Episode 104. Women’s Rights Activist: Annie Besant
Hazel Baker is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified London tour guide.
Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain(Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7). Het Rampjaar 1672, Afl. 2: Vijand Engeland and Arte.fr Invitation au Voyage, À Chelsea, une femme qui trompe énormément.
Birth Control in the Shadow of Empire: The Trials of Annie Besant, 1877–1878 Mytheli Sreenivas
Listen to related podcasts:
The Life of Women’s Rights Activist Annie Besant
Annie’s views shifted towards anti-religious beliefs, and tensions in their relationship escalated, ultimately resulting in legal separation in 1873. At 26, Annie moved back to London, where this week’s episode begins… Listen to Annie’s earlier life in episode 103.
Annie Besant’s separation agreement gave her custody of their three-year-old daughter Mabel, while their son Arthur Digby remained with his father. After this significant change in her personal life, Annie embraced new affiliations and ideologies aligned with her evolving perspectives.
Annie’s relationship with her mother remained unbreakable, despite the heartache caused by her change of faith and subsequent social exclusion. Annie’s mother was aware of how harshly the world judges, and she understood that simply being a young, unaccompanied woman could justify any level of slander. At the time, Annie had not yet realized how malicious people could be or how venomous their words might be. Now, having faced slander and overcome it, she asserts that if she had to make the choice again, she would choose the same path as she did back then. Annie would prefer to experience it all again rather than live in society under the weight of a dishonest facade. Their mutual love endured through every challenge, and their bond was a source of comfort and strength.
Annie’s mother, a woman of unwavering devotion to her loved ones and fierce disdain for anything base or dishonourable, passed away at her Norwood home in May 1874. She profoundly impacted Annie’s life, shaping her values and character, and leaving her with an indelible legacy of courage, love, and integrity.
Annie joined the National Secular Society, an organisation advocating for ‘free thought’ and the separation of religion from civic affairs. This membership allowed her to explore and express her non-religious beliefs, reinforcing her commitment to critical thinking and rationality. Additionally, Annie became an active member of the Fabian Society, a prominent socialist organisation that aimed to advance social justice, equality, and progressive political ideas.
Through her involvement with these organisations, Annie Besant championed causes dear to her, transforming her personal beliefs and experiences into a powerful force for societal change. Her dedication to these movements would shape her legacy as a pioneering figure in secularism and socialism.
Igniting a Heated Debate
Annie joined the National Secular Society, where she met Bradlaugh and received her certificate. She first met Mr Charles Bradlaugh at the Hall of Science, and they had their first conversation in his small study located at 29 Turner Street, Commercial Road. Annie was impressed by his collection of books, which filled the tiny room. A few days later, he visited her in Norwood. Annie started writing for the National Secular Society’s newspaper, the National Reformer, for which she earned a weekly salary of a guinea. This marked the beginning of a career as a publicist and activist that would keep her in the public eye for many years.
Annie was a militant atheist campaigner who spoke at public meetings nationwide, selling articles and tracks. Her first lecture was on “The Political Status of Women” and was given at the Co-operative Institute on August 25, 1874. Her second lecture was delivered on September 27th, at Conway’s Chapel, St. Paul’s Road in Camden Town, and she redelivered it a few weeks later at a Unitarian Chapel.
In 1875, the Dialectical Society held their meetings for several years in a room in Adam Street, which they rented from the Social Science Association. However, on February 17th, members arrived to find the door locked and had to congregate on the stairs. They learned that “Ajax’s” paper had unsettled the Social Science Association, resulting in the denial of entry to their usual meeting room. So, they sought refuge with Annie’s pseudonym “Ajax” at the Charing Cross Hotel and jovially discussed the peculiarities of religious bigotry.
The most challenging part of Annie’s battle was yet to come. In August 1875, an attempt was made to remove her little girl Mabel. The plan was for Mabel not to return to her mother after Mabel’s usual one-month annual visit to her father’s. Annie quickly recovered her child by threatening to issue a writ of habeas corpus.
On February 28th, Annie took her first steps onto the platform of the Hall of Science in Old Street, St. Luke’s, London. The Secularists, known for their passionate support of those who made sacrifices to join them, welcomed her warmly. This hall was special to Annie because she associated it with various struggles, victories, and defeats. No matter what the outcome, she always received a warm welcome there. Their support also prevented any bitterness, even though some unfriendly individuals showed her unkindness.
Public speaking wasn’t without its risks. Some of the lectures were challenging, though. For instance, in Darwen, Lancashire, in June 1875, some individuals thought throwing stones at the Atheist speaker was appropriate. In Swansea, in March 1876, people were so fearful of violence that the hall owner demanded a guarantee against damages. Moreover, no local supporter had the courage to be the chairperson for her lecture.
