My Website

Monday, 16 January 2023

Paradoxes and contradictions among early twentieth-century birth control activists

 I was extremely gratified last week to see the updated Edinburgh University Press webpage for the forthcoming volume of essays, Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time, edited by James Purdon, which has this absolutely gorgeous cover:

My essay is 'Send in the Clones?: Naomi Mitchison and the Politics of Reproduction and Motherhood'.

In this there was so much to address about Mitchison's own involvement with ideas on these subjects over her long life, in her activism, non-fiction writing, and in both realist and science fiction, that I did not have space to address her position as one of several leading figures in the interwar birth control movement who found themselves in a somewhat parodoxical and rather contradictory position.

When women in the 1920s began speaking out about the necessity for birth control and setting up clinics, this was taken in itself as a sign of immorality. The worthy founders of the Manchester, Salford and District Mothers' Clinic, were not only decried from the local Catholic pulpit as 'attempting to introduce unnatural vices' but 'the kind of idle women who visit matinees and sit with cigarettes between their painted lips'*: a very misleading characterisation of Mary Stocks and Charis Frankenberg (discussed in Mo Moulton's The Mutual Admiration Society (2019)), who probably saw themselves as rather dowdy social workers.

In order to avoid the associations with immorality and accusations of promoting vice and promiscuity, the birth control movement leaned, with reason, on the figure of the overburdened multiparous married women and the gains for maternal, and also infant, welfare, to be accrued through fewer, better-spaced, pregnancies. The Workers' Birth Control Group, set up by women in the Labour Party in 1924 to lobby for advice as part of publicly funded welfare services, presented itself as representing working mothers, and therefore, 'control of its policy was to be in the hands of men and women who had known the responsibility of parenthood' (apart from Dorothy Jewson, MP, as there were no married Labour women MPs at the time).** This occluded the contributions to their activities of the very unmarried and childless Stella Browne.

The public image of the birth control movement, therefore, was heavily invested in rhetorics of conventional marriage and parenthood, even if there was also a commitment to new egalitarian models of these relationships.

However, a significant number of the leading figures in the movement, including Mitchison, saw birth control and women's reproductive agency as part of a wider vision of transformed relationships, not merely on the theoretical level, but in practice. Mitchison, like Helena Wright, Margery Spring-Rice, Margaret Pyke, Dora Russell and Joan Malleson, herself lived a life of unconventional relationships and evolving new moralities (these did not always work out well, as the disastrous end of the marriage of Dora and Bertrand Russell demonstrated). Mitchison also revealed, in an oral history interview late in life, that although the birth control movement was careful to dissociate itself from abortion, nonetheless at the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, where she had been a volunteer, they all knew people who would perform abortions and helped out women in desperate trouble.***

So there was a careful negotiation going on over public-facing presentation and those more private beliefs and behaviour, which might possibly have been expressed in certain sympathetic niche venues.

There was also rather careful negotiation going on with the Eugenics Society. On the whole, the birth control movement was much more interested in improving the lot of actual women in the present and their immediate offspring, than improving the quality of generations yet to come. Some activists had more, and some a good deal less, sympathy with the concept of eugenics, and work on individual clinics has indicated that this varied a lot from clinic to clinic, but that eugenic considerations very seldom had any bearing on actual practice.

[Later thought added] Women birth control activists might also have felt somewhat leery of a body which saw them (and educated white middle-class women generally) as a eugenically desirable demographic whose primary duty ought to be breeding for The Nation. Marie Stopes herself had no truck with that line and voiced forceful objections in Radiant Motherhood. Mitchison, it must be said, was very unusual in this cohort with her seven children: but also (this is discussed in my essay forthcoming in the book!) expressed strong political cavils to C. P. Blacker of the Eugenics Society on the basis of her left-wing convictions.

However, the Eugenics Society had money, and the birth control movement, like most organisations primarily founded and run by women, did not. It lacked the resources of society charity available to the much more respectable National Birthday Trust Fund aimed at improving conditions of childbirth. Because birth control was still regarded rather dubiously even after 1930 when the Ministry of Health had conceded that advice might be given in local authority maternal welfare clinics, and the Lambeth Conference had conceded that it might have a licit place in Christian marriage, a lot of possibilities for fund-raising were not accessible. Mitchison, in her novel We Have Been Warned (1934), has the clinic in 'Sallington' scraping by on the proceeds of jumble sales and amateur dramatic performances. 

