This article has been peer-reviewed under the direction of Professors Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge (University of Victoria). It forms part of the Great Expectations Pregnancy Project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The Victorians inherited a growing debate on questions of population and its control. In spite of the ravages of the Industrial Revolution and concomitant ill-planned rapid urbanisation, and onslaughts of epidemic diseases such as smallpox and cholera, not to mention endemic ailments such as tuberculosis (see Pregnancy and Venereal Disease), over the course of the century, the standard of public health was improving and life-expectancy increasing. Infant and maternal mortality would continue well into the twentieth century at levels that would now be considered unacceptably high but that had declined precipitously since the early eighteenth century: parents might anticipate rearing the majority of the children they begot.
Debating the Principle of Controlling Reproduction
In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principles of Population argued that population would always tend to multiply faster than the means of subsistence. Delayed marriage, or moral restraint, were the only means he advocated to control population, lumping artificial methods under the general heading of “unnatural” and “immoral” (1817, and later editions of the Essay, vol. 2, bk. 3, 48). Other thinkers, in particular those influenced by the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, suggested that human ingenuity might modify these iron laws.
In 1822 radical working-class reformer Francis Place published Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, putting the case for the employment of “precautionary means” by married persons (165). In the following year his “diabolical handbills,” “To the Married of Both Sexes” recommended the female vaginal sponge to prevent large families leading to poverty (Fryer 43). (The young John Stuart Mill was arrested and briefly imprisoned for distributing these handbills (Fryer 46).) In 1826 Place’s associate Richard Carlile published Every Woman’s Book; or, What is Love?, describing various means available for preventing conception (however, this did not feature among the charges — blasphemy and sedition — for which he was prosecuted and imprisoned). Both men were based in the “radical underworld” of Regency Britain, in which political radicalism was allied to unconventional sexual morality. Their doctrines encountered opposition even in radical freethinking circles with the rise of a more respectable working- and lower-middle-class culture.
Title page of Richard Carlile’s Every Woman’s Book; or, What is Love?: Containing Most Important Instructions for the Prudent Regulation of the Principle of Love and the Number of a Family (London: Richard Carlile, 1828). Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. [Click on all the images to enlarge them.]
In 1854 George Drysdale published Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion anonymously as “by a Student of Medicine.” He made a detailed case for the medical and social benefits of contraception, in which he embedded his opinions on best practice. The work was little discussed beyond the freethought and secularist circles of which Drysdale was a part. Even there it was not universally approved. Under the title Elements of Social Science, the book was repeatedly republished well into the twentieth century. Even though Drysdale was a doctor, the subject was not considered acceptable by the majority of his profession.
Attempts to discuss family limitation met with furious objections from the press and public opinion. Viscount Amberley (father of Bertrand Russell) addressed the London Dialectical Society in 1868 with suggestions that small families were desirable and thus means of limitation should be discussed. He was subjected to furious attacks in both the medical and lay press and lost a parliamentary election amid scenes of riot (Fryer 123–31).
In 1877 Charles Bradlaugh, freethinker and radical MP famous for refusing to take the oath on the Bible, and his colleague Annie Besant, perhaps better known for her involvement in the Matchgirls’ Strike, produced a cheap edition, with notes by Drysdale, of the American Charles Knowlton’s birth control tract Fruits of Philosophy as a test case of the law on obscenity affecting works on birth control. (Knowlton’s work, first published in the USA in 1832, had had a brisk and untroubled circulation in Britain up to this date, as had that of his compatriot, son of Robert Owen, Robert Dale Owen, Moral Physiology, 1836.) They were tried for publishing “a dirty, filthy book” (In The High Court of Justice 251), although the verdict that was finally achieved was ambiguous. Besant herself wrote and published a sixpenny pamphlet, The Law of Population, making the case for contraception and providing information about methods currently available.
Pages 1–2 of Rules of the Malthusian League. © John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Courtesy of Wiley Digital Archives. Source: The Royal College of Physicians-Part II, Regulation of Clinical Practice and Standards, MS 2338/20.
