Josephine Butler ‘a non-repressive Puritan’ and Mary Jeffries the ‘Empress of Vice’

Claire A. Cunnington

(Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield)

In 1885 the UK Criminal Law Amendment Act passed after a long journey through parliament because a series of articles entitled the ‘Maiden Tribute’ raised intense public concern about child sexual exploitation in London. The Maiden Tribute, published in the Pall Mall Gazette, reported upon an investigation into child sexual exploitation in London. It has been identified as the beginning of tabloid journalism.[1]

Judith Walkowitz[2] criticised the Maiden Tribute, stating that it focussed upon a false and melodramatic image of an aristocrat seducing a young girl, which did not reflect reality, as most child sexual abuse was within the community or family. She argued that working class women and girls involved in prostitution were not passive victims but actively choose the job. This article will explore the circumstances that led to the Maiden Tribute and explain its focus on aristocratic seduction through the influence of two women; Josephine Butler, who campaigned for a raised age of consent and Mary Jeffries, reputed to have sold children to MP’s, Kings and other VIPs. Both women’s influence will be assessed through an exploration of their activities around this case.

Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler was born in 1828 to Hannah and John Grey, cousin of Lord Grey, progressive Whig prime minister.[3] Josephine’s father campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and his daughter described his life as ‘a sustained effort for the good of others.’[4] As a young woman the slave trade ‘broke her young heart’ and later she saw parallels in the ‘white slave’ trade in Europe – ‘the injustice to women through this conspiracy of greed and gold and lust of the flesh.’[5]

Josephine married Reverend George Butler and they had four children. In 1864 their daughter died and this left Josephine Butler ‘possessed with an irresistible urge to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself.’[6] Described by James Stuart MP as ‘at home in every class of society,’[7] Josephine visited women in workhouses and prisons, eventually establishing a woman’s refuge for women leaving prostitution.

The Contagious Diseases Acts legalised prostitution and allowed police to forcibly examine sex workers for venereal disease and, if infected, detain them until treatment was completed. This was originally applied only to ports and army towns, aiming to improve military health. Josephine Butler was horrified, at the acceptance that soldiers ‘animalism’ needed providing for and the attitude that sex workers were a public health issue. She felt that the Contagious Diseases Acts ‘denied the right to a trial, created a slave-class out of women, and unfairly targeted the urban poor’[8] and became Secretary of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869.[9] Josephine visited cities, arguing for the abolition of the Acts and recruiting more women to her campaign. The response is illustrated by an article in a Portsmouth based newspaper where she is criticised for discussing ‘repulsive matters’ and patronised as not having ‘clear judgement.’[10]

 The Origin of the Criminal Law Amendment Act

Alfred Dyer, a Quaker publisher, was horrified to hear about English girls held captive in brothels in Belgium.[11] He recruited others to help him campaign to end this practice, including Josephine Butler. Dyer founded the ‘London Committee for the Suppression of the Traffic of British Girls for the Purpose of Continental Prostitution’ (hereafter London Committee) and lobbied the Government. The Home Office sent an investigator to Belgium and he returned with evidence of 33 enslaved women and girls.[12]

An 1881 Lords Select Committee investigation concluded that there was a need for changes in the law including raising the age of consent. They drafted a bill which was sent to the House of Commons, which then took four years to get to the second reading stage. On the 22nd May 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Bill had its second reading, was filibustered by the last speaker, Sir George Cavendish-Bentinck, and was assumed to be impossible to pass. Deborah Gorham stated that MP’s were reluctant to regulate men’s sexual activities, including their own, as many visited brothels run by a Mrs Jeffries. [13]

 Mary Jeffries

Mary Jeffries ran a network of high class brothels in London that catered for ‘unusual sexual desires’ including paedophilia.[14] A private prosecution against her was instigated by the London Committee in April 1885 after the police declined to prosecute her.[15] They had been approached by Inspector Minahan, a policeman, who had been sacked for describing her houses as ‘brothels for the nobility.’[16] The home office sent an observer, Mr Batchelor, to the trial, her lawyer worked for the Treasury and the judge repeatedly reminded witnesses not to name any clients.[17]

After taking initial statements, the judge called the lawyers to his chambers for a private discussion. Upon their return Mrs Jeffries was instructed to plead guilty for a £200 fine, which was a large fine but evidence suggests that she could easily afford it. She charged £5 per transaction, keeping £2 and paying the girl £3,[18] and thus could easily earn an annual income of £900 per house. Evidence given at the trial was that she had at least eleven houses, giving her an annual income in excess of £9,900, at a time when the average income per annum was £45.[19]

The trial ended on the 5th May 1885. Inspector Minahan said at the trial that Mrs Jeffries had told him that she sent ‘young girls to Paris, Berlin and Brussels.’[20] Her driver stated that she ‘used to supply the King of the Belgians and get £800 a month.’[21] Dyer’s publication, The Sentinel, printed names of her clients which included the Prince of Wales, Lords and MPs.[22] Therefore, her clients were known to be from the highest echelons of society. On the day the Bill had its second reading there were questions asked in the House about the discrepancy between Mrs Jeffries fine and a similar case, under the same judge, where the brothel owner had received a custodial sentence.[23]

 The Maiden Tribute

The campaigners were concerned that both parliament and the judiciary had failed so they turned to WT Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead was directly influenced by Josephine Butler in his creation of the Maiden Tribute articles.[24] She advised him, inspired by the anti-slavery campaign, that the white slave trade needed its own ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and that it needed to galvanise the working classes. The London Committee informed WT Stead about Mrs Jeffries activities and clientele. The Maiden Tribute was based, in part, upon her activities.

