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The Adult began in June, 1897 as the "organ of the Legitimation League," a London organization initially dedicated to securing the legal rights of illegitimate children. The Adult ran for twenty monthly issues, surviving a prosecution for obscenity and undergoing a significant change of editorship in the wake of that scandal. Its editor, the Legitimation League's Honorable Secretary George Bedborough, wrote in the first issue that the journal's pages would "be open for the discussion of important phases of sex questions which are almost universally ignored elsewhere."
The Legitimation League was founded in 1893 by Oswald Dawson to advocate for and legally register illegitimate children, who were often unrecognized by their families and had few legal rights. As a legal campaign, the League was closely tied to the larger Personal Rights movement and was easily backed by the late Victorian era's steadily growing Secularist establishment. Under Dawson's influence, the League voted in 1895 to expand its agenda to include the promotion of free unions—cohabitation without marriage—and by 1897 it was openly advocating for free love. While free unions and free love were clearly antithetical to conventional Victorian morality, they were also, perhaps less obviously, outside the scope of common Secularist morality. Many freethinkers considered the League's new positions extreme and rescinded their support of the organization (Royle 253).
The Adult was created in 1897 to serve the Legitimation League's updated agenda. The first issue of the journal carried the subtitle "A Journal for the Advancement of Freedom in Sexual Relationships;" the second, "A Crusade Against Sex-Enslavement;" and the third, "A Journal for the Free Discussion of Tabooed Topics." Starting with the fourth issue, the journal's regular subtitle became "The Journal of Sex." The shifting subtitles reflect both the kinds of topics covered by the publication and the nature of its content. The journal, and the Legitimation League in general, did indeed promote freedom in sexual relationships and crusade against what they perceived as the sexual enslavement of men and women according to the strict moral codes of the late Victorian period, especially the code attached to marriage. In the eyes of the League's members, the strict control of marriage by the Church and the gender roles assigned to each sex in Victorian marriages kept both men and women from realizing their full potential as human beings and members of society. It also resulted in unhappy families: when parents were unhappily married, their children were also likely to be miserable.
From the beginning, the journal was a forum for the discussion of topics related to sex. The Adult covered subjects ranging from the benefits of legalizing prostitution to the relationship between music, religion and sex. Controversial articles were often answered in subsequent issues by letters to the editor or counter-articles: for example, Victor Martell's article about the Contagious Diseases Acts in the first issue was answered from a woman's perspective in the following issue by E. Wardlaw Best. The overall project of The Adult was to give legitimacy to a radical way of thinking about sex: though its varied contributors rarely held a single opinion regarding any issue discussed in its pages, each author sought to demonstrate that his position was moral, logical, and supported by scientific evidence. Producing a journal also allowed the Legitimation League to position itself as part of Britain's larger reformist community, which was busy producing circulating literature: between 1890 and 1910, more than 800 labour and socialist papers were founded there.
About a year into Bedborough's editorship of The Adult, an undercover detective named John Sweeney entered Bedborough's office to buy a copy of Dr. Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion. Ellis's book, the first in his six-volume series The Psychology of Sex, was the first scientific study of homosexuality printed in English. Bedborough was subsequently arrested for selling what the police considered obscene material. He was prosecuted on eleven charges: one for selling Sexual Inversion, another for selling Orford Northcote's pamphlet "The Outcome of Legitimation," and nine related to material published in The Adult (Humpherys 69). Members of the Legitimation League and their friends quickly formed the Free Press Defence Committee to advocate for Bedborough. The Committee "rallied all sorts of radicals, socialists, freethinkers and progressive intellectuals [including G.B. Shaw and Grant Allen], and united the generations in protest" (Royle 277). Much to their chagrin, Bedborough pleaded guilty to the first two charges and one relating to The Adult (essentially admitting guilt for the other eight), and was released on the condition that he would have nothing more to do with the League or The Adult. He wrote in its pages: "I adhere to my resolution not to excuse myself. I am a coward… I thank Henry Seymour, Mr. Foote, and others with all my heart and soul for their work, which I have requited illy indeed" (December 1898, pp. 331).
Havelock Ellis thought that Bedborough had been targeted as a threat to him and his work, but Ellis was never prosecuted, nor were his publishers. Bedborough's prosecution was instead aimed at the Legitimation League. Before he was arrested, an investigation into The Adult by the Public Prosecutor had found that the content of the magazine was "within the law" and that "there was never any suggestion of indecorous behavior at League meetings." Even so, police worried that the success of The Adult and the Legitimation League gave "support and meeting venues for political groups more active and dangerous" and so targeted Bedborough (Humpherys 70).
