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The Social Context of Eugenic Thought

By Professor W.H.G. Armytage

VI. Population, Politics and the Origins of the PIC

In an obscurely published, yet subsequently much quoted, paper Dr. C. P. Blacker has curiously dated the beginning of the 1930s population panic as 28 September 1936 when "overnight, a muted over-population scare was changed into a strident depopulation scare"(1). It is curious because Blacker is an otherwise meticulous historian of the birth control movement, in which he was himself such a ubiquitous participant. Yet, as we have seen, the declining population debate had raged for two years at the date specified. Moreover, Blacker was personally involved in the Committee for Positive Eugenics which was an important practical outcome of that early debate.

The Committee for Positive Eugenics (2) was set up on 14 May 1935 under the chairmanship of the King’s Physician, Lord Horder (who, as a former pupil of H G Wells, was presumably inoculated against mere haruspicy). Membership also included Julian Huxley, Mrs. Eva Hubback (of the Eugenics Society and the Council for Education in World Citizenship) - Dr. C. P. Blacker (The Eugenics Society’s General Secretary) - and, of course, Carr-Saunders himself - a former editor of the Eugenics Review.

The Committee began by considering two alternative policies:

(i) To act as a component of a composite organisation - in the same way as the Central Association for Mental Welfare did in establishing the Joint Committee on Voluntary Sterilisation.

(ii) To establish a composite committee under its own auspices - and thus provide the main financial support for a committee to investigate human fertility.

It decided that by adopting the second alternative it would still be possible to conduct propaganda aimed at abolishing the unwanted and encouraging the wanted child and at educating those who might not be eugenically sound to think twice about having children. (3)

As the wealthier classes were not so much paying taxes to sustain the fertility of the mentally and physically incapable (and thereby limiting their own fertility) as supporting a "vast expenditure on war and military preparedness" it seemed reasonable to the journal Population to suggest that family limitation amongst the wealthier classes might even be a good thing if some of them possessed "qualities socially undesirable such as the preference for luxury to family affections" (4). So the British Population Society (5) acceded to the appeal by the Eugenics Society that a Population Investigation Committee be set up. Later other bodies did so as well.

The Population Investigation Committee was thus a creation of the Eugenics Society on whose premises it was housed and which supported it financially during the first ten years of its existence. The Society was resolved that the Population Investigation Committee should be a genuinely scientific body; to ensure this all policy and propaganda functions were devolved to yet another committee the Population Policies Committee (founded jointly with PEP) and Eugenics Society members were in a minority (seven out of twenty-one) on the Population Investigation Committee - though Carr-Saunders held the Chairmanship and Blacker the Secretaryship (6). A further earnest of the intention that this Committee should be truly scientific was the appointment of D. V. Glass as its paid Research Secretary. For Glass was the "new man" on the population front. A former research assistant to A. C. Bowley, secretary to the inquiry conducted by the London School of Economics into changes in family life, he had published a survey of divorce in England (7). Almost as optimistic as Clarke (see below), he held that there was no cause to imagine that improvements in agriculture would not continue, thereby enabling the world to support an increased population in the future(8).

Glass had also represented the Eugenics Society at the Berlin Population Conference and had taken the opportunity to observe the results of the populationist policies then being pursued in Italy, France and Germany. In the week before Christmas 1935, he told the Eugenics Society that only in Germany had any of the attempts to raise the birth rate been effective; marriages had risen by 343,075 during the year 1932-3 and live births by 181,772. But even there economic recovery could - he suggested - have played a major part. Italy was unlikely to reach Mussolini’s target of a 60 million population by 1950.

Sir William Beveridge closed a broadcast in 1935 with a grim warning that "the possibility of preventing the ultimate disappearance of the population" depended upon "the kind of world... for people to live in" (9). Emerging from the shadows, a post Boer War Medical Officer of Health issued the first of what were to be many attempts to get his countrymen to wake up and recognise that they might in fact be a disappearing breed (10).

Even public figures like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a member of the Eugenics Society and sometime chairman of its Birmingham branch, looked on "the diminution of the birth rate in this country with considerable apprehension." "At the present time", he told the House on 15 April 1935, "it may seem that we have here a larger population than we are able to support in England. At the same time we know the difficulty which the Dominions find in accommodating a larger population, when they themselves are troubled with unemployment." "But", he concluded - his intellectual Darwinism and familial imperialism reasserting itself at the last moment - "I have a feeling that the time may not be far distant when that position will be reversed" (11). Concessions made to the financial burden of parents in his two budgets were minuscule, yet there was no doubting the phrase "considerable apprehensions".

