Purity, Obscenity and the Making of an Imperial Censorship System

  • Deana Heath
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media book series (PSHM)


While the British Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks was undoubtedly the most avid exponent of the purported effect of ‘impure’ literature on Britain’s linguistic — and by extension racial and national — purity, he was by no means the first. By the late nineteenth century, community organisations and the state, as well as the newly emergent medical profession, had come to form a ‘medico-moral alliance’ in Britain which attempted to shift the focus away from viewing ‘purity’ (a term that nominally referred to the campaigns against prostitution, but was in fact applied to a wide range of moral and social crusades) as a moral question to regarding it as a medical and racial concern.2 Whatever the immediate targets of the members of such an alliance, their larger goals were intimately connected with the preservation of the British ‘race’, nation and Empire. Attempts to regulate ‘obscene’ literature — that is, to ‘juridif[y] those channels — differentiated by age, gender, class and culture — through which the literature of erotic formation circulates’3 — thus became an aspect of the racial purity movement. ‘Obscene’ literature in the shape of new forms of print culture, such as sexology texts and naturalistic fiction (which not only deployed many of the techniques and literary tropes found in pornography but were readily available to a rapidly expanding mass readership), became regarded as ‘a pathological agent invading bourgeois homes and schools’, while the new, cheap and decidedly popular publications that had begun to mushroom in the 1880s, such as ‘pornographic’ postcards, mutoscopes, stereoscopes and advertisements for birth control products and aphrodisiacs, were deemed ‘a threat to the procreative behaviour, well-being and public decency of the popular classes’.4


National Archive Book Trade British Publisher Racial Discourse British Book 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Speech by Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks to the Author’s Club, Daily Telegraph, 12 December 1928. Cited in Alan Travis, Bound and Gagged: A Secret History of Obscenity in Britain (London: Profile Books, 2000), pp. 67–8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England Since 1830, second edition (London: Routledge, 2000);Google Scholar
  3. Alan Hunt, Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999);Google Scholar
  4. Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: Sexuality and the Early Feminists (New York: The New Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  5. and Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880–1930 (London: Pandora Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    Ian Hunter, David Saunders and Dugald Williamson, On Pornography: Literature, Sexuality and Obscenity Law (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 52. Obscenity, like the terms morality, virtue and civility, was a socially determined concept that changed according to who was reading or viewing the work in question, and when and where they were doing so. Such a belief was enshrined in the ruling passed by Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis Cock-burn in 1868, which became Britain’s test of obscenity for almost a century, that the obscenity of a given work was determined by ‘whether the tendency of the matter charged with as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences’: R v. Hicklin, 3 QB 360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 5.
    Joss Marsh, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 205. The publication of the first volume of the OED in 1884 coincided, significantly, with the publication of the new Revised Version of the King James Bible (1881–84), which led to a growing loss of faith in the literalness of the Bible and a new ‘ “faith” in “Englishry” ‘ (p. 209).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain1870–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 235.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Edward Bristow, Vice and Vigilance: Purity Movements in Britain Since 1700 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977), p. 50.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Brian Harrison, ‘State Intervention and Moral Reform in Nineteenth-Century England’, in Patricia Hollis (ed.), Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England (London: Edward Arnold, 1974), p. 305.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Hunt, Governing Morals, p. 154; Harris, Private Lives, p. 254; and Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, 2nd edn. (London and New York: Longman, 1989), p. 23Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 3.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Since both Australia and India contained large numbers of English speakers, their importance as markets for British publishers and booksellers was evident as early as mid-century. In 1853, for example, while exports to Canada totaled £35,863, those to the Australian colonies already amounted to an impressive £138,695. Although British book exports to Canada continued to increase throughout the nineteenth century, they did not increase at the same rate as British exports to Australia due to the increasing dominance of the US in the Canadian book trade. By 1869 India was vying with Canada for second place in the Empire, with British book imports in the three presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras totaling £44,130: Simon Nowell-Smith, International Copyright Law and the Publisher in the Reign of Queen Victoria (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 92; CUST 7/22 and 8/110, The National Archives, Kew;Google Scholar
  14. and George L. Parker, The Beginnings of the Book Trade in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    Luke Trainor, ‘British Publishers and Cultural Imperialism: History and Ethnography in Australia, 1870–1930’, Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, 20, 2 (1996), p. 100. Such a reorganisation included new modes of literary production, a transition from free enterprise to monopoly capital and increased international competition, as well as the growth of democracy and concurrent class and gender shifts. For a more detailed examination of some of these shifts,Google Scholar
  16. see Norman Feltes, Literary Capital and the Late Victorian Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    Letter from John Murray III to Sir Francis Head, 20 November 1843, cited in James Barnes, Free Trade in Books: A Study of the London Book Trade Since 1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964). Colonial libraries were editions that were designed for sale only in the colonies. Murray was ahead of his time in that no other publisher established a colonial library until the 1880s. For more information on the colonial edition in Australia and India,Google Scholar
  18. see Graeme Johanson, A Study of the Colonial Edition in Australia, 1843–1972 (Wellington, NZ: Elibank Press, 2000);Google Scholar
  19. and Priya Joshi, In Another Country: British Popular Fiction and the Development of the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    See Wallace Kirsop, ‘The Four Phases of Australian Book-Trade History’, Books for Colonial Readers — The Nineteenth Century Australian Experience (Melbourne: Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand in Association with The Centre for Bibliographical and Textual Studies, Monash University, 1995) and ‘Bookselling and Publishing in the Nineteenth Century’, in D. H. Borchardt and Wallace Kirsop (eds.), The Book in Australia (Melbourne: Australian Reference Publications, 1988);Google Scholar
  21. and Martyn Lyons, ‘Introduction’, in Martyn Lyons and John Arnold (eds.), The History of the Book in Australia, 1891–1945: Towards a National Culture in a Colonized Market, 1890–1945 (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Deana Heath 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Deana Heath

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations