Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter XV

The preliminary investigation before the magistrates at Guildhall duly came on upon April 17th, the prosecution being conducted by Mr. Douglas Straight and Mr. F. Mead. The case was put by Mr. Straight with extreme care and courtesy, the learned counsel stating, "I cannot conceal from myself, or from those who instruct me, that everything has been done in accordance with fairness and bona fides on the part of Mr. Bradlaugh and the lady sitting by the side of him". Mr. Straight contended that the good intentions of a publisher could not be taken as proving that a book was not indictable, and laid stress on the cheapness of the work, "the price charged is so little as sixpence". Mr. Bradlaugh proved that there was no physiological statement in Knowlton, which was not given in far fuller detail in standard works on physiology, quoting Carpenter, Dalton, Acton, and others; he showed that Malthus, Professor Fawcett, Mrs. Fawcett, and others, advocated voluntary limitation of the family, establishing his positions by innumerable quotations. A number of eminent men were in Court, subpoenaed to prove their own works, and I find on them the following note, written by myself at the time:—

"We necessarily put some of our medical and publishing witnesses to great inconvenience in summoning them into court, but those who were really most injured were the most courteous. Mr. Trübner, although suffering from a painful illness, and although, we had expressed our willingness to accept in his stead some member of his staff, was present, kindly and pleasant as usual. Dr. Power, a most courteous gentleman, called away from an examination of some 180 young men, never thought of asking that he should be relieved from the citizen's duty, but only privately asked to be released as soon as possible. Dr. Parker was equally worthy of the noble profession to which he belonged, and said he did not want to stay longer than he need, but would be willing to return whenever wanted. Needless to say that Dr. Drysdale was there, ready to do his duty. Dr. W.B. Carpenter was a strange contrast to these; he was rough and discourteous in manner, and rudely said that he was not responsible for 'Human Physiology, by Dr. Carpenter', as his responsibility had ceased with the fifth edition. It seems a strange thing that a man of eminence, presumably a man of honor, should disavow all responsibility for a book which bears his name as author on the title-page. Clearly, if the 'Human Physiology' is not Dr. Carpenter's, the public is grossly deceived by the pretence that it is, and if, as Dr. Carpenter says, the whole responsibility rests on Dr. Power, then that gentleman should have the whole credit of that very useful book. It is not right that Dr. Carpenter should have all the glory and Dr. Power all the annoyance resulting from the work."

Among all the men we came into contact with during the trial, Dr. Carpenter and Professor Fawcett were the only two who shrank from endorsing their own written statements.

The presiding magistrate, Mr. Alderman Figgins, devoted himself gallantly to the unwonted task of wading through physiological text books, the poor old gentleman's hair sometimes standing nearly on end, and his composure being sadly ruffled when he found that Dr. Carpenter's florid treatise, with numerous illustrations of a, to him, startling character, was given to young boys and girls as a prize in Government examinations. He compared Knowlton with the work of Dr. Acton's submitted to him, and said despondingly that one was just the same as the other. At the end of the day the effect made on him by the defence was shown by his letting us go free without bail. Mr. Bradlaugh finished his defence at the next hearing of the case on April 19th, and his concluding remarks, showing the position we took, may well find their place here:

