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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Bradlaugh   6 June 1877

June 6 77


I am much obliged for your courteous notice.1 I have been for many years much out of health & have been forced to give up all Society or public meetings, & it would be great suffering to me to be be a witness in a court.— It is indeed not improbable that I might be unable to attend. Therefore I hope that if in your power you will excuse my attendance. I may add that I am not a medical man. I have not seen the book in question, but from notices in the newspapers, I suppose that it refers to means to prevent conception.2 If so I shd be forced to express in court a very decided opinion in opposition to you, & Mrs Besant; though from all that I have heard I do not doubt that both of you are acting solely in accordance to what you believe best for mankind.— I have long held an opposite opinion, as you will see in the enclosed extract, & this I shd. think it my duty to state in court. When the words “any means” were written of artificial means of preventing conception.3 But besides the evil here alluded to I believe that any such practices would in time spread to unmarried women & wd destroy chastity, on which the family bond depends; & the weakening of this bond would be the greatest of all possible evils to mankind; In conclusion I shd likewise think it my duty to state in Court; so that my judgment, would be in the strongest opposition to yours.,

On Friday the 8th I leave home for a month & my address for the 8th to … will be at my sisters house & from the 13th at my sons house, BS.4

If it is not asking too great a favour, I shd be greatly obliged if you wd inform me what you decide; as apprehension of the coming exertion would prevent the rest which I receive doing me much good. Apologising for the length of this letter. | Sir your obedient | C. R D.


Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were charged with obscentity for reprinting a birth-control pamphlet by the American physician Charles Knowlton (Knowlton 1832). The pamphlet advocated contraception within marriage as a means of checking population, while still allowing for gratification of the ‘reproductive instinct’ among married couples. On Knowlton’s work and forms of contraception in the nineteenth century, see Brodie 1994. Bradlaugh and Besant gave a new subtitle to the work (‘an essay on the population question’), and added a preface (Knowlton 1877). The case was reported extensively in newspapers (see, for example, The Times, 20 April 1877, p. 11).
The extract has not been found; however, CD evidently enclosed a passage from Descent 2d ed., p. 618: The enhancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem; all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children, for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage. On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence, consequent on his rapid multiplication, and if he is to advance still higher it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle; otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. This extract was quoted by Annie Besant in the trial (see Peart and Levy 2008).
CD stayed at Leith Hill Place in Surrey, the home of his sister, Caroline Sarah Wedgwood, and her family, from 8 to 13 June; he stayed at William Erasmus Darwin’s house in Bassett, Southampton, from 13 June to 4 July (CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).


Brodie, Janet Farrell. 1994. Contraception and abortion in nineteenth-century America. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

Knowlton, Charles. 1832. Fruits of philosophy, or, the private companion of young married people. New York: n.p.

Knowlton, Charles. 1877. Fruits of philosophy: an essay on the population question. London: Freethought Publishing Company.


CD would prefer not to be a witness in court. In any case CD’s opinion is strongly opposed to that of CB and Annie Besant. Has read only notices of their book [Charles Knowlton, Fruits of philosophy, with preface by the publishers A. Besant and C. Bradlaugh (1877)] but believes artificial checks to the natural rate of human increase are very undesirable and that the use of artificial means to prevent conception would soon destroy chastity and, ultimately, the family.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Bradlaugh
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 202: 32
Physical description
AdraftS 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10988,” accessed on 21 April 2021,