusade, opened in London in 1876 [sic] . . . We have given women the lamp of knowledge . . . and have taught them to use their own judgment as to whether they will be mothers or not. It is too late for fools and tyrants to reverse that . . . We have wrought the greatest revolution ever known in domestic life, and all in 27 years or so. I am proud to have been mixed up in it from the beginning and to have borne my share of rotten society's condemnation and punishment."
The 1880s marked the beginning of Charles Bradlaugh's long "parliamentary struggle". Symes, who was still writing for the National Reformer and had risen to the rank of vice-president of the Society (1877), realised the need for diversity on the publishing front. The story had best be told in his own words:
"In the summer of 1880, I resolved to start a paper on my own account. I had no fault to find with Mr Bradlaugh's paper . . . , but I saw that, after Mr Bradlaugh was elected to parliament, the National Reformer must necessarily be devoted more exclusively to politics than heretofore . . . Something more sledge-hammerish was needed, more jocular, more dashing, more fun-poking. And I was wondering how to get it started. I mentioned my dream to a few London friends, and they told me that they had the same project in view, and would start at once if I would remove my residence from Birmingham to London and edit the paper! Agreed! I dropped a note to Mr Bradlaugh to apprise him of the scheme, and he very graciously wished me success, and offered to give me a note respecting the new paper in the National Reformer as soon as I let him know I was ready.'"
Symes, however, was unable to leave Birmingham after all. (He does not explain why, but I suspect it may be connected with the secular boarding school Symes and his wife were planning, and which certainly opened in Birmingham in 1882.) Anyway, at this point, George William Foote, who had fallen out with Bradlaugh in 1877, "happily returned to the fold", and, says Symes, "I was asked if he might take the editorship; and, if so, would I contribute to the new journal. I was very glad to fall in with this suggestion." So Foote became founding editor of The Freethinker, and to the first issue, published in May 1881, Symes duly contributed an essay on "Bible Biography".
The Freethinker soon became everything that Symes wished of it. Blasphemy prosecutions commenced, and in 1883 prison sentences of twelve, nine and three months were imposed on Foote, W. J. Ramsey and H. A. Kemp respectively. Symes felt that "my articles were amongst those which got them into trouble" and wrote to Bradlaugh and Foote offering to surrender himself to the rigours of the law. Symes's martyrdom complex was much appreciated, but he was strongly urged that he might be "wanted for another occasion". When Foote was carted off to Holloway Jail Symes expected to be given the interim editorship (as Foote would have wished). But the editorial committee had other ideas and Symes was horrified when Dr Edward B. Aveling "by downright chicanery and most unblushing lying, diddled me out of it; stepped into the post; [and] softened down the gallant Freethinker into gruel and homoeopathic medicine." Symes could be gullible at times, but on this occasion he was faster than Bradlaugh at spotting a con man.
Symes's urge for action did not remain frustrated for long. In the middle of 1883, Bradlaugh received a letter from the Melbourne branch of the Australasian Secular Association, asking for a lecturer to be sent out to them. He forwarded the letter to Symes, suggesting that he write back to Melbourne if he was interested. He was; he did. A send-off present of £139 was raised by the British freethinkers and presented by Bradlaugh. In December 1883 Symes, eager as ever, sailed off to Australia in the Lusitania.
After a brief stop in Adelaide, Joseph Symes reached Melbourne in February 1884. Here he set to work giving regular lectures on behalf of the Australasian Secular Association; on a fine evening people soon needed to arrive half an hour early in order to be sure of a seat.
Not content with his success as a lecturer, Symes decided that the Association needed a literary mouthpiece. Funds were raised with remarkable rapidity, a printing press was purchased, and on 1 June 1884 (the day of the National Secular Society conference back in England) the first issue of the Liberator made its appearance in Melbourne. The same week the Victorian authorities seized a batch of Freethinkers destined for the A.S.A.; if this was meant to intimidate Symes, it was singularly unsuccessful.
"This paper," Symes announced in the first issue of the Liberator, "is started in the interests of freedom, not licence, not lawlessness, but such freedom for very one as is consistent with the rights of all."
A little further on he wrote:
"Every man has a natural, and ought by this time also to possess the political and social right to criticise any opinions known to the world. And yet even to-day men are sent to prison like felons for laughing at the superstition known as Christianity; hundreds of lies and volumes of slander are incessantly used by Christians against their opponents; and when they find an opportunity of doing us harm they most devoutly embrace it."
