‘Lobbied, charmed and persuaded’

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We were saddened to read the recent obituary of Vera Houghton (1914-2013), pioneer in the fields of abortion law reform and free birth control. The importance of her work, and that of her late husband, the Labour MP and Cabinet Minister, Douglas, later Lord Houghton, in these fields is amply indicated across a range of archival collections in the Wellcome Library.

Vera Houghton in 1988.

Vera Houghton in 1988.

Although there is no discrete collection of her own papers she is by no means hidden from the historical record. She is, of course, very visible in the records of the Abortion Law Reform Association adroitly working in the background to steer the 1967 David Steel Abortion Act into law; after its passing she continued the struggle for its defense in the face of opposition. This campaign also led her into the founding of the Birth Control Campaign and Trust, on the basis that it was an anomaly that abortion should be free under the NHS but that birth control was still, in spite of the Edwin Brooks Act of 1966, not universally free. She also became active in the Family Planning Association, eventually becoming its chair in 1973, and seeing birth control become free under the NHS in the following year.

She had been working in the area for a very long time. Although she failed to be appointed General Secretary of the FPA in succession to Margaret Pyke, she was offered a job with the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, which became the International Planned Parenthood Federation , of which she was Executive Secretary from 1953 until 1959. While we do not hold the records of the IPPF, her work in this international context is reflected among the papers of Carlos Paton Blacker  (PP/CPB)- as we can see from this letter to him, she was a sufferer from migraine – and the Eileen Palmer papers include some letters between Houghton and the American pioneer of birth control Margaret Sanger (PP/EPR/E.7).

Letter to Carlos Blacker

Letter from Vera Houghton to C P Blacker, 9 Aug 1972. Wellcome Library ref. PP/CPB/G.7/19

Material reflecting her husband’s involvement with similar matters can be found among the records of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health which he founded in 1978; as well as items to do with the All Party Committee on Adoption that he chaired, in the archives of the Medical Women’s Federation (SA/MWF/H.34/5) and the Society of Medical Officers of Health (SA/SMO/L.88). Another facet of his activities may be found in the archives of the Research Defence Society pertaining to his 1972 Bill to amend the Cruelty to Animals Act (SA/RDS/J.4, J.13). Lord Houghton’s own papers can be found at the Labour History and Study Centre at the People’s Museum, Manchester, and some of his  constituency correspondence is held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.

Also held in the Library are the cassette of an interview conducted with Vera Houghton in 1982  by Barbara Evans while researching her biography of the early twentieth century birth controller and sex therapist Helena Wright (PP/PRE/J.1/22/19) , and the transcript of a video recording of Lord and Lady Houghton made for the Television History Workshop programme ‘In the Club’ in 1987-8 (GC/105/39).

An online sources guide (downloadable pdf) provides further information on our extensive holdings relating to birth control and abortion.

Author: Dr Lesley Hall is a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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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