George Jacob Holyoake was the son of an engineer and was apprenticed as a tinsmith. In 1831 he joined the Birmingham Reform League, beginning an active participation in political and social movements. This involvement led him to attend meetings addressed by Robert Owen (1771-1858). Owen was a leading social reformer and he greatly influenced Holyoake, who went on to collect his papers (see associated Hub entry). Then in 1837 Holyoake gave own first lectures on socialism and co-operation.
Holyoake became a writer and journal editor, bookseller and publisher. He was prominent in the campaigns for removal of tax on newspapers and for electoral reform. He was an outspoken reformer, becoming one of the last people to be tried for blasphemy in England.
Holyoake was involved in radical movements from early in his career. He was a member of the Birmingham Chartists. However, he was a moral force Chartist which meant that he did not become involved in any physical protests such as riots which were rife during the 1830s. He published a magazine called The Reasoner which supported moral Chartism. He was also involved in the struggle against government censorship of newspapers along with Richard Carlile and Henry Heatherington.
He wrote numerous journal articles, books and also wrote many pamphlets on co operative subjects. As a journalist, his main aim in writing about the co-operative movement was to inspire, rather than to record history and many of his writings seek to imbibe supporters with verve for co-operation. His autobiography Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life gives an interesting view of the nineteenth century's radical movements.
In his later years, the co-operative movement viewed Holyoake as a link with their own heritage and the movements past. On his death, societies contributed to provide a memorial, a building to provide a headquarters for the Co-operative Union in Manchester. The Co-operative Union for the first 30 years of its existence had worked from rented offices, the Holyoake House, which was opened in 1911, was designed to include offices, meeting rooms and a library.