Symonds Street Cemetery: Charles Southwell

New Zealand’s First Freethinker

Charles Southwell was a Radical Freethinker, writer, lecturer, newspaper owner, editor and actor.

His father, John Southwell, was a workman in the Broadwood Piano factory in London.

Throughout his life Charles was constantly involved in anti-clerical, ultra-radical agitations, he operated a succession ofl radical bookshops and Newspapers in Britain and eventually the antipodes..

In 1841 he was prosecuted for an article which attacked biblical inconsistencies.

Found guilty of blasphemy Southwell was imprisoned for a year and fined £100.

His martyrdom made him famous, and provoked the first rallying of the British secularist movement.

In April 1855 Southwell sailed for Melbourne, Australia where he continued his Radical activities.

There he joined W. H. Foley’s theatrical troupe, and sailed for Auckland, New Zealand, arriving on 29 January 1856.

While giving lectures at the Mechanic Institute on 11 December 1856 he launched the “Auckland Examiner”, a weekly muck-raking paper which lampooned rivals and corrupt local officials.

The paper also scarified Christian missions to the Maori, and their associated land deals, and advocated a universal, secular education system.

His failing health led to the collapse in July 1860 of the “Auckland Examiner”.

On the 7th of August 1860 he died of pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease he had refused to acknowledge. He was 46.

The identity of his first two wives is apparently unknown. His third wife or companion may have been Elizabeth Edge.

Southwell appears to have left no children.

Astonishingly Southwell was apparently the thirty-third (or possibly the thirty-sixth) child born to his father by three wives (although Charles was the only child of the last wife)