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Birth Control in the UK: 1850-1925

John Simkin

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Most people take birth-control for granted. However, in the UK, it only came about after some of its advocates were sent to prison.

Working class women were expected to work until they had children. These women tended to have more children than upper and middle class wives. In the middle of the 19th century, the average married woman gave birth to six children. Over 35% of all married women had eight or more children.


The Church was totally opposed to the use of contraception to control family size. Several people, including Richard Carlile had been sent to prison for publishing books on the subject.


In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh decided to publish The Fruits of Philosophy, written by Charles Knowlton, a book that advocated birth control. Besant and Bradlaugh were charged with publishing material that was "likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences". In court they argued that "we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing." Besant and Bradlaugh were both found guilty of publishing an "obscene libel" and sentenced to six months in prison. At the Court of Appeal the sentence was quashed.



After the court-case Annie Besant wrote and published her own book advocating birth control entitled The Laws of Population. The idea of a woman advocating birth-control received wide-publicity. Newspapers like The Times accused Besant of writing "an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book".

In 1918 Marie Stopes wrote a concise guide to contraception called Wise Parenthood. Marie Stopes' book upset the leaders of the Church of England who believed it was wrong to advocate the use of birth control. Roman Catholics were especially angry, as the Pope had made it clear that he condemned all forms of contraception. Despite this opposition, Marie continued her campaign and in 1921 founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control. With financial help from her rich second husband, Humphrey Roe, Marie also opened the first of her birth-control clinics in Holloway on 17th March 1921.


The 1923 Dora Russell along with Maynard Keynes, paid for the legal costs to obtain the freedom of Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop after they had been found guilty of selling pamphlets on contraception. The following year, Dora, with the support of Katharine Glasier, Susamn Lawrence, Margaret Bonfield, Dorothy Jewson and H. G. Wells founded the Workers' Birth Control Group. Dora also campaigned within the Labour Party for birth-control clinics but this was rejected as they feared losing the Roman Catholic vote.


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