The Maiden Tribute details the industry devoted to the exploitation of young girls – the procurers, doctors certifying virginity and midwives ministering the wounds afterwards. It also describes specific clients; monstrous ‘minotaurs.’ Mrs Jeffries was interviewed for the articles and the following is a quote which may well be her:

“In my house,” said a most respectable lady, who keeps a villa in the west of London, “you can enjoy the screams of the girl with the certainty that no one else hears them but yourself…Here is a room where you can be perfectly secure. The house stands in its own grounds. The walls are thick, there is a double carpet on the floor. The only window which fronts upon the back garden is doubly secured, first with shutters and then with heavy curtains. You lock the door and then you can do as you please. The girl may scream blue murder, but not a sound will be heard. The servants will be far away in the other end of the house. I only will be about seeing that all is snug.” “But,” remarked her visitor, “if you hear the cries of the child, you may yourself interfere, especially if, as may easily happen, I badly hurt and in fact all but kill the girl” “You will not kill her,” she answered, “you have too much sense to kill the girl. Anything short of that, you can do as you please. As for me interfering, do you think I do not know my business?”[25]

The attitude of some MPs towards the victims of this industry is illustrated by a quote from George Cavendish-Bentinck MP, ‘I myself am quite ready to supply you with 100 maids at £25 each, but they will all know very well what they are about.…it is nonsense to say it is rape; it is merely the delivery as per contract of the asset virginity in return for cash down.’[26] The most infamous part of the Maiden Tribute was that they literally bought a girl for £5 and took her abroad to prove that it could be done.[27]

There was a public outcry; parliament was inundated with petitions and there was an enormous rally in Hyde Park.[28] The news also travelled around the world, newspapers as far afield as America and Australia reported on London scandal.[29] The focus on nobility enraged and inspired the lower classes to lobby their MPs. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill became a class issue, enabling the middle and working classes to ignore their own issues with abuse. MPs had little choice but to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which they did on the 14th August 1885.[30]

The Maiden Tribute articles succeeded in their aim of raising the age of consent for girls. After this successful result Stead was jailed under the new law for the abduction of Eliza Armstrong.[31] Upon his release he founded the ‘National Vigilance Association’ campaigning for higher moral standards in society,[32] but Josephine Butler disagreed with their methods stating that there was ‘a tendency to let the pressure fall almost exclusively on women because it is more difficult, they say, to get at men.’[33]

Mrs Jeffries was prosecuted again in 1887 for running a disorderly house, represented by Forrest Fulton MP, but this time she was given a custodial sentence.[34] Stead wrote at the time, ‘We wonder what the Kings, Princes, Peers and officers, who found the old lady so convenient for the gratification of their pleasures, think of her now…so far as she deserves to be there, much more do they to share cells by her side.’[35]

This is not a case of two women where one is viewed by society as an angel and the other a devil. Neither of whom were the traditional Victorian ‘Angel of the House.’[36] Josephine Butler was disapproved of for even discussing prostitution but Mrs Jeffries was defended in court by Government officials and MPs. The fact that they were both the objects of discussion and engaged support on both sides of this debate demonstrates that both had agency and power at the time when it was not expected or encouraged in women. Ultimately, they were directly engaged in either battling against or servicing the needs of men and the battlegrounds were young women and children.

 Bibliography

Anon, ‘Middlesex Sessions’, The Times (London, 8 December 1887), p. 3

Anon, ‘The Ladies and the Contagious Diseases Act’, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle (Portsmouth, 6 July 1870)

Anon, ‘Titled Criminals and Their Protegee’, The Sentinel (London, June 1885), pp. 425–27

Bowley, AL, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900)

Butler, Josephine E, Personal Reminiscencies of a Great Crusade (London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1910)

Fisher, Trevor, ‘Josephine Butler Feminism’s Neglected Pioneer’, History Today, 46 (1996), 32–38

Gorham, Deborah, ‘The “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” Re-Examined: Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late-Victorian England’, Victorian Studies, 21 (1978), 353–79

Hansard, ‘Law and Justice (England and Wales) – The Jeffreys’ Case – Mr Edlin (Assistant Judge)’, Hansard (London, 3 August 1885)

Marshik, Celia, ‘Parodying the £ 5 Virgin : Bernard Shaw and the Playing of Pygmalion’, Access, 13 (2000), 321–41

