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By | From the Collections


A recent manuscript acquisition highlights the importance of dance to health provision for women in the 1930s. Not as health-promoting exercise along the lines of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, but as a means of supporting voluntary organisations in the health field (though it doubtless also provided beneficial exercise).

When we think of dance in the 1930s, we probably think of Fred and Ginger facing the music and dancing or on a grimmer note, dance marathons, but a number of worthy causes in the UK held dances as a means of raising funds and gaining support.

In the recently acquired letter (MS.8826) from the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes to a friend, she solicits his attendance at a ‘modest kind of dance’ at the New Burlington Galleries being got up in aid of the birth control clinic at which she volunteered.


This was not the only dance in aid of family planning, something that would not even be fully incorporated into National Health Service provision until 1974, during the 1930s when the struggle for support was still uphill. In 1933 the International Birth Control Group held a Malthusian Ball at the Dorchester Hall, for which they managed to gain the patronage of HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone.


(We may note the use of the ‘happy, healthy children’ motif to advance their cause.)


With a much more elevated social profile (it had been founded by Lucy Baldwin, wife of the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin) and a rather different angle on tackling contemporary problems of maternal health, the National Birthday Trust Fund held a number of glittering society balls to raise funds for their research into obstetric analgesia and the improvement of midwifery.

While they faced the music and danced, and presumably enjoyed themselves as they did so, these organisations were less about moonlight, and love, and romance, than about making provisions for the potentially less welcome reproductive outcomes of those things.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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