1885: Age of con­sent is raised to 16

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jad Adams is a writer and Fel­low of the Royal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety

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.


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

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