George Holyoake, the son of a Birmingham whitesmith, was born on 13th April, 1817. At the age of eight George began working with his father at a local foundry. In 1836 George 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.
Holyoake also 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Reasoner was a loyal supporter of non-violent Moral Chartism and Holyoake eventually became a member of the Chartist executive. Holyoake also joined people like Richard Carlile and Henry Hetherington in their struggle against the government's attempt to censor newspapers and journals. 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 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. In 1859 he 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.