Child prostitutes: How the age of consent was raised to 16

Awkward encounter with a prostitute, London

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In 1875 the age of consent in Victorian Britain was raised from 12 to 13, but it was only after the public outrage that followed an investigative exposé into prostitution a decade later that it was raised to the current age of 16.

The words emblazoned in large print on top of the Pall Mall Gazette in the first week of July 1885 - NOTICE TO OUR READERS, followed by "A Frank Warning", set the tone for a week-long report titled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, exposing the lurid underworld of London's child prostitutes.

It was referred to as a "veritable slave trade".

Start Quote

The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell...”

End Quote WT Stead Investigative Jurnalist 1849 - 1912

The most shocking account focussed on a 13-year-old virgin, who was bought for the night by undercover journalist William Thomas Stead - posing as a client.

Her name was Eliza Armstrong. She was bought for £5 - the equivalent of around £527 today. She was taken to a midwife to "procure the certification of her virginity" who remarked - "The poor little thing… She is so small."

She was then brought to a brothel and drugged, and the paper's readers were led to believe the worst. She let out "a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb", Stead wrote.

He described his undercover experience as: "The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell…"

He appealed directly to the upper classes - and accused them of being the main perpetrators. "If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make."

Victorian street The government was accused of neglecting "the daughters of the poor"

The press in Victorian Britain had considerable influence over public opinion.

Powerless prostitutes in Victorian society

Social reformer Josephine Butler was unafraid to speak out in defence of the most dejected and despised of all women at the time - the common prostitute. She challenged the double sexual standards implicit in the 1860s Contagious Diseases Acts.

Under the acts - which were introduced to reduce the high levels of venereal diseases amongst the armed forces - any woman suspected of being a prostitute was subjected to compulsory medical examinations. Their male clients escaped any such censure.

She forced the women's movement to confront the issue, so that prostitutes could reform their lives and earn respect and dignity.

Professor June Purvis, University of Portsmouth

Following Stead's exposé, the government passed a bill raising the age of consent to 16 before the week was out.

But had it not been for the help of a well-known social reformer at the time - Josephine Butler, this report would never have come to fruition.

She provided Stead with money to buy and rescue young prostitutes. She also put him in contact with a former brothel owner who found the girls whose stories ended up, in all their "shuddering horror", in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Butler had campaigned relentlessly for the rights of prostitutes but she found the government was not interested in raising the age of consent higher than 13.

"It took a scandal to change the law", says Dr Jane Jordan, who wrote a biography of Butler. "She felt it was the only way they were going to get their voices heard".

"Working class girls lived in terrible conditions and there were assumptions they would be abused by their fathers and brothers anyway. There was a lack of interest in these girls as it was not going to affect the more protected middle and upper classes."

W T Stead William Stead is remembered as one of the first investigative journalists

Following publication of Stead's report, there was moral panic. There were stories of parents being stopped in the street by morality crusaders, says Will Sydney Robinson, author of a biography on Stead.

"There was a tangible change in the atmosphere, people were talking about these issues slightly like they are today."

It soon transpired that the mother of Eliza - the 13-year-old girl - had reported her missing and had been told her daughter would be a maid, not a prostitute. Stead had alleged the mother was an eager, drunken accomplice. His credibility came into question.

He was arrested for abducting a minor and spent three months in prison.

"Stead used modern methods of sensationalism, exaggeration and law-breaking to do a good thing, but there was a bitter taste from the whole thing," says Robinson.

The problem with sensationalism is that it distorts things, says historian Dr Louise Jackson from Edinburgh University.

The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

In his report published over three days, Stead aimed to shock the government into action:

"All those who are squeamish and 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… "

The report featured salacious headings such as "Strapping Girls Down" and "The Violation of Virgins".

Stead hinted that he knew the real names of society gentlemen and was ready to expose them. He mentioned a retired "Dr ---" , who was "free to devote his fortune and his leisure to the ruin of maids".

The Gazette's report overshadowed the day-to-day exploitation that occurred in Victorian society, she adds. Sexual abuse of all kinds was taking place but it was "probably more mundane than Stead's suggestion of people being drugged, abducted and duped".

The same act clamped down on brothels, leaving many prostitutes homeless. It also contained a last minute amendment which outlawed "gross indecency" between two men - the very law that Oscar Wilde was later sent to prison for.

"It was undoubtedly a huge victory", says Jackson, "but it certainly wasn't a liberal act, it set a puritanical tone for the next 80 years, until homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1967".

Stead continued to edit his paper while in prison and is remembered as one of the first investigate journalists. As for the young girl Eliza, she was cared for by the Salvation Army and eventually returned to her parents.

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