Papers of George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906)

Scope and Content

The collection contains approximately 4,410 letters and papers written by and to George Jacob Holyoake between 1830 and 1906. The correspondence is with those involved in various labour movements of the early nineteenth century - co-operative, socialist etc. There is an associated collection of books, pamphlets and journals written by and about Holyoake.

Administrative / Biographical History

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 blasphamy 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.

The Archive's collection covers his life-long active association with the co-operative movement and his association with all the leading figures in it. As one of the promoters of the first of the modern Co-operative Congresses in 1869 he attended and spoke at many Congresses, editing the reports of the third to the fifth and presiding at the seventh. Holyoake was an eloquent orator who addressed most noteworthy co-operative occasions.

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.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Holyoake arranged for the Robert Owen correspondence collection to be deposited with the Co-operative Union. He also collected his own correspondence, which passed to the Co-operative Union after his death. The National Co-operative Archive's George Jacob Holyoake collection includes books and pamphlets and over 4,000 primary materials. Further materials including his diaries are held at the Bishopsgate Institute in London.



Access Information

Open access, the Archive is open by appointment only from Monday-Friday 10-5.

Acquisition Information

Donated by the family.

Other Finding Aids

A full name index of correspondents exists. A database of each folio has also been created. This listing of the collection is available, please contact the Archive about this at In addition to this the associated collection of books and pamphlets is listed at

Archivist's Note

Description compiled by Karyn Stuckey, Assistant Archivist, Mar 2007.

Conditions Governing Use

Surrogates are used for research and reproduction purposes.

All reproduction requests should be sent to: Archivist, The National Co-operative Archive, Co-operative College, Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester M60 0AS +44 (0)161 246 2925

Custodial History

Mrs Holyoake-Marsh sent bundles of her father's letters piecemeal to the Co-operative Union Library. Most of the bundles she had made up herself, but a few had been prepared by her father, chiefly in the form of autobiographical chapters. The result was that, in general, the letters had neither chronological nor subject matter, and the situation appeared to have been made more confused by the efforts of subsequent researchers.

The present catalogue, completed in 1967, was an attempt to rearrange all the materials in a chronological sequence, and to include in the original collection, other letters donated later, or found in other parts of the library. A permanent record has been kept of the original order of the documents, and this is marked on a catalogue kept at the Co-operative Union Library.

Undated letters have been put in an approximately chronological position, to the nearest month, year or decade, according to the accuracy of the information available. Sometimes this positioning is based on internal evidence, sometimes on the estimate made by Mrs Marsh where this was not obviously wrong. A few letters have remained undated, and these are filed towards the end of the collection.

Part of the Archive's future planning allows for the cataloguing of these papers to ISAD (G) standards.


None expected in the archival collection but secondary materials continue to be obtained.

Location of Originals

Please note that Bishopsgate Institute also holds Holyoake originals.