He included an article entitled: "Is the 'Liberator' to be a Blasphemous Publication?":
"That depends on the nature of blasphemy. . . If blasphemy is the equivalent of fearless truth and the exposure of consecrated shams and pious imposture, our course is clear. We shall crowd our paper with all the blasphemy its pages can carry." And he closed with the ringing challenge: "But we prefer conscience to pelf, and will do what we deem our duty to mankind in spite of the bigots and hypocrites. We mean warfare, and quarter will neither be begged nor granted."
Symes was as good as his word, and the Liberator soon raised the wrath of the religious and establishment press of the colony: "A flagrant outrage upon public decency"; "a cesspool of moral (or immoral) filth . . . "; and the Gippsland Mercury lamented "Would that we had a law which would consign such ruffians to the hangman's lash." Symes, of course, thrived on it all, despite violence real and threatened.
The Liberator became, in the late 1880s, one of the most successful freethought papers in Australasia, if not in the world. In its heyday it reached twice the size of the National Reformer. Each week it carried reports of Symes's lectures and debates, cartoons, poems; Australian, New Zealand, British and other news. Symes used it to lambaste the clergy, orthodox Christianity, monarchy, Sabbatarianism, racialism, and Victoria's ruling élite; and to air his views on republicanism, radical politics, birth control (Neo-Malthusianism) and even abortion, which I will mention in a minute. Other contributors debated the merits of socialism and anarchism in the paper's columns, and protagonists of Christianity were allowed to defend their religion or oppose the principles of secularism. In 1887, the 50th anniversary of the accession of Queen Victoria, the Liberator and A.S.A. announced a "Republican and Atheistic Jubilee Fund"!
Symes was an advocate of the franchise for women, early marriage (combined with family limitation) and no-fault divorce. He was also surprisingly outspoken on another matter:
"When is the utterly brutal law relating to abortion to be modified or abrogated? Not til the priest and parson are kicked to Jericho. They have started the lie that god made the foetus, that it is endowed with an immortal soul, and to destroy it is a crime. This is the sole ground of the law as it stands. Besides, there are in many cases, the best of reasons for a woman to procure abortion if she can. . . . Large families, abortions, illegitimacy, and the manifold evils of celibacy might all be banished at once and for ever, if people would but adopt Malthusianism."
This was written and published in February 1890!
Those of you with a taste for fine art may be interested in Symes's views on this subject. Here he is at full throttle in November 1884:
"The Melbourne Art Gallery is worth a visit; but I am shocked and disgusted by the prudery there exhibited. Nude statues are plentiful; but in most instances the sex of the males is indicated by a senseless flower! In the British Museum they manage things far better; and there I have often seen young gentlemen and ladies with their easels, making copies of the beautiful marble statues, the young ladies with perfect naiveté sketching the genitals as coolly as any other parts; and who but a beast would think worse of them for so doing? To receive as gifts entire statues or statuettes, as Melbourne has, and then to mutilate them in the interests of disgusting prudery may be a sign of piety; but it is neither honest nor artistic. As if every one did not know the difference between a man and a woman! As if there were anything shameful in being either the one or the other! . . . Art and morals require truth; it is only hypocritical piety that is served by a lie. . . . The art that tells a lie, is not properly art. Genuine art is truth. The person who cannot gaze modestly open [sic — upon] a beautiful nude figure is not to be trusted."
Well, at least the fig leaves and phoney flowers have long ago wilted away!
Symes was soon elected president of the Victorian branch of the Australasian Secular Association. In September 1884 he was elected president of the Australasian Freethought Congress at Sydney, which he addressed on "Secularism, the Life and Light of the World." Delighted at the success of their Mephistopheles in Melbourne, the National Secular Society sent out another lecturer in 1885. He was William Whitehouse Collins, and had an interesting and, on the whole, successful career in Australia and New Zealand. For a while he was co-editor of the Liberator.
Symes was soon prosecuted under an old law (once used on Bradlaugh in England) for publishing a newspaper without first depositing financial securities against blasphemy and sedition. This, of course, was manna from heaven! He offered to pay the resulting fines and costs "at the resurrection, if you make the demand". The Victorian customs authorities also tried seizing parcels of the Liberator and The Freethinker, and for six months the Liberator was boycotted by the Victorian post office. None of these tactics dampened Symes's spirit or his paper's circulation.
Symes and the A.S.A. were also involved in litigation because they charged admission for meetings on Sundays, insisted on using a wharf for outdoor lecturing, and were even prosecuted for holding meetings in a tent without official sanction. They were also banned from hiring many halls and institutes, or else would find that bookings had been summarily revoked; and in country districts they had, from time to time, to contend with Christian strong-arm tactics and ugly scenes of violence. But Symes had — metaphorically speaking — a strong back and a tough hide.
