Victorian prostitutes mainly served working-class men in squalid conditions. Soldiers and sailors were typical clients, but the middle classes also provided clients, mainly young single (rather than married men). At Oxford in the 1840s the proctors’ records suggest a figure of between 300 and 400 prostitutes in a city of 25,000 people (1,500 students).
The three euphemistically titled Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, 1869) were an attempt by the British government to regulate prostitution in the manner of other European countries, such as France. The specific goal of the acts was to reduce the sexually transmitted diseases that plagued the British army and navy. Thus, the acts applied to specifically named ports and garrison towns, although the ultimate intention was to include all of Britain.
The first Act (passed by a poorly attended Commons and without debate) stipulated that within a radius of eleven army camps and naval ports, a woman suspected of prostitution had to register with the police and receive a compulsory medical exam. If the exam revealed disease, the woman would be confined to a ‘lock’ hospital for a period of up to three months.
The Act of 1864 was temporary with a limited life of three years. It was replaced by a new Act in 1866, which added Chatham, and Windsor to the number of subjected towns and introduced the enforcement of fortnightly examinations of prostitutes. The third Act of 1869 extended the province of the second Act to cover a total of 18 towns in the British Isles. The maximum period of detention for a diseased prostitute was extended to 9 months.
The CD Acts were administered by units of plainclothes policemen seconded from the Metropolitan Police. They were given sweeping powers to determine who was a prostitute. No warrant or probable cause was needed. The victims were not merely prostitutes but working-class women in general, many of them illiterate, who were locked up without any regard for their legal rights. (One woman, Mrs Percy, was subsequently driven out of her job in a music hall and in 1875 committed suicide.) If a girl signed papers agreeing to an exam, her agreement was a de facto acknowledgement of prostitution. She was then required to be re-examined regularly. If she refused to sign the papers, she could be held in prison for months.
The examinations were often brutal. Typically, the woman's legs were clamped open and her ankles tied down. Surgical instruments - sometimes not cleaned from prior inspections - were inserted so inexpertly that some women miscarried. Others passed out from the pain or from embarrassment. Some women with harmless conditions were misdiagnosed and locked in hospitals without recourse. The lock hospitals were loathed for their harsh regimes. Critics said they merely confirmed the hardened prostitutes in their prostitution.
Attitudes towards prostitution
Because men were not included within the provisions, the Acts thus embodied the double standards of sexual morality. It also summed up contemporary (and very ancient) attitudes to prostitution. W. H. Lecky, History of European Morals (1913):
Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue. But for her, the unchallenged purity of countless happy homes would be polluted and not a few who, in the pride of their untempted chastity, think of her with an indignant shudder, would have known the agony of remorse and despair. On that degraded and ignoble form are concentrated the passions that might have filled with world with shame. She remains, while civilisations rise and fall, the eternal priestess of humanity, blasted for the sins of the people.The distinguished doctor Sir William Acton was not unsympathetic to prostitutes, and he believed that girls turned to the trade through poverty rather than wickedness. But he did not believe it was possible to prevent them and he saw prostitution as a social problem rather than a moral evil. Unlike those who argued that prostitution was beneficial because it protected virtuous women, he saw it as ‘a powerful evil on all ranks of the community’, especially as the prostitute was the purveyor of venereal disease.
Arguments for the Acts
It was this type of utilitarian argument that lay behind the CDA. The government saw the Acts as a step towards maintaining military efficiency in the teeth of a worrying venereal epidemic. Public health reformers welcomed them as a step towards state-regulated prostitution on the continental model. The initiative for the Acts lay with politicians deeply concerned by the abysmal performance of the British military during the Crimean war. But it was not politic for the British establishment to admit the deep inadequacies of the officer class, and a more convenient scapegoat was found in the poor physique of the fighting man. Infection rates from venereal diseases had risen since the 1820s. Troops returning from India were a particularly grave source of infection. It was estimated that two-thirds of the military patients at Baroda in 1824 were infected, as was 31% of the Army’s strength in Bengal in 1828. In 1864 one in three cases of sickness in the army was due to VD; in the navy 1862 (one in eleven).
