Eliza Armstrong case was a major scandal in the
Kingdom involving a child supposedly bought for prostitution for the purpose of exposing the
evils of white
While it achieved its purpose of helping to
enable the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act
, it also brought unintended consequences
to its chief
perpetrator, William Thomas
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
were repealed under pressure due to their
nature and ultimate
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 in 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
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
, 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
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
part of the investigation, two women, an employee of the Pall
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
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
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 up with Stead, she was actually
unaware of 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 up with 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 none
other than Stead himself. Stead, anxious to play the part of
libertine almost in full, drank a whole bottle of champagne
despite the fact that he was a
. 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, regarding that as
confirmation that he "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
published the first installments of The Maiden Tribute of
The first installment taking up six whole pages, Stead attacked
vice with eye-catching subheadings that were more suggestive of
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"
Not surprisingly, the "Maiden Tribute" was an instant hit. While
W.H. Smith &
, 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
telegraphed Stead offering to help. Such was the demand
for the paper that crowds gathered in front of the Pall Mall
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 carried without delay. Since Harcourt
could not make that guarantee, Stead ordered the Pall Mall
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
resumed over the bill, on August 7
passed its third and final reading, and passed into law a week
Although Stead was supported in his investigation by the Salvation
Army and such religious leaders as Henry Edward Cardinal Manning
and Charles John Ellicott, the Bishop
, his plan backfired on him. Rival newspapers like
, 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
Thus Stead, Rebecca Jarrett, Bramwell Booth, as well as Louise
Mouret, the midwife, and two others were hauled before the court on
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
, in turn wanted to discredit him.
So it was that on October 23
defendants were brought to trial, with the Attorney General
, 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 any 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
Fields Prison for three days and later to Holloway as a first-class inmate for the rest of his
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
, 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
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
- 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
- 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.