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National Secular Society:
Condoms, Sponges and Syringes: The 19th century pioneers of family planning

4th November 2023 · 11:00am - 3:00pm

Doors open: 10:45am


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National Secular Society: Condoms, Sponges and Syringes: The 19th century pioneers of family planning

National Secular Society historian Bob Forder introduces the 19th century secularist freethinking pioneers of family planning. Hosted in Conway Hall’s historic Library, this talk will accompany a unique display, featuring a fascinating collection of documents from the National Secular Society’s archive, associated with Charles Bradlaugh’s and Annie Besant’s 1877 trial for republishing Charles Knowlton’s pioneering birth control pamphlet, Fruits of Philosophy.

In 1876, National Secular Society founder, Charles Bradlaugh, and socialist and women’s rights campaigner, Annie Besant, republished a revised sixpenny pamphlet written by an American physician, Dr Charles Knowlton, over 40 years earlier. The pamphlet, which provided elementary contraceptive information, had been withdrawn following the prosecution of a Bristol bookseller and the publisher, Charles Watts.

Bradlaugh and Besant were brought to trial in the Queen’s Bench Court on 18 June 1877 on charges of obscenity. Both defended themselves – in the case of Besant it was almost unheard of for a woman to do so. The arguments used ranged through the need to control the birth rate as an antidote to poverty; to reduce infanticide (rife in London at this time); to improve the lot of women and reduce prostitution and abortion.

Despite a sympathetic summing-up by the presiding Lord Chief Justice, the defendants were first found guilty, although later acquitted on appeal. The trial had a huge impact on sales. Prior to 1876 it had sold around 700 copies a year, in the first three months after republication it sold around 125,000 copies. A dam had burst, and the Knowlton pamphlet and subsequent improved successor pamphlets continued to be sold in their hundreds of thousands, changing the landscape of birth control in Britain.

 Supported by the National Secular Society

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Further Info

This event will be held in two separate sessions: 11am and 2pm

If you have any accessibility enquiries, please contact us at / 020 7405 1818.

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