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This very night in London, and every night, year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but many times seven, selected almost as much by chance as those who in the Athenian market-place drew lots as to which should be flung into the Cretan labyrinth, will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.

So wrote William Thomas Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette on Monday, 6th July 1885 whose knowledge of Classical Mythology enabled him to draw the analogy between the ancient Athenians, who had sent randomly selected young virgins to meet their death in the Minotaur's labyrinth, and modern Londoners, who every night sent hundreds of young virgins to meet a fate worse than death at the hands of the vice trade.

The reason why Stead chose this particular time to launch this tirade was simply this: a number of reform groups, such as the Salvation Army and the Ladies National Association run by Josephine Elizabeth Butler had been campaigning against what was at the time referred to as the White Slave Traffic. In particular they were appalled at the prevalence of what we would now call child prostitution, but what was then perfectly legal since the law decreed that any girl of thirteen was legally competent to consent to her own seduction.

In response to this campaign the Home Secretary William George Granville Harcourt had supported a Criminal law Amendment Bill in 1884 put forward by the Earl of Dalhousie which proposed increasing the age of consent to sixteen. This proposal attracted a measure of opposition, largely orchestrated by one George Augustus Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck, the member for Whitehaven. Cavendish-Bentinck, who was from the same family as the Duke of Portland, was widely believed to be in the pay of Mary Jeffries, the leading madame of the day, who ran three brothels in Church Street, Kensington, a flagellation house in Hampstead together with a "chamber of horrors" in Gray's Inn Road and boasted that the King of the Belgians was amongst her clientele. Cavendish-Bentinck succeeded in holding up the bill's progress so that when the Liberal government was unexpectedly defeated in the spring of 1885, it decided to abandon any effort to get the bill through Parliament.

It was frustration at this failure that caused the campaigners to turn to the press, and specifically to the person of William Thomas Stead. The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and a leading exponent of what was then called the New Journalism, Stead had already attracted a reputation as a campaigning journalist. The son of a Congregational minister, he was a God-fearing man who had already written of the evils of prostitution, and was thus more than ready to take up arms on behalf of the reformers.


It was in the Pall Mall Gazette of Saturday, 4th July 1885 that Stead revealed the existence of a "Special and Secret Commission of Inquiry" which had been "appointed to examine into the whole subject" and had produced "a long, detailed report, dealing with those phases of sexual criminality which the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was framed to repress". He announced that this report would be published in the Gazette in the following week and warned that "all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool's paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days". However to those with constitutions sufficiently robust to face the truth he promised the "story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell".

The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, which duly appeared in the Gazette in the following week drew attention to the "veritable slave trade that is going on around us" which was taking place "in the heart of London". It was replete with interviews such as 'The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper' and detailed case histories recounting 'The Violation Of Virgins' and histories of both 'Virgins Willing And Unwilling'. It included accounts of the sale and purchase and violation of children; the procuration of virgins; the entrapping and ruin of women; the international slave trade in girls and the various atrocities, brutalities and unnatural crimes that resulted. He described how young women were procured and then drugged with chloroform or laudanum in order to make them more amenable to their subsequent 'seduction', and how madames would boast to prospective clients that "In my house, you can enjoy the screams of the girl with the certainty that no one else hears them but yourself", in order that they might "enjoy to the full the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of an immature child".

Stead reported how he had personally ordered five virgins and detailed how five young girls were procured and taken to a doctor who formally certified them as virgins, or not as proved to be the case for some of the girls, whilst the girls themselves signed a formal agreement consenting to their subsequent seduction. Thus by appending their names to such a statement as "I hereby agree to let you have me for £5" everything was rendered perfectly legal and above board. Stead similarly revealed the extent to which some members of the medical profession were complicit in the trade, and indeed profited from it, whilst accusing the police of corruptly taking bribes from the brothel owners, referring to "one famous house in the East-end" where "the police allowance is as much as £500 a year".


All of which was pretty strong meat as far as Victorian journalism was concerned. Never before had a newspaper written of the business of prostitution at such length and in such detail. In fact so detailed was his exposition of the sex trade in London that many regarded Stead's series of articles as bordering on the pornographic. But whilst W.H. Smith refused to sell the paper, others could not wait to get their hands on the next edition.

Under the headline A Flame which shall never be Extinguished the Pall Mall Gazette of Wednesday, 8th July 1885 claimed that the report of the 'Secret Commission' had "produced an effect unparalleled in the history of journalism"; the "excitement" in London being "intense". On the following day, under the headline of The Siege of Northumberland Street the Gazette gave an account of the level of excitement generated, as Stead recounted how the paper's offices at Northumberland Street were left in a state of siege by a mob eager to read the next installment. Sales of the paper increased from 8,000 to 12,000 (and would have been more had the Gazette's rather antiquated presses been able to go any faster) and copies changed hands at a premium to face value. The Maiden Tribute even made news across the globe, as the story was enthusiastically taken up by newspapers around the world, with the New York Sundeclaring that "the Pall Mall Gazette has wrung the heart and electrified the conscience" of the country.

