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Cover of Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns

Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns Diseases of the Body Politic

  • Published: 11 Nov 2004
  • DOI: 10.4324/9780415226844
  • Set ISBN: 9780415226844

This five volume set deals in detail with Josephine Butler's campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and the Colonies. At present, access to Butler's work is restricted as a number of relevant anthologies are out of print. The bulk of these can only be read in specialist libraries and the original copies are becoming increasingly fragile after a century of use. This edited collection makes her writing accessible once again, setting it in an appropriate historical context.

In addition to Butler's own work, the thematically ordered volumes include related texts which are important for understanding her campaign. This allows the reader to position Josephine Butler in relation to her opponents and to follow the response to her activities. All the texts are complete and reproduced in facsimile - there are pamphlets, books, media responses to Butler's activities, letters to The Times, articles from The Lancet, Pall Mall Gazette, The Shield and The Dawn as well as private letters both to and from Butler. The set is introduced through a substantial essay by Jane Jordan, one of the leading international scholars on Butler's life and works, and each volume contains a short introduction by the editors which contextualises the selections.

Butler writes clearly and vividly, combining impeccable logic with passionate commitment. She does not soften her message to protect the sensibilities of her audience. She is uncompromising in her analysis, determined to 'set a floodlight on your doings' as she told a stunned royal commission in 1871. Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns demonstrates the great importance of this fascinating campaigner's work.

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General Introduction

During the nineteenth century, there was a shift in emphasis concerning attitudes to prostitution. From being seen primarily as a moral issue, it came to be viewed largely in terms of public health. In 1837, the Registrar-General was established and 1838 saw the first official enquiry into the relationship between urban conditions and disease. Public health increasingly became seen as a legitimate sphere of government intervention, and the medical establishment was keen to claim it as a field of expertise for its own members.

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On New Year’s Eve 1869, Josephine Butler wrote telling her Quaker friend in Leeds, Mrs Hannah Ford to get hold of the Daily News of that week ‘containing 4 letters by an Englishwoman on our question. They are far the best things yet written. I do bless the writer, to whom it may cost her life. Make everybody read them’, she urged. The ‘Englishwoman’ was the ageing Harriet Martineau. Her protest against the Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts took the form of four letters to the sympathetic editor of the Daily News (first published in the paper in September 1863), which were reprinted on 28, 29, 30 December and 1 January 1870 (item 2). On 31 December, the paper also published the manifesto of the newly formed Ladies’ National Association, ‘The Ladies’ Appeal and Protest’, signed by 124 ladies, among them Josephine Butler, Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale (item 3).

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On 12 March 1875, an actress at Aldershot wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph protesting at the persecution she had suffered from the special police at Aldershot. Although never arrested she was spied upon, hounded from every theatre or music hall where she attempted to perform, accused of being a ‘common prostitute’, and finally threatened with a forcible examination at the Aldershot lock hospital. Mrs Percy, a widow with three children to support, decided to make her protest public, ‘as the means of bringing to the notice of those persons who have thought it their duty to agitate for the repeal of the [Contagious Diseases] Acts’. Eighteen days later, her body was discovered floating in the Basingstoke Canal. She had apparently fulfilled her threat to take her own life rather than submit to an examination that ‘would have completely disgraced me in the eyes of all my acquaintances’. The Percy Case provided invaluable ammunition for the now depressed repeal movement, still scarred by the conflict over Bruce’s Bill and newly crushed in 1874 by the defeat of Gladstone’s Liberal Government at the General Election and their parliamentary representative, Fowler’s, loss of his seat. As Butler noted in her Personal Reminiscences (Volume 4, item 18), 1874 was ‘the year of discouragement’, a time of great defection in the movement (p. 332).

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In the autumn of 1879, an Englishman on business in Brussels visited a brothel where he was offered a nineteen-year-old English prostitute. She claimed to have been abducted to Belgium, imprisoned in the brothel, and forced to prostitute herself. In effect, ‘she was as much a slave as was ever any negro upon Virginian soil’ (item 3, p. 28). Rather than get involved in the case directly, the gentleman employed a go-between who took the story to a Quaker, Alfred Dyer. Dyer judged the case worthy of investigation, and in February 1880 departed for Brussels with a Quaker friend, George Gillet, and a member of the LNA, Mary Steward, who was an experienced rescue worker. Dyer and Gillet were to pose as clients, and take statements from any English prostitutes they encountered. They were assisted by a Belgian pastor, Leonard Anet, who accompanied them to hospital wards reserved for diseased prostitutes, and by an advocate, Alexis Splingard, who gave them legal advice. The results of their investigations were explosive. In order to get round Belgian law which required state registered prostitutes to be at least 21, brothel keepers imported English girls between the ages of 13 and 21, whom they registered using false birth certificates. The girls generally came willingly, persuaded that they were going to a highly paid domestic situation. Some were even promised marriage. Once in the brothel, they were kept prisoners and starved or beaten if they refused to prostitute themselves. Such was the case of one diminutive girl, Adeline Tanner, abducted from London in September 1879 by brothel keeper Eduoard Roger. The Tanner Case (item 1) would become the chief evidence in a huge criminal trial mounted in December 1880 against twelve keepers and managers of brothels in Brussels. Adeline and other girls were rescued by Mrs Steward, and some were nursed personally by Josephine Butler at her Liverpool home.

View Volume IV Contents

After the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in England on 15 April 1886, attention turned almost immediately to the British Colonies, where Regulation was still in force, governed by the Indian Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and the Cantonment Acts or Rules of 1866. Josephine Butler’s first publication on the issue, The Revival and Extension of the Abolitionist Cause (item 1), documents the situation in all the Colonies, but it soon became clear that the central focus was on India. For Butler, the Indian campaign was a ‘second chapter of our great Abolitionist cause’ (p. 1), an opportunity to continue the work of the LNA which might otherwise have lost focus.

View Volume 5 Contents