Harold Blackham: Philosopher, and the first head of the British Humanist Association

H.J. Blackham, philosopher, writer, educationalist, lecturer and doyen of the secular humanist movement, died peacefully on 23 January at the Brockhampton Court care home, Hereford, two months short of his 106th birthday.

On breaking free from Catholicism, some 60 years ago, I used to cross London to replace Sunday Mass with a lecture at the Ethical Church, Bayswater, whenever the New Statesman listings named H.J. Blackham, commonly known as the father of modern humanism, as the lecturer. He was a charismatic speaker, though not always an easy one.

He had a quiet sense of humour and occasionally a witty turn of phrase. His lectures largely comprised my further education, not only in humanistic philosophy but also in the English language, for there were always several words to look up in the dictionary when I got home. Like many others, I regard Blackham as the chief mentor of my life.

Blackham was the only brother of four sisters, one of whom also lived to be a centenarian. Leaving school at the end of the First World War, he became a farm labourer in the rural Midlands. It was heavy work, but he loved the horses (he once told me that his best friend in his whole life had been a horse).

However, he could never stop thinking – especially about religion. Eventually he gained a place at Birmingham University to read divinity and history, after which he became a teacher of divinity at Doncaster Grammar School, only to find his Christian faith slipping away. He felt impelled, he told me, to extend the boundaries of the syllabus to deal with the difficult questions he was wrestling with himself, instead of keeping to the official line.

In 1932 Blackham applied for an advertised post to administer the Ethical Church in London – a church without supernatural assumptions – and was appointed. In the end, however, he was to strip the church of all its quasi-religious emblems, while officiating at non-religious funerals and other ceremonies and filling the role of counsellor. Later, he was to co-found the British Association for Counselling.

In 1938 Blackham helped to organise a conference of the World Union of Freethinkers at Conway Hall in London. At the same time, he was involved with bringing Jewish refugee children from Austria to this country to escape Nazi persecution. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the London Fire Service, driving a fire appliance throughout the blitz – notably in the London Docks – while continuing to work part-time as a writer and philosophy lecturer, as well as secretary of the West London Ethical Society and of the Ethical Union.

Envisaging an international organisation for humanism, in its modern sense, in 1946 he organised another WUF conference at Conway Hall under the title "The Challenge of Humanism". However, finding little support in that audience for the word "humanism", he visited Holland to meet the leader of the Dutch humanists, Jaap van Praag. Together, they set up the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It held its inaugural conference in Amsterdam in 1952, and Blackham became its first secretary-general.

In 1963 Blackham transformed the Ethical Union in this country into the British Humanist Association (BHA), serving as its first executive director.

Throughout these years, he was lecturing part-time at Goldsmith's College and elsewhere, and was writing prolifically. In 1948 he published his memoir of Stanton Coit (1857-1944), who had been the Minister at South Place Ethical Society in London, and who had replaced the word "Religious" in its title with "Ethical" in 1888.

In addition to other pamphlets, Blackham produced innumerable articles and lecture summaries, as well as a number of books. Six Existentialist Thinkers (1951) was his most successful book, with many translations and reprints as a university textbook. Other books included the symposium Living as a Humanist (1950), The Human Tradition (1953), Political Discipline in a Free Society (1961), Objections to Humanism (1963), Religion in a Modern Society (1966), Humanism (a Pelican Original, 1968), The Fable as Literature (1985), and The Future of Our Past: From Ancient Greece to Global Village (1996). His Conway Memorial Lecture, "The Way I Think", was published as a pamphlet by SPES in 1985.

When I asked him, some years ago, which of his books he thought best, he named The Human Tradition. For myself, though, more important than any particular book or article is simply his life and his caring fellowship. His attractive personality enabled him to persuade leading intellectuals to respond to his requests for their time. He often chaired their meetings, and he collaborated with, among others, Julian Huxley, A.J. Ayer, Gilbert Murray, Jacob Bronowski and Barbara Wootton.

In 1944 he founded the prestigious quarterly journal The Plain View, for which, for two decades, he contrived to obtain scholarly contributions from the foremost thinkers of the day, making it (in the opinion of the writer Nicolas Walter) probably the most important liberal journal of the 20th century for percipient readers. Blackham continued to edit it until 1965, when it came to an end with his retirement. However, The Journal of Moral Education, which he also founded, has continued to go from strength to strength as a highly regarded publication of international influence.

During the war, he and his first wife, Olga, had adopted a son, Paul, who, with his wife Wenol, now has three sons and two grandchildren. In his seventies, after Olga's death, Blackham remarried. With his second wife, Ursula, he left the London area for the Welsh Marches, in order, he said, to escape from no fewer than 17 London committees!

However, he went on writing, officiating at funerals, and travelling around the lecture circuit into his nineties. He also found time to grow fruit and vegetables. Last April, at the age of 105, he went into a care home near Hereford. He was a favourite with the staff, who took good care of his needs; so he was quite contented there, occupied with a century of memories.

Barbara Smoker

Harold John Blackham, humanist, philosopher and writer: born Birmingham 31 March 1903; twice married (one son); died Hereford 23 January 2009.