life stories

The ‘somewhat extraordinary’ funeral of the atheist Henry Hetherington

Henry Hetherington had been a central figure in London radicalism since the early 1830s. Best known as publisher of the Poor Man’s Guardian and for his campaigns for a free press, he worked closely with William Lovett, James Watson and later George Jacob Holyoake across a range of radical causes, including as a founding member of the London Working Men’s Association.

‘The Late Henry Hetherington’, from Reynolds’ Political Instructor.

In 1841, Hetherington followed Lovett into the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, earning the wrath of Feargus O’Connor and the majority National Charter Association for their willingness to work with middle-class reformers. The organisation did not last, but Hetherington remained committed to the Charter and in 1848 he helped form the ‘moral force’ People’s Charter Union. When that too failed, he returned to the fight against newspaper stamp duty.

The campaign was to be his last, however. In August 1849, Hetherington contracted cholera, which was then epidemic in London. Refusing medical help in the belief that his teetotalism would ensure his recovery, he instead endured increasingly serious illness. Discovering that his friend had been ill for a fortnight, Holyoake paid a visit to his home at 57 Judd Street on Tuesday 21 August, bringing medicines with him and insisting that Hetherington take them. By now, Hetherington knew he was dying and wanted to put his affairs in order. At Holyoake’s urging, he signed the last will and testament he had drafted some eighteen months earlier which set out his views on religion and death, and his commitment to the principles of Owenite socialism.

Holyoake wrote: ‘While this was occurring, his favourite physician, Dr Richard Quain, was sent for. He was unfortunately out of town. Next, Dr Epps was summoned, who promptly sent medicine. But as he was unable to come, Dr Jones was called upon, when, fatality would have it, he was out. Immediately I put on my hat and fetched Mr Pearse, Surgeon of Argyle Square.’

But there was no improvement. ‘The next morning Mr Kenny took a note from me to Dr Ashburner, of Grosvenor Street, who generously attended and saw him twice, though at great inconvenience to himself. Mr George Bird, Surgeon, of Osnaburg Street, Regent’s Park, paid friendly visits, and rendered his usual able, and unwearied assistance. Mrs Martin, whose courageous nursing and intelligent resources might have saved out patient at an earlier period, also attended till a late hour on Wednesday night. Most of this day he was unconscious.’

At four o’clock in the morning of Thursday, 23 August, Hetherington died. He was fifty-seven years old.

As a young man, Hetherington had joined a number of protestant dissenting sects, but by the time of his death, he was a convinced atheist – so much so that he had even fallen out with his friend and ally William Lovett. Indeed, Hetherington had spent four months in prison in 1840 for publishing a book held to be a blasphemous libel, and for some years had played an active part in Robert Owen’s Literary and Scientific Institute at John Street, where his rationalist views were widely shared.

On the evening of his death, the committee of the John Street Institute met and ‘undertook the conduct of the burial’. ‘The arrangements were confided to Mr Tiffin, of the New Road,’ (presumably the C.Tiffin of 17 Somers Place East, New Road, listed somewhat surprisingly in the Post Office London Directory for 1850 as ‘bug destroyer & undertaker’).

Hetherington’s will had been clear. Quite aware that his religious opponents would not be above making bogus claims of ‘a death-bed confession, and a triumph of Christianity over Infidelity’, he wrote: ‘In the first place, then – I calmly and deliberately declare that I do not believe in the popular notion of the existence of an Almighty, All-wise, and Benevolent God’. Second, he wrote, ‘I believe death to be an eternal sleep – that I shall never live again in this world, or another, with a consciousness that I am the same identical person that once lived, performed the duties, and exercised the functions of a human being.’

Monument to Henry Hetherington at Kensal Green Cemetery. Click for larger image.

Moving on to practicalities, he asked that his friends deposit his remains in unconsecrated ground ‘and trust they will allow no priest, or clergyman of any denomination, to interfere in any way whatever at my funeral. My earnest desire is that no relation or friend shall wear black or any kind of mourning, as I consider it contrary to our rational principles to indicate respect for a departed friend by complying with a hypocritical custom.’

The funeral took place very quickly. George Julian Harney, in The Democratic Review, wrote: ‘An immense body of people bearing banners with appropriate mottoes, assembled in Judd Street, on Sunday, Aug. 26th., and formed in procession, followed by about fifty cabs, which proceeded to Kensal Green cemetery.’

Holyoake declared: ‘Everything was done in quiet taste. The proceedings were decorous without gloom. There was conscientious propriety without a particle of ostentation or affected display.’ The hearse, he said had been covered by a canopy of puse (sic) coloured silk, on each side of which appeared in silver letters the words of a frequent phrase of Hetherington’s:


Memories differed: Holyoake, who had after all been one of those responsible for the arrangements, thought the silk canopy of the hearse had been puce; blue, thought the Northern Star; purple, said a third report.

