Annie Besant

Annie Besant

Annie Besant, the daughter of William Wood and Emily Morris, was born at 2 Fish Street, London in 1847. Annie's father, a doctor, died when she was only five years old. Without any savings, Annie's mother found work looking after boarders at Harrow School. Mrs. Wood was unable to care for Annie and she persuaded a friend, Ellen Marryat, who lived in Charmouth in Dorset, to take responsibility for her upbringing.

In 1866 Annie met the Rev. Frank Besant. Although only nineteen, Annie agreed to marry the young clergyman in Hastings on 21st December 1867. By the time she was twenty-three Annie had two children, Digby (16th January 1869) and Mabel (28th August 1870). However, Annie was deeply unhappy because her independent sprit clashed with the traditional views of her husband. Annie also began to question her religious beliefs. When Annie refused to attend communion, Frank Besant ordered her to leave the family home. A legal separation was arranged and Digby, the son, stayed with his father, and Mabel went to live with Annie in London.

After leaving her husband Annie Besant completely rejected Christianity and in 1874 joined the Secular Society. Annie soon developed a close relationship with Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the radical National Reformer and leader of the secular movement in Britain. Bradlaugh gave Annie a job working for the National Reformer and during the next few years wrote many articles on issues such as marriage and women's rights.

Besant also developed a reputation as an outstanding public speaker. The Irish journalist, T. P. O'Connor wrote: " What a beautiful and attractive and irresistible creature she was then’with her slight but full and well-shaped figure, her dark hair, her finely chiselled features… with that short upper lip that seemed always in a pout". Beatrice Webb claimed that she was the "only woman I have ever known who is a real orator, who has the gift of public persuasion."

Tom Mann agreed: "The first time I heard Mrs. Besant was in Birmingham, about 1875. The only women speakers I had heard before this were of mediocre quality. Mrs. Besant transfixed me; her superb control of voice, her whole-souled devotion to the cause she was advocating, her love of the down-trodden, and her appeal on behalf of a sound education for all children, created such an impression upon me, that I quietly, but firmly, created such an impression upon me, that I quietly, but firmly, resolved that I would ascertain more correctly the why and wherefore of her creed."

In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh decided to publish The Fruits of Philosophy, written by Charles Knowlton, a book that advocated birth control. Besant and Bradlaugh were charged with publishing material that was "likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences". In court they argued that "we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing." Besant and Bradlaugh were both found guilty of publishing an "obscene libel" and sentenced to six months in prison. At the Court of Appeal the sentence was quashed.

After the court-case Besant wrote and published her own book advocating birth control entitled The Laws of Population. The idea of a woman advocating birth-control received wide-publicity. Newspapers like The Times accused Besant of writing "an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book". Rev. Besant used the publicity of the case to persuade the courts that he, rather than Annie Besant, should have custody of their daughter Mabel.

In 1880 Charles Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton, but as he was not a Christian he refused to take the oath, and was expelled from the House of Commons. As well as working with Bradlaugh, Besant also became friends with socialists such as Walter Crane, Edward Aveling and George Bernard Shaw. This upset Bradlaugh, who regarded socialism as a disruptive foreign doctrine.

After joining the Social Democratic Federation, Annie started her own campaigning newspaper called The Link. Like Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army, Annie was concerned about the health of young women workers at theBryant & May match factory. On 23rd June, 1888, Annie published an article White Slavery in London where she drew attention to the dangers of phosphorus fumes and complained about the low wages paid to the women who worked at Bryant & May.

Three women who provided information for Annie's article were sacked. Annie responded by helping the women at Bryant & May to form a Matchgirls Union. After a three week strike, the company was forced to make significant concessions including the re-employment the three victimized women.

Besant also join the socialist group, the Fabian Society, and in 1889 contributed to the influencial book, Fabian Essays. As well as Besant, the book included articles by George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Webb, Sydney Olivier, Graham Wallas, William Clarke and Hubert Bland. Edited by Shaw, the book sold 27,000 copies in two years.

In 1889 Annie Besant was elected to the London School Board. After heading the poll with a fifteen thousand majority over the next candidate, Besant argued that she had been given a mandate for large-scale reform of local schools. Some of her many achievements included a programme of free meals for undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those in elementary schools.

In the 1890s Annie Besant became a supporter of Theosophy, a religious movement founded by Helena Blavatsky in 1875. Theosophy was based on Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation with nirvana as the eventual aim. Besant went to live in India but she remained interested in the subject of women's rights. She continued to write letters to British newspapers arguing the case for women's suffrage and in 1911 was one of the main speakers at an important NUWSS rally in London.

While in India, Annie joined the struggle for Indian Home Rule, and during the First World War was interned by the British authorities.

Annie Besant died in India on 20th September 1933.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1832 Dr. Charles Knowlton of Ashfield, Massachusetts was sentenced to three months hard labour for writing and publishing The Fruits of Philosophy, a book the provided details of different methods of birth control. Although constantly prosecuted, over the next forty years Knowlton sold 40,000 copies of his book.

In how many instances does the hard-working father, and more especially the mother, of a poor family remain slaves throughout their lives… toiling to live, and living to toil; when, if their offspring had been limited to two or three only, they might have enjoyed comfort and comparative affluence? How often is the health of the mother, giving birth every year to an infant and compelled to toil on… how often is the mother's comfort, health, nay, even her life thus sacrificed? Many women cannot give birth to healthy, living children. Is it desirable - is it moral, that such women should become pregnant?

