One symbolic and far from insignificant, new development in this process was the introduction of routine infant circumcision of boys among the upper and professional middle classes of Britain (and America). We know less about this practice than we do about the rituals of some of the most obscure African peoples. Before another generation has elapsed, no one in Britain will even remember it ever happened or, if they do, will regard it as a quaint post-Victorian fad, on a par with antimacassars and aspidistras. The first and most difficult problem is to establish when it began. Circumcision was for centuries unthinkable to a Christian. 'Christendom', wrote Richard Burton, 'practically holds circumcision in horror , a point only underlined by the eccentric attempt of some millenarian false prophets to reintroduce it as the 'baptism of blood' in the 1820s. Christian iconography has always refused to be honest on this point. Michelangelo's David, for his realism, is not circumcised as he should be. The infant Jesus, even when patently well past the eighth day, is never depicted as circumcised. In 1810, when Byron wanted to draw out the main differences between the 'Turks and ourselves'', he seized upon the fact that 'we have a foreskin and they have none' (adding that 'we talk much and they little ... We prefer a girl and a bottle, they a pipe and a pathic').
JWM Turner, Kneeling Man, c 1790. This is a 'worked up' drawing from a life class sketch made by the teenage Turner. The man is clearly circumcised - so much for circumcision being unknown before the late 19th century! For more details see our Art page. Courtesy Tate Gallery, London.
'Walter' (born early 1820s), with his insatiable curiosity about all aspects of sex, wrote two essays on the physiognomy of the penis. Both assume the presence of a foreskin. Circumcision is not even mentioned in them. His 'sample' was pretty good. His field observations were based on his recollections of exhibitionism and swimming bath scenes during his schooldays, on what he saw of fellow participants in orgies, and during a great many voyeuristic episodes in brothels. He also gathered oral evidence from prostitutes whom he found well informed about their clients' genitals. Those who had been maidservants described their employers' sons' organs as well. He knew a good deal about the variable retraction of the foreskin in its natural adult state, so he may probably be accounted an accurate observer. The only two circumcised organs he ever saw belonged to Muslims, the first probably in Egypt about 1870 ('at once surprised as I was for a moment, it occurred to me that he must be circumcised. Such a prick I'd never seen ...'). Walter's evidence is supported by the entire corpus of mid-Victorian erotica. The first mention of circumcision in the genre appears to be in the 1880s; the first didactic reference c. 1907, in the anonymous Memoirs of a Voluptary. (The dating must be more or less right, even if it is a fudged imprint, because two of the villains are schoolboy characters called 'Elgar' and 'Benson' – in real life the authors of 'Land of Hope and Glory' , 1902 – and the joke would fall flat unless it were topical.) 'Elgar' is described as having 'an awfully funny cock, the skin being 'cut off like a Jew'. It was the first time the narrator had seen such a member. He was not impressed although he discovered later it was not confined to 'Jews and Muslims' and 'a number of modern medical men approve of it'. For the record, Elgar hated the words Benson had put to his Pomp and Circumstance March, regarding them as terribly jingoistic. I have been unable to find any record as to whether Edward Elgar was circumcised (ed).
Discussion about the possible benefits of circumcision began about 1890. One of the most enthusiastic publicists was Dr Remondino who considered that evolution might eventually remove the foreskin. Meanwhile outright war must be waged on this 'debatable appendage':
Circumcision is like a substantial and well secured life annuity; ... parents cannot make a better saving investment for their little boys, as it ensures them better health, greater capacity for labour, longer life, less nervousness, sickness, loss of time – and less doctor bills, as well as it increases their chance for an euthanasian death.
Remondino was American, not British. For more information about him see our USA page (ed).
The British Medical Journal reviewer welcomed Remondino's book as focusing attention on an important subject insufficiently ventilated hitherto. Not surprisingly he found some of the arguments 'excessive and strained', but concluded that many of Remondino's views were of 'undoubted value'. A more sophisticated advocate was the eminent surgeon, Sir Jonathan Hutchinson, who stressed that the operation 'must necessarily tend to cleanliness' and almost certainly help to reduce cancer. Some doctors thought it would reduce liability to hernia. On the other side Herbert Snow denounced circumcision as barbarous and unnecessary. Army doctors now joined in the debate, perhaps decisively. Captain F. J. W. Porter in 1892 said he had performed a hundred circumcisions (using cocaine) in India on his last tour and twenty-five in six months back in the station hospital at Colchester; in fact he operated 'whenever there is a sore on the prepuce'. Dr R. E. Foott, a former army surgeon recalled how frequently he had been appalled by the 'filth collected' under the prepuces of the uncircumcised, and how soldiers often had to be made to wash the smegmatic accumulation away before he could examine them properly. This unhygienic state, he believed, 'assisted the absorption of the syphilitic virus'. Doctors as a group were now rapidly becoming convinced of the benefits of circumcision. There was a lot of discussion as to how they could persuade mothers to accept the operation. By the mid-1890s, however, they were alarmed by the number of 'specialist operators' who were sending circulars to parents who announced in The Times the birth of a son – circulars which laid much stress on a suggestion that this was an ideal moment for fathers to put themselves in good genital standing too. In 1899 a Hertfordshire 'country doctor' reported from Welwyn that 'of recent years most parents' in his private practice were asking for infant circumcision of boys.
