For anyone who ever thought the Victorian age was a time of prudery and sexual inhibition, this post will be an eye opener. During Victoria’s reign there were more churches and more brothels in England than ever before. Is there significance that both kinds of institutions mushroomed at the same time? Interesting as that question may be, I will look at the trade in English girls that existed between England and the continent, especially, Belgium. Not only was there a huge demand for young English girls in the capital city of Brussels, there was little interest or concern about the girls who were kidnapped and forcibly detained in “lock houses” in the Belgian capital. The doors of the buildings used for the purpose of keeping the girls had locks on the inside and could be opened only with a key which was always guarded carefully by the overseer of the establishment.
Young is a relative term. In Victoria’s day, the age of consent for most of the nineteenth century was thirteen. Many men wanted girls even younger because of a fear of venereal disease from any prostitute who was not a virgin. The horrors of the incurable outcome of syphilis was described in ghastly detail in Emile Zola’s novel, Nana. “Maids” or virgins were therefore targeted by brothel keepers in Europe, because they fetched a higher price. But the chief issue raised by those who objected to the trade in English girls was that many were taken to the continent by trickery and had no understanding of what they were agreeing to. Prostitution was generally agreed to be a “social necessity.” That is because it was assumed that no woman would willingly participate in sexual relations as often as most men would want. This idea became sexual dogma through the widely read book printed in four editions: The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life Considered in their Physiological, Social and Moral Relations by the physician,William Acton.
Then, a crusader nearly forgotten in our century took up the cause of the kidnapped girls: Josephine Butler, shown above in an 1851 portrait, was one of the most beautiful and determined women of her era. She declared war on the “badhouse keepers” in Brussels and in other cities of Europe. She took “fallen women” into her home and tried to help them get work. This at a time when prostitutes were considered beyond redemption. The Roman minister of justice once told Josephine Buter that ” …a woman who has once lost chastity has lost every good quality. She has from that moment all the vices.”
Mrs. Butler’s crusade took the form of trying to prevent a continental system of prostitution in England and to get the Contagious Diseases Acts repealed. These were laws passed in India to try to reduce the spread of venereal disease among British soldiers. The Acts were written in such a way that a mere accusation of prostitution was enough to get a woman incarcerated and forced to submit to a pelvic examination. Incredibly, men were under no regulation at all.
Another woman, who was at the antipodes from Mrs. Butler was a notorious madame in London, Mrs. Jeffries. She owned and operated three establishments in London, one devoted to erotic whippings, one to torture and one in Chelsea that was a posh brothel. Mrs. Jeffries sent advertising circulars to her MP clients right on the floor of the commons, detailing her latest “finds” and the pleasures awaiting her customers.
Into this conflict stepped the notorious, or infamous, (depending on your point of view) W.T. Stead, a believer in Spiritualism who later went down on the ship, Titanic. The court hearings were raucous in the extreme with Mrs. Jeffries throwing rotten eggs at Mrs. Butler and Mr. Stead. The rest, quite literally is history. More next time. If this post interests you, there is much more in my novel “The Minatour’s Children.” Download 20 pages free.