All went well with the A.S.A., Symes and the Liberator until the early part of 1888, when the Association was rent by an exceedingly bitter split. The details of the two factions are highly complicated, but basically an anti-Symes group emerged which consisted of a mixture of overlapping elements: opponents of birth control, "milk and water" freethinkers who objected to Symes's "extremism", one or two people jealous of Symes's leadership, and finally a group of anarchists. Australian writers have, on the whole, blamed Symes for the split, saying that he was difficult, autocratic and paranoid. Little, however, has been published about the malice of Symes's opponents. Symes claimed, of course, that he was defending the A.S.A. from a coterie of extremists who were out to wreck it and misappropriate its funds. Eventually the Association split into two rival factions, resulting in a badly weakened secularist movement in Melbourne. The A.S.A. had not been properly registered as an organisation, and with a majority of its trustees going over to the anti-Symes faction, Symes and his followers found themselves progressively deprived of their funds and assets.
On 31 March 1889 Symes laid the foundation stone for the A.S.A.'s Hall of Science in Victoria Parade, Fitzroy. The building was officially opened on 15 May the same year. In 1890, however, the anti-Symes faction started legal action to obtain legal title of the land, coupled with an initially successful attempt to seize the hall by force. However, the loyal caretaker, Joseph Skurrie, managed to lock himself in one room. Symes rallied his supporters and, with access to Skurrie's room, managed to retake the building.
The legal case was eventually heard and, to Symes's horror, the court found in favour of the renegade trustees. Symes and his supporters were ejected from the Hall of Science in 1891 and had to make do with meetings in a building that had once housed the Young Men's Christian Association.
Any hope of building up the Association again was dashed by the severe depression which hit Melbourne in 1893: this caused a mass exodus (in a frantic search for employment) from the city of the skilled artisans who were the main members of the movement.
Matilda Symes died on 21 March 1892, at the age of 57; and in May of the following year Joseph married his loyal publisher, Agnes Taylor Wilson. He was 52 and her age was given as 34. Agnes and her younger sister Matilda were allegedly taken in and brought up by Matilda (senior) and her first husband, Hugh Wilson (a calico printer), after their natural mother died and, soon afterwards, their natural father disappeared.
In his articles "Joseph Symes and the Australasian Secular Association", published in Labour History in 1963, and "Symes the Secularist", published in the Australian Humanist (first series) in 1969, Dr Barry Smith says of the Hall of Science, "But the opposition faction . . . could neither fill the Hall for a lecture nor hire it out. . . . So it stood empty during the depression with its windows broken and its doors nailed. In 1897 it was sold for recovery of debt and in 1913 it passed to St Vincent's Hospital, which had grown up round it."
But this is far — very far — from the whole story, largely because Dr Smith's articles were based on his 1960 M.A. thesis, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne 1870 - 1890, and I suspect his knowledge of Symes after 1891 was, well, scanty.
And if Barry Smith's views were a bit inaccurate, here is Jill Roe, writing in 1986 in her book Beyond Belief; Theosophy in Australia 1879 - 1939: "Freethinkers experienced the transition from optimism to pessimism. But what happened to the people for whom secularism failed? . . . Not many actually went mad like Symes, who returned to England to die in pained obscurity in 1906."
Actually — this is baloney!
The anti-Symes trustees were indeed unable to run lectures at the hall, but they were able to lease it for a while to the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists — further proof in Symes's eyes of the trustees' perfidy. And in October 1897 the Victorian Supreme Court authorised the trustees to sell off the building. At the auction in November the main bidder was an unknown man named Muir, who succeeded with the highest offer. But Mr Muir was an agent for Dr Samuel Peacock, wealthy medical practitioner, illegal abortionist and friend of Joseph Symes.
The Liberator duly trumpeted: "Re-opening of the Freethought Hall — late Hall of Science. After nearly Seven Years, this Hall has come back to its original and intended use. . . . Next Sunday, December 5th, Mr. Symes will re-open the Building, his Lecture being "Freethought; Its Nature, Struggles and Triumphs".
It was good for Symes's morale, but something of a Pyrrhic victory, because the dreadful economic depression was still affecting almost everyone in Victoria. Looking back, Symes wrote: "My landlord was, I think, the best that ever lived. He not only did not get any rent for the hall during most of the time, but was ever ready to help me with money when I was run out of that most necessary article."
The way in which Symes and Agnes kept the Liberator going through the depression is a touching story of courage and self-sacrifice. They were often so poor that the paper had to be set up in its battered type and they would then wait for sufficient money to come in for them to buy enough paper to go to press.
