THE CONTAGIOUS DISEASES ACTS


And the campaign to repeal them


{See also Press cuttings}

{See also House of Commons debate}

{See also Ladies' petition}

In 1864 something underhand happened in the Houses of Parliament: a Bill was passed with no publicity, no debate, no discussion and no dissent. The public knew nothing about it, for all that the newspapers reported was that 'The Contagious Diseases Bill passed its reading'. By strange 'coincidence', Bills for the prevention of contagious diseases in cattle were also being debated and passed in 1866 and 1869, under precisely the same name - the Contagious Diseases Bill, and people thought any mention of those words in the newspapers referred to diseases of cows.

And so in 1864 a new law was brought in by stealth. The secrecy was maintained when it was extended in 1866 and again in 1869. The Act did not apply to cattle at all; it stripped half the human population of their civil rights. And the truth of the new law was known only by those who administered and applied it.

The story began in the British colonies of India and Hong Kong, where desperate local women collected outside the British army barracks, were maintained there at the expense of the British taxpayer and were examined for venereal diseases by British army medical officers. If diseased, they were made to leave. The practice spread to the Mediterranean, where, under the authority of Sir Henry Storks, the same system was introduced at Corfu, Cephalonia and Zante in the Ionian Islands (of which he was Lord High Commissioner 1859-63). Attempts to introduce it in Malta failed when the women were informed that, as British subjects they did not have to submit themselves to examination. The Governor of Malta, Sir John Gaspard le Marchant, quite illegally, issued an Ordinance in 1861 that made every prostitute submit to examination, on pain of three months' imprisonment. If diseased, she would be kept 'in custody' in a hospital. The local women fled and were replaced by others brought in from other countries to service the troops. Sir Henry Storks, Governor of Malta 1864-67, took over this system.

In 1862 a committee headed by Samuel Whitbread, MP for Bedford, was appointed to enquire into venereal disease in the army and navy and to report on how the British system of regulation was working in the foreign ports. Its report found against regulation and was suppressed. The British Association discussed regulation on 13 August 1862 and the following month a series of articles against regulation, written by Harriet Martineau, appeared in the Daily News. The CD Act passed ten months later, on 29 July 1864, was almost identical to the Maltese Ordinance.

A woman living in certain garrison towns could, if she were suspected of being a common prostitute, be forced to submit to an internal genital examination carried out by a male doctor. If found to be suffering from a disease, she could be locked up in a special hospital wing until cured. If she refused to be examined she could be sent to prison for three months and even forced to perform hard labour. The term 'common prostitute' was taken from the Vagrancy Act of 1824.

Initially it applied to Chatham, Devonport and Portsmouth, though it was extended secretly to Aldershot. The government appointed an inspector general of lock hospitals and set up a committee of enquiry, appointed by the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for War, which sat for a year 1864-5. In 1866 nine more towns were added to the initial three - Woolwich, Sheerness, Aldershot, Shorncliffe, Colchester, Curragh Camp, Windsor, and Cork and Queenstown in Ireland, but because of the five mile catchment area it actually covered 75 towns or parishes. In these places every woman was placed under surveillance and any who were outside of a building, for whatever reason, were watched by policemen, not of the local forces, but from the Metropolitan Police, who had volunteered to go to the twelve towns especially for that purpose. Medical men were appointed, and hospitals were provided with locked wards, which had their own staff of nurses, doctors, orderlies and a chaplain. All of this was paid for by British taxpayers, 99% of whom had no idea what was being done with their money. In 1869 the Act was further amended to include another six towns, bringing the total of towns and parishes to 138, owing to a widened catchment area of ten miles. The amendment also doubled the penalty against women who refused to be examined from three to six months.