Moore, Roderick, ‘Josephine Butler (1828-1906): Feminist, Christian and Libertarian’, Libertarian Heritage, 10 (1993), 1–7 <http://www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/libhe/libhe010.pdf>

O’Donnell, Bridget, Inspector Minahan Makes a Stand (London: Picador, 2012)

Patmore, Coventry, The Angel in the House, 2nd edn (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886)

Pearson, Michael, The Age of Consent: Victorian Prostitution and Its Enemies (Exeter: David & Charles, 1972)

Roberts, M. J. D., ‘Feminism and the State in Later Victorian England’, The Historical Journal, 38 (1995), 85 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X00016290>

Saunders, George, ‘Regina v Mary Frances Jeffries Trial Transcript. TNA: HO 144 468 X124’ (London: The National Archives, 1885)

Select Committee, Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Law Relating to the Protection of Young Girls (London, 1881)

‘Social Scabs’, The Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, 11 July 1885), p. 1

Stead, W T, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon I: The Report of Our Secret Commission’, The Pall Mall Gazette (London, 6 July 1885)

Stead, WT, ‘Occasional Notes’, The Pall Mall Gazette (London, 22 November 1887)

Terrot, Charles, The Maiden Tribute: A Study of the White Slave Traffic of the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Frederick Muller (London, 1959)

Walkowitz, Judith R., City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (London: Virago, 2010) <https://doi.org/10.2307/2075208>

Wendelin, G, ‘A Rhetoric of Pornography: Private Style and Public Policy in “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”’, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42 (2012), 375–96 <https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2012.704120>

Wilson, HJ, Cameron, Fenwich, Heath, J Kennaway, Colonel Lockwood, and others, Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885 ) Amendment Bill (London, England: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1885)

 

[1] Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (London: Virago, 2010) <https://doi.org/10.2307/2075208>.

[2] Judith R. Walkowitz, City.

[3] Josephine E Butler, Personal Reminiscencies of a Great Crusade (London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1910).

[4] Butler, Personal, p.7.

[5] Butler, Personal, p.7.

[6] Trevor Fisher, ‘Josephine Butler Feminism’s Neglected Pioneer’, History Today, 46.6 (1996), 32–38, p.34.

[7] Butler, Personal, p.5.

[8] G Wendelin, ‘A Rhetoric of Pornography: Private Style and Public Policy in “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”’, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42.4 (2012), 375–96 <https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2012.704120>, p.382.

[9] Butler, Personal.

[10] Anon, ‘The Ladies and the Contagious Diseases Act’, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle (Portsmouth, 6 July 1870), p.1.

[11] Michael Pearson, The Age of Consent: Victorian Prostitution and Its Enemies (Exeter: David & Charles, 1972).

[12] Select Committee, Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Law Relating to the Protection of Young Girls (London, 1881).

[13] Deborah Gorham, ‘The “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” Re-Examined: Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late-Victorian England’, Victorian Studies, 21.3 (1978), 353–79.

[14] Charles Terrot, The Maiden Tribute: A Study of the White Slave Traffic of the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Frederick Muller (London, 1959).

[15] Pearson, Age.

[16] Bridget O’Donnell, Inspector Minahan Makes a Stand (London: Picador, 2012).

[17] George Saunders, ‘Regina v Mary Frances Jeffries Trial Transcript. TNA: HO 144 468 X124’ (London: The National Archives, 1885).

[18] Saunders. Regina

[19] AL Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900).

[20] Saunders. Regina, p.83

[21] Saunders. Regina, p.54.

[22] Anon, ‘Titled Criminals and Their Protegee’, The Sentinel (London, June 1885), pp. 425–27.

[23] Hansard, ‘Law and Justice (England and Wales) – The Jeffreys’ Case – Mr Edlin (Assistant Judge)’, Hansard (London, 3 August 1885).

[24] Judith R. Walkowitz, City.

[25] W T Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon I: The Report of Our Secret Commission’, The Pall Mall Gazette (London, 6 July 1885), p.5.

[26] W T Stead, Maiden, p.5

[27] W T Stead, Maiden.

[28] Judith R. Walkowitz, City.

[29] ‘Social Scabs’, The Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, 11 July 1885), p. 1.

[30] HJ Wilson and others, Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885 ) Amendment Bill (London, England: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1885).

[31] M. J. D. Roberts, ‘Feminism and the State in Later Victorian England’, The Historical Journal, 38.1 (1995), 85 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X00016290>.

[32] Celia Marshik, ‘Parodying the £ 5 Virgin : Bernard Shaw and the Playing of Pygmalion’, Access, 13.2 (2000), 321–41.

[33] Roderick Moore, ‘Josephine Butler (1828-1906): Feminist, Christian and Libertarian’, Libertarian Heritage, 10 (1993), 1–7 <http://www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/libhe/libhe010.pdf>, p.6.

[34] Anon, ‘Middlesex Sessions’, The Times (London, 8 December 1887), p. 3.

[35] WT Stead, ‘Occasional Notes’, The Pall Mall Gazette (London, 22 November 1887).

[36] Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, 2nd edn (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886).

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