Charles Southwell

Charles Southwell 1814 – 1860, Grave
Symonds St, Auckland

Charles Southward was a Freethinker, lecturer, newspaper owner, editor and actor. He is buried in Symonds Street, Auckland, close to Rationalist House, also in Symonds Street. His grave is not far from the gate, near the path and in good condition. In the third photograph the grave is the first one beyond the iron surrounded grave in the foreground. The headstone gives name, death date and age and describes him as editor and lecturer.

The biographical material is from:
Smith, F. B. ‘Southwell, Charles 1814 – 1860’. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007

Charles Southwell was born in London, England, in 1814, the only child of his mother Fanny Southwell, but sibling to 32 from his father’s previous marriages. He was an intelligent child who misbehaved at school. He married young and subsequently twice more. The identity of his wives is unknown.

He failed as a bookshop keeper, was widowed young, was active in Spain in support of ‘constitutionalists’, lectured on priestcraft and biblical immoralities and in 1839 was recruited by the Owenites as a communitarian lecturer and then missionary to Bristol.

Southwell’s beliefs made his appointment incongruous. In May 1841 he publicly ridiculed Owen himself, and resigned.

In late 1841 Southwell and a partner opened a bookshop in Bristol, and in November launched the weekly Oracle of Reason to propagate atheism. An article entitled ‘The Jew Book’, a knockabout onslaught on biblical depravities and inconsistencies, brought Southwell a year’s imprisonment for blasphemy and a fine of £100. His martyrdom made him famous, and provoked the first rallying of the British secularist movement.

He went to Edinburgh in 1843 to fight the blasphemy prosecutions of two radical booksellers. In 1843 started the milder but still anti-clerical and populist Investigator. This paper lasted less than a year. He also set up as a dancing and French master. He again lectured for the Owenites, this time in Manchester. In August 1849 he launched the anti-clerical Lancashire Beacon. The paper failed and in 1850 he returned to London. He promoted ethical agnosticism without success.

In April 1855 Southwell sailed for Melbourne, Australia. Where he was soon politically active. He put his name forward for the first Legislative Council election, advocating the People’s Charter, private ownership of land and no state aid to religion. However, he withdrew when the Age revealed his past after his nomination speech. He also used his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare to play Shylock at short notice in a well-received performance, and gave Shakespearian recitals at Bendigo and other gold-diggings.

After time in Sydney he arrived in Auckland on 29 January 1856, where he briefly acted and then ran a ballroom.

Southwell turned again to lecturing and journalism and narrowly missed election as a politician.

His newspaper Auckland Inquirer succeeded with the help of a third wife, but failed as his health deteriorated from pulmonary tuberculosis. He died on 7 August 1860.

A report published in England by George Jacob Holyoake, stating that Southwell had turned Christian, seems to have been inspired by a misunderstanding of Southwell’s satire. Southwell was a mettlesome exhibitionist, possessed by a hatred of humbug and of the cruelty of the natural order. His unmasking of crookedness in priests and sacred texts, land deals and local dignitaries upset right-thinking people in Britain, Victoria and New Zealand. But Southwell exulted in the reactions his uncomfortable truths provoked.

Adapted from:
Smith, F. B. ‘Southwell, Charles 1814 – 1860’. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007
The original version of that biography was published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume One (1769-1869), 1990

References in the oriiginal are:
Pearce, H. H. ‘Charles Southwell in Australia and N.Z.’. In New Zealand Rationalist 18, No 8 (May 1957)–19, No 12 (Sept. 1958)
Royle, E. ‘Southwell, Charles’. In Biographical dictionary of modern British radicals. Vol. 2, 1830–1870. Ed. J. O. Baylen & N. J. Gossman. Brighton, 1984
Smith, F. B. ‘The atheist mission, 1840–1900’. In Ideas and institutions of Victorian Britain. Ed. R. Robson. London, 1967
Wood, H. F. ‘Charles Southwell, freethinker & humanist’. New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist 38, No 9 (Aug. 1977): 9–10

Getting There

Walking, Busing or Driving: Symonds Street Cemetery is on the east side of Symonds Street higher up the street than Rationalist House. Enter from the corner with St Mary’s Street and the grave is a short distance ahead on the right. The third of three pictures above is taken just inside the gate.

Queen Street is the heart of Auckland, and offers a pleasant walk to Symonds Street, but the roads are steep and there are larger than usual distances between them. An easy and attractive option is to take public transport into Central Auckland and change to the inner city ‘Link’ buses that circulate the central business area and travel along Symonds Street. Or you can find a car park at a price, but still expect an uphill walk.

Auckland drops towards the Waitemata Harbour. There is a pleasant walk of about 50 minutes from Queen Street past the Art Gallery and Albert Park to Symonds Steet and then down the hill returning to the bottom of Queen Street.

Note Myers Park in memory of Dove Myer Robinson, also a Rationalist Icon. Rationalist House is in Symonds Street and other Freethought icons are not far away.