A few loyal friends in Victoria rallied round in times of crisis; The Freethinker and resolutions from N.S.S. conferences helped to bolster the Symeses' morale, and sometimes they received contributions from British freethinkers or from N.S.S. branches.
From about 1897 the Liberator ran at a loss, but the Symeses kept it going for another seven years. Finally, with Joseph's ill health (he had mild heart disease), the lack of a sound financial base for the paper, and the added responsibility of baby Stella Bradlaugh Symes, who was born on 18 February 1894, Joseph and Agnes decided to close the paper with the issue of 12 March 1904. The Liberator ended as it began: rumbustious, militant and defiant! Symes might have run out of financial ammunition but, as he reminded his readers, "I am still an absolute atheist." Back in 1884, the Bendigo Evening News had given the Liberator "a month's existence"; but, despite everything ranged against it and against him, Symes's paper had lasted 20 years.
Besides being a lecturer and editor, Symes was also a great writer of pamphlets, both in England and Australia. Titles include Christianity at the Bar of Science; Christianity Essentially a Persecuting Religion; From the Wesleyan Pulpit to the Secularist Platform; Hospitals and Dispensaries Not of Christian Origin; If Jesus Came to Melbourne; Philosophic Atheism; Universal Despair (or, who will be damned if Christianity be true?) and The Scamp's Directory and Sinner's Handbook. That's just the short title: in full it is The Scamp's Directory, the Rogue's Guide, the Debauchee's Vade Mecum, the Murderer's Delight, the Liar's Encheiridion and Every Sinner's Hand-Book and Friend, on the Marrow of the Bible, Classified for the Comfort of Evil-Doers (Melbourne, 1891). Publication in England of The New Testament Manuscripts (or Christianity completely undermined) coincided with his death, but it was probably an update of The New Testament Manuscripts (or the sandy foundations of Christianity), published in Melbourne in 1895. But perhaps Symes's most controversial, most interesting, and least known pamphlet was his Ancient and Modern Phallic or Sex-Worship first published in Melbourne in 1887. It has, I think, never been published in Britain.
After the demise of the Liberator Symes's friends found the family a small farm called Rose Cottage, in Reserve Road, Cheltenham. Here Symes rested from his intellectual and political labours, followed Voltaire's advice and cultivated his garden; but, of course, after about two years he became restless: "I felt like a fish out of water. My brain was ever busy with the old problems and with new ones of a kindred nature . . . Here was I skulking, away out of the Freethought battle, while my comrades were in the thick of the fight."
So in May 1906 G. W. Foote, now President of the National Secular Society, received a letter saying that Symes was returning for a visit to Britain.
Before leaving Australia, Symes paid a visit to Sydney. Here, according to Alexander Duncan McLaren, he lectured "to an immense audience", and "old friends were remarking that he seemed as keen and vigorous as ever". His subject was "The Christ of the New Testament Not Historical but Dramatic". One of the old friends was Harry Scott Bennett, later to become the leading spokesman of rationalism in Sydney. And A. D. McLaren, curiously enough, was later to migrate to England and become a regular writer for The Freethinker and a member of the N.S.S.
Symes left Melbourne on 19 June aboard the Runic, and arrived back in England with his family on 5 August 1906. He was warmly received by Foote (whom he had last seen in Holloway Jail) and the N.S.S. gave him a formal reception in September. I suspect he had been busy writing on board ship, because from 23 September to 18 November 1906 The Freethinker carried a 9-part article entitled "My Twenty Years' Fight in Australia". Symes's old energies flooded back: he was soon dashing round the country to lecture in Glasgow, Manchester, Nelson, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leicester. He was offered a job as resident lecturer to the Liverpool branch of the N.S.S., on a three months' trial, starting in the new year. So much for Jill Roe's "pained obscurity"!
But first he had a tryst with destiny on Tyneside, where 30 years earlier he had delivered his first official freethought lecture, on 17 December 1876, when he had spoken on "The Biography and Character of Jehovah, the Jewish and Christian God."
The freethinkers of Durham and Northumberland received Symes warmly, and during the afternoon of Sunday 16 December 1906 he was given a reception by the Newcastle Branch of the N.S.S. at the Cordwainers Hall. It's a lovely old building! And that evening, at the Palace Theatre, he delivered his thirtieth anniversary lecture back in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His subject was exactly what you might expect: "My 30 Years of Storm and Struggle for Freethought".
It is not hard to imagine the crowd, the warmth and excitement, with Symes on an emotional "high"; and outside the cold, and the gaslights glimmering through the drizzle and the fog drifting off the Tyne!