"The object of this book is to circulate amongst the masses of the poor and wretched (as far as my power will circulate it), and to seek to produce in their minds such prudential views on the subject of population as shall at least hinder some of the horrors to be witnessed amongst the starving. I have not put you to the trouble of hearing proof—even if I were, in this court, permitted to do so—of facts on the Population Question, because the learned counsel for the prosecution, with the frankness which characterises this prosecution, admitted there was the tendency on the part of animated nature to increase until checked by the absence or deficiency of the means of subsistence. This being so, some checks must step in; these checks must be either positive or preventive and prudential. What are positive checks? The learned counsel has told you what they are. They are war, disease, misery, starvation. They are in China—to take a striking instance—accompanied by habits so revolting that I cannot now allude to them. See the numbers of miserable starving children in the great cities and centres of population. Is it right to go to these people and say, 'bring into the world children who cannot live', who all their lives are prevented by the poverty-smitten frames of their parents, and by their own squalid surroundings, from enjoying almost every benefit of the life thrust on them! who inherit the diseases and adopt the crimes which poverty and misery have provided for them? The very medical works I have put in in this case show how true this is in too many cases, and if you read the words of Dr. Acton, crime is sometimes involved of a terrible nature which the human tongue governed by training shrinks from describing. We justly or erroneously believe that we are doing our duty in putting this information in the hands of the people, and we contest this case with no kind of bravado; the penalty we already have to pay is severe enough, for even while we are defending this, some portion of the public press is using words of terrorism against the witnesses to be called, and is describing myself and my co-defendant in a fashion that I feel sure will find no sanction here, and that I hope will never occur again. We contest this because the advocacy of such views on population has been familiar to me for many years. The Public Journal of Health, edited by Dr. Hardwicke, the coroner for Central Middlesex, will show you that in 1868 I was known, in relation to this question, to men high in position in the land as original thinkers and political economists; that the late John Stuart Mill has left behind him, in his Autobiography, testimony concerning me on this subject, according unqualified praise to me for the views thereon which I had labored to disseminate; and that Lord Amberley thanked me, in a society of which we were then both associates, for having achieved what I had in bringing these principles to the knowledge of the poorer classes of the people. With taxation on every hand extending, with the cost of living increasing, and with wages declining—and, as to the last element, I am reminded that recently I was called upon to arbitrate in a wages' dispute in the north of England for a number of poor men, and, having minutely scrutinised every side of the situation, was compelled to reduce their wages by 15 per cent., there having been already a reduction of 35 per cent, in the short space of some twenty months previously—I say, with wages declining, with the necessaries of life growing dearer and still dearer, and with the burden of rent and taxation ever increasing— if, in the presence of such a condition of life among the vast industrial and impoverished masses of this land, I am not to be allowed to tell them how best to prevent or to ameliorate the wretchedness of their lot—if, with all this, I may not speak to them of the true remedy, but the law is to step in and say to me, 'Your mouth is closed'; then, I ask you, what remedy is there remaining by which I am to deal with this awful misery?"

The worthy magistrate duly committed us for trial, accepting our own recognizances in £200 each to appear at the Central Criminal Court on May 7th. To the Central Criminal Court, however, we had not the smallest intention of going, if we could possibly avoid it, so Mr. Bradlaugh immediately took steps to obtain a writ of certiorari to remove the indictment to the Court of Queen's Bench. On April 27th Mr. Bradlaugh moved for the writ before Lord Chief Justice Cockburn and Mr. Justice Mellor, and soon after he began his argument the judge stopped him, saying that he would grant the writ if, "upon, looking at it we think its object is the legitimate one of promoting knowledge on a matter of human interest, then, lest there should be any miscarriage resulting from any undue prejudice, we might think it is a case for trial by a judge and a special jury. I do not say it is so, mark, but only put it so, that if, on the other hand, science and philosophy are merely made the pretence of publishing a book which is calculated to arouse the passions of those who peruse it, then it follows that we must not allow the pretence to prevail, and treat the case otherwise than as one which may come before anybody to try. If we really think it is a fair question as to whether it is a scientific work or not, and its object is a just one, then we should be disposed to accede to your application, and allow it to be tried by a judge and special jury, and for that purpose allow the proceedings to be removed into this court. But, before we decide that, we must look into the book and form our own judgment as to the real object of the work."

Two copies of the book were at once handed up to the Bench, and on April 30th the Court granted the writ, the Lord Chief Justice saying: "We have looked at the book which is the subject-matter of the indictment, and we think it really raises a fair question as to whether it is a scientific production for legitimate purposes, or whether it is what the indictment alleged it to be, an obscene publication." Further, the Court accepted Mr. Bradlaugh's recognisances for £400 for the costs of the prosecution.