As far as Annie’s health was concerned, lecturing was like medicine for her. She had always had a delicate chest, and when she asked a doctor whether she could withstand platform work, he replied, “It will either kill you or cure you.” Ultimately, the experience cured her lung weakness, and she became strong and robust instead of remaining frail and delicate.
So in March of 1877, Charles Bradlaugh MP and Annie Besant started their own publishing company, Freethought Publishing Company. They set it up at 28 Stonecutter Street, near Fleet Street in London. The main reason for starting the company was to republish an affordable, groundbreaking birth control pamphlet called Fruits of Philosophy, which had been taken off the market by its previous publisher after a bookseller in Bristol was prosecuted. Bradlaugh and Besant were determined to challenge the law, seeing it as a crucial matter of free speech and a way to provide working people with the knowledge to control their family size and combat poverty.
The pamphlet had been circulating in Britain since 1833. It faced scrutiny and legal challenges when its previous publisher faced obscenity charges in early 1877. The new edition subtitled An Essay on the Population Question by Bradlaugh and Besant, proved to be an instant success and quickly became a bestseller. On the day before its release, Annie and Charles personally delivered copies to the Chief Clerk of the Magistrates, the officer in charge at the City Police Office, and the Solicitor for the City of London. They even declared their intention to sell the book from their publishing company at Stonecutter Street, which sparked widespread controversy and debate.
On the first day alone, nearly 1,000 copies were sold, and within a year, an impressive 125,000 copies were sold. The location at 28 Stonecutter Street has a radical history that is now hidden beneath the headquarters of Goldman Sachs.
However, this bold move came with consequences. On April 7th, 1877, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were arrested and taken into custody, first to the police station in Bridewell Place and then to the Guildhall. Some feared that the Knowlton trial could be combined with blasphemy charges against Annie, making a powerful case against them.
The trial of HM Queen versus Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant began on June 18, 1877. It was a high-profile case, with Sir Hardinge Giffard prosecuting and Sir Alexander Cockburn, the Lord Chief Justice of England, presiding. The charges against Bradlaugh and Besant were controversial, as they were accused of printing and selling an obscene libel deemed corrupting to public morals. According to the prosecution, any text potentially corrupting morals was considered obscene, and they argued that “The Fruits of Philosophy” fell under this definition.
The controversy surrounding the case was further heightened because a woman, Annie Besant, was among the accused. In the Victorian era, the legal system did not recognize a woman’s individual identity and subsumed it under that of her husband. Besant’s appearance in the courtroom thus challenged the gendered legal system of the time. Moreover, she represented herself in court, rather than relying on legal counsel, which only added to the controversy. The fact that Besant chose to represent herself was not only a challenge to gender norms but also demonstrated her determination and bravery in the face of adversity. Despite lacking legal expertise, she relied on Bradlaugh’s extensive law knowledge to defend herself in court. The trial attracted much attention, with the courtroom packed with spectators and thousands more reading about it in the newspapers.
As the trial of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant unfolded, it became clear that a legal technicality would ultimately decide the case’s outcome. Despite facing numerous challenges, Besant and Bradlaugh remained committed to their cause of free speech and disseminating information. The trial sparked a wider discussion on censorship, gender, and the law, with Besant’s actions in the courtroom serving as an example of resilience and dedication to her beliefs.
Besant’s trial not only highlighted the gender disparities in the Victorian legal system but also brought attention to broader issues of censorship and free speech. As a prominent woman, Besant challenged traditional gender roles, demonstrating that women could participate in public discourse and intellectual pursuits.
During the trial, Besant and Bradlaugh connected their advocacy for birth control to a Malthusian perspective, arguing that overpopulation was a cause of poverty. Besant was deeply concerned about the suffering of the impoverished, particularly the impact of large families on food availability. In her defence, she referenced the work of Reverend Thomas Malthus, who argued that unchecked population growth would lead to famine.
The trial of Besant and Bradlaugh had a lasting impact on the public discourse surrounding obscenity, gender, and the law. Their efforts helped to pave the way for greater acceptance of birth control and a more progressive understanding of gender roles in society.
During the 1870s, when Annie Besant was promoting birth control and Malthusianism, other explanations for poverty and social inequality were available. Some early socialists proposed that poverty resulted from unequal value distribution under capitalism. Karl Marx, for example, argued that unemployment and falling wages were inherent features of capitalism, which maintained an impoverished “reserve army of unemployed workers.” These alternative explanations highlighted systemic issues within capitalism rather than overpopulation as the sole cause of poverty.