A wealthy organisation prepared to put up the money for among other things, research into improvements in contraception was a great temptation. Especially when another tempter was the commercial sector - Jess Borge in Protective Practices has shown how the London Rubber Company was extremely eager to make use of the National Birth Control Association/Family Planning Association for its own ends (the archives indicate that they were far from unique in this respect). Given the very longstanding stigmatisation of birth control propagandists as shills for the rubbergoods and abortifacient industry, the movement had to be extremely cautious about any commercial tie-in.

So, really, the birth control movement between the wars, and indeed, well into the 1960s, was engaged in a very delicate balancing act among paradoxical positions and living with contradictions.

*Mary Stocks, My Commonplace Book (1970), p 161, cited in Audrey Leathard, The Fight for Family Planning (1980), p. 32.

**Workers Birth Control Group files in the Dora Russell papers at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, nos 402 and 403.

***Transcript of interview with Naomi Mitchison by Barbara Evans, 1982, for biography of Dr Helena Wright: Papers of Philip Rainsford Evans and Barbara Evans in the Wellcome Library, PP/PRE/J.1/24

 

Saturday, 12 November 2022

White gloves are not a sign of good archival/library handling practice

Yesterday I engaged on a certain social media site which shall be nameless with somebody expressing horror at another person posting photos of an event he had been to involving manuscripts and, o horrors, they were handling them without white gloves. Which is absolutely right and proper, and considered the best practice across a broad swathe of libraries, archives, and manuscript collections.

Indeed, as this person went so far as to adduce the British Library as a place where one was obliged to glove up, I posted the BL's own guidelines on the subject:

Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

During my own years working in research libraries as an archivist, and doing research in a range of institutions holding research materials in three continents, I can recall only one in which I was presented with a pair of - grubby, ill-fitting - white cotton gloves. While I was very grateful to have access to the correspondence between a significant cultural figure of the early twentieth century and their common-law spouse, held at a certain US educational establishment I shall not name, I had considerable qualms about the general conditions of its preservation.

I was handed a large flat box, which did not appear to be of acid-free material, containing shifting about it, loose, correspondence still in envelopes, unsorted, unfiled: rather than - as one might have hoped, removed from envelopes, flattened, attached to containing envelopes with non-corrosive clips, filed in chronological order in acid free files... It is also very difficult to extract letters in this condition while wearing manky cotton gloves. I am not saying that the situation was in the wider view fortunate, but the invigilation was sufficiently lax that I was able to take off the gloves without adverse notice, and thus removed the letters without damaging them.

The media, however, loves white gloves when showing people handling archives, manuscripts and rare volumes. I fear that this is a form of 'virtue-signalling', given some of my experiences involving media people and these precious materials (okay, the production company that wanted us to send some of a  archive over to their studio for them to film - without the kinds of pre-arrangement for insurance, supervision conditions, etc that might render such a request acceptable - was making a particularly unusual demand). White gloves demonstrate that they care: even if clean hands would be better.

There are some specific instances, as the BL guidelines indicate, when gloves are appropriate. The gloves, however, should be for preference nitrile, not cotton.

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Too short-sighted to breed from (not actually Julian Huxley)

I have been very struck, in reading the reviews of Alison Bashford's new and highly praised study of the Huxleys, that they all mention that Julian Huxley was solicited to become the father of another man's child by artificial insemination. At which I went, 'hang on, wasn't it Huxley who said he had reservations about that because of his degree of myopia?'

I've now managed to dig up the reference and it wasn't Huxley, and it wasn't in response to an actual solicitation to donate eugenically desirable sperm, it was a hypothetical response in the course of a discussion in the mid-1940s debates on the topic, by another distinguished member of the Eugenics Society:

I do not regard myself as a proper person to act as a donor because I have five degrees of myopia in both eyes as well as certain other minor disabilities. (SA/EUG/D/6 'Artificial Insemination')

(Although I think the individual in the question did have offspring of his marriage...)

