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“These are cases which it is inadvisable to drag into the light of day” : Disinterring the Crime of Incest in Early Twentieth-Century England

Kim Stevenson


Proposals to criminalize incest in England and Wales, which was formalised in several the Incest Bills from 1899 to 1907, met considerable resistance from the Lord Chancellor who thought the subject too repulsive for public debate. Concerned that the issue would be greatly magnified if such crimes were prosecuted through the criminal courts he believed that the press could not be trusted to report them responsibly. Ultimately, two amendments ensured that the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 was passed, which ruled that the Director of Public Prosecutions must approve any prosecution and that such trials must be held in camera. This article suggests that as cases started to be prosecuted in the courts, it was not only the press but also judges and magistrates who expressed disquiet about such censure. The article also offers some commentary on the difficulties of accessing historical sources in relation to the historiography of incest.

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Full text document will be published online on December 2018.


Addressing the Apparent Paucity of Source Material
Criminal Offence or Immoral Outrage ? Setting the Contextual Framework
Bringing Incest into the ‘Light’ of Day ?
Turn the Light on Darling

First lines


The historiography of late twentieth century child sex offending in England and Wales is still being uncovered and written ; most recently in light of the unprecedented disclosure of cases of historic sexual abuse revealed by the Savile Inquiry and Goddard’s Independent Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry into institutional abuse. While the current revelations of sexual abuse over the last half century are unparalleled, at least the unrelenting publication of media reports, commentaries and prosecutions will provide an accessible and significant archive for future academic analysis. In stark contrast, the historiography relating to child sexual exploitation including incestuous relations with children during the first half of the twentieth century is much more limited. With specific reference to the crime of incest, there has been significant academic critique of the late nineteenth century debates and social discourse associated with the arguments for and against criminalization...

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Electronic reference

Kim Stevenson, « “These are cases which it is inadvisable to drag into the light of day” : Disinterring the Crime of Incest in Early Twentieth-Century England », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [Online], Vol. 20, n°2 | 2016, Online since 01 December 2018, connection on 20 June 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/chs.1669

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About the author

Kim Stevenson

Professor of Socio-Legal History at Plymouth University and is co-founder and director of ‘SOLON : Interdisciplinary Studies in Law, Crime and History’ and co-editor ‘Routledge SOLON : Explorations in the Histories of Crime and Criminal Justice’. Citation in the title is by Per Lord Halsbury, Lord Chancellor, during debates on the Incest Bill, Parliamentary Papers (PP), House of Lords, 16 July 1903, cols.820-824. -

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