The Eliza Armstrong case was a major scandal in the United Kingdom involving a child supposedly bought for prostitution for the purpose of exposing the evils of white slavery. While it achieved its purpose of helping to enable the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, it also brought unintended consequences to its chief perpetrator, William Thomas Stead.
Since the middle of the 19th century, efforts by the Social Purity movement, led by early feminists such as Josephine Butler and others, sought to improve the treatment of women and children in Victorian society. The movement scored a triumph when the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed under pressure due to their double standard nature and ultimate ineffectiveness.
At the same time, the campaign had also turned towards the problem of prostitution, and with male power over women. By the end of the 1870s, this had become particularly focused on fears that British women were being lured -- or abducted -- to brothels in the Continent, especially since this was happening to girls barely past the age of consent. Although the age was raised to thirteen when amendments to the Offences against the Person Act 1861 were made in 1875, the movement sought to further raise this to at least 16, but Parliament of the United Kingdom was reluctant to make this change.
However, a Criminal Law Amendment Bill to change this was introduced in 1881. While it passed the House of Lords easily in 1883 after a two-year Select Committee study, it stalled twice in the House of Commons. Then in 1885, it was reintroduced for a third time, but again it was threatened to be set aside ultimately because of a political crisis and the upcoming general election that year.
As Parliament recessed for the Whit Week bank holiday on May 22, the next day Benjamin Scott, anti-vice campaigner and the chamberlain of the City of London, went to see W.T. Stead, the flamboyant editor of a leading London newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead was a pioneer of modern investigative journalism, with eye-catching headlines and a flair for the sensational. While he was a supporter of the Social Purity movement, many were wary of him because he had a tendency towards emotional instability and his brand of journalism was often tasteless. Nevertheless, with the impending demise of the Bill, they were willing to try anything.
Scott told Stead lurid stories of sexually exploited children. Appealing to his reformist nature, as well as his sensationalist bent, he agreed to agitate popular support for the bill. Stead set up a "Special and Secret Committee of Inquiry" to investigate child prostitution, which included Josephine Butler, as well as representatives of the London Committee for the Suppression of the Traffic in British Girls for the Purposes of Continental Prostitution (of which Scott was the chairman) and the Salvation Army. As part of the investigation, two women, an employee of the Pall Mall Gazette and a girl from the Salvation Army, posed as prostitutes and infiltrated brothels at great risk, getting as much information as they could and escaping before they were forced to render sexual services. Mrs. Butler spent ten days walking the streets of London with her son Georgie, posing as a brothel-keeper and a procurer, respectively; together they spent a total of £100 buying children in high-class brothels. Stead, in turn, also spoke to a former director of criminal investigation at Scotland Yard to get first-hand information; he later cast his net wide to include active and retired brothel keepers, pimps, procurers, prostitutes, rescue workers and jail chaplains.
However, Stead felt that he needed something more to make his point: he decided to purchase a girl to show that he could do it under the nose of the law and write about it.
A £5 virgin
With the help of Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army, Stead got in touch with Rebecca Jarrett, a reformed prostitute and brothel-keeper who was staying with Mrs. Butler in Winchester as an assistant. Although Mrs. Butler had no problem with Rebecca meeting Stead, she did not know Stead's reason for doing so.
Stead prevailed upon Jarrett to help him to show that a girl of thirteen could be bought from her parents and transported to the Continent. Despite her reluctance on going back to her old brothel contacts for help, Jarrett agreed to help.
Rebecca Jarrett met an old associate, a procuress called Nancy Broughton. Through her Jarrett learned of a thirteen-year old named Eliza Armstrong whose alcoholic mother Elizabeth was in need of money. She arranged for Jarrett to meet Mrs. Armstrong, who lived in the Lisson Grove area of West London, and although Rebecca told the mother that the girl was to serve as a maid to an old gentleman, she believed that Mrs. Armstrong understood that she was selling her daughter into prostitution. The mother agreed to sell her daughter for a total of £5. On June 3, the bargain was made.
On the same day Jarrett then took Eliza to a midwife and known abortionist named Louise Mourez, who examined her and attested to her virginity and sold Jarrett a bottle of chloroform. Then Eliza was taken to a brothel and lightly drugged to await the arrival of her purchaser, who was Stead. Stead, anxious to play the part of libertine almost in full, drank a whole bottle of champagne, although he was a teetotaler. He entered Eliza's room and waited for her to wake up from her stupor. When she came to, Eliza screamed. Stead quickly left the room, letting the scream be apparent evidence that he had "had his way" with her. Eliza was quickly handed over to Bramwell Booth, who spirited her to France where she was taken care of by a Salvationist family.
In the meantime, Stead wrote his story.
The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon
On Saturday, July 4, 1885, a "frank warning" was issued in the Pall Mall Gazette: "All those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who would 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 of Monday and the three following days". The public's appetite whetted sufficiently in anticipation, on Monday, July 6, Stead published the first installments of The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.
The first installment taking up six whole pages, Stead attacked vice with eye-catching subheadings that were more suggestive of pornography than of social reform: "The Violation of Virgins", "The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper", "How Girls Were Bought and Ruined". The last section of the first installment bore special mention: under the subheading "A Child of Thirteen bought for £5" Stead related the story of Eliza, changing her name to "Lily". Although he vouched "for the absolute accuracy of every fact in the narrative", Stead changed a number of details, and omitted the fact that "Lily's" purchaser was none other than himself. The theme of "Maiden Tribute" was child prostitution, the abduction, procurement and sale of young English virgins to Continental "pleasure palaces". Stead took his readers to the labyrinthine streets of London (intentionally recalling the Greek myth) to its darker side, exposing the flesh trade while exposing the corruption of those officials who not only turned a blind eye but also condoned such abuse. In particular, he criticized those members of Parliament who were responsible for the Bill's impending "extinction in the House of Commons" and hinted that they might have personal reasons to block any changes in the law.