People are regularly horrified by Marie Stopes dissing on her prospective daughter-in-law, a university graduate and the daughter of a distinguished scientist, on the grounds that she wore spectacles and would give Stopes grandchildren who also wore this disfiguring assistive technology. It is fairly obvious that Marie would have found some objection to whoever her son brought home with a view to marriage, given her particularly egregious manifestation of Mother-in-Law syndrome. But she was by no means unique in this stigmatisation of (by this time) fairly common visual defects requiring the habitual use of spectacles.

In a symposium on birth control held by the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, published in the Medical Critic and Guide in 1922, the Communist doctor Eden Paul expressed very adverse views on

the survival of persons with grave eye defects, short-sight, astigmatism, etc., who would, but for spectacles and the absence of a fierce struggle for existence on the biologic plane, be eliminated before they could perpetuate their defective type.

I am not sure this belief - as opposed to the general perception of spectacles as disfiguring (Dorothy Parker on 'Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses') and characters in movies removing them to be revealed as sexy stunners - has yet been thoroughly explored.

(This theme was brought to my mind by a query about familial myopia issues during an eye-test this morning.)

 


Tuesday, 20 September 2022

The Marie Lloyd mishmash of myths

I can't help it: I am massively irked when people go on reiterating some factoid that I have done the research on and know is misleading if not completely false. I am but one small pedantic voice, alas, and the false popular story is almost always a good deal simpler and more memorable than what happened, if anything actually happened at all.

There may well be even more myths about that famous music hall artiste Marie Lloyd that I haven't come across - I've encountered these in the context of censorship - or that have merely slipped my mind, but there are a couple that are extremely persistent and often circulated, that cannot be proved to have any solid basis. In at least one case the story is a dramatic exaggeration of the rather dull bureaucratic actuality, followed by the caution of music hall managements over what was permitted on stage.

Some responsibility undoubtedly lies with early biographers: Naomi Jacob, in Our Marie (Marie Lloyd): A Biography (1936) writes as one who did have a substantial personal knowledge of music-hall of the period, but was inclined to rely on anecdote without bothering to do any checking, while the narrative rambles chronologically in a somewhat frustrating fashion. This is, I suspect, where this particular tale originated:

Years ago, the Watch Committee, or the Morality Committee, or the Committee for Public Safety, or some such collection of prurient-minded old gentlemen, made a fuss about her songs.... She was ordered to appear... and allow this committee of old men to decide if those songs were fit for the ears of London and the provinces. (p.137.)

This begs a lot of questions. What authority would such a committee have to 'order' Our Marie to appear, and to, as Jacob proceeds to recount, perform several of her well-known songs for over an hour very pointedly in the blandest and most innocuous style, following up with a salacious rendition of popular Victorian parlour ballads? (The potential for invoking a lewd subtext in such works as 'Come into the garden, Maud', had been commented on at least as early as 1890 by a Mr GS Elliott in a speech condemning censorious attitudes to music-hall songs: 'Music Hall Gossip', The Era, 15 Feb 1890.)

The real-life event in question was the objection by the Social Purity Branch of the British Women's Temperance Association, represented by Mrs Carina Reed (not a prurient-minded old gentleman but a social purity activist), to the renewal of the license of the Oxford Music Hall, in the autumn of 1896. This was amply documented in the contemporary press, and surely if Miss Lloyd had been personally summoned before the London County Council licensing committee it would have been all over the papers. Lloyd's saucy song 'What's That For, Eh?' aka 'I've Asked Johnny Jones' was only one of the grounds upon which objections were being raised, which included alleged prostitution on the promenades and drinking in the auditorium. Lloyd was not present, but, and this is possibly sufficiently amusingly incongruous that one wishes history had been more attentive to the actual facts, the entire song, verses and chorus,  was read out by one Mr Baillache, on behalf of the Social Purity Branch of the Women's Temperance Association. He quoted these 'at length, so that the committee might better appreciate their purport', i.e. detached from any innuendo or 'business' that Lloyd might have brought in performance: indeed it is hard to envisage an innocuous reading of the song.* (Illustrated Police News, 24 Oct 1896, p. 6.)

