Great Britain of the Victorian era was outwardly an age of invention, enterprise, prosperity, upward social mobility and high moral principle. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had shown the World that Britain and her Empire was truly just that, – Great. It was unquestionably a huge success, and had attracted in excess of 6 million visitors, that is over one third of the entire population of the United Kingdom between the dates of 1st May to the 11th October, but underneath the surface of this increasingly capitalist society, corruption and immorality flourished. The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent population explosion, meant many cities were at choking point. It left a legacy of poverty that had reached epidemic proportions, more chilling than at any other time in history. The competition for jobs was fierce, the cost of living high, accommodation overcrowded and unsanitary, child-labour a necessity and vice was rife.
Fortunately, there were those who sought to expose this outrage, often at a huge personal cost and sacrifice to champion the cause and fight for social justice. Two of the most prominent social reformers of the period hailed from Northumberland. Josephine Grey, more commonly remembered as Josephine Butler was born in Milfield in 1828, later dubbed the “Patron Saint of Prostitutes” and William Thomas Stead, the son of a Congregational Minister born in the village of Embleton in 1849.
The pair would collude in 1885 to fight the establishment head on to expose the vile atrocities of what would became known as the ‘Defloration Mania’, the trade of young female virgins into child prostitution. It was Josephine who persuaded Rebecca Jarret, a reformed prostitute to procure such a child “for sale” in order to demonstrate the ease of which such a transaction could take place. It was Stead however, who suffered at the hands of judicial system, but the when the case hit the headlines it caused such a public outrage that the ‘age of consent’ was hastily increased by Parliament from 13 to 16 years of age.
Gary Dolman, author of the acclaimed novel “The Eighth Circle of Hell” stumbled upon the subject somewhat by accident in 2010. Fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind and its psychological reaction to events over which it has no control, he spent many months researching this issue and the life of W T Stead in depth. I am personally a great fan of Gary’s writing and admire his ability to tackle the difficult topic of mental illness in such a forthright yet sensitive manner. His skill as a writer leaves the reader in no doubt of the true horror of the situation without the use of explicit language. I am, once again, indebted to him for his contribution to this feature.
This article may initially seem a strange choice to present to family historians and genealogists as the records are non-existent. Those cases that were documented are confined to records of court proceedings and the press coverage of the day, and even those were often reported under false or assumed names. However, as researchers, we should be all too aware of the significance in the inability to trace information, as we are in the importance of unearthing it. These events took place and are therefore part of history, no matter how hard we try to sweep them under the carpet. In this respect this article is food for thought, so the next time you encounter a young girl who disappears without trace, take a moment to reflect on her possible fate.
Blog - G. Dolman
On July 5th, 1849, at Embleton Manse, Northumberland, one William Thomas Stead was born. Although few today would recognise his name, Stead was later to become one of the most prominent journalists and social reformers of his day and an early pioneer of the investigative style of journalism. He was arguably the most celebrated person to die on the RMS Titanic.
Until the beginning of 2010, I had never heard of him either but that all changed after a visit to the nursing home where my father was being cared for through the end-stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
That day, an elderly lady was dozing in a nearby chair in the lounge. All of a sudden she stood and screamed out, begging some uncle to stop; crying that he was hurting her, that she was only little, and sobbing for her mother. It was truly harrowing to hear her and even more so to image what kind of childhood torments she must have been reliving.
I saw the beginnings of a novel and so that evening I began to research the history of child sexual abuse. Which was when I stumbled across the work of WT Stead, and the holocaust that was the Victorian Defloration Mania.
In July 1885, as the editor of the influential London daily newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette, Stead wrote a series of truly sensational articles entitled, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. These exposed the widespread trade in very young, virgin girls who were procured on an almost industrial scale for rape and prostitution. Stead's, ‘Infernal Narrative,’ as he referred to it, revealed to a scandalised Victorian readership a seedy underworld of brothels, procuresses and padded chambers, where wealthy gentlemen could revel, ‘in the cries of an immature child’.
Under such headers as, ‘Virgins, Willing and Unwilling,’ ‘The London Slave Market,’ and, ‘Strapping Girls Down,’ the series threw society into a state of near panic. The newspaper seller WH Smith & Sons (who then had the monopoly on London news stalls) took the view that the articles were too prurient and unvirtuous and refused to offer them so distribution was taken up by newsboys and Salvation Army volunteers. The word spread and very soon the Pall Mall Gazette’s Northumberland Street works were besieged by both vendors and readers in what became a near riot.
In order to demonstrate how easy it was to procure a young girl for prostitution, Stead, (along with Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army, the reformed procuress Rebecca Jarrett and others), had arranged for the purchase of one Eliza Armstrong. Eliza, who became the ‘Lily’ described in the Maiden Tribute articles, was the thirteen year-old daughter of a chimney sweep who was bought from her impoverished mother for £5. Although ultimately unharmed, Eliza was taken through the usual practices of being examined by an abortionist-midwife and certified as a virgin, and then drugged with chloroform. She was then spirited away by Booth to France to be raised by a Salvationist family.
However, as a result of what were subsequently considered to be illegal investigative methods – the girl was bought from her alcoholic mother without the father, Charles Armstrong’s, direct consent – Stead was convicted of the, ‘unlawful kidnapping and assault of a minor’, and sentenced to three months in prison.
WT Stead was unbowed on his release from prison and remained committed to breaking what he considered to be a, ‘conspiracy of silence,’ surrounding the subject despite the legal reforms he achieved. Over a century and a quarter after the, Maiden Tribute, articles were first published, the latest research by the NSPCC suggests that some one in nine children have been contact-abused sexually at some point in their lives. The torments of the old lady in my father’s nursing home and the reports in the modern-day press illustrate starkly how, despite the efforts of this great Northumbrian and others, the infernal narrative continues to this day.
In an eerie twist of fate and testimony to his own apparent clairvoyant ability, he foretold of the events in which he would ultimately perish in the fictitious tale “How the Mail Steamer went down in Mid Atlantic” in 1886. In it he anecdotally describes the scenario that may ensue should a ship go to sea with too few lifeboats! It is said that while proceedings on the night of 14 April 1912 aboard HMS Titanic unfolded around him, Stead calmly sat reading a book in the first class smoking room. He was allegedly last sighted standing on the deck silently in prayer. His body was never recovered.