Reactions to the "Maiden Tribute"
The "Maiden Tribute" was an instant hit. While W.H. Smith & Sons, who had a monopoly on all the news stalls, refused to sell the paper due to its lurid and prurient content, volunteers consisting of newsboys and members of the Salvation Army took over distribution. Even George Bernard Shaw telegraphed Stead offering to help. Such was the demand for the paper that crowds gathered in front of the Pall Mall Gazette offices fighting tooth and nail for a copy. Second-hand copies of the paper sold as much as a shilling -- twelve times its normal price.
Within days, Stead had been getting telegrams from across the Atlantic inquiring about the scandal. By the end of the series he had thrown Victorian society into an uproar about prostitution. Fearing riots on a national scale, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt pleaded with Stead to cease publication of the articles; Stead replied that he would comply if the Bill would be passed without delay. Since Harcourt could not make that guarantee, Stead ordered the Pall Mall Gazette presses to continue until paper ran out.
Stead's revelations struck a responsive chord in the public. Amidst the hysteria it provoked a wide variety of reform groups and prominent individuals called to an end to the scandal. Dozens of protest meetings were held throughout London and the provincial towns. Thousands, including wagon loads of virgins dressed in white, marched to Hyde Park demanding that the Bill be passed. The government was soon on the defensive and those members of Parliament who had previously opposed the Bill, now understood that opposition would not only mean denying the existence of child prostitution, but condoning it as well. While many of them wanted to have the paper prosecuted under obscenity laws, they bowed to the inevitable. On Wednesday July 8 debate resumed over the bill, on August 7 it passed its third and final reading, and passed into law a week later.
Although Stead was supported in his investigation by the Salvation Army and such religious leaders as Cardinal Henry Edward Manning and Charles John Ellicott, the Bishop of Bristol, his plan backfired on him. Rival newspapers like The Times, began to dig up the original "Lily". Eventually the true details of the story, including the fact that it was Stead himself who was the "purchaser", were unearthed. Mrs. Armstrong protested and went to the police, claiming that she had not given her consent to her daughter into prostitution, insisting instead she let her go with the understanding that she would go off into domestic service. In any case, Rebecca Jarrett did not get the permission of the child's father -- she believed that the mother could speak for both parents, so Charles Armstrong, Eliza's father, also brought suit.
Thus Stead, Rebecca Jarrett, Bramwell Booth, as well as Louise Mouret, the midwife, and two others were brought before the court on September 2 for the assault and abduction for Eliza Armstrong without the agreement of her parents. Although there were legitimate grounds for doing so, there were other motivations as well: some politicians, who felt that they were railroaded into passing the Act, wanted to take revenge against Stead's tactics; rival newspapers, who felt their thunder stolen from them from the publicity gained by the Pall Mall Gazette, in turn wanted to discredit him.
So it was that on October 23 that the defendants were brought to trial, with the Attorney General, Richard Webster, himself acting as prosecutor. Stead himself conducted his own defence. Stead himself later admitted that the girl was procured without the consent of the father, as well as making the mistake of not having written evidence of payment to the mother. Another mistake that Stead had made was he wholly relied on Rebecca Jarrett's word on the matter; thus he could not prove Mrs. Armstrong's complicity in the crime. Without such evidence, Stead, Jarrett and Mourez were found guilty of abduction and procurement. Bramwell Booth and the others were acquitted. Jarrett and Mourez were sentenced to six months, while Stead was sentenced to three months, which he took in good grace. He was sent to Coldbath Fields Prison for three days and later to Holloway as a first-class inmate for the rest of his sentence.
While many groups protested against Stead's imprisonment, it seemed that he was treated well in prison. "Never had I a pleasanter holiday, a more charming season of repose", he afterwards would say. While in prison, he continued to edit the Pall Mall Gazette, and his Christmas card played up his martyrdom. Ever the self-publicist, Stead wrote a threepenny pamphlet of his prison experience soon after his release. He asked the prison governor whether he could keep his prison uniform (this despite the fact that he spent much of his sentence in ordinary civilian street clothes). The governor agreed, and thereafter, every November 10, the anniversary of his conviction, Stead would dress up in his prison garb to remind people of his "triumph".
As for Eliza Armstrong, the Salvation Army returned her to her parents, while Rebecca Jarrett went to work for the Salvation Army. However, it later transpired that Charles Armstrong was not the girl's father, and therefore had no case to bring againsy Stead and the others.
W.T. Stead lost his life on the Titanic
- W.T. Stead, Notice to our Readers: A Frank Warning, The Pall Mall Gazette, July 4, 1885.
- Mr. Justice Henry Charles Lopes' Sentence, The Old Bailey (November 10, 1885). Quoted in Alison Plowden (1974), The Case of Eliza Armstrong: A Child of 13 Bought for £5.
- W.T. Stead (1886). My First Imprisonment. London: E. Marlborough & Co.
- The W.T. Stead Resource Site - contains the complete text of "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" (including facsimiles of the original articles) as well as the most complete account of the Eliza Armstrong Case.