"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is a born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better” – G.K. Chesterton
This article examines the Neo-Malthusians. A Neo-Malthusian shared the Malthusian belief that:
“The Power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce the subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
While a traditional Malthusian thought that family size should be limited by marrying later in life and through abstinence, Neo-Malthusians thought that was unnatural and unhealthy. They advocated the use of contraceptives instead. Both traditional and “neo” Malthusians were concerned that the population of Britain had risen from around 11 million to 37 million between 1801 to 1901. They feared the approach of “premature death” unless something was done to check the rise. Then, in the mid-1870s, it seemed that Malthusian prayers had been realised. The birth-rate of Britain peaked at 36.6 births per 1,000 in 1876 and started to decline. By 1900, it had fallen to 28.5 births per 1,000, a fall of over 21 percent. What then had caused this decline? Some traced it to the 1887 prosecution of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, who in 1886 had published The Fruits of Philosophy, an American Malthusian tract. Bradlaugh and Besant were fined and jailed until their conviction was overturned at the Court of Appeal. The publicity of the case drew attention to contraceptives and the sources of information on their use. Others, such as the statistician, Karl Pearson F.R.S., thought it was a combination of factors:
The Workshop Regulation Act of 1867, the Education Act of 1876, and the Factories and Workshops Act of 1878, the Mines Act of 1887 and the 1891 Act as to women and children, mark the special stages in increased restriction of the employment of children, and correspond to the steps of accelerated decadence in our birthrate curves. The child has ceased to be an economic asset till it is 13 to 14 years of age and its value after that age has been much reduced. But this increased burden of parentage for the mass of the population would not have led at once to its full consequences had not the trial of Mr Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant in 1877 resulted in a widely spread knowledge of the possibility of differentiating marriage and parentage. This the accelerative effect of the Acts of 1876-1878, 1880, 1887, and 1891 is far greater than the very fundamental Act of 1867.
Pearson adds a footnote:
“My own observations would point to the decade 1885 to 1895 as the period when systematic neomalthusian propagandism was first started in the rural districts.”
And perhaps the increase in the birth-rate reflected not so much an increasing number of births, so much as greater consistency and reliability in the registration of births from the 1840s onwards. The Malthusian League was formed as a result of the Bradlaugh Besant case and advocated the use of contraceptives to reduce over-population and to improve the quality of the “race”. When the Eugenics Education Society (E.E.S.) was formed in 1907, “the Malthusian League welcomed the emergence of eugenics as a potentially influential ally in the fight against indiscriminate breeding.” The E.E.S. attracted members of the League including its president, Charles Drysdale and his wife Bessie and, in 1912, Marie Stopes. The relationship between the two organisations was not a smooth one. Malthusianism was an old and weathered doctrine whereas Eugenics was new and scientific. Eugenists did not share the Neo-Malthusian enthusiasm for contraceptives. According to Soloway:
“it was primarily the prudent, responsible middle classes who had adopted Neo-Malthusian recommendations rather than the ignorant, indifferent poor who continued to reproduce in disproportionately large numbers.”
In other words, eugenists regarded contraceptives as dysgenic, and attributed this to the Malthusians. Furthermore, members of the E.E.S. did not care for the seedy ambience of “Malthusian appliances” tainting their respectability. The First World War stretched the relationship of the Society and the League to breaking point. Eugenists were concerned that A-1 men were selected for battle whilst C-3 types remained at home, available to women to reproduce their inferior genes. In 1915 conscription was introduced and eugenists urged the authorities to call up older men before the younger ones. While older men might not be as vigourous in battle, the advantage conceded to the enemy would be outweighed by the eugenic benefits that would accrue in the longer term. The Neo-Malthusians saw the situation differently. Yes, there were large numbers of casualties caused by the war, but a short-term “hysterical” reaction should not reverse the falling birth-rate that had been achieved over the previous thirty-five years. Neo-Malthusians called for a moratorium on children for the duration of the war, for reasons that Richard Soloway summarised as follows:
“War babies could only consume, not produce; many would be fatherless; their mothers would have to neglect them for war work, and they would be particularly vulnerable to the hard winters and fuel and food shortages which were bound to come. Convinced that the war had been caused by overpopulation in the first place, the Malthusian League thought it foolish to produce another generation of surplus people whose presence would only compound the difficulties of the reconstruction.”
So, during the most destructive war experienced by mankind, saw members of the Malthusian League taking to the streets to distribute their pamphlet: Hygienic Methods of Family Limitation. Many condemned the League for this position and some even saw it as treasonous. It was Marie Stopes, a member of the Malthusian League and later the Eugenics Education Society, who brought further attention to the issue of birth control. In 1921, annoyed by the refusal of the Society to adopt the use of contraceptives, she left to establish the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress and her free birth control clinic in Holloway. The effect was to remove contraceptives from the shadows of outdated political doctrines to be discussed as an issue in its own right. Neo-Malthusianism was left with its original inheritance: the doctrines of Malthus. By 1927, in a Britain concerned at the loss of life and rebuilding from the Great War, such ideas had lost their appeal and it was left to its final president, Charles Drysdale, to wind it up.
The Problem of Practical Eugenics Dulau & Co, London 1912, page 19. Full text here. Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-Century Britain by Richard A. Soloway, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London (digital edition) Neo-Malthusians, Eugenists, and the Declining Birth-Rate in England 1900-1918. Richard A. Soloway. “Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies” Vol.10, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 226-286