Women and the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-1886 (1:1)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Volume 1

Maria Luddy

Women and the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-1886 1

Isabella Tod, a pioneer in the fight to improve the position of women in Ireland during the last century.

The obsessive fear of venereal disease in the Victorian period has been likened to the dread occasioned by AIDS today. The ravages of these diseases were seen in the mid-nineteenth century as a cause of the apparent weakness of the British army, a weakness most apparent in the aftermath of the Crimean war. The government was frightened of an epidemic which would further reduce the fighting ability of its armed forces. To counter the spread of such diseases it introduced, in 1864, the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (CDAs) which permitted the compulsory inspection of prostitutes for venereal disease in certain military camps in both England and Ireland. Under the acts, a woman could be arrested by a policeman on suspicion of being a prostitute and taken before a magistrate, who had the power to certify her as a common prostitute and order her to submit to a fortnightly internal examination. If found to be suffering from gonorrhoea or syphilis, she was forcibly detained in a Lock hospital for a period of up to nine months. There was no similar check on men. In Ireland, the ‘subjected districts’ were Cork, Cobh and the Curragh camp. In effect the acts subjected women who were on the street to arbitrary and compulsory medical examination. The introduction of the acts increased surveillance of the public activities of women; as there was no definition of the word prostitute made available to the police or the courts, all women were possible suspects. The acts also heralded the beginning of the first women’s organisation in Ireland.

Evidence for the effects of the acts in Ireland is contradictory. Numerous commissions were conducted from 1869 to 1884. Since prostitution was seen as the way venereal diseases were spread, these commissions and their witnesses discussed prostitution in various parts of the country. Depending on the stance taken by the person giving the evidence, the acts were reported to have reduced the numbers of prostitutes operating in the designated areas and led to the reclamation of many women who were forced into the Lock hospitals; alternatively, they encouraged women to remain in the profession and drove the vice further underground, without reducing the number of people suffering from venereal diseases. Similarly there was conflicting evidence about the decline in venereal diseases. Evidence to the commissions in this country came solely from men, mainly clerics, medical doctors or those who claimed to have an interest in the subject. No Irishwoman was invited to give evidence. It is impossible to gauge the accuracy of the information relating to prostitution or venereal diseases put forward by the witnesses. For example, according to census returns, there were only six prostitutes operating in Cobh, a highly unlikely figure. The number of prostitutes hardly diminished significantly with the introduction of the acts, since prostitution resulted above all from poverty and was a means of earning a livelihood, and the conditions for the gainful employment of women had not improved in any dramatic way in the 1870s.  The acts merely forced prostitutes to be more secretive about their occupation without diminishing their activity.

Opposition to the acts arose for a number of reasons. By some, they were seen as an interference with civil liberties; by others, as the recognition and support of vice by the state. In England, a number of associations were established to force the repeal of the CDAs. Amongst these were the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (NARCDA), and the Ladies National Association (LNA), both formed in 1869. They opposed the acts because they applied solely to women, and marked the legitimation of the prevalent double standard of sexual morality. Both had branches in Ireland. By 1871 the LNA had branches in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Isabella Tod and Anna Haslam, pioneers in the fight to improve the position of women in Ireland during the last century, were involved in the campaign from the beginning. Tod served on the executive committee of the London-based LNA until 1889 when Haslam took her place. They both also served on the general council of the NARCDA, although this society was run by men, and women council members had little impact on policy.

