Significant anniversaries in 2016: the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866?

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

2016 is to be a year of historical anniversaries: 950 years since the Battle of Hastings; 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare; 350 years since the Great Fire of London; 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. The list could go on. Marking anniversaries is a long established tradition in the UK that has been shaped our culture for better or worse. We need only look to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ vehemently anti-Catholic rhetoric in the yearly commemorations of the Gunpowder Plot to understand how anniversaries can serve to reinforce the ideologies of history’s victors.

What, then, of the anniversaries of groups or individuals who have typically been marginalised? Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 5 January, Suzannah Lipscomb pointed out that women’s lives are rarely marked in anniversaries. Asked what forgotten anniversary we should commemorate this year, she suggested the passage of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1866. A hardly glamorous-sounding subject, this Act was fundamentally important in shaping the beginnings of the women’s rights movement in the UK. In honour of this, the following is a very brief summary of what the act did, and why it is worthy of commemoration.

What did it do? The Contagious Diseases Act of 1866 introduced fortnightly internal examinations of prostitutes in the South of England for venereal disease. Extended in 1869 to cover other towns across the UK, the Act required the imprisonment of those women found to be diseased for up to three (later nine) months. This resulted in the subjection of many women to painful and humiliating examinations of their bodies. It also suggested that women were to blame for the spread of venereal disease, and criminalised women who had committed no offence.

How was it received? Initially, with very little interest. Press coverage of the initial (temporary) Act in 1864 was not extensive; it was also mixed up with coverage of another Contagious Diseases Act, which applied to cattle, in discussion at the time. However, in September 1869 a public meeting held by two Bristol surgeons in response to the Act caused the schoolmistress and later suffragette Elizabeth Wolstenholme to tell her friend Josephine Butler about the outrage of the Acts. Together they set up the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA), which campaigned vehemently for their repeal. Between 1870 and 1885 they held more than 900 meetings and produced over seventeen thousand petitions with 2,606,429 signatures against the Acts. [1]

There were, however equal numbers of meetings held by those who supported the Acts, including the Association for Promoting the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, who believed the Acts to be an effective way of regulating prostitution. There were further criticisms of the LNA on the grounds that their discussions of sexually transmitted disease and the violence of police officers towards women was too frank.

What was the impact of the campaigning? The LNA was eventually successful in their immediate mission and Parliament first suspended the Acts in 1883 before repealing them in 1886.

Why does this matter? In the short term it mattered for the dignity and safety of thousands of women. Furthermore, and perhaps more controversially in the light of recent debates, it ended legalised prostitution. More broadly, it was highly significant for the campaign for women’s rights. The national campaign against the Act had highlighted the injustice of the social and political conditions under which many women lived. Although the campaign against the Acts was regarded by some as potentially damaging to the early efforts of the woman’s suffrage movement, it was immensely important in raising the profile of women’s social issues, particularly the double-standards that were applied to questions of sexual morality. Butler further highlighted that the Act may not have been passed if women had the vote, and many of those who were involved in the LNA went on to be important in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Despite its obvious significance, it is unlikely that there will be any extensive commemorations of the Contagious Diseases Act this year. Public commemorations can do wonders for promoting history, and can be powerful tools for capturing interest in lesser-known subjects. It is worth, however, noting that the propensity to tell history through anniversaries may in fact result in us forgetting more than we remember.


[1] E.M Sigworth and T.J Wyke ‘A Study of Victorian Prostitution and Venereal Disease’, in M. Vicinius, ed., Suffer and be still. Women in the Victorian Age (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013; 1st edn 1972), p. 77.

Further reading:

  • M. Vicinius, ed., Suffer and be still. Women in the Victorian Age (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013; 1st edn 1972)
  • Patricia Ward D’Itri, Cross Currents in the International Women’s Movement, 1848-1948 (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State Univerisity Press, 1999)
  • Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)
  • Fraser Joyce, ‘Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the “Great Social Evil”’, Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research 1, 1 (2008) –
  • Claire Jones, ‘Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866 and 1869)’, HerStoria, 5 July 2012 –

Image: By John Leech (1857 Punch Magazine 33:114) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons –

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