Faced with these facts, the military establishment formed a de facto alliance with the public health lobby led by The Lancet to secure a supply of disease-free prostitutes to serve the rank and file. In a speech to the Royal Medical Society in 1860 Acton said that since philanthropists and the clergy had failed to stem prostitution, they should hand it over to scientific regulation. However, in 1859 compulsory medical investigation of soldiers was abandoned because the men were hostile to intimate examinations. So the same thing was proposed for women instead - the problem was that this defined women as agents of social infection.
Far from confining the operation of the Acts to the military, m any doctors wanted them to cover the entire civil population and for Britain to adopt fully the European system of licensed prostitution. In 1867 an Association for the Promotion of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866.
Arguments against the Acts
The Acts were opposed from the start by Florence Nightingale, who counter-briefed the journalist, Harriet Martineau who wrote a series of critical articles in 1864 for the Daily News. There were also doctors prepared to speak out against the Acts. Their grounds were:
the doubtful effectiveness of periodical examinations to curb the transmission of sexual diseaseThese doctors who opposed the Acts believed that since the legislation related to women alone
the Acts were immoral because they condoned prostitution
they forced the degradation of the examinations on women alone.
‘these women must find representatives of their own sex to protest against and to claim a practical repentance from the Parliament and government which had flung this insult in their face’.But this was easier said than done. Sex - particularly sexual disease linked to prostitution - was an acutely embarrassing subject to any respectable Victorian woman. Yet this was precisely why the leadership required a respectable woman.
Following the passage of the third of the Acts, activists decided in October 1869 to form a National Anti-Contagious Diseases Acts Association. This was intended to encompass both sexes, but the women decided to form their own grouping - the Ladies National Association. One of the members, Elizabeth Wolstenholme, saw her friend, Josephine Butler, as the ideal person to lead this campaign.
Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born in Northumberland in 1828, the daughter of a Liberal upper class family and second cousin to Lord Grey. She was schooled at home, where she read English and Italian literature, and translations of the Church Fathers. When 24 years old, she married George Butler, son of a former headmaster of Harrow, who subsequently became Vice-Principal of Cheltenham College and Principal of Liverpool College. Having settled in Liverpool in 1866, she helped to establish homes and refuges for friendless women, housing large numbers of them in her own home.
In 1864 she experienced a personal tragedy when her youngest daughter, Eva, was killed falling downstairs. On the move to Liverpool she recalled that she
‘became possessed with an irresistible urge to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself’.She was also influenced by her religious and political beliefs. Her family were Liberal and strongly backed the North during the American Civil War. She had an intense, though unsystematic Evangelical religion, and fusing her religion and her politics, she saw Christ as the Liberator. Her role model was the medieval saint, Catherine of Siena. When she received the ‘call’ from Elizabeth Wolstenholme, she saw it as a message from God. After three months hesitation, and with the support of her husband, she agreed to become the secretary of the Ladies’ National Association.
The campaign was launched on 1 January 1870 when the Daily News published a protest against the Acts, signed by 140 women, including Florence Nightingale, the penal reformer Mary Carpenter, the suffragist Lydia Becker and many literary, philanthropic and religious women. The manifesto was a powerful, potentially feminist, attack on the sexual double standard. Butler later remembered being told by an MP:
‘we know how to manage any other opposition in the House, or in the country, but this is very awkward for us - this revolt of women. What are we to do with such an opposition as this?’The Saturday Review attacked the ‘shrieking sisterhood’. But Victor Hugo wrote a letter of support from Paris: ‘Protest! Resist!’
Within a few months all major provincial cities had repeal societies, and many had ladies’ committees as well. In the first year of her campaign, Butler travelled nearly 4,000 miles and addressed 99 meetings - this at a time when it was rare for women to speak in public. Her hearers were overwhelmed with her physical beauty and the power of her oratory.