Throughout its active period, from 1871 to 1885, the LNA in Ireland never had more than forty-nine subscribers, the majority from Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Although the association was small, its very existence marked a new departure for Irishwomen. For the first time, they were willing to discuss openly matters pertaining to sexual morality and to initiate a public campaign to question and alter the prevailing sexual double standard. In England there was a degree of hostility towards women’s activism in this area. Although there is no direct evidence of such hostility in Ireland, the size of the association indicates how few were willing to be involved in such a campaign. One witness before the select committee on the effects of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1871, a Catholic priest, when asked if women were involved in any way against the acts, stated that ‘there are a great many ladies who exert themselves very much and we Catholic clergy do not approve of their putting placards before young females inviting them to read these acts of which women never heard before’. That the matter was a delicate one even for the women involved is revealed in a number of instances. Mrs Henry Wigham, speaking at a drawing room meeting in Dublin in 1880, sympathised ‘with the natural repugnance felt by women in approaching so loathsome a subject’, but she urged that women ‘must lay aside our tastes and inclinations, and the veil of blissful ignorance in which we indolently shroud ourselves, and come face to face with the evil in its most repellent forms’. Those women who played an active role in the association clearly were very courageous. Some women were either embarrassed or wary of working with men in this area; whereas the original committee of the NARCDA in Dublin was a mixed one, in 1878 a subcommittee, for women only, was established as ‘some ladies are not yet prepared to join a mixed committee’.
The function of the LNA in Ireland was to support the aims of the parent body in London. In practise this meant raising funds, organising petitions to parliament against the acts, attempting to alter public opinion by distributing pamphlets and papers on the subject, and holding meetings. The majority of meetings were held in the drawing rooms of activists and were attended by women only. These meetings always began and ended with prayers. A number of petitions were forwarded to London and between 1870 and 1881 these mustered 85,759 signatures. The Belfast branch of the LNA was active in trying to ensure that the acts would not be extended to that city. They claimed that their efforts had averted ‘the terrible danger and degradation of being subjected to the direct operation of the acts’. They saw their implementation  as an affront ‘to the decency and purity of society – the dignity and independence of every woman in the land’.
The parent body in London was anxious to extend its range of activities in Ireland and sent a number of its agents to give public talks on the subject here. In 1878 the annual general meeting of the Association was held in Dublin, and was attended by Josephine Butler, the great English campaigner and founder of the LNA. After their own meeting, a public conference was organised, for a mixed audience, in the Rotunda. Amongst the speakers were Sir James Stansfield, MP, one of the leading advocates for repeal, and Butler herself also spoke. When Stansfield rose to speak, there were cries that the women in the audience should be put out and a number of young men began to disrupt the meeting; the police had to be called to clear the hall and the meeting was abandoned. A further meeting was held on the following day, again with a mixed audience. The committee blamed the disruption on a group of disorderly students but it is clear that the campaign was unpopular in some quarters.

The women who were active in the movement in Ireland were predominantly Quakers. Anna Haslam, Mrs Henry Wigham, Mary Edmundson, Mrs Henry Allen and all the women in the Webb family were subscribers. Isabella Tod was a Presbyterian, and it appears that very few, if any, of the women were Catholics. One of the characteristics of repeal activists was the involvement of members of the same family in the campaign. Thus, for example, Henry Wigham, Henry Allen, Alfred Webb and Thomas Haslam, all active in the NARCDA, were married, or related to, members of the LNA. The degree of such family support encouraged activists to continue in their campaign. Anna Haslam’s husband, Thomas, published a pamphlet on the Contagious Diseases Acts in Ireland. He analysed the causes of prostitution as the lack of occupations open to women; the poor pay of some men which did not allow them to marry; drink was an added factor; and society’s attitudes to women who are ‘the victims of seduction’ further complicated the problem. But he maintained that ‘it is men’s unchastity and men’s injustice which are mainly responsible for this crying wrong’. The CDAs were, he wrote, ‘a dangerous piece of legislative bungling’ and he called for their immediate repeal or radical amendment.

