Women's History Month: The Centenary of Britain's First Birth Control Clinic

Women's History Month: The Centenary of Britain's First Birth Control Clinic

It was exactly one hundred years ago, on 17th March 1921, when Marie Stopes and her husband Humphrey Verdon Roe founded the first birth-control clinic in Britain, free and open to all married women for education about birth-control methods and reproductive health. On the first day that it opened, a queue of women attracted by posters announcing the event waited outside the Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control at 61 Marlborough Road in Holloway, a working class area in North London.

Image of Marie Stopes in her garden in Surrey, England
Photograph of Marie Stopes in her garden in Surrey, England.

In 1925 the clinic moved to Whitfield Street in Bloomsbury and Stopes wrote the first official report of the Mothers' Clinic, entitled The First Five Thousand in which she claims spectacular success. Only thirty-one of her patients, or less than one percent, she asserted, became pregnant while using the contraceptive devices her clinics recommended. By 1929, ten thousand women had received contraceptive advice.

Image of The First Five Thousand Report by Marie Stopes
Image of The First Five Thousand Report by Marie Stopes, published in 1925, held at Senate House Library

During the 30s, Stopes established a network of regional clinics in Leeds, Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff and Swansea modelled after the London Clinic. Stopes also operated two horse-drawn Caravan Clinics that travelled to small towns, the first such mobile clinics in the world. 

Advert for the Mother's Clinic
Advert for the first birth control clinic in Holloway

The Mothers' Clinics were carefully constructed spaces, private sanctuaries away from public spaces. Painted a blue shade, with furnishings resembling comfortable domestic sitting-rooms, they radiated a sense of respectability and responsibility. Highly qualified midwives, wives and mothers themselves, dispensed advice and fitted the vast majority of patients. Birth control as taught in the Mothers' Clinics was necessary to marital fulfilment and good health. 
 

Photograph of one of Stopes' mobile birth control clinics
Photograph of one of Stopes' mobile birth control clinics

To regulate her own fertility in this way, a woman often had to overcome the stigma that birth control carried in many working class communities. Sex was taboo in most circles and even feminists steered clear of making birth control information an issue until long after WWI. Many women were brought up to believe that contraception was shameful and, for some, merely visiting a clinic was a subversive act. 

In her clinics, Stopes advocated three types of reproductive planning: preventing unwanted births, spacing children in a family, and helping couples who were infertile to conceive. She was opposed to abortions and instructed her midwives to educate women about the use of contraceptive technologies. Her preferred contraceptive device was the Pro-Race cervical cap, which The London Rubber Company made to her specifications and packaged together with Stopes’ Letter to Working Mothers

Letter to working mothers & advert for cervical cap
A letter to working mothers by Marie Stopes alongside an advert for Stope's cervical cap

Stopes’ cervical cap was at the centre of the debate in her libel case against Catholic doctor Halliday G. Sutherland who condemned her use of ‘harmful’ methods of contraception. She seized the opportunity to further her cause by writing a scathing review in the first issue of Birth Control News. She won only a partial victory but received enormous publicity as a result of the trial.

Books on Marie Stopes @ SHL & images of adverts for contraception
Image of a book on the trial of Marie Stopes alongside a copy of the review of Married Love in Birth Control News

That Marie Stopes was a convinced eugenicist is now a well-established fact. In recognition of this, the charity Marie Stopes International recently changed its name to MSI Reproductive Choice in November 2020.  However, she also held strong feminist and humanitarian beliefs, reflected in her practical work in the clinic, where Stopes often violated her own proclaimed eugenic allegiances in her concern for the health and happiness of the individual woman. All married women who asked for birth control at the Mothers' Clinics would be fitted, regardless of their wealth or social standing. A caricature of eugenic thought can also be glimpsed in her didactic, propagandistic play Our Ostriches.

Marie Stopes play Our Ostriches at SHL & images of Marie Stopes in the lab (public domain)
First edition copy of Marie Stopes' play 'Our Ostriches' alongside an image of Marie Stopes in her laboratory

While today a lot of us struggle with some of the outdated views of Stopes, her pioneering work in sex education at a time when the mere mention of sex and birth control was taboo, cannot be denied. Her work in clinics and as a writer, paved the way for many developments in women’s reproductive health and rights.  

You can explore a wealth of printed and digital holdings related to the birth control movement and the reproductive rights of women at Senate House Library (see list below), including a selection of works by pioneers that came before and after Stopes that were featured in our Rights for Women exhibition.

Mura Ghosh, Academic Librarian for Psychology, Philosophy & Social Sciences

Resources in Senate House Library:


Selected works by Marie Stopes
Marie C. Stopes (1935). Marriage in my time.
Marie C. Stopes (1926). Contraception (birth-control): its theory, history and practice. J. Bale Sons & Danielssons
Marie C. Stopes (1923). Radiant motherhood: a book for those who are creating the future. G.P. Putnam’s Sns
Marie C. Stopes (1918). Married love: a new contribution to the solution of sex difficulties. A.C. Fifield

Biographies of Marie Stopes
June Rose (1992). Marie Stopes and the sexual revolution. Faber & Faber
Ruth Hall ed. (1978). Dear Dr Stopes: sex in the 1920s. Deutsch
Ruth Hall (1977). Marie Stopes: a biography. Deutsch
Keith Briant (1962). Marie Stopes: a biography. The Hogarth Press
Aylmer Maude (1924). The authorised life of Mary C. Stopes. William and Norgate

Works about Marie Stopes and birth control
Claire L. Jones (2020). The business of birth control: contraception and commerce in Britain before the sexual revolution. Manchester University Press
Clare Debenham (2018). Marie Stopes’ sexual revolution and the birth control movement. Palgrave Macmillan
Simon Szreter (2010). Sex before the sexual revolution: intimate life in England 1918-1963. Cambridge University Press
Robert A. Peel ed. (1997). Marie Stopes, eugenics and the English birth control movement. Galton Institute
Richard A. Soloway (1982). Birth control and the population question in England, 1877-1930. University of North Carolina Press
Diana Gittins (1982). Fair sex: family size and structure 1900-39. Hutchinson
Audrey Leathard (1980). The fight for family planning: the development of family planning services in Britain 1921-1974. Macmillan Press
Peter Eaton (1977). Marie Stopes: a checklist of her writings. Croom Helm
Harry V. Stopes-Roe (1974). Marie Stopes and birth control. Priory Press
Muriel Box ed. (1967). The trial of Marie Stopes. Femina Books
Women’s Co-operative Guild (1915). Maternity: letters from working women. G. Bell

Electronic resources A-Z guide
Alexander Street Press
Gale Primary Sources
Margaret Sanger Papers: Smith College Collections and Collected Documents
Mass Observation Online. Britain and her birth rate. 1945 
Women and social movements
Women’s magazine archive
Women’s Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights, National Politics, and Reproductive Rights
 

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