The not so swinging sixties

Young people behaving responsibly in the 1960s helped to defeat fierce opposition to the UK’s first sexual health clinics, a new study argues.

A couple visiting a Brook Advisory Centre in the 1960s. Image courtesy of Brook

A couple visiting a Brook Advisory Centre in the 1960s. Image courtesy of Brook

A couple visiting a Brook Advisory Centre in the 1960s. Image courtesy of Brook

Cambridge historian Dr Caroline Rusterholz challenges assumptions about the sexual revolution of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and sheds new light on the controversial origins of a sexual health service which is now largely taken for granted.

The study, published in the Journal of British Studies, is the first to examine the history of the Brook Advisory Centres (BAC), officially founded by Helen Brook in 1964, and still a key player in sexual health. By looking for the first time at the contents of the Centre’s Annual Reports and memoranda – now archived in Wellcome Library – this research provides important new information about how the scheme came into being and survived initial opposition.

One record, a minute, in the archive reveals that in November 1962, eighteen months before the official inauguration of the first BAC clinic, Brook launched a secret birth control session for unmarried women in London. To begin this experiment, Brook, then director of the Marie Stopes clinic, used a loophole in the Foundation’s constitution to expand its clientele to include unmarried mothers, a highly controversial move at the time.

Brook had strategically filled the clinic’s committee with committed activists from the Family Planning Association (FPA) to ensure that her plan would be ratified. She presented the session for unmarried people as a fait accompli and in November 1962, in one of the Stopes clinic offices, Brook’s team began to offer contraceptive advice to unmarried mothers.

Then in March 1963, Brook went even further, proposing an early evening doctor’s consultation session to which ‘girls and young men, often still at school or university’ could come for discussion and advice on contraception and problems with sexual relationships.

Helen Brook (1907 – 1997) in the 1980s. Image courtesy of Brook

Helen Brook (1907–97) in the 1980s. Image courtesy of Brook

Helen Brook (1907–97) in the 1980s. Image courtesy of Brook

The committee unanimously supported Brook’s new suggestion, provided that the Marie Stopes Foundation Board agreed. The Board consisted of six members from the Eugenics Society and to pre-empt any opposition, the committee’s letter requesting approval emphasised that the session ‘would not be publicised but would be made known by word of mouth’. Within weeks, even without publicity, word had spread rapidly among women in and around London.

Rusterholz says: “Helen Brook didn’t just want to reduce illegal abortions. This archive shows just how determined she was to help young people avoid unwanted pregnancies at a time when increasing numbers of young girls, in particular, were entering higher education. She saw knowledge about contraception as a crucial way to maintain professional opportunities for women.”

Taking on the ‘Tut-tutting’

When the Board grew nervous that these sessions could result in ‘bad press’, they recommended that Brook set up an ad-hoc trust, using the clinic’s premises, for a few years to mitigate the risks. Dr Faith Spicer, who ran the sessions, assured the Board that they were targeting young students (18–19 years old on average) who were in stable relationships but unable to marry for financial reasons.

Like Brook, Faith Spicer strategically emphasised the commitment of young people and their desire to marry in the foreseeable future to align her work with the older sexual values of the FPA and Marie Stopes. The board unanimously agreed on the clinic’s value and subsidised the project but asked that it be ‘not publicised in the Press’.

Helen Brook didn’t appear to take this request too seriously. In November 1963, she told the Daily Mirror: ‘Tut-tutting will not bring down the illegitimate birth rate figures. Contraceptive and correct sex knowledge will’. And in June 1964, the newspaper welcomed BAC in an article entitled ‘Full mark[s] to this sex-help clinic for the teenage lovers’.

These developments fuelled a fierce debate among FPA members, some of whom feared that providing contraceptive advice to unmarried girls would ‘open the doors to wholesale national fornication’.

Keen to distance itself from youth sexuality, the FPA decided not to develop such a service itself but instead tasked Helen Brook to do so. Helped by an anonymous donation of £5,000 a year over three years, the first Brook Advisory Centre officially opened in July 1964 and quickly gained the support of the Labour-led London County Council.

“Helen Brook and Faith Spicer framed their narrative around responsibility so effectively in London. Their strategic thinking goes a long way to explaining why the Centre was so positively received despite contraceptive advice for young unmarried people remaining so controversial.”

