On most days the reports from the Metropolitan Police courts concerned the lives of very ordinary Londoners. The criminal, the mentally ill, the aged, the poor, the abused and the frightened all appeared in the witnesses box or dock from Mansion House to Thames, Southwark to Marylebone to be dealt with swiftly by the magistrates that sat there. In many cases hearings were completed in a few minutes whilst in others prisoners were remanded or bailed so that a fuller investigation could be undertaken.
Just occasionally however, a case appears that touched history because of its national significance. One of these happened in April 1877 when Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were summoned to appear before the aldermen magistrates at Guildhall in the City of London.
On Thursday 19 April Bradlaugh and Besant (two of the most significant radical figures of late nineteenth-century society) were called to defend themselves against a charge of publishing an obscene publication. The case had been reconvened that day and Alderman Figgins presiding heard final statements of defence from both Besant and Bradlaugh; Alderman Sir Robert Carden and Sir James Lawrence MP sat with him as this was such an important case. It was prosecuted by Douglas Straight and the Mr. Collette from the Society for the Suppression of Vice observed the proceedings.
The Guildhall Police court was packed, as it had been for the previous appearance of the pair a week earlier for the start of the hearings. Everyone liked a good sex scandal.
The publication in question was ‘The Fruits of Philosophy: Or the private Companion of Young Married People ’ by a Dr Charles Knowlton, a ‘physician of high standing and position, residing in Boston, U.S.A’. It had originally been published in 1832 in America, where it was ‘circulating widely’ in 1877 the court was told, and had first been published in England in 1834 and no one had then been prosecuted for so doing Ms Besant explained (erroneously as it turned out).
Knowlton was an atheist (as was Bradlaugh who famously refused to swear on the Bible when elected MP for Northampton three years later in 1880.) and his pamphlet advocated birth control. Knowlton had initially been prosecuted and fined (and later imprisoned) in Massachusetts for obscenity but was afterwards acquitted. So Besant and Bradlaugh, strong advocates of birth control, whilst aware that the subject was highly controversial, were probably confident that opinion was turning.
From the start Alderman Figgins was determined that his court was not about to be party to a discussion of the topic of birth control, for or against, which probably disappointed some of those in the public gallery. As with crim.con(divorce) cases, the subtext of sexual relations (rarely spoken of publicly in Victorian society) had probably brought many of them to the Guildhall.
At this news Bradlaugh announced that he could now send away the very many medical experts who he’d gathered to speak in his defence. They could now wait for the full jury trial that took place later that year. The most prominent scientist of the day, Charles Darwin, did not support Bradlaugh and Besant however. Darwin pleaded ill-health on the week of the trial but in his apologetic letter to Bradlaugh he said he wasn’t himself an advocate of birth control.
Many were however, because the Victorians were worried about rapid population growth and the impact this had on society and the poor in particular. The Malthusian League was established in 1877 to promote contraception and family planning believing that poverty was caused directly but the inability of the working classes to control the size of their families. But for most people the discussion of birth control – as with the discussion of anything to do with sex – was taboo, hence the prosecution.
In the end Alderman Figgins was always going to commit the pair for a jury trial which took place later at the High Court. The jury ‘were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time said that they “entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.”’* However while the foreman responded to the judge’s question as to guilt in the affirmative, a juror told Annie Besant afterwards that they had not actually agreed a guilty verdict. She thereafter interpreted this as ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’.
Six months later the cases was overturned in the Court of Appeal and the defendants were effectively vindicated by the fact that the exposure gained from the case saw sales of Knowlton’s pamphlet rise from ‘fewer than 1,000 to more than 250,000 per year’.** The genii was out of the bottle.
Bradlaugh went on to represent Northampton from 1880-1891 although it took him years to take his seat because of his refusal to swear. Because of him the rules of Parliament were changed and members were allowed to affirm, a privilege that was also then extended to those giving evidence in court. Annie Besant also continued to champion the rights of the underprivileged. A socialist, she was present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 and played a significant role in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant & May.
Poor Alderman Figgins was probably quite glad to get back to the ordinary flotsam and jetsoms of the City streets however, when his court was less full and the proceedings less controversial.
Annie Besant in later life
[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 20, 1877]