The committee granted the licence, but conceded that 'greater care ought to be exercised in the selection of songs'. Music halls complied. As a result Marie Lloyd asked her songwriters for a new number: 'You Can't Stop A Girl From Thinking' (R. A. Baker, Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Halls, 1990, p. 69):



It is sometimes claimed that the song under contention in this case - or a song of Lloyd's that was objected to on some other occasion - had a line 'She sits among the cabbages [in some versions, lettuces] and peas' - or, as Jacob puts it, 'a song concerning the young lady who spent her quiet hours contemplating the vegetables in her garden'. On objection being raised - one version has Sir Henry Tozer (chairman of several music hall companies) storming into her dressing-room to complain - she inserted 'the name of another vegetable' (allegedly 'leeks') which 'didn't make the song any better from Sir Henry's point of view!' This seems particularly improbable when on the very same page Jacob mentions Lloyd's protesting another artiste's song as 'rude... It's a --lavatory song, that's what it is'. (p. 196)

Endeavouring to trace any song with these actual words, whether or not being performed by Marie Lloyd has proved somewhat difficult. It is widely quoted, yet Daniel Farson in Marie Lloyd and Music Hall (1972) reports Lloyd's sister Annie denying that she ever sang such a song and that Macqueen Pope (the theatre historian) agreed that although she was reputed to have sung a song about a market garden 'nobody has yet been found who heard her do so'. Farson says that on his advertising for reminiscences and memories of Lloyd in 1964 an elderly lady claimed that she had gone with her then fiance, before the First World War, to the Oxford Music Hall, and had seen Lloyd who sang this shortly after she had been 'taken to task by the censor... for a song in which she had gone into the garden and "pea'd".' (p. 68-9.) Farson saw 'no reason for disbelieving her' but it does not seem conclusive.

There was a song of this or similar title but it seems associated with US vaudeville: 'Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas' appears under 'Parodies on Popular Songs' in an advertisement, ? early 1900s, for The Vaudeville Prompter #4 in Plays of the 19th and 20th Centuries Vol 27: this is unfortunately a very obscure publication of which copies have not yet been traced. Further mentions of the song have been found in reports such as 'Charley Stephens sang his favourite solo entitled "She sits among the cabbages and peas"', at a party held by the Onion Club, reported by The Silver Standard, Silver Plume, Colorado, 21 May 1904. Naomi Jacob referred (in scathing terms) to the 'American invasion, when every second-rate artiste in the United States was dumping inferior rubbish in the music-halls of England' (p.138), so it is possible that if it was featuring on the British music-hall stage it was from that direction. Possibly there were objections made as in the story, and these got attached to the much better-known Marie Lloyd (a syndrome one sees with 'inspirational' quotations attributed to noted wordmongers who would die of embarrassment if they knew).

But what these stories do, even though inaccurate in their details, is celebrate Lloyd's defiant spirit - although she complies with the censors, it's very much a malicious compliance obeying the strict ruling while undermining it. It is the spirit that, when she was humiliatingly not included in the Royal Command Performance in 1912** (to general shock and scandal), had special strips pasted across the posters where she was performing declaring 'Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance. By Order of the British Public' (Farson, p. 96).

* Derek B Scott refers to 'the gestures, winks, and knowing smiles that she employed to lend suggestiveness to apparently innocent music hall songs, like “What’s That For, Eh?”' but the suggestiveness seems transparent in the words ('Music Hall: Regulations and Behaviour in a British Cultural Institution', Muzikologija 2019(26)).

** Baker suggests that her omission - at a time when she was one of the most popular artistes of the day - was at least partly to do with her vigorous support for the 1907 Music Hall Strike (p.120).

Friday, 26 August 2022

Surely some misapprehension? British women's rights to bank accounts

I was given a considerable jolt when reading this afternoon online that in the UK women were not allowed to open bank accounts until 1975. Since I had been encouraged in the habit of thrift from an early age to save my pennies in a Trustee Savings Bank account, and had transferred the sum thus accumulated to a chequing account with what was then the National Provincial when I went to university in the mid-1960s (I am really not sure how it is supposed women received grants, salaries, etc without a bank account by the 1960s!) I was quite astonished to be informed that I had not been permitted this, which I clearly remembered having.