Upon Bedborough's incarceration, Henry Seymour, editor of the journal The Anarchist, took control of The Adult. During Bedborough's prosecution, the journal became a source for news about the trial and a vehicle for the Free Press Defence Commission, and Seymour emblazoned the cover with the headline "Prosecuted for Obscenity!!" in bold type. After Bedborough pleaded guilty, The Adult published his apology to the League, and his former supporters lamented his lack of courage in its pages (December 1898).
After the ordeal was over, Seymour, who was a "free thinker, anarchist and socialist" but not the advocate of sexual freedom that Bedborough was, softened the content of the journal (Royle 254). He changed The Adult's subtitle to the less controversial "An Unconventional Journal" and filled the issues with "inoffensive" articles and his own fiction (Humpherys 70). He even went so far as to say in the January 1899 issue that the journal had once been "nominally" connected to the Legitimation League but that it had "no connection under the present editorship" (24). The journal only lasted nine months under Seymour's editorship. In Ann Humphery's words," The Adult floundered for want of a clear and separate identity but mainly lack of funds" (Seymour repeatedly requested financial help from readers in the final issues). Without the Legitimation League and without Bedborough, The Adult served little purpose and received little support. Though the front cover of the journal proudly announced its prosecution for obscenity during Bedborough's trial, no headline announced The Adult's end. The final issue includes no elegy, nor even an announcement that the current issue is the last.
The Adult ran for twenty monthly issues: the first appeared in June 1897 and publication became monthly that September. The library holds a complete run of the journal.
The Adult's purpose was to freely discuss "tabooed topics," mostly related to "sex questions." The Legitimation League, the organization which founded the journal, promoted free unions (cohabitation outside legal marriage) and free love. In The Adult, freethinkers discussed the codes of morality and behavior related to sex and marriage that went largely undiscussed in Victorian society and made arguments for the morality of freethinking about sexual relationships. Editor George Bedborough published a range of opinions on varied topics in the journal, from Orford Northcote's semi-scientific articles about sexual practices to a discussion of the differing effects of sexual liberation on men and women to reviews of the London theatre.
The Adult's content mostly consisted of short articles and letters written to the journal. Bedborough opened each issue with an editorial, usually introducing its contents. Bedborough mainly relied on a regular group of authors, including Orford Northcote, Victor Martell, William Platt, and "Sagittarius," to contribute the material for the journal. Articles were never illustrated, though Bedborough occasionally published portraits of important members of the Legitimation League. Most issues had a small number of advertisements, either in the front cover, back cover, or both: advertisements were mostly for publications of likely interest to readers, but Bedborough also published a small number of personal advertisements for those interested in the kind of unions promoted by the Legitimation League. For example, from the October 1897 issue: "A middle aged gentleman wishes to correspond with a lady aged 25 to 30 with a view to a permanent union on Ruedebusch's principles." Until Bedborough's trial, many issues of The Adult updated readers on the Legitimation League's activity, including a full issue reporting the proceedings of the Legitimation League's annual meeting (January 1898).
As discussed in the Historical Note above, Bedborough promoted a discursive atmosphere in The Adult's pages, often publishing replies or counter-articles to pieces that had previously appeared in the journal. He also published the opinion of multiple authors on a single topic as multi-issue series, as in the case of "The Question of Children: A Symposium" (a discussion of what should happen to children who are the product of the free love advocated in The Adult). The series began in July, 1898 with an article by R.B. Kerr and another by Henry Seymour (who would go on to edit The Adult), and continued with an article from a different author in almost every issue until that November.
After George Bedborough was prosecuted, Henry Seymour became The Adult's editor. Seymour retained the look of the journal but shifted its content. Rather than writing an editorial article at the front of the journal as Bedborough had, Seymour included several pages of editorial "Memoranda:" short, unrelated paragraphs on current events, the contents of other magazines, and various social and political topics he considered pertinent to readers. Seymour continued to publish articles related to "sex questions," such as Abdullah Quilliam's two-part article "Polygamy Considered from a Muslim Standpoint," but also included poetry and serialized fiction (his own). Seymour filled out The Adult's pages with anecdotes, jokes, quotations, and short news items; these are not listed individually in the finding aid. An example from the September 1898 issue: "'Darling,' he cried, in tender tones, 'I never loved but thee!' 'Then we must part,' the maid replied; 'no amateurs for me!'" The Adult continued to advertise for publications of interest to its readers (including Seymour's own work), as well as services they might use: Sophie Lepper, "Unitist Free Lover" regularly advertised her services under Seymour's editorship. Unlike Bedborough, however, Seymour refused to publish personal ads.
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