Some, who have never read the Knowlton pamphlet, glibly denounce it as a filthy and obscene publication. The Lord Chief Justice of England and Mr. Justice Mellor, after reading it, decided to grant a writ which they had determined not to grant if the book had merely a veneer of science and was "calculated to arouse the passions". Christian bigotry has ever since 1877 striven to confound our action with the action of men who sell filth for gain, but only the shameless can persist in so doing when their falsehoods are plainly exposed, as they are exposed here.

The most touching letters from the poor came to us from all parts of the kingdom. One woman, who described herself as "very poor", and who had had thirteen children and was expecting another, wrote saying, "if you want money we will manage to send you my husband's pay one week". An army officer wrote thanking us, saying he had "a wife, seven children, and three servants to keep on 11s. 8d. a day; 5d. per head per diem keeps life in us. The rest for education and raiment." A physician wrote of his hospital experience, saying that it taught him that "less dangerous preventive checks to large families [than over-lactation] should be taught to the lower classes". Many clergymen wrote of their experience among the poor, and their joy that some attempt was being made to teach them how to avoid over-large families, and letter after letter came to me from poor curates' wives, thanking me for daring to publish information of such vital importance. In many places the poor people taxed themselves so much a week for the cost of the defence, because they could not afford any large sum at once.

As soon as we were committed for trial, we resigned our posts on the Executive of the National Secular Society, feeling that we had no right to entangle the Society in a fight which it had not authorised us to carry on. We stated that we did not desire to relinquish our positions, "but we do desire that the members of the Executive shall feel free to act as they think wisest for the interest of Freethought". The letter was sent to the branches of the Society, and of the thirty-three who answered all, except Burnley and Nottingham, refused to accept our resignation. On the Executive a very clever attempt was made to place us in a difficult position by stating that the resignations were not accepted, but that, as we had resigned, and as the Council had no power to renew appointments made by the Conference, it could not invite us to resume our offices. This ingenious proposal was made by Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, who all through the trial did his best to injure us, apparently because he had himself sold the book long before we had done so, and was anxious to shield himself from condemnation by attacking us. His resolution was carried by five votes to two. Mr. Haines and Mr. Ramsey, detecting its maliciousness, voted against it. The votes of the Branches, of course, decided the question overwhelmingly in our favor, but we declined to sit on the Executive with such a resolution standing, and it was then carried—Mr. Holyoake and Mr. Watts only voting against—that "This Council acknowledge the consideration shown by Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant for the public repute of the National Secular Society by tendering their resignations, and whilst disclaiming all responsibility for the book, 'Fruits of Philosophy', decline to accept such resignations". So thoroughly did we agree that the Society ought not to be held responsible for our action, that we published the statement: "The Freethought party is no more the endorser of our Malthusianism than it is of our Republicanism, or of our advocacy of Woman Suffrage, or of our support of the North in America, or of the part we take in French politics". I may add that at the Nottingham Conference Mr. Bradlaugh was re-elected President with only four dissentients, the party being practically unanimous in its determination to uphold a Free Press.

The next stage of the prosecution was the seizure of our book packets and letters in the Post-office by the Tory Government. The "Freethinker's Text Book", the National Reformer, and various pamphlets were seized, as well as the "Fruits of Philosophy", and sealed letters were opened. Many meetings were held denouncing the revival of a system of Government espionage which, it was supposed, had died out in England, and so great was the commotion raised that a stop was soon put to this form of Government theft, and we recovered the stolen property. On May 15th Mr. Edward Truelove was attacked for the publication of Robert Dale Owen's "Moral Physiology", and of a pamphlet entitled "Individual, Family, and National Poverty", and as both were pamphlets dealing with the Population Question, Mr. Truelove's case was included in the general defence.