In fact readers of Mrs Gaskell's charming novel Cranford (1853) will recall that the failure of the bank into which Miss Jenkyns had put the sisters' money forms an important element in such plot as the work has. Indeed the problem of joint-stock banks, and a caution against them, appears in a work published very shortly afterwards by 'A Banker's Daughter' (Emma Sophia Galton), Guide to the Unprotected in Every-day Matters Relating to Property and Income (1864):

A lady should not on any account take any Shares whatever in a Joint-Stock Bank, Mine, Partnership, or any other joint trading concern, unless it be established under the new “Limited Liability” Act, as otherwise she is liable to lose her last penny if the Bank or speculation should fail. Even if “limited,” they should not be invested in without the greatest possible caution, nor until after very careful inquiries have been satisfactorily answered.

The NatWest summary of 'Women in Banking' suggests that there were female customers of banks from their early days in the late seventeenth century while some women, members of banking families, actually became partners in the business.

That might be taken as, oh well, single women and widows, but it was different if women were married femmes couvertes who had no rights to their own money. That was certainly so up to the late nineteenth century, but the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 Clause 6 specifically states:

All deposits in any post office or other savings bank, or in any other bank, all annuities granted by the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt or by any other person, and all sums forming part of the public stocks or funds, or of any other stocks or funds transferable in the books of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, or of any other bank, which at the commencement of this Act are standing in the sole name of a married woman, and all shares, stock, debentures, debenture stock, or other interests of or in any corporation, company, or public body, municipal, commercial, or otherwise, or of or in any industrial, provident, friendly, benefit, building, or loan society, which at the commencement of this Act are standing in her name, shall be deemed, unless and until the contrary be shown, to be the separate property of such married woman; and the fact that any such deposit, annuity, sum forming part of the public stocks or funds, or of any other stocks or funds transferable in the books of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England or of any other bank, share, stock, debenture, debenture stock, or other interest as aforesaid, is standing in the sole name of a married woman, shall be sufficient prima facie evidence that she is beneficially entitled thereto for her separate use, so as to authorise and empower her to receive or transfer the same, and to receive the dividends, interest, and profits thereof, without the concurrence of her husband, and to indemnify the Postmaster General, the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt, the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, the Governor and Company of the Bank of Ireland, and all directors, managers, and trustees of every such bank, corporation, company, public body, or society as aforesaid, in respect thereof. 

It is not beyond possibility (alas) that banks - or individual bank managers - may have instituted policies requiring women to get husbands to countersign when they opened accounts or tried to raise loans: but nonetheless women, single or married, in the UK - unlike, it would appear, their sisters in the USA or certain European nations up to the mid-twentieth century - were legally able to open bank accounts and have sole access to them.

 

 


Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Collector's item - very rare, something for the private cupboard, sir?

Currently in the process of looking through some boxes of my own archives, going back some considerable while, and coming across various ephemera and memorabilia that colleagues and friends passed on to me as possibly falling within my sphere of interest. One of which was the photocopy of a page from a catalogue of a sale at Christie's in the summer of 1992, 'The Property of Maxwell Business Communications Ltd' - this included various items of medical/pharmaceutical historical interest, so I can see why my colleague had it.

One item was A rare male contraceptive device, of animal membrane, with printed satirical scene, inscription 'Voila mon choix', and thread and silk tie, French, early 19th century - 7in long. (The satirical scene consists of a nun, two monks, and a bishop, all flashing one another.)


The Times Diary, 10 June 1992, reported that 'the dubious honour of auctioning the world's most collectible condom falls to Christie's next month.... expected to to fetch up to £800'. In fact, it finally went for £3300, to an art dealer purchasing on behalf of a Swedish client who was said to be opening an erotica and pornography museum (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 3 July 1992). This possibly remains the record amount paid for a historical condom.

