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. …