Among the witnesses we desired to subpoena was Charles Darwin, as we needed to use passages from his works; he wrote back a most interesting letter, telling us that he disagreed with preventive checks to population on the ground that over-multiplication was useful, since it caused a struggle for existence in which only the strongest and the ablest survived, and that he doubted whether it was possible for preventive checks to serve as well as positive. He asked us to avoid calling him if we could: "I have been for many years much out of health, and have been forced to give up all society or public meetings, and it would be great suffering to me to be a witness in court.... If it is not asking too great a favor, I should be greatly obliged if you would inform me what you decide, as apprehension of the coming exertion would prevent the rest which I require doing me much good." Needless to add that I at once wrote to Mr. Darwin that we would not call him, but his gentle courtesy has always remained a pleasant memory to me. Another kind act was that of the famous publisher, Mr. H.G. Bohn, who volunteered himself as a witness, and drew attention to the fact that every publisher of serious literature was imperilled by the attempt to establish a police censorship.

The trial commenced on June 18th, in the Court of Queen's Bench at Westminster, before the Lord Chief Justice of England and a special jury. Sir Hardinge Giffard, the Solicitor-General of the Tory Government, Mr. Douglas Straight, and Mr. Mead, were the prosecuting counsel. The special jury consisted of the following: Alfred Upward, Augustus Voelcker, Captain Alfred Henry Waldy, Thomas Richard Walker, Robert Wallace, Edmund Waller, Arthur Walter, Charles Alfred Walter, John Ward, Arthur Warre; the two talesmen, who were afterwards added to make up the number, were George Skinner and Charles Wilson.

The Solicitor-General made a bitter and violent speech, full of party hate and malice, endeavoring to prejudice the jury against the work by picking out bits of medical detail and making profuse apologies for reading them, and shuddering and casting up his eyes with all the skill of a finished actor. For a man accustomed to Old Bailey practice he was really marvellously easily shocked; a simple physiological fact brought him to the verge of tears, while the statement that people often had too large families covered him with such modest confusion that he found it hard to continue his address. It fell to my lot to open the defence, and to put the general line of argument by which we justified the publication; Mr. Bradlaugh dealt with the defence of the book as a medical work—until the Lord Chief Justice suggested that there was no "redundancy of details, or anything more than it is necessary for a medical man to know"—and strongly urged that the knowledge given by the pamphlet was absolutely necessary for the poor. We called as witnesses for the defence Miss Alice Vickery—the first lady who passed the examination of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, and who has since passed the examinations qualifying her to act as a physician—Dr. Charles Drysdale, and Mr. H.G. Bohn. Dr. Drysdale bore witness to the medical value of the pamphlet, stating that "considering it was written forty years ago ... the writer must have been a profound student of physiology, and far advanced in the medical science of his time". "I have always considered it an excellent treatise, and I have found among my professional brethren that they have had nothing to say against it." Mr. Bohn bore witness that he had published books which "entirely covered your book, and gave a great deal more." Mr. Bradlaugh and myself then severally summed up our case, and the Solicitor-General made a speech for the prosecution very much of the character of his first one, doing all he could to inflame the minds of the jury against us. The Lord Chief Justice, to quote a morning paper, "summed up strongly for an acquittal". He said that "a more ill-advised and more injudicious proceeding in the way of a prosecution was probably never brought into a Court of Justice". He described us as "two enthusiasts, who have been actuated by the desire to do good in a particular department of Society". He bade the jury be careful "not to abridge the full and free right of public discussion, and the expression of public and private opinion on matters which are interesting to all, and materially affect the welfare of society." Then came an admirable statement of the law of population, and of his own view of the scope of the book which I present in full as our best justification.