Digging about to find out any more details on this, I discovered that Christie's did a certain amount of business in antique johnnies: in November the same years the Associated Press reported 'Five 19th century condoms have been sold for more than $12,000 in an auction at Christies' (one said to have been illustrated). A 19th-century French reusable condom, 8 1/2 in long, made from animal membrane with a yellow silk pull-string and maker's envelope inscribed 'moisten before using', was auctioned in 1993 and  two 19th-century condoms with blue silk drawstrings in 1995. Three C18th sheepgut condoms were sold in 2000; and one in 2001, illustrated with a sketch of a sexual encounter.

As historical items, the thought arises that these items must have very considerable conservation and storage requirements.

The other thought that arises is, did illustrating a condom affect its efficacy? What were the health and safety implications in use of the substances used to create the image? Or was an illustrated condom merely a novelty item not intended for actual use?

Saturday, 11 June 2022

Somehow, this keeps getting discussed, and then forgotten again, seems to me

[T]he basis of female sexual pleasure has remained a relatively neglected topic, probably because not having an orgasm does not affect female fertility, according to Prof Mihaela Pavličev, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Vienna. “The whole topic has been a bit weirdly discussed,” she said. “For a long time it wasn’t interesting to the medical community. All the focus has been on men with ejaculation problems["]

And goes on to invoke Freud! in 2022!

Maybe I'm remembering a different history to everybody else and am on a different timeline? But quite apart from all the discussions in the 1970s around female sexuality and female pleasure, and the work of Shere Hite, there's a much longer history of talking about female pleasure and how assumptions based on a simple penetrative act pleasurable for the male partner weren't necessarily useful?

Admittedly, the early advice writers such as Marie Stopes, Theodoor van der Velde, Helena Wright and other pioneers had to frame their recommendations within monogamous marriage and usually the assumption that the husband would be the one to initiate, arouse and satisfy his wife, but at least they gave instructions.

Alfred Kinsey's work resulting in the published study Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953) led him to the conclusion that clitoral stimulation, and not penetration, was the desideratum for female sexual gratification.

Anyway. Whether or not the 'medical community' has been interested in the topic - van der Velde was a physician, the women doctors such as Helena Wright and Joan Malleson who were involved with the Family Planning Association were very interested, so what medical community are we talking about? - there is a substantial literature going back over a century discussing What Women Want and suggesting ways of providing it to them.

 


Tuesday, 31 May 2022

What is the 'correct' number of archives to visit?

I was, I may say, as both an archivist and a historian, somewhat beswozzled to encounter, yesterday via Twitter, an account of one historian putting down another after the latter had given a talk at the former's institution: 'asked me how many archives I had visited. Less than 10 was not enough'.

What on earth, I thought.

It would be, I tweeted, rather more pertinent to ask 'how many collections' had been consulted, rather than the number of repositories, since there are repositories which are the go-to sites of pilgrimage for the fields in which they collect.

Certainly one should not focus on a single personal or institutional archive to the neglect of all others. When I started my PhD, back when dinosaurs roamed the Euston Road, and primeval word-processors for the home user only came along when I was partway through the endeavour, I had one large and rich primary source in the letters received by Marie Stopes from the public (Wellcome Library, PP/MCS/A). However (although one reviewer of the subsequent book claimed I had only looked at one archive: because there were just so many firsthand accounts from the early C20th by British males of their sexual troubles that I could have used*?) I did consult other sources. Looking at the bibliography of my thesis I consulted seven other collections in the Wellcome, the Stopes papers in the British Library as well as those of her first husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates, the Mass Observation 'Little Kinsey' survey, records of the Church of England Purity Society and the papers of Lord Baden-Powell. Also, since I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Australia during that time, the Norman Haire papers at the University of Sydney.

That's still only half-a-dozen actual archival repositories, poor show?

However, counting up the places I visited in order to write my biography of Stella Browne, it comes to over 30, though I will concede that there were 2 or 3 I didn't visit in person because the kind archivists provided me with copies of the relevant materials. (I'm not totting up the number of actual collections, which would be considerably greater). Three continents. 6 countries.

Do I win? Do I?

It's not a game. You don't get points for visiting X number of archives, it's not a Quest where you have to gather up a certain number of plot coupons. You gain points for knowing where to go and finding relevant material.

