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The Public Morality Council (PMC), formed in 1899 by the Anglican Bishop of London, was between 1945 and 1965 the most powerful moral vigilante organisation in Britain. This chapter provides the first detailed study of its modus operandi, exploring its ecumenical governance, the role of Christian and Jewish leaders in diverting morality complaints to it for investigation and the manner of its surveillance (both overt and covert) of theatre plays, variety shows, films, radio and television programmes. The chapter explains the influential function of its long-time secretary, Methodist preacher George Tomlinson, the most important vigilante in the nation. It shows how its operations peaked in the 1950s, and reveals its sense of high influence with, on the one hand, regulators (such as the Lord Chamberlain, the British Board of Film Censors, the Home Office and London County Council) and with on the other hand industry bodies (such as theatre owners, film makers, importers and distributors). Its day-to-day operations and the intensity of its power in London and with government agencies are described.
The ‘liberal hour’ of 1960s social reform is normally attributed to Labour party leadership (especially by Roy Jenkins) and to liberal Christian campaigning. This chapter challenges the latter, providing evidence for the key role of Humanists and atheists in leading campaigns for abortion law reform, homosexual law reforms, divorce law reform and euthanasia. It provides a general overview of the medical reform network amongst Humanists, plus three case studies: of Madeleine Simms’ attacks on the churches in the cause of abortion law reform; Eustace Chesser’s advocacy of widening sexual knowledge; and Harold Blackham’s inspirational leadership of campaigns for moral education to be added to the English school curriculum in religious education. What emerges is a new understanding of the ideological foundations for secular reform of medical and moral law in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.
Come the middle of the 1960s, the moral vigilante system of the British establishment collapsed. This chapter chronicles how this came about. It was instigated partly through the demise of the Public Morality Council and its reincarnation as the Social Morality Council under the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church. The evidence is given here for regarding this as something of a putsch, organised by Edward Oliver who deliberately dismantled the PMC and, against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, reinvented it as an organisation with international and educational agendas. Vigilantism was then picked up by new leaders – Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and Moral Rearmament. This amounted to a privatisation of vigilantism, with pirates who stole it from the mainstream churches. This transformation of the landscape of religious morality thus produced a system divorced from the British establishment.
The concept is broached of mid-twentieth-century British Christianity as in a battle, comprising five core zones of engagement. These were: the struggle of conservative religionists to impose upon the people ignorance about sex; the effort of licensing authorities to control leisure venues; the struggle between churches and their agents against Humanists, secularists, agnostics and atheists over the theocratic stranglehold of moral law; the contest waged by Humanists to release the Christian grip upon moral and ethical broadcasting at the BBC; and, with the collapse of the conservative moral regime in the 1960s, the discreet tussle erupting between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church for the baton of moral leadership. These struggles undergird the book’s key interventions – to enlarge religion in cultural history, reasserting the reality of secularisation in the British establishment and pinpointing Humanists as the pioneers in progressive medical legislation. Reviews follow of existing narratives of the 1950s and 1960s in transatlantic and British historiography, emphasising the importance of parallel North American experience in the history of sex and religion.
In this conclusion to the book, the author reflects on the outcome of the battle for Christian Britain, the decay of conservative Christian moral vigilantism and the rise of liberalism and progressivism in medical and moral law. The evidence demonstrates that it is simplistic to centre the leadership role for moral change upon London when the provincial case studies reveal rapid, singular and in some ways pioneering change taking place a considerable distance from the metropolis. The book also shows up the fallacy of thinking of mid-century change as a wholly harmonious transition from conservative to liberal Christianity. Rather, the complex pattern of contests, fought both in the public sphere and in a few cases (as with the demise of the Public Morality Council) in private, were vigorous ideological confrontations, generating considerable irascibility which to a certain extent survives into the early twenty-first century. Some intriguing outcomes of the contests are discussed, but, overall, the moral conservatives lost the battle for Christian Britain and left a dominant secularity.
