Humphrey Bellamy Boyle (1794-1864)
Freethinker and Activist – the ‘Man without a name’

Humphrey Bellamy Boyle (1794-1864)In 1822, when revolution was in the air everywhere and a nervous Government had clamped down on the freedom of the press, a young ‘man with name unknown’ was tried and imprisoned in London for publishing seditious and blasphemous literature – pamphlets based on Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’. This unnamed man was Humphrey Boyle from Leeds, a working man, a self-taught free-thinker committed to total political reform and the overthrow of the old systems of thought and religion, by peaceful means. While in gaol he wrote for the underground press, a bold and eloquent spokesman for reform, giving voice to the unrest and anger fermenting in Leeds in the early years of the century.

Humphrey Boyle’s family had come to Leeds from Tyneside when he was in his teens. His father James was a flax dresser (preparing the rough fibre for spinning) who moved to Leeds to work in Marshall’s famous mills. Humphrey was the eldest son of nine children, and at 16 he too was apprenticed in the flax trade. He had little formal education but read widely. By his early twenties he had joined the vibrant movement for radical change, demanding universal suffrage and social justice. He was part of a group which met in a yard off Briggate to read some of the subversive journals in circulation and share ideas – freedom of expression was their watchword. Their hero was the London bookseller Richard Carlile, who had been arrested and imprisoned for publishing the story of the shocking Peterloo massacre, and selling pamphlets based on Paine’s writings. They collected subscriptions for him, distributed literature, and arranged meetings, banned by law. In 1821 after the arrest of his wife and sister Carlile appealed for volunteers to run his bookshop, and Humphrey Boyle was the first Leeds man to respond. He must have known the risk.

He was given £1 to help him make his way to London, to Carlile’s bookshop in Fleet Street. He was soon arrested. Every effort had been made to hide helpers’ identities, so he was indicted without being named. The story of his trial and his powerful speech in his defence was later published. Although ‘but a humble mechanic’ he spoke fluently and forcefully against established religion, against the corrupt political system, and for freedom of expression, reason, justice, and respect for human rights. The trial had its drama: to illustrate the hypocrisy of the accusation of blasphemy, he insisted on reading out ‘indecent’ verses from the bible, and all the women and children had to leave the court. His eloquence was useless; the verdict was ‘guilty’. He was in prison for almost two years, but continued to write and publish. Donations had to be begged to secure his freedom. On his release he agreed to manage the shop while Carlile was still in prison.

He returned to Leeds in 1824, to a job in Marshall’s mills as a flax dresser. His special qualities were recognised: he was promoted to overseer, responsible for innovation and development. In 1826 he married Ann Pearson from Leeds, who shared his views and supported him in his continuing political activities. He was involved in various groups working for reform, for the extension of the vote, social equality, the abolition of slavery. Although still a controversial figure notorious for his ‘atheistical’ views, he represented and spoke for working men in the Leeds Political Union, an active pressure group for the new Reform Bill. Ever concerned with social issues, in 1832 he researched in detail the minimum weekly living costs of a worker’s family with 3 children, information which has proved valuable for historians, anticipating the modern concept of a ‘living wage’.

He and Ann lived in Meadow Lane, and brought up a family of four children. It was a modest enough existence – no servants even when he was making more money. About 1836 he left Marshall’s and moved into the flax trade himself with business partners, based in a nearby mill. By 1853 his son James had joined the business (Boyle & Son) which moved into trading in yarns and other products.

Humphrey died in 1864 at home in Meadow Lane, aged 70. His son and widow - evidently an enterprising woman – continued to develop the business. Later family members took over and by continually adapting to new markets, products and trading conditions, the firm has survived, under a new name now (Zoffany), but still with family connections. Humphrey Boyle left an enduring legacy of innovation and enterprise, but he is remembered particularly for his brave and passionate defence of everyone’s right to free speech, truth and justice.

Eveleigh Bradford
April 2016