Caroline Rusterholz

Helen Brook (far left) attends the he Brook annual general meeting, 1971. Image courtesy of Brook

Helen Brook (far left) attends the he Brook annual general meeting, 1971. Image courtesy of Brook

Helen Brook (far left) attends the he Brook annual general meeting, 1971. Image courtesy of Brook


Helen Brook then set about encouraging the creation of centres in other locations. But, as Rusterholz shows, the first of these, in Birmingham, suffered severe labour pains. While Helen Brook’s public relations campaign triumphed in London, her colleagues in the more conservative city of Birmingham deviated from her narrative of responsibility and faced a fierce backlash from those who claimed the scheme promoted promiscuity.

In August 1965, Dr Martin Cole, a lecturer in genetics at Birmingham University and one of the leaders behind the suggested centre in the city, provoked outrage when he defended young people’s right to enjoy their sexuality in the Sunday Mercury newspaper. Having highlighted the ‘need to stem the appalling tide of illegitimate births’, Cole called for ‘a society which will allow young people to enjoy sexual experience free of feelings of guilt and free of fear of disease’.

Cole insisted that he was not in favour of ‘a sexual free-for-all’ but that young people should learn about sex to avoid illegitimate babies and venereal diseases and to have what he defined as this ‘wonderful experience’ without hurting themselves or other people. By contrast, Helen Brook never mentioned young people’s right to sexual pleasure.

Opposition came from the British Medical Association branch in Birmingham, which officially took a stance against the centre, fearing it would encourage promiscuity. Some family doctors reacted by describing the scheme as ‘a prescription for fornication without tears’.

Faith Spicer helped to win back some critics of Cole’s radical stance by emphasising that young people generally behaved responsibly and came to the centre to ‘work out a way of life for themselves that they can feel is good and valuable’, as she put it to the Sunday Mercury.

The Birmingham clinic finally opened in September 1966. Due to fears about protests, two guards were hired to make sure everything went smoothly but this proved unnecessary. Local political opposition did, however, persist for several years – the City of Birmingham Health Committee voted against endorsing BAC and allowing its social workers to publicise BAC services. And despite the Family Planning Act of 1967, which allowed local authorities to provide birth control to all women, the Health Committee continued to refuse to accept that the Centre’s work was ‘vital and necessary’.

It wasn’t until 1972, when the Labour Party gained control of the city council, that the BAC was called on to help provide a full free contraceptive service for Birmingham residents.

Rusterholz says: “Brook and Spicer presented the centres not as birth control shops but places where young people could discuss their difficulties and make informed decisions under the gentle guidance of trained professionals.

“The Brook Advisory Centres modified the notion of responsibility promoted by the Family Planning Association, to include young unmarried people. This paved the way for increasing autonomy and sexual freedom in the following decades.”

Promoting responsibility

The study sheds new light on Helen Brook’s pioneering role in encouraging young men to take greater responsibility for their sexual behaviour, a persistent challenge to this day. Annual reports and media articles covering the work of the centres emphasised the involvement of young men who accompanied their girlfriends, booked them appointments, or even attended the centre alone.

By 1968, half of the clients who attended the Birmingham centre came as couples. And in 1971, it reported that its patients ‘were serious responsible young citizens, faithful to one partner but living in an age when social patterns change drastically’.

The statistics compiled by BAC reflected this vision of responsibility. Its clientele increased steadily from 1964 and in both cities, the vast majority of clients were in steady relationships (or claimed to be). Roughly one-third were students and in 1967, less than 10% of London patients were aged 16–17, the majority being 20–21, while in Birmingham, the majority of patients were 19–21.

Rusterholz says: “In their early years, Brook Advisory Centres functioned as places where responsible behaviours could be taught, and the clinic’s statistics emphasised that the majority of clients were receptive. All of this challenged a powerful public narrative in Sixties Britain which presented young people as promiscuous and irresponsible.”

Caroline Rusterholz is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Cambridge’s Faculty of History and a Research Associate at St John’s College.


C. Rusterholz, ‘Youth sexuality, responsibility and the opening of the Brook Advisory Centre in London and Birmingham in the 1960s’, Journal of British Studies (2022). DOI: 10.1017/jbr.2021.188

Published 20th January 2022