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A Vile, Filthy Book: The Sensational Trial Prosecuting Birth Control in Victorian England

Meyer, Michael (2020) A Vile, Filthy Book: The Sensational Trial Prosecuting Birth Control in Victorian England. In: Pitt Momentum Fund 2020, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa. (Unpublished)


"I am applying for funds to research a general-audience nonfiction book about the sensational 1877 London trial of the social reformers Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. The pair, who led the National Secular Society, defied the Anglican church and crown law by publishing the banned book “The Fruits of Philosophy,” which promoted the practice of birth control by working class couples.

Industrial Revolution-era Great Britain resulted in mobility but also neighborhoods steeped in Dickensian drear. Besant and Bradlaugh argued that working class families would not be happy or fulfilled unless they themselves could decide how many children to have. Contraception contravened church teaching, and the pair were arrested on charges of obscenity. At the trial, the Queen's Bench prosecutor charged them with promulgating ""a vile, filthy book,"" which is my working title for the book.

The pair were found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment, but the presiding judge favored their position; Bradlaugh, representing himself and his partner, managed to have the verdict overturned on appeal, after finding a technicality. The media had supported them, too – even during Queen Victoria's apotheosis, as she was being crowned Empress of India. The Malthusian League formed in the trial’s aftermath, lobbying against punishments for teaching contraception.

The trial resulted in great personal cost, however, as Besant's husband divorced her, taking custody of their children -- who supported their mother, returning to her when each turned 18. Bradlaugh, after numerous lawsuits and public appeals, was in 1888 finally allowed to take his seat in Parliament, after being permitted to swear a non-religious oath (still in effect in British courts today, as the Bradlaugh Oaths Act). He died three years later; a young Mohandas Gandhi attended the funeral. Besant became a popular vocal supporter the “match girl” strikes for better working conditions -- reducing exposure to the bone-rotting chemicals resulting in Phossy jaw -- saying, “Ten years ago, under a cruel law, Christian bigotry robbed me of my little child. Now the care of the 763,680 children of London is placed partly in my hands.” She went on to support Home Rule for India, and moved there, founding a university still open today."


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Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Poster)
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Meyer, Michaelmmeyer@pitt.edummeyer
Centers: Other Centers, Institutes, Offices, or Units > Office of Sponsored Research > Pitt Momentum Fund
Date: 2020
Event Title: Pitt Momentum Fund 2020
Event Type: Other
DOI or Unique Handle: 10.18117/qy9v-7q14
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Refereed: No
Date Deposited: 24 Feb 2020 17:08
Last Modified: 24 Feb 2020 18:13


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