George Holyoake, the second of thirteen children and eldest son of George Holyoake (1790–1853), a whitesmith, and Catherine Groves (1792–1867), a horn-button maker, was born in Birmingham on 13th April 1817. He later wrote: "My mother... was a Puritan-minded woman, of clear, decided ideas, and had, later in life, a grave, impressive face. Of what she knew she was confident, and never had any doubts. She wished her children to be honest, truthful, and pious, and always set them the example. It never occurred to her to do otherwise than what she said. The contrary never entered into her mind. In those days horn buttons were made in Birmingham, and my mother had a workshop attached to the house, in which she conducted a business herself, employing several hands. She had the business before her marriage. She received the orders; made the purchases of materials; superintended the making of the goods; made out the accounts; and received the money; besides taking care of her growing family."
Holyoake also enjoyed a good relationship with his father: "My father was in his sixty-third year at the time of his death. He was tall and comely. He had an honest voice and an expression which told you he could be trusted. His manners were free without familiarity. Some men, rise to what rank they may, always retain plebeian habits; this was not so with my father, although he spent so large a portion of his life as a workman. His associates and also his employers showed him respect in their speech. He owed some of this deference to his mechanical ability. I passed thirteen years by his side in the workshop, and never saw him addressed as other men around him often were. What laws of etiquette he had were his own. When summoned by his employers he always walked up (unless into office or a private room) without uncovering his head, as was usual with others. His not doing so seemed natural to him. It was not disrespect, it was self-respect.... He went when a youth to the Eagle Foundry, where he spent more than forty years. Holidays in manufactories were not so much a custom then as now. I never heard that during that long period he was absent through illness or pleasure. If a vacation time occurred at a fair or Christmas time, he spent it at some ideal invention of his own. Though entirely without self-assertion, he had a quiet implacable will."
Holyoake received a basic education at a dame school. At the age of eight George began working at the Eagle Foundry with his father: "At length he consented to take me, when the afternoon school was over, to work through the evening soldering the handles on lanterns. I was a small boy then, and though I often burned my fingers with the soldering iron, I earned in time as much as 3s. 6d. per week piece-work. Afterwards I persuaded my father to take me with him to the Eagle Foundry, from a desire to be at work. I must have been very young then, as I remember asking my father to let me hold his hand as I went along by his side in the early morning; and his hand, enclosing mine, was a new sensation of pleasure, and seemed to put fresh life into me. The time of being at the foundry was six o'clock, and I was often half asleep as we went up Suffolk Street on the way to Broad Street, where the foundry was, and where I was taught to be a whitesmith, working in white iron and burnished steel."
In 1836 Holyoake started attending evening classes at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute. It was at this time that he first heard about the socialist ideas of Robert Owen. The following year Holyoake joined Robert Owen's Association of All Classes of All Nations. In his autobiography, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) Holyoake explained why he became a follower of Owen: "Just as Thomas Paine was the founder of political ideas among the people of England, Robert Owen was also the founder of social ideas among them. He who first conceives a new idea has merit and distinction; but he is the founder of it who puts it into the minds of men by proving its practicability. Mr. Owen did this at New Lanark, and convinced numerous persons that the improvement of society was possible by wise material means. There were social ideas in England before the days of Owen, as there were political ideas before the days of Paine; but Owen gave social ideas form and force. His passion was the organization of labour, and to cover the land with self-supporting cities of industry, in which well-devised material condition should render ethical life possible, in which labour should be, as far as possible, done by machinery, and education, recreation, and competence should be enjoyed by all. Instead of communities working for the world, they should work for themselves, and keep in their own hands the fruit of their labour; and commerce should be an exchange of surplus wealth, and not a necessity of existence. All this Owen believed to be practicable."
After his marriage on 10th March 1839 to Eleanor Williams (1819–1884), daughter of Thomas Williams, a small farmer from Kingswinford, he decided on a teaching career According to his biographer, Edward Royle: "Despite his experience as an assistant at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, he found promotion there and elsewhere blocked by his association with Robert Owen, to whom he had been attracted in 1836.... The couple's first child, Madeline, was born in May 1840, and a second daughter, Helen (Eveline), followed in December 1841."
In 1840 Holyoake applied to become a teacher at the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute. Holyoake believed that he was rejected because of his socialist and atheistic views. Upset by his failure to become a teacher, Holyoake applied and was accepted as an Owenite Social Missionary. His first post was in Worcester and the following year he was transferred to a more important position in Sheffield.
