Sex, religion and royalty: also dairy farming

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By | From the Collections

 Bertrand Edward, Lord Dawson. Wellcome Images No. V0026285

Bertrand Edward, Lord Dawson. Wellcome Images No. V0026285

Religion, sex, and royalty are supposed to be the perfect storm for creating a bestseller. Archives and Manuscripts have recently acquired some papers of Lord Dawson of Penn, physician to four monarchs (Edwards VII and VIII, Georges V and VI), which include, among other items of interest, some intriguing intersections between sex and religion.

Dawson is probably best remembered via the poem:

Lord Dawson of Penn

Has killed many men

Wherefore we sing

God Save The King

and for his admitted euthanasia of George V, giving the terminally-ill monarch a dose of morphine strong enough to ensure that his death would be announced in The Times morning edition. These papers however reflect rather different aspects of his activities.

They only represent some facets of Dawson’s life and career, in which he was heavily involved in medical politics, both internal, as a Fellow and eventually President, of the Royal College of Physicians, and external, as a member of the House of Lords, and numerous causes. In spite of these establishment credentials he was a controversial figure, for example, being one of the first medical men to speak out in favour of birth control during the 1920s, when most doctors preserved a discreet silence on the subject if they were not outright condemnatory.

Postcard showing a 'Surgical Rubber Ware' slot machine.Wellcome Images No. V0026285.

A postcard showing a ‘Surgical Rubber Ware’ slot machine.Wellcome Images No. V0026285.

The papers include a typed (and heavily edited and annotated in pencil) transcript of Dawson’s evidence to the Joint Committee of the Convocation of Canterbury on Marriage in 1932 (PP/BED/B.1) and a substantial file relating to his support for the Sale of Contraceptives Bill, 1934. These demonstrate that in spite of his relatively advanced views on matters of sexual morality, he was regarded as something of an ally by the Anglican hierarchy, certain members of which in the early 1930s appear to have been fighting a rearguard action against the 1930s Lambeth Conference’s declaration that contraception had a licit place in Christian marriage. He was approached by various eminent members of the Church of England hierarchy, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, who were concerned by reports of a proliferation of slot machines dispensing condoms and more generally by the dissemination of contraceptive information.

A Photograph of a 'Surgical Rubber Ware' slot machine. Wellcome Images No. L0072911.

A photograph of a ‘Surgical Rubber Ware’ slot machine. Wellcome Images No. L0072911.

Dawson comes over as somewhat sceptical that condom machines represented much of a social danger, asking for specific sightings and locations, although the file does include photographs of at least two examples, and an account of a couple of entrepreneurs who were converting machines for vending chocolate into condom dispensers.

However, as someone who had expressed views that contraception ought to be left in the hands of doctors, he was clearly in some degree of sympathy with imposing constraints on the sale of birth control products and controlling the activities of ‘rubber goods shops’, which sold contraceptives alongside abortifacients, purported remedies for ‘sexual debility’, and dubious literature (some examples of their advertising leaflets are held on this file). This led him into conflict with the birth control movement – represented here by a couple of irate letters from Marie Stopes (see PP/MCS/B/28 for more on her views, and SA/FPA/A8/8A for the position of the National Birth Control Association) – who were more concerned with improving standards of birth control products rather than restricting accessibility.

A photograph of a birth control slot machine. Wellcome Images No. L0072912

A photograph of a birth control slot machine.
Wellcome Images No. L0072912

Other issues with which Dawson was concerned included exercise for a healthy nation, leading him to go so far as to advocate compulsory physical training (PP/BED/B.3), something that was not necessarily an acceptable point of view in 1940. He spoke vehemently and at length in debates in the House of Lords on wartime food policy, making strong representations of the importance of ensuring a good supply of milk and eggs (PP/BED/B.4). This produced a significant amount of correspondence, mainly from individual dairy and poultry farmers, in support of his stand and voicing their complaints with existing measures.  He was also at the head of medical resistance to the 1944 Government White Paper laying out their proposals for a National Health Service (PP/BED/A.5).

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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