On 30 September 1869 a meeting to oppose the Acts was held at the Royal Hotel, Bristol. Professor F. W. Newman and Robert Charleton attended. The first public criticism came from Dr Charles Bell Taylor (an ophthalmic surgeon) and Mr Charles Worth MRCS (a surgeon), who read a paper against the Acts at the Social Science Conference at Bristol in 1869. Most people did not even know the Acts existed, so quickly, privately and quietly had they been passed in parliament. Crucially, although the new law applied exclusively to women and not at all to men, no woman was consulted or allowed any input whatsoever in their passing. Elizabeth Wolstenholme heard the lecture and told her friend Josephine Butler about it the next day. She was incensed, and lost no time in forming a national association for the repeal of the Acts. By March 1870 the movement had its own weekly newspaper, The Shield, published by the Rev. Dr Hooppell of South Shields; six months later it began to be published in London.

The opponents of the CD Acts were against them for these reasons:

  • They applied only to women and not to men, even though men also had VD
  • Diagnosis was often uncertain and syphilis was incurable, in any case
  • The medical examination was carried out by men, was extremely painful and humiliating, and left many women traumatised for life
  • The medical examination could (and did) destroy a woman's virginity and could (and did) cause miscarriages
  • No other British citizens were forced into and locked in hospitals for any other contagious disease
  • No other British citizen could be imprisoned for committing no offence (habeus corpus)
  • The Acts created a 'class' of women sanctioned by the government to be used by men for sex
  • Anyone with a grudge against any woman could report her as being a prostitute and have her examined
  • Women who had nothing to do with prostitution could (and were) falsely accused, ruining their reputations
  • Women who had nothing to do with prostitution could (and were) forcibly examined
  • A special branch of plain-clothed police were used to spy on women
  • Any woman who happened to be out of doors after dusk, going about her normal business, could be (and was) accused
  • It amounted to the state regulation of prostitution, a national disgrace
  • Prostitution was not inevitable, it arose from lack of money and lack of education and career opportunities for women
  • Prostitution was male abuse of females, against the wishes of God, and immoral

Supporters of the Acts argued that

  • Men could not be examined, because they objected to it
  • Prostitution cannot be prevented, so you might as well just provide clean women for men to use
  • If a woman is innocent, she has nothing to fear from being medically examined
  • The scheme was already operating in India and Malta
  • The defence of the realm was at stake because so many fighting men had VD

The first problem was to make British people aware that such laws had been passed. Even the most well-read and well-informed people had no idea. At a meeting at Cheltenham in 1870, Rev W. Allen stated that he 'had no idea until a few weeks ago that the Act had any application other than to cattle'; likewise, at a meeting in Hastings Alderman Putland said that he 'had been under the impression like so many others that the Acts were in connection withthe Cattle Disease'. It was also likely that Queen Victoria signed the Acts believing them to be 'an interminable series of Bills about cattle' (The Shield, 2 March, 21 March and 13 June 1870). The editor of The Shield wrote: 'The system of these acts is a conspiracy, of the foulest kind, against the womanhood of the realm... We do not wonder, for a moment, at the promoters of it using every means to keep it from general knowledge' (The Shield, 25 July 1870).

A petition from medical men in Nottingham was sent to parliament in April 1870. Section 14 read: 'We protest against the secret legislation that marked the progress of this Bill in all its phases, and deplore the extension of the Act to several town, in no sense garrison towns, which has recently been legalised without the knowledge or consent of the people, and without any public or proper discussion of the subject! We consider the title of the Bill has been adopted for the purpose of concealing from the people its real scope and objects, which were ... licensed prostitution.' Mr Baines, himself an MP, declared that 'he never knew of a single instance in which a debate took place upon either the Act of 1864, 1866 or 1869' (The Shield, 30 Sept 1871). Mr T. Lawson Walton called it 'a conspiracy of silence'.

On 24th May 1870, Mr R. Fowler MP, member for Ayr, moved that the CD Acts be repealed. He wanted the ladies' gallery closed so no women could not hear the debate that followed, but this was not possible without clearing all the public galleries. The MPS present at the four-hour secret debate included Dr Lyon PLayfair, Mr Healey, Mr Cardwell, Major Anson and Mr Newdegate. The press reported that 'A very strong opnion was expressed that the press should not be included'. But this was impossible.

