The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) was one of a handful of scandals that rocked Victorian society in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In an attempt to force the hand of parliament to pass legislation to raise the age of consent, the newspaper editor and scourge of government, William T Stead undertook to procure a young girl of 13. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, wanted to show the world just how easy it was for wealthy elite men to obtain access to the daughters of the working classes and in doing so shock and shame MPs and lords into protecting girls under the age of 16 (the age of consent in 1885 was 13).
Stead employed the help of a retired and reformed brothel madam, Rebecca Jarrett, who obtained a girl named Eliza Armstrong, paying her mother £5 for the child. Jarrett took Eliza to a room where she was drugged (as victims would normally be) before Stead visited her. There is no suggestion that Stead went through with any rape of the girl but simply made his point. The Pall Mall Gazette then published a serialised account of the problem and Stead’s exercise in exposing it.
One of the consequences of this was that Eliza’s mother and father came in for considerable abuse from their neighbours for selling their daughter into prostitution. Mr and Mrs Armstrong claimed they had done no such thing; as far as they were concerned Jarrett was taking the child off to be trained as a domestic servant for a wealthy employer.
Regardless of whether they knew the real fate intended for Eliza or not this led (with support from those opposed to Stead and his campaign) to a court case at the Old Bailey where Stead and Jarrett were convicted of kidnapping and indecent assault. Stead went to prison for three months, Jarrett for six. There was a ‘happy ending’ in that Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which raised the age of consent to 16 but all parties were damaged by the process. Stead never fully recovered his former reputation as an investigative journalist; Jarrett withered in Millbank prison, and poor Eliza was badly affected by her experience.
In August 1888, just as the cycle of killings known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’ began in East London Elizabeth Armstrong (Eliza’s mother) appeared before the police magistrate at Marylebone. Elizabeth, aged 39 and resident at Charles Street, Lisson Grove, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting one of her neighbours and a policeman.
Ellen Tuley deposed that Elizabeth had attacked her with ‘a sweep’s broom and kicked the constable’. Constable Nicholas (100D) confirmed this and so the case was fully proved against her.
Mrs Armstrong was defended in court by Mr Pain, who had been her lawyer throughout the Maiden Tribute case. He said that ‘ever since the unfortunate case of Eliza Armstrong, when it was suggested that his client had sold her daughter for £5, she had been subjected to systematic annoyance at the hands of the prosecutrix and others’. Her husband had been sent quite mad by the affair and was now living in the Marylebone infirmary.
Elizabeth Armstrong denied the assault and counter claimed that Ellen had instead attacked her. The magistrate had to deal with several other related summons from various neighbours of the Armstrongs, binding several over on their own recognisances to behave in future. The Maiden Tribute case had clearly polarised opinion in this poor district of London.
Elizabeth was sent to prison for 14 days for being drunk and disorderly and most probably for the attack on the constable, which would not be tolerated by the magistracy in the 1880s. Mr Pain noted that it was not her first appearance or her first conviction at Marylebone and that too counted against her. By 1888 Eliza Armstrong would have been 16 and free to get on with her life, if she was able. With a father in a lunatic ward and a mother in gaol one wonders if that was possible. Stead clearly believed he was doing God’s work in exposing child prostitution but not for the first time one is bound to ask whether journalists and newspaper editors fully consider the effects of their ‘higher’ actions on the ‘ordinary’ people they use along the way.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 5 August 1888]