VoxEU Column Development Economic history

Censorship, family planning, and the historical fertility transition

How economic factors shaped the historical fertility transition is well studied but the role played by cultural factors remains disputed, in part because establishing the direct effect of social norms is difficult. This column examines the relationship between England and Wales’s rapid fertility transition in the late 19th century and media exposure to the 1877 Bradlaugh-Besant trial, which challenged existing censorship laws related to family planning. It finds that fertility declined more rapidly after 1877 in locations with greater exposure to newspaper articles about the trial.

As developed countries grow accustomed to the persistent rises in real income that characterise modern economic growth, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the path to modern economic growth was paved by two pivotal historical events: the Industrial Revolution and the fertility transition. Starting in England in the late-18th century, the Industrial Revolution unleashed a surge of technological progress that raised productivity. However, income growth was slow in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution because productivity gains were largely offset by rapid population growth. It was only with the onset of the fertility transition, in which families chose to curb fertility, that per-capita income began to rapidly increase.

Generations of demographers and economic historians have struggled to understand the forces that led to the fertility transition. Following the lead of Nobel prize winner Gary Becker (e.g. Becker and Lewis 1973) and, more recently, the work of Oded Galor and David N. Weil (1999, 2000), most studies of the fertility transition have focused on how changing economic conditions, such as the rising importance of human¬¬ capital, led parents to choose to have smaller families and invest more in each child. In contrast, an older literature by demographers such as Ansley Coale (1973) and the Princeton Fertility Project suggest that social norms surrounding fertility also played an important role in influencing fertility decisions. However, generating direct evidence on the impact of social norms is difficult, so the role played by cultural factors in the historical fertility transition remains disputed (Guinnane 2011).

Some aspects of the historical fertility transition are difficult to explain using models based on purely economic forces. For example, in England and Wales this transition took place very rapidly, with a clear break in 1877 (Figure 1, top panels). Moreover, this rapid and simultaneous transition occurred all across the country and in both densely populated and largely rural areas (Figure 1, bottom panels). Both the speed of the change and the fact that it occurred in locations with widely varying economic conditions are hard to explain based on purely economic forces.

Figure 1 The fertility transition in England and Wales

Notes: Births rates are defined as births per 1,000 fertile-aged women (women between the ages of 15 and 50). The births data were transcribed from annual reports of the Registrar General. The population denominator is linearly interpolated between census years. The top right-hand panel normalises this series after accounting for the linear trend between 1851 and 1877. The bottom panels follow the convention of plotting normalised data; however, in contrast to the top panels (which plot the national series of births), the bottom panels plot averages for the districts that fall in each category (either regions or population density). This normalisation includes the group-specific linear trend as well as district fixed effects, which account for the fact that birth rates may be, on average, higher in some districts than others. 

What role, then, did cultural forces play in the historical fertility transition? In a recent study (Beach and Hanlon 2019), we attempt to shed some light on this question. We begin by focusing on the case of England and Wales and trying to identify what causes may have been behind its rapid transition. A review of events occurring around the time of the transition reveals that there was one major event that may have influenced fertility behaviour at this time: the Bradlaugh-Besant trial of 1877. 

This trial was initiated by Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in order to challenge existing censorship laws related to family planning. They published a book, The Fruits of Philosophy written by Charles Knowlton, that made the argument that couples had a moral right to choose their family size and provided rudimentary information on contraceptive techniques. The idea that couples had a right to choose how many children they had was highly controversial; many, including the prosecutor in the trial, believed that doing so was “against the laws of God, and the laws of man.” The trial was picked up by newspapers around the country, initiating a national conversation about a topic that had long been taboo in Victorian society.

One way to look at the impact of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial on fertility decisions is to compare patterns among British families exposed to more news about the trial. Newspapers covered the trial intensively, with over 1,400 related articles about the trial published in 1877. The intensity of coverage varied across locations depending on factors such as the taste of local editors. 

Using rich historical data on newspaper articles published during this period, we find evidence that fertility declined more rapidly after 1877 in locations with greater exposure to articles about the trial (Figure 2). Moreover, the fully digitised 1881 census provides some insight into household-level fertility decisions. There we find that this reduction had a distinct character: it was driven by families that already had three or more children choosing not to have an additional child.