(2) In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh attempted to publish The Fruits of Philosophy in Britain. The couple were immediately arrested and charged with publishing an 'obscene' book. Hardinge Gifford, the public prosecutor, explained why Besant and Bradlaugh were on trial.

I say that this is a dirty, filthy book, and the test of it is that no human being would allow that book on his table, no decently educated English husband would allow even his wife to have it…the object of it is to enable a person to have sexual intercourse, and not to have that which in the order of providence is the natural result of that sexual intercourse. That is the only purpose of the book and all the instruction in the other parts of the book leads up to that proposition.

(3) Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were both found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment, and fined £200. However in February 1878, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgement and the sentence was quashed. Annie Besant responded to this decision by writing her own book on birth control. She explained in her autobiography her reasons for this.

I wrote a pamphlet entitled The Law of Population giving the arguments which had convinced me of its truth, the terrible distress and degradation entailed on families by overcrowding and the lack of necessaries of life, pleading for early marriages that prostitution might be destroyed, and limitation of the family that pauperism might be avoided, finally giving the information which rendered early marriage without these evils possible. This pamphlet was put in circulation as representing our views on the subject.

We continued the sale of Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy for some time until we received an intimation that no further prosecution would be attempted, and on this we at once dropped its publication, substituting for it my Law of Population.

(4) In her booklet, The Laws of Population, Annie Besant looked at why the growth in population size was slow in pre-industrial societies.

War, infanticide, hardship, famine, disease, murder of the aged, all these are among the positive checks which keep down the increase of population among savage tribes. War carries off the young men, full of vigour, the warriors in their prime of life, the strongest, the most robust, the most fiery - those in fact, who, from their physical strength and energy would be most likely to add largely to the number of the tribe. Infanticide, most prevalent where means of existence are most restricted, is largely practised among barbarous nations, the custom being due, to a large extent, to the difficulty of providing food for a large family.

Men, women, and children, who would be doomed to death in the savage state, have their lives prolonged by civilization; the sickly, whom the hardships of the savage struggle for existence would kill off, are carefully tended in hospitals, and saved by medical skill; the parents, whose thread of life would be cut short, are cherished on into prolonged old age; the feeble, who would be left to starve, are tenderly shielded from hardship, and life's road is made the smoother for the lame; the average life is lengthened, and more and more thought is brought to bear on the causes of preventable disease; better drainage, better homes, better food, better clothing, all these, among the more comfortable classes, remove many of the natural checks to population.

In England our population is growing rapidly enough to cause anxiety… England has almost doubled her population during the last fifty years. In 1810 the population of England and Wales was about 10,000,000, and in 1860 it was about 20,000,000. "At the present time" writes Professor Henry Fawcett, "it is growing at the rate of 200,000 every year, which is almost equivalent to the population of the country of Northampton… it is possible that the population of England will be 80 millions in 1960."

(5) In her booklet, The Laws of Population, Annie Besant looked at the impact of a growing population on the working class.

One of the earliest signs of too rapidly increasing population is the overcrowding of the poor. Just as the overcrowded seedlings spoil each other's growth, so do the overcrowded poor injure each other morally, mentally and physically. Whether we study town or country the result of our enquiries is the same - the houses are too small and the families are too large. Can there be any doubt that it is the large families so common among the English poor that is the root of this overcrowding? For not only would the "model-lodging house" have been less crowded if the parents, instead of having ten children, had only two, but with fewer children less money would be needed for food and clothing, and more could be spared for rent.

It is clearly useless to preach the limitation of the family and to conceal the means whereby such limitation may be effected. If the limitation be a duty it cannot be wrong to afford such information as shall enable people to discharge it… At present all one can do is to lay before the public the various checks suggested by doctors.

(6) Annie Besant believed that the restrictions on employment was one of the reasons why so many women ended up in the workhouse. She explained her views in her booklet The Laws of Population published in 1884.

Many who are willing to work cannot find employment; in most of our important branches of industry there has been great over-production; every trade and every profession is over-crowded. Difficult as it is for men to obtain a livelihood, it is ten times more difficult for women to do so; partly on account of unjust laws, and partly because of the tyranny of society, they are shut out from many employments.

(7) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (27th November, 1886)

I am sorry I have not seen Mrs Besant again. We met and I felt interested in that powerful woman, with her blighted wifehood and motherhood and her thirst for power and defence of the world. I heard her speak, the only woman I have ever known who is a real orator, who has the gift of public persuasion. But to see her speaking made me shudder. it is not womanly to thrust yourself before the world.

(8) Tom Mann, Memoirs (1923)

The first time I heard Mrs. Besant was in Birmingham, about 1875. The only women speakers I had heard before this were of mediocre quality. Mrs. Besant transfixed me; her superb control of voice, her whole-souled devotion to the cause she was advocating, her love of the down-trodden, and her appeal on behalf of a sound education for all children, created such an impression upon me, that I quietly, but firmly, created such an impression upon me, that I quietly, but firmly, resolved that I would ascertain more correctly the why and wherefore of her creed.

(9) Ben Tillett, Memories and Reflections (1931)

Mrs. Besant joined the Fabian Society very shortly after its creation, and was one of the famous group who formulated the principles of English Socialism. Her remarkable qualities as a woman, and her gifts as an orator, speedily made her a prominent figure in the East End of London, when she appeared amongst us.

She spoke at our organizing meetings on several occasions. One meeting, I remember, was held in a thick fog which blotted out the faces and forms of the audience, which nevertheless stayed within hearing of Mrs. Besant's superb voice, spellbound by her eloquence and social passion.