The Morning Advertiser (p.2, 27 August, 1849) appeared somewhat bemused by the whole event, reporting: The solemn ceremony, which took place in accordance with his will, was conducted by the undertaker in a somewhat extraordinary manner, the mourners, on the female side, wearing silk drawn and straw bonnets, with coloured ribbons, and their usual day dresses.’ Clearly Hetherington’s request that no-one wear black had been followed.

Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper (p.8, 8 September, 1849) reported: ‘The cortege, as it passed along the New-road from Judd-street, where Mr Hetherington resided, to Kensall-Green (sic) Cemetery, was very imposing, and fully testified the estimation in which he was held. It counted ‘upwards of thirty carriages… all filled with mourners, and ‘about five hundred foot-passengers, four abreast, who conducted themselves in the most becoming manner’.

Holyoake described the procession: ‘Muses were superseded by pages with white and blue coloured wands, and the officers of the John Street Institution, and various friends of the deceased walked with similar wands on either side of the procession. The Messrs Tiffin bore maces.’

Surprisingly, there is no mention at all of Elizabeth Hetherington, with whom Henry had had nine children and who had kept shop for him during his several periods in prison. However their one surviving son, David Hetherington, was at least given a place in the cab immediately behind the hearse, along with Holyoake and James Watson. Holyoake claimed that road was lined with people on the long journey to the cemetery, and that ‘women wept’ as the procession past.

Hetherington’s friends had decided to bury him in an area of the cemetery recently purchased by W.D. Saul for use by members of the John Street Institute. When Saul bought the plot, Hetherington had joked to Holyoake: ‘Saul has bought a grave, and says he is able to give friends a lift – there’s chance for us.’

At the gates, the coffin was lifted from the hearse and borne on men’s shoulders to the grave, followed by the numerous friends of the deceased,’ reported the Northern Star. ‘There could not be less than 2,000 persons present,’ it added. Holyoake and Watson had to clamber up onto the neighbouring tomb occupied by ‘Publicola’, a writer for the Weekly Dispatch by the name of John Williams, to make themselves heard.

Holyoake spoke at length, listing the many causes and principles espoused by his friend, adding that ‘political corruption never had a more resolute opponent, nor popular right a more doughty champion’. Hetherington, he said, had never shrunk from danger.’ To the last day of his life he would have suffered his home to be broken up, and himself dragged to prison, to champion an important principle.’

James Watson, a long-time political ally, had probably known Hetherington since the 1820s, and had been a close friend for more than twenty years. When he rose to speak, ‘he laboured under such evident emotion that it communicated itself to those around’. He told the crowd that he and Hetherington ‘had suffered imprisonment together, and he knew that the pecuniary difficulties  which had embittered his latter years, were almost altogether induced by his sacrifices and losses in the people’s service.’

All concerned were anxious that Hetherington’s ideas and principles should be remembered and carried forward. ‘Let all who professed esteem for Hetherington imitate him,’ Watson urged. His friends at the John Street Institute had had 2,000 copies of Hetherington’s last will and testament printed, and these were handed out at the cemetery gates. Soon after, however, Holyoake urged that there should be no further reprints as the text was to be incorporated into a single memorial publication along with his and Watson’s speeches and other works. This, he said, would be sold and the proceeds used either to perpetuate Hetherington’s memory ‘in some obviously durable form, or to the advantage of his survivors – there being dependents to whom he was deeply attached – for whom it does not appear that any provision exists’.

There was, however, to be one final grimly humorous twist to the funeral when at the conclusion of the ‘service’, Holyoake and Watson, both of whom had been prosecuted for blasphemy, were required to sign their names on the official documentation as ‘Officiating Clergymen’.

Further Reading

Much of this account is taken from The Life and Character of Henry Hetherington, the ‘memorial publication’ mentioned by Holyoake and edited by him. This has been digitised by Google Books and can be downloaded in PDF format here.

Holyoake also wrote about Hetherington in his memoir Life of Holyoake: Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, London: T Fisher Unwin, 1906.

‘Henry Hetherington (1792-1849)’ by Joel H Wiener in Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 (subscription required).

Meet the Kensal Green Chartists, a walking tour of Chartist graves at Kensal Green Cemetery (on this website).

See also

‘Henry Hetherington’, The Democratic Review, Vol 1, June 1849 – May 1850, edited by George Julian Harney.

‘The funeral of the late Henry Hetherington’, Northern Star, 1 September 1849, p3.