Despite this, the secret was out. Just over a week later, on 2nd June, women of Halifax held a meeting. The Mechanics' Hall was 'literally crammed' as Mrs Hargreaves introduced Mrs Hume Rothery of Manchester, who explained that the Bill had been passed 'in the dark, and under the same name as a Bill that had been passed in consequence of the cattle plaque'. She called the Acts unjust, cruel, un-English, unconstitutional, tyrannical, one-sided, and 'an insult to the whole womanhood of the kingdom'. She described how innocent women had been arrested and 'subjected to the horrible degradation of examination'. Retaking her seat, she was 'loudly cheered'.

Mr Merry, MP for Falkirk, supported the Acts,which he thought had done a great deal of good to our army and sailors who 'come ashore and are led astray'. On July 20th another secret debate took place in the House, but the Glasgow Herald managed to get enough inside information from an unnamed source to create a news report. Jacob Bright, who was championing the cause of women's suffrage, 'bitterly complained' of the manner in which the Bill had been 'smuggled through the House without an opportunity having been given for [MPs] to discuss the measure, They had been carried in stealth'. He added that if such laws were passed they 'ought to apply to men, and not women only'. He complained about the way the Acts were operated and said that, far from discouraging prostitution, the Acts encouraged it. He asked why women were subject to nine months' imprisonment under these Acts, while men went unpunished. He complained that women were 'induced by fraud and cajolery to sign a voluntary submission' (to a vaginal examination). Lord H. Lennox 'sharply criticised the women agitators who were opposing these Acts, and their filthy publications'. (Perhaps it was Lord Lennox that W.T. Stead had in mind when he wrote that it was a 'montrously immoral doctrine' that society considered it worse 'to reprove vice in public than to practise it in secret'.) The editor of the Saturday Review was of similar mind. In the issue of 26 March 1870 he called the women who campaigned against the Acts 'frenzied, unsexed and utterly without shame.'

Sir Henry Storks maintained that prostitution was 'a necessity' for the army and navy. He wanted the Acts extended to apply to women in the whole of the United Kingdom and to soldiers' wives and girlfriends. He was appointed Controller-in-Chief and Under-Secretary for War in 1867 and stood for parliament at Newark and at Colchester in 1870. Both times the abolitionists ran campaigns in the towns telling people what he believed in and both times he was defeated. However, he was returned for Ripon in 1871. The abolitionists later tried to prevent Hugh Childers from being elevted at Pontefract.

The majority of MPs voted to repeal the Acts of 1866 and 1869, but the Acts were not repealed.

Given the sexual nature of the Acts, it was excruciatingly embarrassing and therefore extremely difficult for women to speak against them publicly. No 'decent' woman was supposed to know anything about (a) VD or (b) prostitution. Nevertheless Mrs Butler, the pious and modest wife of a clergyman, somehow managed to start a Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the CD Acts.

A long piece by 'F' in the Pall Mall Gazette (2 May 1872) asserted that the women who took part in the repeal agitation proved that women should not have the vote because the protestors were 'fanatics' with 'a total forgetfulness of modesty, and even decency' and a 'disregard of decorum'. The vote would give women 'increased opportunities for mischief'. T

On 6 April 1871 a petition of more than a quarter of a million women, being too large for any table, was laid on the floor of the House of Commons. It called for the abolition of the CD Acts.

The agitation led to the appointment of a Royal Commission on 23 November 1870 and a select committee in 1879. The direct evidence was strongly in favour of the acts, alike with regard to the diminution of disease among the troops in the protected towns, the absence of complaints and the good effect on public order, to which clergymen and other residents testified. The majority of the committee reported accordingly after three years' inquiry; but in 1883 the House of Commons passed a resolution, by 182 to ? votes, condemning the compulsory examination of women. As this would have entailed refusal to vote the money required to carry on the system, it was immediately dropped, and the 'spies' of the Metropolitan Police were recalled. In 1886 the C.D. Acts were repealed.

Read excerpts from debates in the House of Commons on the repeal of the CD Acts.

Read press cuttings about the CD Acts.

Read the petition against the CD Acts.


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