The Contagious Diseases Acts, also known as the CD Acts, were originally passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1864 (27 & 28 Vict. c. 85), with alterations and editions made in 1866 (29 & 30 Vict. c. 35) and 1869 (32 & 33 Vict. c. 96). In 1862, a committee was established to inquire into venereal disease (i.e. sexually transmitted infections) in the armed forces. On its recommendation the first Contagious Diseases Act was passed. The legislation allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. The original act only applied to a few selected naval ports and army towns, but by 1869 the acts had been extended to cover eighteen "subjected districts".
The Act of 1864 stated that women found to be infected could be interned in locked hospitals for up to three months, a period gradually extended to one year with the 1869 Act. These measures were justified by medical and military officials as the most effective method to shield men from venereal disease. Because military men were often unmarried and homosexuality was criminal, prostitution was considered a necessary evil. However, no provision was made for the examination of prostitutes' clientele, which became one of the many points of contention in a campaign to repeal the Acts.
After 1866, proposals were introduced to extend the acts to the north of England and to the civilian population. It was suggested that this extension would regulate prostitution and stop street disorders caused by it in large cities.
The subject of venereal disease, known as social disease, created significant controversy within Victorian society. The Contagious Diseases Acts themselves affected thousands of people's lives, from campaigners to prostitutes themselves. They sparked the debate over inequality between men and women. It was an early political issue that led to women organising themselves and actively campaigning for their rights.
The inconsistent treatment of genders inherent in the acts was a key part of Josephine Butler's campaigns for their repeal. In one of her public letters, she allowed a prostitute to deliver her own account of her personal encounters with men:
It is men, only men, from the first to the last that we have to do with! To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die!
Early opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts
Florence Nightingale’s opposition to the “Continental system” or state regulation of prostitution probably delayed passage of the legislation by a couple of years. However, the first Contagious Diseases Act was adopted, after scarcely any debate—it was introduced without warning—in 1864.
In 1862, she prepared and had printed a thorough critique of the regulatory approach in Note on the Supposed Protection Afforded against Venereal Diseases, by recognizing Prostitution and Putting it under Police Regulation. The paper included statistics of hospital admissions for venereal disease for various army units at various stations. It showed that the system of regulation did not result in lower rates of disease. However, the legislation proceeded.
Nightingale next recruited journalist Harriet Martineau to write on the subject and gave her background material. She published The Contagious Diseases Acts, as applied to Garrison Towns and Naval Stations, in 1870. Her four articles in it, in the Daily News, by “an Englishwoman” ran on each of the last four days of 1869, the last of which launched “The Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the contagious Diseases Acts.” It was co-signed by leading women opponents of the Acts. Josephine Butler, who went on to lead the lengthy campaign for repeal, was the third signatory, after Nightingale and Martineau.
When the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England, Elizabeth Garrett, wrote in favour of the Acts, Nightingale, using the name “Justina,” opposed her, with two articles, in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1870.  Nightingale continued to give support behind-the-scenes to the repeal campaign.
Prostitution in Victorian England
The level of prostitution was high in Victorian England. The acts themselves would have affected a large proportion of the female workforce in Britain. For several reasons prostitution was predominantly a working class profession. For many working class women their journey into prostitution was one of circumstance. During the nineteenth century the public began to concern itself with particular social problems, an increasing view of the "ideal woman" was beginning to emerge and the "angel of the home" was becoming a popular stereotype. This rise of the middle class domestic morality made it increasingly harder for women to obtain work in certain professions, causing an increase in such areas as needle-trades, shop girls, agricultural gangs, factory work, and domestic servants, all occupations with long hours and little pay. Low earnings, it is argued, meant that women had to resort to prostitution to be able to provide for themselves and their families, particularly in households where the main breadwinner was no longer around. The figures below, however, show this to be untrue. A study from the late Victorian period showed that more than 90 per cent of prostitutes in Millbank prison were the daughters of "unskilled and semiskilled workingmen", more than 50 per cent of whom had been servants, the rest having worked in dead-end jobs such as laundering, charring, and street selling.
The nature of the occupation makes it difficult to establish the exact number of prostitutes in operation during the Victorian Period. Judicial reports of the years 1857 to 1869 show that prostitutes were more common in commercial ports and pleasure resorts and less so in hardware towns, cotton and linen manufacturing centres and woollen and worsted centres. The Westminster Review placed the figure between 50,000 and 368,000. This would make prostitution the fourth-largest female occupation. However, the police estimates of known prostitutes portray an entirely different estimate:
Police estimates of known prostitutes
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However, this table relates only prostitutes known to the police. The unreliability of statistics during the nineteenth century prevents one from knowing if prostitution was increasing or decreasing during this period, but it is clear that Victorians during the 1840s and 1850s thought that prostitution and venereal disease were increasing.
Regulating prostitution was the government's attempt to control the high level of venereal disease in its armed forces. By 1864, one out of three sick cases in the army was caused by venereal disease; admissions into hospitals for gonorrhoea and syphilis reached 290.7 per 1,000 of total troop strength.
Prostitutes found work within the armed forces, mainly due to servicemen's forced celibacy and the conditions of the barracks the men were forced to endure. The barracks were overcrowded, and had a lack of ventilation and defective sanitation. Very few servicemen were permitted to marry, and even those who were, were not given an allowance to support their wives, which occasionally lured them to become prostitutes as well.
Extension and repeal
In 1867, the Association for Promoting the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts was established and was just as prominent in the publishing of pamphlets and articles as the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts was. The Association strongly campaigned for the extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts to be extended outside of the naval and army barracks and be made effective to the whole of the country, as they believed this was the best way of regulating prostitution.
There was much action taken towards the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. In 1869, the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts was established; initially restricting women from its meetings, causing the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts to be quickly established by Josephine Butler. These repeal organisations attracted the vigorous support of moralists and feminists but also those more generally concerned with civil liberties, especially since the Acts were perceived as having violated basic human rights. Both groups actively campaigned against the acts and between 1870 and 1885, 17,365 petitions against the acts bearing 2,606,429 signatures were presented to the House of Commons, and during the same period, more than 900 meetings were held. The repealists struck a chord with the public consensus on the issues surrounding prostitution and they highlighted the issue of double standards.
It was the men and women of the National Association and the Ladies National Association who won the battle over the Contagious Diseases Acts, and, in 1886, the Acts were repealed.
Conditions in lock hospitals
If a woman was declared diseased she would be confined in what were known as lock hospitals. The lock hospitals or lock wards were designed specifically to treat those infected with a venereal disease since 1746. Conditions in lock hospitals may have been inadequate. An 1882 survey estimated that there were only 402 beds for female patients in all the voluntary lock hospitals in Great Britain, and out of this number only 232 were "funded for use". Female venereal patients generally had to resort to workhouse infirmaries.
Extensive archives on the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts are held at the Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics.
- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
- Edward Backhouse
- Josephine Butler
- Millicent Fawcett
- Henry Wilson (British politician)
- Hugh Price Hughes
- John Stuart Mill
- History of feminism
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