Nevertheless, in her legal defence, Besant focused on Malthusian theories as the primary cause of poverty and suffering among the poor in Britain and beyond. She noted that improvements in health and sanitation had led to rapid population growth in England throughout the nineteenth century, even as wages fell, unemployment rose, and food prices increased. Her arguments may have resonated strongly during the economic depression in Britain in the 1870s. However, it is worth noting that Besant did not mention the alternative explanations for poverty and social inequality proposed by socialists and Marxists.
During the trial, it was revealed that Annie Besant’s shift towards Malthusian theories was influenced by her close relationship with Bradlaugh.
The trial lasted four days before a divided jury returned a qualified guilty verdict. The defendants were sentenced to six months imprisonment, ordered to pay a fine of £200, and prohibited from publishing the book for at least two years. Despite this admonition, they persisted in publishing the controversial material. Bradlaugh managed to have the judgment set aside on a technicality concerning the wording of the original indictment. As a result, the trial generated extensive publicity for contraception and family planning, significantly raising awareness and shaping public discourse on these issues for years. The trial’s outcome and subsequent discussions strengthened Besant’s resolve, propelling her further into public activism.
In the aftermath of the trial, Besant remained unsatisfied with The Fruits of Philosophy, seeing its methods as outdated. She resolved to write a more current guide on contraceptive methods, eventually publishing the Law of Population, which provided up-to-date, clearer advice and advertisements for contraceptive devices. She went on to establish the Malthusian League to disseminate birth control information. Dr Henry Allbutt also published The Wife’s Handbook, wherein the first line Dr Allbut states, ‘From the first marriage-night no woman under forty-five years of age can consider herself safe.’
These events signified a turning point in the history of birth control activism, shaping the understanding of reproduction as a social problem with implications that resonated from London to the Indian Empire and back. Bradlaugh’s involvement in a tradition of mid-19th-century English radicalism and Besant’s subsequent campaigns advocating contraception made them an unlikely duo. Nonetheless, their collaboration and activism helped to bring about significant changes in attitudes towards reproductive health and family planning.
Annie Continued to Seek Knowledge and Understanding
Annie kept seeking knowledge and understanding. She studied and taught, preparing for exams at London University and building a strong foundation in science. But she faced opposition from people because of her beliefs, even in academics. She failed the practical chemistry component of the B.Sc. degree three times, which was strange because she had passed a tougher exam at South Kensington. But she stayed determined.
Annie and Miss Bradlaugh were denied entry to a botany class at University College. Annie was refused because of her beliefs, and Miss Bradlaugh just because she was her father’s daughter. They faced backlash and insults, making their journey harder because of their heresy.
Annie first met Herbert Burrows in 1879, but they became close during the socialist troubles of 1887. They worked together on land law reform, later used as a basis for proposals in Parliament.
In 1882, Sir Henry Tyler tried to start blasphemy prosecutions against people involved in the Freethinker publication, including Foote, Ramsey, and Whittle. He wanted to make Charles Bradlaugh, Annie’s ally, responsible for the paper and maybe even remove him from Parliament. Tyler also went after Bradlaugh’s daughters, inspecting their bank accounts and trying to take away the grant they earned as science teachers. But his motion in the House of Commons failed, and Bradlaugh’s daughters and Annie succeeded in their fields.
Annie and the Matchgirls of the East End
William Stead, the son of a Congregational minister and a pioneer of investigative journalism and Annie started a weekly publication called the Link. Their goal was to give a voice to the disadvantaged and push for social justice. The paper exposed injustices like low wages and poor working conditions while fighting for better treatment of workers and tenants. The Link also backed dockers and campaigned for children’s meals in schools. They even promoted ethical consumerism, emphasizing the need for fair wages for labour.
They focused on a big campaign against match manufacturer Bryant & May, uncovering the company’s low wages and harsh conditions. Annie and Herbert Burrows, a founder of the Social Democratic Federation, called for a boycott and demanded better treatment and fair pay. The Link wanted to inspire readers to take action and help others, showing how personal responsibility was essential for social change.
Annie faced a libel threat, but nothing happened. Instead, the company went after the girls. A crowd of match girls stormed Fleet Street, demanding to see Annie. She met with a small group of them to hear their stories. These women refused to sign a paper saying they were treated well, and one girl was fired for standing with Annie. As a result, about 1,400 match girls went on strike and asked Annie for guidance.
For two weeks, Annie and Herbert Burrows worked non-stop to help the striking girls. They raised funds, registered the girls for strike pay, wrote articles, rallied clubs, held public meetings, and even got Members of Parliament involved. People all over the country joined in the match-girls’ fight.