In the same year, the Malthusian League was set up with C. R. Drysdale (George Drysdale’s brother) as president and Annie Besant as secretary. It produced a regular monthly journal from 1879. The League concentrated on making the philosophical and economic case for family limitation until 1914, when it produced a practical pamphlet. It appealed to archetypal “Victorian values” of prudence, foresight and self-help. However, the prevalent view at that time was that sex was not an area in which prudence and foresight were appropriate, except from the point of view of avoiding temptation.
These teachings were violently attacked on medical and moral grounds by C. H. F. Routh in a paper given to the Obstetrical section of the British Medical Association in 1878: On the Moral and Physical Evils likely to follow if practices intended to act as Checks to Population be not strongly discouraged and condemned (first published in the Medical Press and Circular, 1878, and subsequently in pamphlet form, 1879). This was a recurrent pattern: the British medical profession tried extremely hard to ignore contraception but burst forth in condemnatory diatribes when provoked by events such as the Amberley affair and the Bradlaugh-Besant trial. There was no sustained medical debate on the subject.
Some doctors might give advice in private consultation. Three of the first students at the London Medical School for Women were members of the Malthusian League, including Alice Vickery, consort of C. R. Drysdale. However, they were besought by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to keep this under wraps, since women aspiring to become doctors was controversial enough (Benn 143). Even so, it is recorded that she herself was later prepared to suggest contraception to her patients (Strachey 103).
In 1886 a radical doctor in Leeds, Henry Arthur Allbutt, published The Wife’s Handbook, a cheap manual on the preservation of female health which included a brief chapter on the prevention of conception when medically advisable. Allbutt was struck off the Medical Register, largely because he had published this work at a price bringing it “within the reach of the young of both sexes, to the detriment of public morals” (Minutes of the General Council of Medical Education and Registration of the United Kingdom 316–17), but he was not actually prosecuted. The work itself was much republished.
Popular feeling was not necessarily in favour of contraception. In 1891 Henry Young, a barrister, was prosecuted for disseminating the pamphlet Some Reasons for Advocating the Prudential Limitation of Families via the Royal Mail. He had been sending it to people who had not solicited it, did not want it, and were offended at receiving it.
In some European countries, in particular France and Germany, developing left-wing movements were in favour of birth control, but in Britain, on the whole, notions of respectability led to a shrinking from the topic in labour circles. Their distaste was not ameliorated by a tendency of certain prominent figures within the Malthusian League to suggest that family limitation would obviate the need for socialism. This veered dangerously near suggesting that feckless breeding by the poor brought their troubles on their own heads.
Although Alice Vickery and Annie Besant were also passionate about women’s rights, the late Victorian and Edwardian women’s movement was in general not in favour of contraception, or at least, its open discussion. Some considered that it would merely give fuller reign to that male licentiousness responsible for so many of the troubles against which they strove. Others took the tactical view that it was not timely to discuss it openly as a women’s rights issue. Edith How-Martyn, a suffragette who had been active in the Malthusian League, wrote, on October 6, 1931, to American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, “Women with a vote can defy the church and public opinion, without the vote they are afraid to speak out on birth control as it may prevent them getting the vote” (Sanger papers).
Prevention in Practice
It has been argued that the Bradlaugh-Besant trial, and the publicity it gained, was the beginning of the noticeable decline of the UK population from the later decades of the nineteenth century (e.g., Elderton 235). However, this was more of a coincidence than a cause: the decline was multifactorial, with complex social, cultural, and economic drivers.
What were the methods available for preventing pregnancy? The existence of animal gut condoms in Britain can be traced back to the seventeenth century, but their primary purpose was the prevention of sexually transmitted infections: they were thus strongly associated with a raffish libertine subculture. By the 1750s there was a flourishing trade in handmade sheaths in London. They were intricate to make and expensive. There is some indication that they were also considered as contraceptives.
Other specifically contraceptive methods known in the early nineteenth century were the use of sponges as a barrier by women and withdrawal before emission. Knowlton in Fruits of Philosophy (34–36) advocated women syringing themselves immediately after intercourse, either with plain water or various chemical solutions (Annie Besant was notably sceptical of this method in The Law of Population (33–34).