I concede that there may be fields of study where seeing the various angles and sides of the issue - I think particularly of anything to do with international affairs - will involve going to different places (though again, is there an as it were canonical number?). However, the extent to which individual scholars can cover the ground is going to depend on a lot of factors not necessarily in their own control.

Even with a fairly local study a certain amount of going somewhere else to follow up the trail may be involved. E.g. the hypothetical case of  'Muck, Brass, and Subterreanean Passions: Sewage Reform in [Victorian industrial centre] 1855-1865'. Yes, doubtless the local record office has the records of the local authority, of local worthies involved, of local bodies agitating for or against sanitary reforms, of the Medical Officer of Health if there was one. Maybe records of the local industries, though with time and change these may have been taken over and amalgamated and if their records survive they may be somewhere else entirely. Ditto for records of local landowners, which may be held at their other estates.

Then, of course, The National Archives and the Parliamentary Archive will have something to offer. There may have been contacts with sanitation reformers whose archives are preserved elsewhere.

And no, not everything is all online now! Physical visits may still be involved. But if you can do it from the comfort of home, no points get deducted.

*Since then, of course, oral historians such as Steve Humphries, Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter and others have undertaken significant work in this field. As a part-time PhD researcher I didn't really have the resources for that. Also, while I think this sort of work is excellent and important, it cannot have the immediacy of the letters written by Stopes' contemporaries.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

I am somewhat cynical about his claims to expertise

I have over the last year or so become intrigued by the popular - at least, from the number of copies of his works that turn up on the secondhand market, I assume he was popular - writer of works in the general field of sexology in the early twentieth century, George Ryley Scott (1886-1955). This was partly due to discovering a somewhat startling assertion in one of the entries in Scott's Encyclopaedia of Sex (1939) which made me want to explore how authoritative one might consider him.

On the whole I think he can be put down as somebody who made a good living (one presumes) from churning out works of advice on sex, marriage, birth control, and venereal disease, studies of Curious customs of sex and marriage, Phallic worship: a history of sex and sexual rites, The History of Torture, The History of Corporal Punishment, A History of Prostitution and Far Eastern Sex Life. He also wrote on nudism, the laws of obscenity, poultry-keeping, cock-fighting, and tips for writing. Many of his works were first published by T. Werner Laurie, characterised by Wikipedia as 'a publisher of books that were avant-garde in some cases, racy in others' or Torchstream, which seems to have concentrated on the racy.

He does not seem to be what one might call a practising sexologist: he was not a medical doctor and does not seem to have been part of the circles in which these discussions were taking place. He did apparently apply for membership in the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology in 1927 but there is no mention of proposer or seconder and the application does not seem to have been proceeded with (Minutes of the British Sexology Society in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin).

The National Birth Control Association was not prepossessed by his work on birth control. EF Griffith reported to the Medical Subcommittee on 3 March 1935 'that "Birth Control" by G Ryley Scott appeared to be in every way unsatisfactory and inaccurate'; it was decided to recommend to the publishers to withdraw the book, offering a list of the current literature on the subject  'which might cause him to be better informed'. In May the Executive Committee sent a letter to Ryley Scott suggesting that he should refer anyone needing information to NBCA. Griffith undertook to try getting into personal touch with publishers to find out if the book had already been published; if not to consult a solicitor about writing a letter to publishers concerning the author's inaccuracies and suggesting publication was inadvisable (Family Planning Association Archives in the Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A.5/2).

He did sport Fellowships of the Philosophical Society of England, the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Zoological Society, but these were all, at the date in question, open to any individual with a demonstrable interest in the subject, in the case of the Zoological Society provided they could obtain a proposer and seconder from among existing fellows.

However, these qualification were very probably sufficient to obtain him the entrée to the materials in 'Cupboard' in the British Museum Reading Room that would have been necessary for his endeavours. His obituary in the Central Somerset Gazette, 4 Feb 1955 mentions his 'intensive research (he spent hours in the British Museum)'*.

All this inclines me to scepticism. Maybe he was sounder on chickens?

*A further thought: I read somewhere - memory suggests it was a comment by the narrator in Hunter Davies' novel Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1968) - that if you copy from one book it's plagiarism; if you copy from two or more, it's RESEARCH.