The answer to the first problem therefore seems fairly definite: British circumcision began in the 1890s – at a time when a great deal of public interest was focused on the empire. The debate was over by about 1903. By 1907 it was reported to be 'very common in children's hospitals'; 874 operations were performed in 1906 at Great Ormond Street. At the Middlesex Hospital in 1906, fifty-four children and twelve adults were circumcised. In the main, however, it was an operation left to general practitioners.
The second question we have to consider is why it was adopted. Two motivating strands can readily be identified: Jewish and Indian 'imperial'. As far as Jewish influences are concerned there was at this time a good deal of reluctant admiration for Jewish methods of child care. Time and time again, doctors testified to the low incidence of infant mortality among Jews, to the sturdiness of Jewish children, to their supposedly low rates of masturbation, and to the rarity of venereal disease and cancer of the penis. The report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (1904) accepted Jewish family life as an ideal to which the rest of the nation had to move if they were really to improve the health of British children. General Sir Frederick Maurice felt that 'it does not follow that a stereotyped copying of the Jews would be desirable', but he accepted that the British evidently had much to learn from them.85 As far as Indian experience is concerned, it is clear that circumcision had long been used as a treatment in the Indian army, possibly well back into the eighteenth century. Hot, humid climates are not good for sensitive foreskins, any more than sandy ones are (as the Jews and Muslims of the Middle East had always known). There can be little doubt that British Indian medical authorities strongly favoured the introduction of infant circumcision in Britain as a procedure which would eliminate a tiresome cause of later trouble for future servants of empire.
Together these Jewish and imperial strands are a sufficient explanation for the adoption of circumcision by the British elite. (Sadly, however, the finesse of the Jewish mohel was not assimilated, and the crudity of the British form of circumcision had to be seen to be believed. This fact deprives the whole discussion of any elegiac quality it might otherwise have had.) It is not necessary to evoke its supposed properties as an anti-masturbation device; anyone who advocated it for that reason was indulging in pure quackery.
A circumcised young man from the South Hertfordshire Naturist Youth Group. Courtesy H&E magazine, 1978. The idea that British circumcisions were 'crude' is just fantasy. As we see here, they tended to be loose, but virtually scarless - as if they were just naturally that way.
Lastly, we have to establish the significance of the late-Victorian adoption of circumcision. Symbolically, the anthropologist (to whom we must turn for guidance) would regard circumcision as a change 'from a state of infantile filthiness to a state of clean maturity', of rebirth into 'masculinity and personality'. In some societies it serves as a public demonstration of loyalty to the group (since the father risks the future basis of his power as a man with descendants); it is a ritual of kinship unity, an act of obedience to ancestral custom and thus a legitimation of those in authority. But, most fundamentally and broadly, circumcision is the establishment of a strong male identity: an assertion of maleness, a conquest of feminine elements. Among the Merina of Madagascar for example, it is sometimes called mahasoa (making sweet and clean); it is making a boy properly male, achieving a correct sexual differentiation, and perhaps even regarded as ensuring sexual potency. Viewed in the light of these anthropological insights, we can see how British circumcision was meant to contribute to the general improvement of the physical and self-confident manliness of the future custodians of empire. It was a dramatic reassertion of masculinity in accordance with the lessons of practical experience of working in hot climates. Perhaps also it had an appeal as satisfying the symbolic requirements of ruling an empire of seventy million Muslims. It was widely adopted in the white Dominions.
That British circumcision is to be seen primarily as an imperial phenomenon is, finally, demonstrated statistically by its differential adoption among various social groups. It was chiefly characteristic of the upper and professional classes, pioneered by doctors and army officers. In the 1930s - there are unfortunately no earlier statistics - it seems to have been carried out on about two-thirds of boys in the leading public schools. At the highest level of the social scale the proportion may even have exceeded four-fifths, whereas in some 'deprived' working-class areas, rural and urban, it may never have got beyond one-tenth. Overall, by the 1930s almost exactly one-third of the total British male population was being circumcised. A survey of soldiers, mostly National Servicemen, in 1953 found thirty-four per cent of them to be circumcised (reflecting, of course, its incidence c. 1935). Its decline began as one of the casualties of war. In the national sample of 2,428 boys born on 4 March 1946, only twenty-four per cent were circumcised, but the class differential was still highly significant: 38.8 per cent among professional and salaried groups, and 21.9 per cent among manual and unskilled workers.90 By 1946 the whole business was under sentence of death, precipitately killed off by the end of the Indian Civil Service and by the economies of the National Health Service. Today less than one per cent of the population is circumcised in infancy, and only in the main for religious reasons.*
* Hyams cites a reference for this statistic. J.P. Blandy, Circumcision, Hospital Medicine, February 1968, 551-553. By now I suppose the reader will not be at all surprised that this statistic isn't in it! I guess Hyam chose a reference of such extreme obscurity in the hope that nobody would check. The Blandy paper is a rant against routine infant circumcision, but accepts that if it is abandoned, circumcision at the age of 3 or 4 would sometimes be necessary "when the operation is time-comsuming and delicate. It needs a nice technique, fine instruments, fine suturing material and perfect haemostasis." One might feel that he has just undermined his entire argument, especially considering the psychological effect on a 4-year-old. Anyhow, the 1% statistic is conspicuously absent.