"The author, Doctor Knowlton, professes to deal with the subject of population. Now, a century ago a great and important question of political economy was brought to the attention of the scientific and thinking world by a man whose name everybody is acquainted with, namely, Malthus. He started for the first time a theory which astonished the world, though it is now accepted as an irrefragable truth, and has since been adopted by economist after economist. It is that population has a strong and marked tendency to increase faster than the means of subsistence afforded by the earth, or that the skill and industry of man can produce for the support of life. The consequence is that the population of a country necessarily includes a vast number of persons upon whom poverty presses with a heavy and sad hand. It is true that the effects of over-population are checked to a certain extent by those powerful agencies which have been at work since the beginning of the world. Great pestilences, famines, and wars have constantly swept away thousands from the face of the earth, who otherwise must have contributed to swell the numbers of mankind. The effect, however, of this tendency to increase faster than the means of subsistence, leads to still more serious evils amongst the poorer classes of society. It necessarily lowers the price of labor by reason of the supply exceeding the demand. It increases the dearth of provisions by making the demand greater than the supply, and produces direful consequences to a large class of persons who labor under the evils, physical and moral, of poverty. You find it, as described by a witness called yesterday, in the overcrowding of our cities and country villages, and the necessarily demoralising effects resulting from that over-crowding. You have heard of the way in which women—I mean child-bearing women—are destroyed by being obliged to submit to the necessities of their position before they are fully restored from the effects of child-birth, and the effects thus produced upon the children by disease and early death. That these are evils—evils which, if they could be prevented, it would be the first business of human charity to prevent—there cannot be any doubt. That the evils of over-population are real, and not imaginary, no one acquainted with the state of society in the present day can possibly deny. Malthus suggested, years ago, and his suggestion has been supported by economists since his time, that the only possible way of keeping down population was by retarding marriage to as late a period as possible, the argument being that the fewer the marriages the fewer would be the people. But another class of theorists say that that remedy is bad, and possibly worse than the disease, because, although you might delay marriage, you cannot restrain those instincts which are implanted in human nature, and people will have the gratification and satisfaction of passions powerfully implanted, if not in one way, in some other way. So you have the evils of prostitution substituted for the evils of over-population. Now, what says Dr. Knowlton? There being this choice of evils—there being this unquestioned evil of over-population which exists in a great part of the civilised world—is the remedy proposed by Malthus so doubtful that probably it would lead to greater evils than the one which it is intended to remedy? Dr. Knowlton suggests—and here we come to the critical point of this inquiry—he suggests that, instead of marriage being postponed, it shall be hastened. He suggests that marriage shall take place in the hey-day of life, when the passions are at their highest, and that the evils of over-population shall be remedied by persons, after they have married, having recourse to artificial means to prevent the procreation of a numerous offspring, and the consequent evils, especially to the poorer classes, which the production of a too numerous offspring is certain to bring about. Now, gentlemen, that is the scope of the book. With a view to make those to whom these remedies are suggested understand, appreciate, and be capable of applying them, he enters into details as to the physiological circumstances connected with the procreation of the species. The Solicitor-General says—and that was the first proposition with which he started—that the whole of this is a delusion and a sham. When Knowlton says that he wishes that marriage should take place as early as possible—marriage being the most sacred and holy of all human relations—he means nothing of the kind, but means and suggests, in the sacred name of marriage, illicit intercourse between the sexes, or a kind of prostitution. Now, gentlemen, whatever may be your opinion about the propositions contained in this work, when you come to weigh carefully the views of this undoubted physician and would-be philosopher, I think you will agree with me that to say that he meant to depreciate marriage for the sake of prostitution, and that all he says about marriage is only a disguise, and intended to impress upon the mind sentiments of an entirely different character for the gratification of passion, otherwise than by marriage, is a most unjust accusation. (Applause in court.) I must say that I believe that every word he says about marriage being a desirable institution, and every word he says with reference to the enjoyments and happiness it engenders, is said as honestly and truly as anything probably ever uttered by any man. I can only believe that when the Solicitor-General made that statement he had not half studied the book. But I pass that by. I come to the plain issue before you. Knowlton goes into physiological details connected with the functions of the generation and procreation of children. The principles of this pamphlet, with its details, are to be found in greater abundance and distinctness in numerous works to which your attention has been directed, and, having these details before you, you must judge for yourselves whether there is anything in them which is calculated to excite the passions of man and debase the public morals. If so, every medical work is open to the same imputation."