One of the most fiery natalist members of the Labour Party was Colin Clarke who, at the British Association meeting in 1935, had dismissed Malthusianism as "not only stale but pernicious". This able young Roman Catholic statistician at Cambridge attacked the larger assumptions of Malthusianism (a) that the population ought to be reduced and (b) that "each country ought to grow more food". The first, he said, was "a matter of taste", the second demonstrably wrong and he reinforced his belief that the world could carry four or five times its capacity by himself fathering nine children - eight sons and a daughter. Brought to Cambridge by Keynes, from the newly established Economic Advisory Council, Clark collaborated with A. C. Pigou in a sober study of The Economic Position of Great Britain (1935) and authored two punchy Fabian pamphlets: The Control of Investment (1933) and A Socialist Budget (1935). Having proved that Britain was the most highly taxed of the five great powers of Europe, Colin Clarke felt entitled to call for a socialist budget to encourage employment; especially so since he had discussed this with Pigou, Keynes and Kahn.

Even within the cloistered recesses of All Souls, where the "Next Five Years Group" drafted a two-part manifesto for the General Election of 1935, a gerontophobic scenario was constructed portraying the growth of the over-60s from 3,210,000 in 1931 (just over 7 per cent of the total population) to 5,750,000 by 1971 (over 17˝ per cent of the total population). So as a matter of urgency they recommended that "whilst there is still time, a nation-wide system of superannuation allowances" should be constructed (12). Summarising the case even more succinctly, the editor of The Economist, in a series of broadcast talks given in the last three months of 1935, forecast that whereas "out of every three dependants, two are now children and one an elderly person, by 1965 one will be a child and two old people". He added "It is not very often that we are able to see problems approaching from a long way off. In the rare exceptional case like this there is all the more reason for taking precautions in good time" (13). Hopefully he added that by 1965 "we may be able to give universal free education up to the age of eighteen, with free meals thrown in, for very little more money than primary education costs today".

The Secretary and Research Secretary of the Population Investigation Committee issued a small pamphlet in which Section 2 was basically that of the original memorandum written by the sub-committee of the Eugenics Society. But in the transition from roneo to print references to the recent book by Stanley Baldwin’s son, Oliver Baldwin, My Unborn Son, were not surprisingly deleted. For it was selected as an example of "certain philosophically pessimistic persons" who felt that "the world is at best such a dismal place that it would be a crime to bring children into it." The substitute sentence ran "such people are rare". Also omitted was the sentence "Pessimism as exaggerated as that of Mr. Oliver Baldwin is shared by but a small group of mildly psycho-pathic people who feel that not in even the most favourable circumstances are we justified in bringing children into the world" (14).

Nor was the British Government uninfluenced by all this. The six year old Conservative Research Department had drafted a paper for the Cabinet suggesting that population would fall to about thirty-two millions by 1976. David Clark, who joined the Department in 1935 in place of Frank Pakenham, also observed that different predictions were being used by various Ministries and suggested that a Royal Commission be appointed. Another member of its staff, F. F. Wentworth-Shield, was even encouraged to write a book on Population and Government Policy which the Director dismissed as "written for propaganda and educational purposes and not ranking as a piece of research work" (15).

It is hardly surprising that the population question should rival rearmament as a central issue in the election. Certainly, Mrs. Baldwin, an acting member of the National Birthday Trust, in a stirring election address in November 1935, concluded "I appeal to you to make it your business to be responsible for one expectant mother." Maliciously retailed by Nancy Astor to Tom Jones (16) this could indeed serve as a theme for the thesis that the "issue of issue", as much as the need for military preparedness, underlay that of armaments. For, five months earlier the Committee on Economic Information had reported that "the cessation of the growth of the population will carry with it a greater falling off in the demand for capital as the century proceeds" (17).

Labour supporters of contraception and sterilisation met serious difficulties in their election campaigns. At Bury a woman candidate (and a doctor) was visited by four priests who promised her that if she would undertake not to teach any woman birth control in future they would officially, from the pulpit, advise their congregations to vote for her. They estimated that this would make a difference of five thousand votes. But she refused - and lost. (18).

