The Fruits of Philosophy trial

The Bradlaugh and Besant edition of Knowlton's 'Fruits of Philosophy'.

Dr Charles Knowlton was a New England doctor who originally published The Fruits of Philosophy in 1832. It provided elementary (but not entirely accurate) contraceptive information. In 1834 James Watson had brought out the first English edition and it achieved steady if unspectacular sales in the years that followed. In 1875 the plates were purchased by Charles Watts, who had helped Bradlaugh found the NSS. Watts became the new publisher

This relatively obscure publication was propelled into the public eye in 1876 when a Bristol bookseller, Henry Cook, was sentenced to two years' hard labour for selling the pamphlet. To Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant's consternation their close associate Charles Watts, confronted with the prospect of a prison sentence and arguing that the pamphlet was not worth fighting over, agreed to the destruction of the printer's plates and his stock.

Bradlaugh and Besant responded by founding their own Freethought Publishing Company at 28 Stonecutter Street (near Fleet Street). This publishing works and radical booksellers was to become the NSS headquarters for the rest of the century. Bradlaugh and Besant determined to republish the pamphlet, modified the text a little, and attempted to bring it up to date with medical footnotes by Dr George Drysdale. From the outset they were determined to test the law.

There was nothing in the pamphlet that was unknown to medical practitioners or which had not been published before. The issue was that it was being published at a price (sixpence) that made it available to ordinary working people.

Annie Besant at the time of the Knowlton pamphlet trial

At 4 p.m. Saturday 24 March the new edition went on sale and 500 copies were sold in the first twenty minutes, including some to the police.

On Thursday 5 April 1877, Bradlaugh and Besant were arrested and charged for breaching the Obscene Publications Act 1857. Bradlaugh and Besant were committed to trial at the Old Bailey and the case was brought before the Queen's Bench on 18 June amidst great publicity. The importance of the case was highlighted by it being tried by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn with the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, leading the prosecution.

Both Bradlaugh and Besant conducted their own defence which was unusual in any event, but then remarkable for a woman. The trial lasted four days before a divided jury returned a qualified guilty verdict. However, the story did not end there because Bradlaugh then managed to have the judgment set aside on a technicality concerning the wording of the original indictment.

Another veteran freethought bookseller was not so fortunate. Edward Truelove received a sentence of four months in prison and a fine of £50.

Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant had become household names. In the eyes of some, they were notorious although to others they were heroes. What is more during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century the birth rate began to decline. The Fruits of Philosophy was replaced by more modern birth control pamphlets such as Annie Besant's own The Law of Population and Henry Allbutt's The Wife's Handbook which were widely sold and distributed in their hundreds of thousands by booksellers and publishers associated with the NSS.

There had been a cost because not all secularists had agreed with the stance taken by Bradlaugh and Besant but by 1880 all that was to change as secularists reunited behind Bradlaugh over his struggle to enter Parliament.

Find out more

This year marks the National Secular Society's 150th Anniversary. Our work began in 1866 with Charles Bradlaugh, who despite being Member of Parliament for Northampton, was denied his seat because of his non-religious views.

Bradlaugh was eventually allowed to take his seat, and once sworn into Parliament was instrumental in bringing about a change in the law, giving all MPs the right to affirm rather than swear a religious oath.

Since those early days we've pioneered many important social reforms and society has changed a lot.

Religion-based laws that for centuries forbade entry for non-believers into Parliament and had banned abortion, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, blasphemy — and even cremation — have been dismantled. Human rights and equality for minorities are now accepted and protected by law. In the struggles to bring about these reforms, the NSS has always played a prominent role and sometimes a decisive one.

From being prosecuted for 'blasphemy' to helping abolish it, explore our remarkable story.