The repealers were bitterly angry with Gladstone’s government for passing the 1869 Act, but failed to see that the only chance of repeal lay in converting the Liberal party. It was probably a tactical mistake to launch a frontal attack against Gladstone. In the spring of 1870 when a by-election occurred in the garrison town of Colchester, the Gladstone ministry attempted to secure a seat for a strong supporter of the Acts. The repealers ran a third candidate against him, with Butler canvassing for him. Liberals were incensed at Butler’s conduct, and she risked violence whenever she appeared on the streets. One night she was woken from her hotel bed by the proprietor who told her that a crowd was smashing the windows and threatening to torch the building. She had to run out into the dark and was given shelter by an anonymous housewife. When the election result was announced it was clear that the campaigners had split the Liberal vote and let the Conservative in. They then repeated the tactic at a subsequent by-election in Pontefract, where they reduced the Liberal majority. During the campaign Butler and her friends were pursued into a hay loft by ‘roughs’ who tried to smoke them out. But in spite of her opposition to the Liberals, Butler was shocked and dismayed by the Conservative victory of 1874. In the following year, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Failure at home forced the repealers to look more closely at developments abroad. In December 1874 Butler left for the Continent. In March 1875 the British, Continental and General Federation for the Abolition of Government Regulation of Prostitution was formed in London. Butler was the honorary secretary. Garibaldi accepted nomination to the Council and Cardinal Manning joined the British section. In 1877 an international conference of 500 delegates was held.
The ‘White Slave Trade’
This was a separate issue from the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, but it raised the same questions of exploitation and the same people were involved in both campaigns.
Late in 1879 anti-vice campaigners discovered that British women were being held against their will in the state brothels of Belgium. On 1 May 1880 Butler published an emotive attack on the most sensational aspect of the trade - child prostitution. In Belgium a prosecution was mounted, using evidence supplied by Butler, after which the chiefs of the Brussels morals police were dismissed. In May 1881 she drew up a petition calling for
‘such changes ... in the English laws as should make it impossible for any young girl or child in our country to be deprived of her liberty by force’and presented it in person to the Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville. Granville was sympathetic and moved for a Select Committee of the Lords to investigate white slavery.
The Committee confirmed that a serious problem of procuration by fraud existed while discovering little evidence of child abduction. They called for measures to prohibit solicitation for foreign brothels, the age of consent to be raised to 16, and comprehensive measures to tighten the law against brothel keepers. As suggested by the Committee, Gladstone’s ministry introduced a Criminal Law Amendment Bill into the Lords on 31 May 1885.
The Campaign reaches Parliament
Meanwhile the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts continued.
In 1882, a Commons Select Committee, set up under the initiative of the MP Sir James Stansfeld, a strong supporter of the campaign, reported into the operation of the Acts. Following this the repealers began an offensive in the winter of 1882-83. They did not ask for total repeal but for the abolition of the compulsory examination of women, declaring it an abuse of Magna Carta and habeas corpus. On 20 April 1883 the House voted on this part of the Acts, with Butler and a deputation of women in prayer outside. By 182/110 the House voted to repeal compulsory examination.
But the 'victory' was not what it seemed. The Contagious Diseases Acts remained on the statute book, and their supporters threatened to reintroduce the compulsory aspects, should the bill fail. It had to be withdrawn from the Lords, and when it was reintroduced in 1884 it passed the Lords but failed in the Commons. In 1885 a third and even weaker bill was passed by the Lords but struggled in the Commons. The debate was adjourned when very few members turned up. With Gladstone’s ministry now tottering, it looked as if Butler’s crusade had failed.
W. T. Stead and the Pall Mall Gazette
William Thomas Stead was a crusading journalist who agreed to use his Pall Mall Gazette to aid the campaign. Yet it was far from clear what he could do. Gladstone's second ministry collapsed on 9 June 1885, replaced by a stop-gap Conservative administration pending a general election. When Parliament was dissolved, unfinished legislation, including the Criminal Law Amendment Bill against the white slave trade, would fall with it. Stead knew therefore that he had to raise the repeal bill to the top of the agenda in a matter of weeks. Stead, Butler and their associates calculated that only a massive sensation could force urgent action.