At Leicester, the National Labour candidate was told by his agent that he must not offend the Catholics. Five days later he implored his wife: "I fear, darling, that you will have to come up twice as they are very pi[ous] here and will think we are divorced." She refused. So in spite of the fact that he was supported by the Conservative organisations he only got in by 87 votes. (19).

An even more unnerving experience confronted a woman Labour candidate at Sunderland for, just before the polling booths opened, a leaflet circulating her "advanced views" on sex was distributed above the question: "Do you want a woman who holds such views to represent you at Westminster?" Although she had shown herself to be a keen supporter of help to Catholic schools she was deserted by the whole Catholic vote. Actually the opinions attributed to her were taken from the writings of the woman novelist Ethel Mannin and she was never able to decide whether it was "a genuine mistake in which the Catholics were not involved or whether it was a trick engineered by the Tories". This was Leah Manning who, like many others, had complained of the "free hand" allowed to "the imperialists, the militarists, the Churches and the social workers" (20).


(1)C.P. Blacker, "The Confluence of Psychiatry and Demography", British Journal of Psychiatry, 123, 576, (1973) p. 496.

(2)The use of the word "Positive" in the title of this transitional, though historically important, committee, is strange. Since its formation in 1907 the Council of the Eugenics Society, no doubt reflecting a similar dichotomy in the views of its general membership, had been divided between "positive eugenicists" who wished to promote greater fertility amongst the more "able" and the "negative eugenicists" who wished to discourage procreation amongst the less "able". As we have seen the Committee for Positive Eugenics committed itself to both.

(3)The Eugenics Society and a Positive Population Policy. Roneo paper submitted to the Council of the Eugenics Society 14 May 1935. For an account by a young participant, see D.V. Glass Numbering the People, Farnborough, Saxon House, 1973, p. 170.

(4)J. Rumney, "The Problem of Differential Fertility", Population. Vol. ii, November 1935, p. 16.

(5)This was yet another organisation founded in 1928 by Blacker, funded and housed by the Eugenics Society,. Pauline M. H. Mazumdar comments: "It was a small group of twenty, mainly distinguished academics: economists, statisticians, sociologists and biologists. Fourteen of the twenty were members of the Eugenics Society: their high academic status emphasises the high standing of the Eugenics Society amongst intellectuals." (Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings, Routledge, London, (1991),pp 52-5). The British Population Society survived until 1947 when, as C. M. Langford records, it was dissolved and absorbed by the Population Investigation Committee. (The Population Investigation Committee: A Concise History to Mark its Fiftieth Anniversary, PIC at the London School of Economics, 1988, p.6.)

(6)C.M. Langford, op cit

(7)Sociological Review, July 1943.

(8)Eugenics Review, XXVIII, p. 54.

(9)The Listener, 6 February 1935, p.226.

(10)G. R. McCleary, "Malthus after a Hundred Years". Hibbert Journal, July 19, 1935 p. 604.

(11)Neville Chamberlain, Hansard XXX, 15 April 1935. col. 1634.

(12)One of the convenors wrote: "There was during all my time at Oxford, a gnawing anxiety, only too obvious in my manner and conversation, and I was not perhaps unjustly, accused during this period of spreading gloom". Lord Salter, Memoirs of a Public Servant, Faber & Faber, 1961. p. 241.

(13)Reprinted as Ways and Means, Macmillan, 1936, p. 84.

(14)The Future of Our Population?, Population Investigation Committee, n.d.

(15)John Ramsden, The Making of Conservative Party Policy. The Conservative Research Department since 1929, Longman, 1980, p. 88-9

(16)Elizabeth Langhorne, Nancy Astor and Her Friends, Arthur Barker, 1974, p. 97.

(17)Eighteenth Report of the Committee on Economic Information, quoted Susan Howson and Donald Winch, The Economic Advisory Council 1930-1939. Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 353.

(18)Edith Sumerskill (b. 1901), A Woman’s World, Heinemann, 1967, p. 54.

(19)Harold Nicolson (b. 1886) Diaries and Letters 1930-1939, Collins, 1966, p. 220. This was of course Vita Sackville-West, whose Lesbian inclinations were later revealed by her son.

(20)Leah Manning (b. 1893) A Life for Education, Victor Gollancz, 1970, p. 10. The error was pardonable for in the 1920s Leah Manning did work with Ruth Dalton and Mrs. Sargant Florence in the Birth Control Clinic (p. 249). This aspect has been missed by Tom Stannage, Baldwin Thwarts the Opposition: The British General Election of 1935, Croom Helm, 1981.