Figure 2 Fertility patterns in locations with greater vs less exposure to newspaper coverage of the trial

Notes: Births rates are defined as births per 1,000 fertile-aged women (women between the ages of 15 and 50). The births data were transcribed from annual reports of the Registrar General. The population denominator is linearly interpolated between census years. As in Figure 1, we normalise the data by accounting for district fixed effects and regional time trends (as measured between 1851 and 1877). High exposure districts are those where the number of newspaper articles published within a 25-km radius was above the median. The districts that comprise London, which was the heart of the trial and the home of the national papers, are omitted from this figure.

Motivated in part by recent work by Spolaore and Wacziarg (2016, 2019), which notes that countries with closer cultural and linguistic links tended to transition together, we ask whether this ideological shift generated changes in fertility among people living outside of the UK but with strong cultural ties to Britain. 

We start by looking at Canada, which provides an ideal setting because the country had both a large English-speaking British-origin population as well as a substantial Francophone population. These two groups shared a similar political, legal and economic environment, often residing in the same towns, but differed substantially in the strength of their cultural connection the Britain. This difference was reflected in local newspaper coverage of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial. We found numerous reports about the trial in the English-language press, but the trial appears to have been largely ignored in the French-language papers.

One can get a sense of the effect of the trial in Canada from Figure 3, which shows fertility rates in the largely British-origin provinces of Ontario and Nova Scotia as well as the largely French-origin province of Quebec. Prior to the 1870s, the mainly-British provinces had similar or higher fertility than Quebec, but this reversed after 1877 due to a sharp decline in fertility in locations with more British-origin households. 

Figure 3 Fertility patterns in Canadian provinces 

Notes: Birth rates from Henripin (1968), Table B.6.

It turns out that the province-level pattern shown in Figure 3 holds even when we compare fertility rates among British versus French households living in the same location. British households reduced their fertility relative to French households after 1877. Moreover, the mechanism behind this reduction is similar to what we observed in Britain, with most of the change driven by reduced fertility at higher levels of parity.

The fertility changes that we observed when comparing British-origin to French-origin households in Canada also show up elsewhere. In South Africa, a comparison of British-origin households to the Dutch-origin Afrikaner population again suggests that British-origin households reduced relative fertility rates after 1877. In the US, we compare recent British immigrants to recent immigrants from other parts of Europe and observe relative fertility declines among British-origin households after 1877. There is also evidence that fertility declined substantially in Australia and New Zealand within roughly a decade after the trial.

These results all point to the important role played by cultural factors in the historical fertility transition. This is not a repudiation of the importance of economic incentives that have been emphasised in much of the recent literature. Instead, appreciating the role of culture can help us reconcile theories emphasising economic incentives with the patterns observed in the data. 

In the case we study, it seems likely that conservative cultural norms constrained families from their preferred fertility level, and that the national conversation about the morality of choosing to have fewer children that was initiated by the Bradlaugh-Besant trial led to a breakdown of this norm, leading to a rapid reduction in family size. 

The appearance of similar fertility responses among culturally-linked populations all around the world reveals the strength of cultural ties and the role that they can play in transmitting change. This enriches our understanding of the role of culture. Most existing work on culture has emphasised the persistence effect of culture on behaviour. In contrast, the case of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial shows that culture and also act as an important driver of change.


Beach, B, and W W Hanlon (2019), “Censorship, family planning, and the historical fertility transition”, NBER Working Paper 25752.

Becker, G L, and H G Lewis (1973), “On the interaction between the quality and quantity of children”, Journal of Political Economy 81(2).

Coale, A (1973), “The demographic transition reconsidered”, in International Population Conference, Leige 1973, vol. 1, International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, pp. 53-57.

Galor, O, and D N Weil (1999), “From Malthusian stagnation to modern growth”, American Economics Review 89(2): 150-154.

Galor, O, and D N Weil (2000), “Population, technology, and growth: From Malthusian stagnation to the demographic transition and beyond”, American Economic Review 90(4): 806-828.

Guinnane, T (2011), “The historical fertility transition: A guide for economists”, Journal of Economic Literature 49(3): 589-614.

Spolaore, E, and R Wacziarg (2016), The Palgrave handbook of economics and language, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 174-211.

Spolaore, E, and R Wacziarg (2019), “Fertility and modernity”, NBER Working Paper 25957. 

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