Halliday Sutherland

"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.

The Luther Skald: “Birth Control among the British Working Class, 1900-1930”

The “HGS Watch” section draws attention to misinformation about Halliday Sutherland, and to correct it. I read this statement which discussed the Stopes v. Sutherland trial:

“The jury concluded that Sutherland’s comments were unfair and he was fined one hundred pounds for libel”

This statement is factually incorrect, so I sent an e-mail to the publisher of the essay on 26th June 2015.

Before outlining the details below, I think it’s important to put my criticism into context: It deals with a single sentence in a well researched, 22-page essay. It is a small criticism both in terms of the length of the essay and in respect to the range of the topic it covers. The context is important so as to not detract from the considerable scholarship demonstrated in a wide-ranging, well-researched and well-written work.

This is the content of my e-mail to the publisher:

26th June 2015

I am contacting you in connection with the essay “Birth Control among the British Working Class, 1900-1930” published in the Summer 2014 edition of The Luther Skald (Vol. 1 No.3), and in particular to correct some factual errors.

The sentence on page 6: “The jury concluded that Sutherland’s comments were unfair and he was fined one hundred pounds for libel” is incorrect for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it gives the impression is that the defendants (Sutherland and his publisher) lost. They didn’t; They won. In Stopes v. Sutherland, there were three court hearings as follows:

  • the first was in the High Court in 1923. This involved a jury. Sutherland and his publisher won this one.
  • the second was in the Court of Appeal, also in 1923, when Stopes appealed the first hearing. She won this one. Damages of £100 were awarded to Stopes.
  • the third was in the House of Lords in 1924, when Sutherland and his publisher contested the ruling of the Court of Appeal. They won, because the House of Lords (Britain’s supreme court) overturned the decision of the lower court. The “sums of one hundred pounds and one thousand, three hundred and twenty-five pounds five shillings and sevenpence, being respectively the damages and costs” awarded to Stopes by the Court of Appeal were repaid to Sutherland and his publisher. (Box, 1967)

Secondly, the legal remedy for the tort of defamation is damages (which is paid to the plaintiff), not a fine (which is paid to the state).

Thirdly, the statement: “The jury concluded that Sutherland’s comments were unfair” is one-sided. It is as valid to say “the jury concluded that Sutherland’s comments were true in substance and fact”. The source of my assertion is the four questions and the answers which the jury gave in the case and which were as follows:

“1. Were the words complained of defamatory of the plaintiff? Yes.

2. Were they true in substance and fact? Answer: Yes.

3. Were they fair comment? Answer: No.

4. Damages, if any? – £100.” (Box, 1967)

My understanding of the case (and I should add that I am not a lawyer), is that once the answer to the second question was “yes”, then the jury should have stopped. Questions three and four became irrelevant once question two had established that the defence of “truth” (or “justification”) were sufficient to defeat the action.

On November 21st, 1924 the House of Lords ruled that:

“Judgement should be entered for the defendants on the grounds that there was no evidence to support the finding that the comments were unfair; and by Lord Shaw of Dunfermline and Lord Carson on the further ground that the finding of the Jury on the plea of justification afforded a complete answer to the action.” (Box, 1967)

Given that the histories are focused on Stopes, Sutherland is a rarely well researched. In many works he is a pantomime villain. The label “Roman Catholic doctor” leads readers to assume that his reasons for opposing Stopes were based on Catholic doctrine alone.

His motivation was more complex than that. He was a tuberculosis pioneer who led the fight against tuberculosis in the early 1900s. At the time, tuberculosis was a big threat:

“50,000 die of consumption, 20,000 of other forms of tuberculosis (bones, glands, and joints), 150,000 disabled, and 500,000 infected people” annually. (Sutherland, 1917)

Sutherland was an energetic innovator, establishing an “open air” school for the tuberculous poor in Regent’s Park bandstand in London and produced Britain’s first public-health education film for cinemas. In his daily practice he worked in the slums for the prevention and cure of the disease.

He believed that tuberculosis could be cured, but was appalled to realise that the biggest obstruction was not disease or germs, but an ideology: eugenics.

Eugenicists believed that a susceptibility to tuberculosis was hereditary. On this basis, they believed that the fight against tuberculosis was wasted effort since, in the words of Karl Pearson (F.R.S., protégé of Sir Francis Galton, and professor of eugenics at London University):

“the bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage”.

Pearson urged the government to cancel the 1.5 million pounds spent by the government in fighting tuberculosis and to give it to eugenicists for a better breeding program. (Pearson 1912).

At the time, eugenic beliefs were held by the British elites and it was likely that their ideas would take hold in Britain. Measures had already been passed, such as the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913. The Eugenics Education Society was “confidently predicting that the Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Bill and an Inebriates Bill, then before Parliament, might shortly become law”. Proceedings were interrupted by the First World War. (Searle 1976)

Sutherland spoke out against Eugenics in 1917 in his speech “Consumption: Its Cause and Cure” in which he said he did not believe that the disease, or even a susceptibility to it, was hereditary.

“But why should you set out to prevent this infection and to cure the disease?  There are some self-styled eugenists…who declaim that the prevention of disease is not in itself a good thing.  They say the efficiency of the State is based upon what they call ‘the survival of the fittest’.  This war has smashed their rhetorical phrase.  Who now talks about the survival of the fittest, or thinks himself fit because he survives?  I don’t know what they mean.  I do know that in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong.  And I do know that those evil conditions which will kill a child within a few months of birth, and slay another when he reaches the teens, will destroy yet another when he comes to adult life.” (Sutherland, 1917)

This speech was made two years before he converted to Catholicism in 1919 and it has been said that he was drawn to Catholicism in part because of its opposition to Eugenics and Malthusianism.

Stopes was a member of the Malthusian League and the Eugenics Education Society and eugenics was central to her beliefs.  As Richard A Soloway said when delivering the Galton Lecture in 1996:

“If Stopes’ general interest in birth control was a logical consequence of her romantic preoccupation with compatible sexuality within blissful marriage, her particular efforts to provide birth control for the poor had far more to do with her eugenic concerns about the impending “racial darkness” that the adoption of contraception promised to illiminate. She was a eugenicist long before she became a birth controller, joining the Eugenics Society in 1912 only five years after its founding and five years before she joined, briefly, the much older Malthusian League.” (Soloway 1996)

It was the opening of Stopes birth control clinic in a poor part of London in 1921 that led Sutherland to include her clinic in his attack on Neo-Malthusians in his book: “Birth-Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians” in 1921.


“Consumption: Its Cause and Cure” an address by Dr Halliday Sutherland, Red Triangle Publications, London 1917. [The speech was printed in pamphlet form and was “lost” for many years and has been republished on hallidaysutherland.com].

“Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914” by G.R. Searle. Leyden Noordhoff International Publishing 1976.

“Marie Stopes and The English Birth Control Movement” by Richard A Soloway from  being the proceedings of a Conference organised by the Galton Institute, London, 1996. Robert A Peel editor. Published by The Galton Institute

“The Trial of Marie Stopes” by Muriel Box. Femina Books, London 1967.

“Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment” being a lecture by Karl Pearson, F.R.S. at the Galton laboratory for National Eugenics on 12 March 1912. See: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/77020#page/5/mode/1up

2 comments on “The Luther Skald: “Birth Control among the British Working Class, 1900-1930”

  1. Pingback: Polite letters | Dr. Halliday Sutherland

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Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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