The Bradlaugh-Besant Trial

As a historian who teaches many “fly over” survey classes, I think my story of birth control activism is probably the same story told in many American classrooms. Margaret Sanger* takes center stage, and the years of focus are around 1913 or so.

This is despite the fact that birth control has been around for as long as people have been in a position to think about whether they want more children. I am familiar with the Ancient Egyptian sponge (soaked in the juice of the tips of acacia trees for spermicide), the medieval use of pennyroyal as an abortificant, and the efforts of professional doctors to make midwifery illegal for their own ends (always, of course, with the excuse of fighting quackery).

But here I am, studying the young H. G. Wells, and I’m reading the sections of his autobiography when he’s in Midhurst at the age of 18 or so, and he writes:

The Bradlaugh Besant trial had occurred in 1876 and the light of sanity was gradually breaking into the dark places of English sexual life. There was perhaps a stronger belief current then that births were completely controllable than the actual facts warranted. Now under the stimulus of Plato’s Utopianism and my quickening desires I began to ask my imagination what it was I desired in women.

What is the Bradlaugh Besant trial? I am ashamed to say I have no idea. So I Google it, of course. Apparently, a book by Charles Knowlton had been around for decades, but around 1876 the Society for the Suppression of Vice seems to have encouraged the prosecution of its publisher, Henry Cook, for obscene pictures. Cook spent two years at hard labor, and another publisher pleaded guilty in a similar case.

So National Reformer journalists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished Knowlton’s book (Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People) on purpose, as an act of civil disobedience. The courts were willing to let them off if they stopped printing and selling it, but they refused and suffered fines and imprisonment.

Naturally the next step here is to find the book, which I did at Internet Archive. This version is 1845, but it was originally published in 1831. There’s quite a bit about sex in there, and for those who make jokes about Victorians not knowing about the clitoris, well obviously some of them did:

A number of issues are dealt with fully, with marriage as the solution for all elements of natural desire:

Notice how this also does not fit our, um, preconceptions. But I was seeking the contraceptive information, which was nearer to the end. Knowlton mentions the “baudruche”, or condom, as useful in “checking” conception. He’s also discusses the sponge:

He recommends using the sponge with “some liquid that acts chemically upon the semen”. He follows with a long section on thorough douching within five minutes of congress, also with some alum or chemical agent.

Fantastically modern, useful, and effective information, this. When I had some people read this section and guess what era the book was written, invariably they thought the 1910s. I would have thought so too. But no, it’s 80 years before that. Other sports fans have known about this stuff for years.

But it was news to me. I do explain to my students, who tend to see history as the story of inevitable and consistent progress, that knowledge, excuse the expression, comes and goes. In some ways, less is commonly known about birth control now than in the 1970s or, in this case, the 1830s (and revived in the 1870s thanks to the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial). For the difficulties of the most recent generations, I blame the pill. Unlike the brilliant cervical cap (just try to get fitted for, or even find, one of those), or even the diaphragm, the pill requires absolutely no knowledge of ones body whatsoever. Use the knowledge or lose it. My first thought was that Fruits of Philosophy might be pretty useful to some of my students. And heck, it’s less than 40 pages long.

A couple of facts needed checking. Despite the court case charges, there do not appear to be any pictures (at least in the 1845 version), and Wells meant 1877 for the trial instead of 1876. Good stuff all the same.


[*Margaret Sanger and H. G. Wells had a sexual relationship when he was older, and no child seems to have resulted, which is more than one can say of a couple of his other encounters.]

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