BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1885: Age of consent is raised to 16
Setting the age of consent at 16 for girls was an early triumph of the politics of the pressure group, which uses the press to stimulate interest in an idea.
‘Anti-vice’ campaigners had struggled to have laws introduced banning prostitution. They fell foul of the widely accepted principle of ‘laissez faire’ which meant leaving commerce alone to set its own values; the state should not tell people how to sell their labour, even if many considered prostitution immoral.
The Criminal Law Amendment Bill was going through Parliament to strengthen the law on sexual offences but it was sure to fail through lack of enthusiasm. Campaigners had to ratchet up the interest and they chose to concentrate on girls above the age of 13, which was the current age of consent.
Many if not most children were at work by this age, and compulsory schooling was mandatory only until the age of 10, so to assert this control over teenage girls was a far from obvious step. But campaigners claimed that girls were being abducted and sent to brothels abroad, the so-called ‘white slave trade’. There was no concrete proof that this was happening, but it made for a lurid story. Campaigners approached the editor of the
Pall Mall Gazette, WT Stead, a man of strong but narrow principles. Stead was inspired to be ‘ruthless as death’ as he put it, and mounted what he called a ‘secret commission’ to investigate the white slave trade. He tried to prove that a virgin could be purchased in London and sent abroad for prostitution. One of the anti-vice campaigners introduced him to a reformed prostitute, Rebecca Jarrett, who said she had been a brothel keeper and who he cajoled into helping him.
“DEMAND FOR THE PALL MALL GAZETTE WAS SO GREAT THAT A BLACK MARKET DEVELOPED, THEIR OFFICES WERE MOBBED”
Stead styled himself the ‘chief director’ of the commission. He rented a room on the Strand and adopted the subterfuge of a man about town, seeking a virgin. He launched his campaign under the title The Maiden Tribute
of Modern Babylon over what he said were five issues: ‘1 The sale and purchase and violation of children; 2 The procuration of virgins; 3 The entrapping and ruin of women; 4 The international slave trade in girls; and 5 Atrocities, brutalities and unnatural crimes.’ There was no interest in boys at all, though boys could also be thought of as being in sexual danger.
The main focus of the campaign became 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong who Stead procured from her mother via Rebecca Jarrett, had her certified as a virgin, drugged and taken to a brothel in Soho, again had her certified as a virgin, and then sent her abroad, thus demonstrating that a virgin could be abducted and shipped out. Demand for the Pall Mall
Gazettee was so great that all copies were sold and a black market in them developed, their offices were mobbed.
Making their voices heard
The puritans could suddenly command a mass audience including support from socialists such as the Social Democratic Federation. In August 1885, there was a huge demonstration in Hyde Park of perhaps half a million people.
They marched from the East End via the clubland of the West End, making the point that working class girls were used as prostitutes by rich men.
Reynolds News talked of ‘Our daughters’ protection bill’ and of the ‘working class paterfamilias whose property – his daughter – had been appropriated by the idle rich.’
The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in August 1885, a remarkable achievement considering it had been thought dead in spring that year. It raised the age of consent for girls to 16, introduced new penalties for homosexual behaviour and attempted to suppress brothels.
Eliza’s neighbours had read the story and were outraged, and Mrs Armstrong sought the return of her daughter who she believed had been sent off to service.
A woman without influential friends or money for a lawyer, all Mrs Armstrong could do was to trail around the authorities pleading for help.
Fortunately, in the police courts she met a reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly who, being a journalist, was a good deal more sceptical than the public were about what he read in the papers, and he ran a counter-story exposing Stead’s kidnapping of a child as part of a publicity stunt.
Under the repeated urging of Mrs Armstrong, the police were also taking apart Stead’s story.
They tracked her down through Rebecca Jarrett and they were referred to the Salvation Army. Bramwell Booth, from the Army, said he did not know where the child was, but when the police became more persistent he admitted he knew but would not tell them. When police visited for the third time he said Eliza was in France working as a servant. Scotland Yard sent officers and she was eventually returned to her mother.
Stead and Jarrett were both charged with abduction and found themselves in the dock in September 1885 at Bow Street Police Court alongside Bramwell Booth and others involved in the case.
At the trial the truth came out: Eliza had been given to understand she was going to be a servant; Stead had lied about the supposedly depraved conditions of the Armstrongs’ family life. Now the crowd considered Stead not a hero but a criminal who had abducted a girl. This was not the protection of girls, it was another example of middle class meddlers thinking that they could do what they liked with the children of the working class.
Mrs Jarrett was said to have been a brothel keeper, she had not been: she exaggerated her life of vice to make her redemption all the more striking and improve her treatment by the puritans who ran the refuge where she lived. Stead had not admitted his personal role in the abduction in the Pall Mall Gazette story. He was imprisoned for three months and Jarrett for six; Booth was acquitted.
The new law fitted in with a very Victorian approach to regimenting life – they felt they should be able to dictate matters such as the age at which a child should go to school and at what age they should not be allowed to work in factories. The age of consent being set at 16 was just another piece of paternalistic legislation but it has been an enduring legacy of your Victorian ancestors.
Politics in flux
National politics was in flux. Prime Minister William Gladstone had mishandled the war in Sudan and his policies had not succeeded in pacifying Ireland or even in convincing Irish MPs that he was their best bet for home rule. He lost a vote of confidence and in June Conservative leader Lord Salisbury took over.
An election in November resulted in Gladstone having the largest number of seats, but Salisbury stayed Prime Minister as he had the support of Irish MPs who had been in secret discussions with the Conservatives.
Adventures in literature
The quest for adventure in Africa formed the background to this year’s bestseller, King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard, who was putting into print his experience of a continent he visited at the age of 19.
His spellbinding narrative shows Haggard’s fascination with the landscape of Africa, its wildlife, tribal society and the dark secrets of its mysterious past.
Clothes hygiene took a leap from this year with the development and marketing of the
world’s first branded laundry soap. Lever Brothers was founded by 34-year-old Lancashire salesman William Lever and his brother James who bought a small soap factory in n Warrington.
Along with Bolton chemist William Watson they introduced a foamy, ‘free-lathering’ yellow soap using glycerine and vegetable oils rather than old-fashioned animal fats. It would come to be called Sunlight Soap anda would quickly dominate the market.
Full of Eastern promise
The songs on everyone’s lips this year came fromf The Mikado, the new light opera from Gilbert and Sullivan performed for the first timet at the Savoy Theatre in March. It capitalised on interest in all things Japanese following the opening up of the market in Japan by the Americans. Subtitled The Town of Titipu, the arias heard everywhere were A Wand’ring Minstrel I, Three Little Maids from School and Tit-Willow. The first modern pedestal flush toilet was patented this year by Frederick Humpherson of Chelsea where the leading manufacturer of toilets, Thomas Crapper, also had his show wroom and factory. Humpherson‘s ‘Original Pedestal Wash-Down Closet’ was to become standard throughout the world. The first t legal cremation took place, of Jeanette Pickersgill, of London, who was the auth hor of a volume of verse and was said to beb ‘well known in literary and scientific c circles.’ She was cremated at Woking Crematorium in Surrey after two doctors hadh certified that she was definitel ly dead. The crematorium had been n erected seven ye ars earlier an nd tested on the body of a horse, but uncertainty about the legal lity of cremation had prevented its use until now.
Anti-vice campaigner and editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, WT Stead eventually ended up in prison
Prime Minister William Gladstone lost a
vote of no confidence in June 1885
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was one of the biggest theatrical hits of the year