It was his swan song. For while in Newcastle Symes caught bronchitis, and then pleurisy. He already had cardiac valvular disease. He returned to London, and was nursed at 265 Romford Road, Forest Gate (E.7). Here he died on 29 December 1906, a month short of his 66th birthday. The funeral took place at Golders Green crematorium, London, on 4 January 1907 with speeches by Foote and Chapman Cohen. In an obituary, Foote said of Symes: "He was bold and brave and fearless; he went straight to his aim; he was a staunch fighter and a staunch comrade; he was incapable of treachery and could not understand it in others; and he hated lies and superstition with every drop of blood in his veins."
Foote soon discovered that Agnes Symes was almost destitute. A Symes Memorial Fund was established and £302 were presented to Agnes before she and Stella returned to Melbourne in March. And in Melbourne there was a generous tribute in the 1 April 1907 issue of the spiritualist paper, the Harbinger of Light, from a letter writer using the name "Cosmopolite":
Joseph Symes is "dead;" he "died" in London on December 29th, aged 65 years. He was a bitter opponent of Spiritualism and its votaries. He was erratic, vituperative, unpractical, impossible. Yet Symes was an honorable man; honest beyond challenge; in private, courteous, kindly, charitable. In Freedom's cause he struck many a valiant blow. He has died penniless. There must be not a few readers of The Harbinger who, cherishing no ill-will toward the departed, would like to stretch out a helping hand to the brave little woman, now a widow, who through long years of "straitened circumstance," helped along the Freethought movement in Melbourne. A fund on behalf of Mrs. Symes and her daughter is being raised in England. Subscriptions should be sent to Mr. G. W. Foote, 2 Newcastle Street, Farringdon St., London, E.C., or to the editor of Harbinger of Light.
"Cosmopolite" may have been William Henry Terry, founder of the paper in 1870, whose dealings with Melbourne's secularists and freethinkers in the 1880s may have unwittingly led to Symes's arrival in Australia.
"I have", Symes wrote, "spent my best years in trying to substitute knowledge for faith and self reliance for bogies and impostors." He always stood up for the emancipation of women; and he, in turn, obviously owed much to the loyalty, assistance and hard work of his second wife, Agnes.
Despite his faults, for example, being a driven, obsessive workaholic, Symes was the epitome of the secularist virtues — virtues that are by no means out of date: Bravery, defiance, loyalty and honesty. "The only thing I regret is that I have not been able to do more in the way of emancipating men and women from the thraldom and corrupting influence of religion."
I would be very hard pressed to argue that tact and charm were among Joseph Symes's virtues. Indeed, the National Secular Society has, over the years, had leading figures who were more imaginative, diplomatic and influential than he was. But I do not believe the Society had ever had a member who was more doggedly loyal for many years under often very trying circumstances.
Symes was one of the cantankerous, noisy band of eccentric nineteenth-century radicals who were very often a trial for their close relatives to live with, but who motivated and inspired those who heard and read them, greatly enriched the social history of Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and illuminated the path of human freedom. Antiquated as some of his opinions were, even in his lifetime, others were brave and far seeing.As we are marking the centenary of his death, I think it is only courteous to end by letting the National Secular Society's tribune for Northern England and Australia's Mephistopheles of Melbourne or, if you prefer, the Beelzebub of Bourke Street, speak for himself. I would like to quote two items, first from a poem published in the Liberator on 3 February 1894, but written in Wellington in January of that year, while Symes was on a speaking tour of New Zealand. The poem was entitled "Hell Past and Present":
But now the times are altered
And the gospel's out of date;
No longerdare the parsons
Of Hellish pangs to prate!
The sceptic liberators
Have trampled o'er the land,
Exposing priest and parson
And all the holy band;
. . .
The fire-brigade of Sceptics -
A noble band and good -
Have spouted on Perdition
A vast, incessant flood
Of Scientific water,
Of sterling common-sense,
A deluge wide-extending,
Whose area is immense.
. . .
Ah! Yes, the fires are out, Boys!
No spark of them remains;
Gone are the iron roasters,
The adamantine chains;
The forks and horrid ladles,
The gridirons hot and dire,
The brimstone and the blazes,
The bastes of liquid fire!
And let me add, in closing
This just and joyous boast,
That we who rid the nations
Of bugbears, gods and ghosts -
However much our gospel
May give the godly pain -
No honest man can tell us
That we have lived in vain!
Secondly and lastly I would like to repeat Symes's words from the first issue of the Liberator, words written in 1884, but which are vitally important for free institutions, philosophical inquiry, scientific endeavour and democratic societies in 2006: "Every man has a natural, and ought by this time also to possess the political and social right to criticise any opinions known to the world."
N. H. Sinnott,
1/2 Davey Street, Sunshine West, Vic. 3020.
12 December 2006