This chapter provides three regional case studies during 1945–65. Sheffield, selected for being after Hull the least religious city in the nation, shows the relentless power of an alienating evangelical and Nonconformist culture of the middle classes, which bombarded the working classes with middle-class solutions: teetotalism, Sabbatarianism, few pop music venues and contraceptive advice by middle-class volunteers. The result was, according to an influential interpretation by E. R. Wickham, the Anglican industrial missionary, proletarian and artisan alienation from the churches. Glasgow forms a contrast of the most highly religious industrial city in mainland Britain, but with a popular culture under aggressive licensing control, notably its public houses from which ‘civilising’ games, music, television and attractions for women were banned. Sexual culture was made as difficult as possible. Lastly, the Isle of Lewis shows a puritanical anti-alcoholic culture, based on the most orthodox of Calvinist churches, within which, despite overt conformity, there were notable attempts at popular resistance, including organised lawbreaking.
The BBC emerged from the Second World War as the critical adjunct to the religious culture of Britain, and this the churches sought to defend with ferocity through the power of the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC). This formed a close alliance with the employees of the Religious Broadcasting Department. Down to the mid-1960s, CRAC effectively forced the management of the BBC to allow broadcasters to perform evangelising functions, and to keep Humanists and atheists from using the mic to disseminate their life stances or to attack religion. A group of influential religious employees, including the senior administrator Harman Grisewood, imposed a discrete but firm anti-secular policy upon the corporation until the 1960s. This became firmer, not weaker, as the period progressed, so that the few broadcasts on atheism were concentrated in the late 1940s rather than the 1960s.
The place of religious broadcasting at the BBC was transformed by the rise in the sixties of television comedy marked by a strong mockery of the churches and, as this chapter shows, in the seventies by direct attacks on the churches and the advent of science-based atheist narratives of astronomy, human evolution and cultural development. What unfolds here is a story of direct challenge to the churches, including on the so-called God slot of television programmes reserved for religious outputs. For the first time in the early 1970s, churchmen were exposed to direct challenge, notably Cardinal John Heenan, from Humanists and atheists. Following this, sophisticated documentary series developed on scientific knowledge and human cultural evolution, founded firmly on evolution theory and marked by historical exploration of church attempts to suppress scientific knowledge. In the train of this came a proliferation of science-based broadcasting which accepted the atheist view of the human place in the universe as revealed especially in astronomy, transforming the narratives told by the nation to itself on television.
The licensing operation of London County Council was the largest in Britain. Its Public Control Department was a vast licensing bureaucracy that worked with both efficiency and frequent legal recourse to enforce the letter of the law on sexual culture. The evidence shows how closely allied it was to the Public Morality Council, each organisation sharing information on both the current interpretation of the law and on incidents spotted on stage, screen or billboard. London faced cultural changes, especially in relation to 1950s’ revue bars, skiffle music and jukeboxes. But the chapter then goes on to compare London to Blackpool, where a distinctive sexual culture peaked between the 1930s and 1960s in which there was widespread exposure amongst holidaymakers to both sexual and semi-criminal ‘booth’ culture on the foreshore. The chapter argues that the influence of Soho pales beside Blackpool and its 7 million annual visitors, including large numbers from London. Moreover, it shows how licensing control was highly effective in London, but woefully lax in Blackpool, making the latter the location where widespread semi-nudity was first rehearsed in British culture.
This chapter explores the revolution in licensing in Britain from the mid-1960s. In London, Blackpool and Glasgow, liberalisation of control of venues, leisure activities and notably music-related events, presaged the development of a youth culture accompanied by widespread access to contraception, recreational drugs (including cannabis and LSD) and sexual activity. Licensing boards tried to impose a crackdown – on coffee clubs, jukeboxes, miscegenation and illegal drinking establishments (in London, Sheffield and the Isle of Lewis). Little of this worked for long. Illegitimacy rates rose, the music revolution led in Blackpool and Sheffield to the advance of popular culture even faster in some regards than in London. Glasgow had a delay to liberalisation, but it moved rapidly from the mid-1970s to being in the cultural avant-garde. But in Lewis, a local government reorganisation led, uniquely, to home rule for Calvinism churches on the islands, triggering an attack on sexualisation and cinema for a number of decades. Provincial stories reveal different trajectories of change.