Holyoake promoted Owen's experiments at New Lanark: "At New Lanark he virtually or indirectly supplied to his workpeople, with splendid munificence and practical judgment, all the conditions which gave dignity to labour.... Co-operation as a form of social amelioration and of profit existed in an intermittent way before New Lanark; but it was the advantages of the stores Owen incited that was the beginning of working-class co-operation. His followers intended the store to be a means of raising the industrious class, but many think of it now merely as a means of serving themselves. Still, the nobler portion are true to the earlier ideal of dividing profits in store and workshop, of rendering the members self-helping, intelligent, honest, and generous, and abating, if not superseding competition and meanness."
As well as giving lectures to adults, Holyoake also established a day school for children in the city. Holyoake began contributing articles to Oracle of Reason, a journal highly critical of Christianity. In January 1842, Charles Southwell, the journal's editor, was arrested and convicted of blasphemy. While Southwell was in prison, Holyoake became the journal's new editor. Six months later Holyoake was also charged with "condemning Christianity" in a speech he made at Cheltenham. In August 1842 he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. The death of his daughter Madeline in October 1842 put an emotional seal on his intellectual conversion to atheism.
After Holyoake was released from prison he started a new weekly journal called The Movement. The journal appeared for three years and was then replaced by The Reasoner. Published for over fifteen years, The Reasoner became one of the most important working class journals of the 19th century. Holyoake used his journal to campaign on a wide variety of different social and political issues.
Holyoake became a member of the Birmingham Chartists. Holyoake was a Moral Force Chartist and in 1839 he refused to become involved in the Birmingham rioting which followed the rejection by Parliament of the Chartist petition. The Reasoner was a loyal supporter of non-violent Moral Chartism and Holyoake eventually became a member of the Chartist executive. He was highly critical of Feargus O'Connor and his Physical Force campaign. In one speech he Argued: "My lecture on Imperial Chartism which has excited the suspicion of the Northern Star, is an argument against physical force reformation on the three-fold ground of Morality, Policy and Progress. In what respect do I differ from Mr O'Connor?...I will take this opportunity of repeating that personally I have great respect for Mr O'Connor. He has displayed more energy than all the Chartist politicians put together.. .yet I must be permitted to dissent from that incoherence and injustice of diatribe which is hurled at all who question his infallibility or differ from his opinions."
In 1835 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man's Guardian, and The Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000. In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners had their first success when the 4d. tax on newspapers was reduced to 1d. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. The campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by George Holyoak and Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. In 1851 Holyoake helped Hetherington and James Watson form the Association for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge.
By 1853 Holyoake's The Reasoner was selling 5,000 copies a week. In his journal Holyoake criticised Christianity and suggested that it should be replaced by a belief system based on reason and science. Holyoake called this new theory Secularism and by the middle of the 1850s there were over forty Secular Societies in Britain. Holyoake explained: "Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life - which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible - which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service"
Edward Royle has argued: "Although still an atheist, he wished secularism neither to deny nor assert the existence of God. Those who believed religion a barrier to progress thought this a betrayal of principle. For Holyoake the sole principle was individual freedom of thought and expression without interference from state, church, or society." Holyoake remained the leader of the Secular movement until he was replaced by the more militant Charles Bradlaugh in 1858.
After the decline of Chartism, Holyoake became one of the leaders of the National Reform League. During this period he was a friend of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau. In 1859 Holyoake wrote and published The Workman and the Suffrage where he argued that members of the working class could be trusted to vote wisely. In The Liberal Situation (1865) he supported the views of Samuel Smiles that the franchise should be based upon educational rather than property qualifications.
George Holyoake had been deeply influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen. This included Owen's views on co-operation. Holyoake had supported the co-operative movement in his journal The Reasoner and in in 1858 wrote Self-Help by the People, a book on the history of the Rochdale Pioneers. Holyoake continued to campaign for the movement and in 1870 was one of the founders of the Co-operative Union. In 1877 Holyoake completed his two-volume The History of Co-operation in England.
In the late 1880s George Holyoake began work on his autobiography. The book Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) was not only an account of Holyoake's life but a history of radicalism in the the 19th century. George Holyoake died in 1906. The Co-operative Union recognized the great contribution that he had made by erecting Holyoake House in Manchester, the main offices and library of the movement in England.