The Lord Chief Justice then dealt with the question whether conjugal prudence was in itself immoral, and pointed out to the jury that the decision of this very serious question was in their hands:

"A man and woman may say, 'We have more children than we can supply with the common necessaries of life: what are we to do? Let us have recourse to this contrivance.' Then, gentlemen, you should consider whether that particular course of proceeding is inconsistent with morality, whether it would have a tendency to degrade and deprave the man or woman. The Solicitor-General, while doubtless admitting the evils and mischiefs of excessive population, argues that the checks proposed are demoralising in their effects, and that it is better to bear the ills we have than have recourse to remedies having such demoralising results. These are questions for you, twelve thinking men, probably husbands and fathers of families, to consider and determine. That the defendants honestly believe that the evils that this work would remedy, arising from over-population and poverty, are so great that these checks may be resorted to as a remedy for the evils, and as bettering the condition of humanity, although there might be things to be avoided, if it were possible to avoid them, and yet remedy the evils which they are to prevent—that such is the honest opinion of the defendants, we, who have read the book, and who have heard what they have said, must do them the justice of believing. I agree with the Solicitor-General if, with a view to what is admitted to be a great good, they propose something to the world, and circulate it especially among the poorer classes, if they propose something inconsistent with public morals, and tending to destroy the domestic purity of women, that it is not because they do not see the evils of the latter, while they see the evils of the former, that they must escape; if so, they must abide the consequences of their actions, whatever may have been their motive. They say, 'We are entitled to submit to the consideration of the thinking portion of mankind the remedies which we propose for these evils. We have come forward to challenge the inquiry whether this is a book which we are entitled to publish.' They do it fairly, I must say, and in a very straightforward manner they come to demand the judgment of the proper tribunal. You must decide that with a due regard and reference to the law, and with an honest and determined desire to maintain the morals of mankind. But, on the other hand, you must carefully consider what is due to public discussion, and with an anxious desire not, from any prejudiced view of this subject, to stifle what may be a subject of legitimate inquiry. But there is another view of this subject, that Knowlton intended to reconcile with marriage the prevention of over-population. Upon the perusal of this work, I cannot bring myself to doubt that he honestly believed that the remedies he proposed were less evils than even celibacy or over-population on the one hand, or the prevention of marriage on the other hand—in that honesty of intention I entirely concur. But whether, in his desire to reconcile marriage with a check on over-population, he did not overlook one very important consideration connected with that part of society which should abuse it, is another and a very serious consideration."

When the jury retired there was but one opinion in court, namely, that we had won our case. But they were absent for an hour and thirty-five minutes, and we learned afterwards that several were anxious to convict, not so much because of the book as because we were Freethinkers. At last they agreed to a compromise, and the verdict delivered was: "We are unanimously of opinion that the book in question is calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time we entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it."

The Lord Chief Justice looked troubled, and said gravely that he would have to direct them to return a verdict of guilty on such a finding. The foreman, who was bitterly hostile, jumped at the chance without consulting his colleagues, some of whom had turned to leave the box, and thus snatched a technical verdict of "guilty" against us. Mr. George Skinner, of 27, Great Chapel Gate, Westminster, wrote to me on the following day to say that six of the jurymen did not consent to the verdict of "guilty", and that they had agreed that if the judge would not accept the verdict as handed in they would then retire again, and that they would never have given a verdict of guilty; but the stupid men had not the sense to speak out at the right time, and their foreman had his way. The Lord Chief Justice at once set us free to come up for judgment on that day week, June 28th—the trial had lasted till the 21st—and we went away on the same recognizances given before by Mr. Bradlaugh, an absolutely unprecedented courtesy to two technically "convicted prisoners".[1]


  1. A Report of the Trial can be obtained from the Freethought Publishing Company, price 5s. It contains an exact report of all that was said and done.