Such was the impact on public opinion that the government was forced to find time for the Criminal Law Amendent Act 1885 which was passed into law on the 14th August. An event which Stead (somewhat immodestly it must be said) regarded as "one of the greatest achievements which any journalist single-handed had ever accomplished".

The Eliza Armstrong case

In order to truly press the point home, under the heading of a Child of Thirteen Bought for £5 Stead told the tale of Lily "a little cockney child" who had been purchased from her parents for the sum of five pounds; three pounds down, with the balance payable once her virginity had been professionally certified. Lily was then taken to a midwife who carried out the required examination. Although the midwife was of the opinion that "She is so small, her pain will be extreme. I hope you will not be too cruel with her", she merely took this as an opportunity to add to her profits by producing a small phial of chloroform, with the claim that her "clients find this much the most effective". The midwife then charged £1 1s for the certificate of virginity and another £1 10s for the chloroform. Stead then claimed that "the innocent girl was taken to a house of ill fame", where she was taken up stairs, undressed, and put to bed, in a locked room. At which point "there rose a wild and piteous cry-not a loud shriek, but a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb. And the child's voice was heard crying, in accents of terror, 'There's a man in the room! Take me home; oh, take me home!'".

As it happened most of this was true. There was indeed a 'Lily'; her name was Eliza Armstrong and her parents had indeed sold her for five pounds. She was acquired on Stead's behalf by two of his agents named Rebecca Jarrett and Sampson Jacques and subsequently examined by a midwife named Louise Mourez. Eliza was indeed taken to a brothel, but only remained there for half an hour, and if she was frightened by the sudden appearance of a strange man in her room, that man was William Stead himself. And despite the impression given in the Gazette's account, Eliza was not sexually assaulted in any way, but handed over to the Salvation Army who spirited her away to the south of France where she was placed in the care of a Swiss Salvationist named Madame Coombe.

The problem was, as Stead himself was later to admit, that Eliza had been removed "without the consent of the father, and without any written evidence as to the payment to the mother". This failure to pay strict attention to these legal niceties left him open to retribution from those commercial interests he had so recently offended. It was for this reason that Stead later found himself charged with the twin crimes of the abduction of Eliza Armstrong and of an indecent assault upon her. His trial created almost as much of a sensation as the original story; the public subscribed a fund of six thousand pounds to pay for the defence, although in the event Stead defended himself. However despite producing such eminent witnesses as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, John Morley and Arthur Balfour to testify as to the "purity" of his motives, he was found guilty of both crimes in seperate trials. He thus stood in the dock of the Old Bailey on the 10th November 1885 facing the judgement of Mr. Justice Henry Charles Lopes. It must be said that the judge was not very sympathetic to Stead's situation; "I regret to say that you thought fit to publish in the Pall Mall Gazette a distorted account of the case of Eliza Armstrong, and that you deluged, some months ago, our streets and the whole country with an amount of filth which has, as I fear, tainted the minds of the children that you were so anxious to protect, and which has been - and I don't hesitate to say, ever will be - a disgrace to journalism"; and sentenced Stead to three months without hard labour.

Stead's agent Rebecca Jarrett got six months, whilst Sampson Jacques received a sentence of only one month's duration (he'd only been convicted on the charge of indecent assault). The midwife Louise Mourez on the other hand got six months with hard labour, but then she was "a professional abortionist".

Despite his prison sentence, Stead himself was unrepentant, no doubt believing that the end justified the means and habitually donned his prison uniform on the anniversary of his sentencing each year. Nonetheless his journalistic reputation was not what it was. Many shared the view of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote that "Nobody ever trusted him after the discovery that the case of Eliza Armstrong in the Maiden Tribute was a put-up job, and that he himself had put it up. We all felt that if ever a man deserved six months' imprisonment Stead deserved it for such a betrayal of our confidence in him". Such attitudes might have been a factor in Stead's decision to later quit the Gazette and developed an interest in spiritualism and the peace movement before meeting his end aboard the RMS Titanic in 1912.

Despite such qualifications the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon has come to be regarded as the classic example of Victorian investigative journalism, and morover set the template which would later be adopted by subsequent generations of journalists right down until the present day.


SOURCES

  • The W.T. Stead Resource Site at http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk
  • William Donaldson Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix, 2004)

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