The most explosive facet of white slavery was the allegation Butler had made in May 1880 that under-age girls were being kidnapped and sent to Continental brothels. Yet despite enlisting the aid of General Booth of the Salvation Army, Stead failed to find evidence.
In January 1885 Butler had been asked by Florence Booth, daughter of William and Catherine, whether she could receive a recent Army convert named Rebecca Jarrett, a former madam, at her House of Rest in Winchester. From this there followed a remarkable friendship, and Rebecca became part of the Salvation Army’s rescue work. When Butler told Stead about Rebecca Jarrett, he asked to meet her. Rebecca told him that she had sold children for £10 or £20. Without Butler’s knowledge, Stead then prevailed on her to take up her former trade and procure a girl to provide the crucial evidence. Reluctantly Jarrett went back to her old haunts and in June came back with a 13 year old, Eliza Armstrong, whom she had bought for £1 from her impoverished mother.
But unfortunately the details of the transaction are obscure. Eliza thought she was going into service and Mrs Armstrong might have thought the same. The father, a chimney sweep, was not present and was not consulted. Stead had Eliza certified as a virgin and then spirited her out of the country to a Salvation Army hostel in France.
Convinced he had proved Butler’s allegations, he wrote four articles headed ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, published in the week beginning Monday 6 July 1885 (having previously told his readers not to buy the issues as the subject matter was too shocking!). In one of the articles, Eliza appeared as ‘Lily’ and the narrative stated (wrongly) that she had been raped. The fourth article threatened to expose ‘Princes of the blood and prominent public men’, and on the same day the magazine published a letter from Butler which made the same threat.
Public reaction was extraordinary. At mass meetings in London, Liverpool, and Newcastle there were demands for legal protection for children. On 9 July the Home Secretary, Richard Cross, moved the resumption of the second reading of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, and it received the royal assent on 10 August, and included a new clause raising the age of consent to sixteen. [Since 1275 English law stated that men could have sex with a child over the age of twelve. The age limit had been raised to thirteen in 1875.]
But by this time the case was turning sour. By the middle of July Eliza Armstrong’s parents made a formal application to the police about their missing daughter. It turned out that the parents were not the careless drunkards Stead had been led to believe. At the end of August Eliza was handed back to them. On 2 September prosecutions were brought against Stead, Bramwell Booth, Rebecca Jarrett and others for unlawful abduction. Ironically the case was the first of its kind to be brought under the new Criminal Law Amendment Act.
The trial began in the Old Bailey on 23 October. Stead turned against Jarrett. In November Booth was acquitted, Rebecca Jarrett was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, and Stead to three months’ hard labour. Stead served only two months (in comfort), while Jarrett served her full sentence in harsh conditions.
This was gravely embarrassing for Butler, who turned against Stead because of his vainglorious behaviour and rushed into print with a pamphlet defending Jarrett. It had very little impact. Stead had become a martyr and could claim that he had successfully secured the passage of a much-needed law.
Seven days after the passing of the Act, the National Vigilance Association was set up. Butler was initially a council member though she became shocked at its repressive attitudes.
However, for all her disillusionment, the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed in 1886. In the turmoil of his third ministry, Gladstone needed the support of the pro-repeal MP, Sir James Stansfeld and thus found time for a Repeal Bill, which was passed on 20 March, shortly before the Home Rule crisis destroyed the government
Significance of the movement
1. The tactics used by the CDA repealers were to be imitated by the suffragettes, though the campaigners were over-optimistic in believing that they could create a political machine to rival the Liberals or Tories.
2. The campaign gave rise to other reform groupings to work against the injustices and disabilities affecting women - married women’s property rights, anti-vivisection and anti-vaccination.
3. The state had defined women as the source of contagion. But the CDA campaigners declared that the problem lay with male vice. In 1873 the Social Purity Alliance was founded in order to change the nature and conduct of men. The campaign for sexual purity was tied in with the campaign for women’s suffrage. How could women fulfill their mission to reform men unless they had a say in legislation?