Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

6
The Decline of the Aristocracy
Economic and Social Change, 1867–1910

In the first week of July 1885, W.T. Stead, the editor of London’s Pall Mall Gazette, published the first installment of “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” an exposé of child prostitution and white slavery practices in London. Audiences read of young girls being stolen from their family homes under the pretext of being hired as domestic servants, having their virginity checked by unscrupulous women doubling as abortionists and midwives, and then being secreted away to brothels where their virginity was sold for as much as £30. They read of young girls being tied down and deflowered in basement rooms especially constructed to muffle their screams.

The first installment culminated with the story of Lily, an adorable 13-year-old with dark hair and eyes, who was knowingly sold into prostitution by a dissipated mother who cared only for drink. The young innocent was inspected by a madam, found to be a virgin, confined in a room, and dosed with chloroform.

A few minutes later, the door opened, and the purchaser entered the bedroom. He
closed and locked the door. There was a brief silence. And then there rose a wild
and piteous cry – not a loud shriek, but a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a
frightened lamb. And the child’s voice was heard crying, in accents of terror, “There’s
a man in my room! Take me home; oh, take me home!” (Stead 1885)

Stead’s article – distributed in part by the Salvation Army when W.H. Smith newsstands refused to sell what they considered smut – caused an instant outcry for passage of an Act to raise the age of consent. Stead’s interest in the plight of young London girls revealed much that was typical of late Victorian England: a concern with urban vice and decay, and the desire for “social purity.” But the picture

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