The LNA in Britain worked on the premise that one standard of sexual morality, for both men and women, should exist. The campaign against the CDA itself was a moral rather than a social crusade. Self-discipline and a higher moral standard, particularly on the part of men, were advocated by the repeal associations. Women, it was believed, naturally possessed this high standard and it was the ideal which they expected of men. The recognition and articulation of the sexual double standard was fully expressed in this campaign. The work of the women in the LNA was also used by Isabella Tod to support women’s claim for the vote. The success of the repeal movement had according to Tod, shown how effective women’s activism could be. ‘It was not only for the help which women must give to women, but even more, for the discharge of their special duty to the  whole state – a duty which God has entrusted to them, and which no man can do – [that] women are bound to demand their immediate admission within the electorate’.
One of the new aspects introduced by the LNA was an attempt to analyse why women became prostitutes. They accepted that prostitution was the result of poverty and the Irish activists in the LNA, with their involvement in societies to improve the educational, work and political prospects of women, were hoping to improve conditions for all women. Although the English branch of the LNA advocated that its members become involved in rescue work, none of the Irish activists were so involved. Tod’s and Edmundson’s activism in this area was confined to the fate of female ex-prisoners, who were not necessarily prostitutes.
The impact of the repeal campaign on Irishwomen in general is difficult to assess. The acts were repealed in 1886 and in Ireland the membership of the LNA steadily declined in the latter years of the campaign with only ten subscribers for 1884. Because of their religious affiliations, and indeed their political and social activism, the women of the Irish branch of the LNA were unrepresentative of Irishwomen in general. It is difficult also to ascertain how successful the Irish women were in bringing about the repeal of the acts. Their primary strength was their willingness to keep the issue before the public through their petitions and meetings. This was seen by the English repeal societies to be of major importance.

Women and the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-1886 2

The Lock Hospital, Westland Row, Dublin. Prostitutes infected with venereal CONCLUSION disease were liatfe to be forcibly detained here under the Acts.

One result of the repeal campaigns was the development of the social purity movement which made its appearance in Ireland in the mid 1880s. The LNA in England argued that it had set the pace for the social purity movement established by Ellice Hopkins. The White Cross Army, which she founded in England in 1883, was an attempt to improve the sexual behaviour of men. Only men were recruited and they pledged, among other things, to ‘treat all women with respect … to endeavour to put down all indecent language and jests … to maintain the laws of purity as equally binding on men and women’. It quickly became associated with the Church of England and it made its first appearance in Dublin in 1885. Hopkins herself visited Dublin that year and her rousing speech initiated the formation of the Dublin White Cross Vigilance Association. Besides attending lectures, members of the association engaged in ‘patrol work’. In effect this meant keeping watch outside known ‘evil houses’ and, through such harassment, forcing them to close. In 1888 one brothel owner offered a bribe of £1,000 to the members of a patrol if they would stop watching his premises. Also in 1888 the committee of the association successfully prosecuted one hotel owner for keeping a brothel in the city. In 1891, it claimed to have fourteen branches in Dublin with 530 members. In another visit, in 1893, Hopkins revitalised the association and a group of twenty-four members accosted customers leaving the city’s brothels. Through the activities of this movement, it was claimed that thirty-five brothels had closed down and Mecklenberg Street had been cleared of prostitutes in the 1890s. These societies were run and organised by men and women were not involved.
Attempts to inculcate purity among men were also carried out by Catholic agencies, particularly through confraternities. The energies of Irishwomen tackling sexual immorality centred almost entirely on rescue work. This was a defensive activity which made little social impact save for the few women who were supposedly ‘reclaimed’. The introduction of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which gave the police power to summarily convict brothel keepers and allowed imprisonment for repeated offences in this area, went some way to reduce the vice in Dublin. The social purity movement, whose members worked closely with the police, took credit for the improvement in the streets of the capital. The decline in prostitution noticeable in the police statistics from the 1880s seems to vindicate the claim but it is more likely that improving educational standards, increased work opportunities and declining population were more influential.

The Contagious Diseases Acts sparked a debate which encouraged both men and women to campaign vigorously against their implementation; it raised questions about women’s place in society; it openly acknowledged women’s sexuality and debated the role of government in attempting to control the behaviour and morality of individuals in society. These debates have continued into the twentieth century, and few if any have yet been resolved.

Maria Luddy is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Warwick.

Further reading:

P. McHugh, Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform (London 1980).

J.R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (Cambridge 1980).

< Luddy, ‘Prostitution and rescue work in nineteenth century Ireland’ in M. Luddy and C. Murphy (ed.), Women Surviving: Studies in Irish Women’s History in the l9th and 20th Centuries (Dublin 1990).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568