Eventually, the London Trades Council stepped in as arbitrators and a fair settlement was reached. Fines and deductions were abolished, better wages were paid, and the Match-makers’ Union was formed. It became the strongest women’s Trades Union in England. Annie was the secretary for years until she had to step down, and Mrs Thornton Smith took over. Herbert Burrows was the treasurer. Over time, the tension between the company and the union lessened, and they started working together. The company even supported the Working Women’s Club at Bow, founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.
The School Board
Amidst various controversies, Annie continued her work with the School Board, made possible by the generous financial assistance of anonymous friends. She also engaged in socialist work and championed various labour movements. Additionally, she spent time feeding and clothing impoverished children in her district and pursued her studies whenever possible.
In October, Bradlaugh’s health took a serious turn for the worse, though he lived for another 15 months. After slowly recovering from a severe attack of congestion, he sailed to India in November to attend the National Congress, where he was enthusiastically hailed as the “Member for India.”
In November, Annie pursued a libel suit against Rev. Hoskyns, the vicar of Stepney, for circulating defamatory content about her during the 1888 School Board election. Despite facing significant opposition from the Solicitor-General, Sir Edward Clarke, and Baron Huddleston, Annie’s denial of the allegations remained unshaken after five hours of cross-examination. The jury ultimately disagreed on the verdict, with some members unwilling to penalize the clergyman for the overzealous defence of his faith against unbelief. Annie chose not to seek a new trial, believing her innocence had been sufficiently demonstrated.
Our journey begins with the inaugural meeting of the Blavatsky Lodge, a branch of the Theosophical Society, which took place in London on May 19, 1887, at 17 Lansdowne Road, Holland Park. This location soon became the weekly meeting spot for the next ten years, and it was here that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky penned a significant portion of her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine.
Annie Besant conflicted and searching, visited Helena Petrovna Blavatsky at the Blavatsky Lodge, contemplating joining the Theosophical Society. She knew that doing so could mean facing ridicule and potentially losing the support of friends who had stood by her in the past, including her strongest ally, Charles Bradlaugh. However, despite the obstacles, Annie’s unwavering determination to seek the truth eventually led her back to the Theosophical Society.
Annie’s decision to embrace theosophy surprised the public. Theosophists believed that Madame Blavatsky received telepathic guidance from Tibetan masters, and Annie herself came to believe that she had been a Hindu in a past life.
Theosophy’s vibrant and appealing belief system attracted those who sought alternatives to narrow and outdated ideas, offering a higher teaching derived from Eastern wisdom and ancient universal truths that underpinned all religions. Many British people sought religious inspiration from India then, and promising young Indians were sent to Britain to learn from their colonial rulers. In 1890, these two groups encountered Gandhi, a young law student in London.
In the summer of 1890, the lease for 17 Lansdowne Road expired, prompting the decision to convert 19 Avenue Road into the European headquarters of the Theosophical Society. A hall was constructed for the meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge, and various other modifications were made to accommodate the growing community. In July, Helena Blavatsky’s team of workers united under one roof. Following Helena’s passing on May 8, 1891, Annie Besant stepped into her shoes. Two years later, she moved to India, where she spent much of her time advocating for Indian self-rule, drawing on her experiences and connections with Indian activists and political leaders.
Besant’s time in London was marked by her social, spiritual, and political activities. There are several blue plaques to her, including at 9 Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, where she lived for a year, in 1874. Annie moved with her daughter Mabel, her ailing mother Emily and their maid, to the recently built house at 39 (formerly 26) Colby Road, Gipsy Hill.
As a social activist, Besant was involved in the labour movement, advocating for better working conditions for women and children in London’s factories and workshops. She also worked to improve access to education and healthcare for the city’s poor.
Her social activism in London was driven by a commitment to social justice and a desire to improve the lives of the marginalized and oppressed, including the city’s stark class divisions and the harsh working conditions faced by women and children in its factories and workshops.
Her work as a social activist in London laid the foundation for her later activism in other areas, including spiritual and political issues. There is a blue plaque on Hanbury Hall, Hanbury Street Spitalfields. In 1888, Annie Besant and Eleanor Marx-Aveling (Karl Marx’s youngest daughter) held the matchstick girls’ strike meetings here which helped to establish the British Trade Unions.
Eventually, Annie’s children broke free from their father and returned to her. Mabel married, and both kids followed in Annie’s footsteps, sharing her views on humanity. They joined the Theosophical Society, the same society that Annie had struggled to find but eventually embraced.
If you would like to know about more amazing women, then book my Women in the City Walking Tour
If you like what we do, please rate and review. It is very much appreciated. Thank you to everyone who has already rated. And thank you to those who have shared suggestions on what subjects we should cover in the future. We are working our way through the list. That’s all for now, until next time.