Two pages from Constantine & Jackson’s Specialities.... Left: Price list of skin and rubber “letters” (condoms). Right: Advertisement for “The Improved Check Pessary.” Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Around 1840 there was a major development in contraceptive technology: the vulcanisation of rubber. The advantages of this for the mass production of condoms, massively reducing the cost, and also for the manufacture of female “womb veils” or rubber check pessaries, and improved syringing apparatus, were almost immediately apparent. “Rubber goods” became a euphemism for contraceptive devices. Initially these devices were very crude — the condoms, for example, had seams.
By the date of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial there had been some technological improvement, and the commercial side of rubber goods and their marketing had become a good deal more diversified and sophisticated. There are problems in researching this. There are some, rather sparsely surviving, catalogues (see bibliography), discreetly coded small ads in newspapers, and mentions of rubber goods shops: but there are no surviving business records. Some evidence remains of individuals who were prosecuted, not for actually selling contraceptives but contravening various legalities in how they promoted their trade.
Allbutt was very prepossessed by a new development in contraceptive technology, Rendell’s “Wife’s Friend” soluble pessaries, containing quinine (which is a rather weak spermicide), and recommended it in his manual (50). Annie Besant also praised them in The Law of Population (32). Chemical pessaries are still an under-researched aspect in the history of birth control: one may find advertisements for Rendells in particular in the most respectable of women’s magazines, though not explicitly stating why they were “The Wife’s Friend.” Allbutt also recommended syringing, specifically with Lambert’s Improved Reverse Current Syphon Enema Syringe (47–48), and the preventive pessary invented by Dr. Mensinga of Flensburg (this, taken up and popularised by the Dutch woman physician Aletta Jacobs, came to be known as the “Dutch cap”) (49–50); as well as “French letters” and sponges (49). He was, however, critical of some advocated nostrums, such as an alleged safe period (47).
Advertisements from E. Lambert & Son: Manufacturers of Surgical Appliances.... Left: A “pessarie capote” and “Lambert’s ‘Wife’s Friend’ Soluble Pessaries.” Right: “Lambert’s Paragon Sheath.” Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
It is very difficult to find out anything about the consumers of these products. While there are some surviving surveys undertaken in other countries (which have their own limitations and may reflect differing cultures), there were none respecting contraceptive practice in the UK until after the Second World War. What we may hypothesize, on the basis of these surveys and 1920s correspondence with the birth-control advocate Marie Stopes, is that only a minority of couples would have been using appliances of any kind on a habitual basis. Did people perhaps try them and give up? Or try one after another of the range of methods available?
Most likely couples would have been practising withdrawal and intermittent abstinence, or some attempt at following a safe period. What was being claimed as the “safe period” was not—being based on Biblical edicts rather than scientific data, although Janet Farrell Brodie, in Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America (83–86) suggested that depending on individual cycles, sometimes it might have worked. Even so, enough people were buying enough devices to make it profitable for manufacturers to make them and produce lavishly illustrated catalogues (see bibliography). It is, of course, possible that the market really was those engaged in licentious illicit relations as claimed by opponents, although catalogue copy leant heavily on Malthusian-style arguments for the benefits to marriage.
Superficially it may appear that there was a gulf between the philosophical justifications being advanced by earnest Malthusians, and the vigorous exploitation of a marketing niche by commercial operators taking advantage of technological improvements and the facility to run mail-order businesses in products individuals might not wish to purchase in person. However, from the earliest days, propagandists had included recommendations of the methods they considered desirable.
Several self-identified Malthusians put their money where their mouths were and went into the business of supplying the necessary products or, like Allbutt, writing cheap handbooks of practical advice (in which he recommended specific manufacturers’ items). Henry Young has been mentioned, and he was not the only one who fell foul of the law. James Robins Holmes of East Hanney, Berkshire, author of True Morality; or, the Theory and Practice of Neo-Malthusianism (incorporating a catalogue listing thirty items) was brought up before local magistrates. The eccentric J. Greevz Fisher of Leeds freely distributed Malthusian materials. Thomas R. Allinson, best known for advocacy of wholemeal bread and dietary reform, was also a proponent of birth control. His Book for Married Women was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.
By the end of the century and the beginning of the new one, observers were becoming aware that the birth rate had significantly declined and that this decline was not consistent over all sections of society. New anxieties entered debates on controlling national reproduction.
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Created 27 February 2022