William T. Stead in his prison uniform
At Worship Street Police Court in late November 1887 a man was brought up on a charge of abducting an under-age girl. Harriet Regan was allegedly just 17 when she was enticed to leave her step father’s house in Hoxton to travel to Fulham to live with William Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was a 40 year-old traveler who had some friends living in the same house as Harriet’s step father, George Hubbard. They had plied the girl with drink so that she was rendered (by her own account) ‘partially stupefied’. Nevertheless the court heard that she had lived quietly with Wilkinson in his home at Fulham for several weeks and so there was some doubt as to whether she had left willingly or not.
It was now nine weeks since she’d left and the couple had fallen out and quarrelled. Harriet had written to her mother, apologising for leaving and begging to be taken back and away from Wilkinson. She got away and was ‘restored to her friends’, but in the meantime a warrant was issued for Wilkinson’s arrest.
The case was brought by the Treasury and there was some debate as to exactly who should be charged and for what. Mr Hannay, the sitting magistrate, declared that while there was some suggestion that Wilkinson’s accomplices might have a case to answer for the abduction, there was not enough of a case to proceed with. The Director of Public Prosecutions, on the other hand, made it known that he didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to proceed against the 40 year-old traveller on the grounds that there was some doubt as the the girl’s age, and left it up to Worship Street magistrate’s own judgement.
Mr Hannay was clear that a prosecution was appropriate. A certificate was produced that confirmed that Harriet was just 17 years and 11 months old. She was under age therefore and should not have been taken away without her parents’ consent. Mr Hanney formally committed Wilkinson for trial. As he put it, ‘if a man abducted a girl under eighteen he must take his chances’.
This has echoes for me of modern cases where older men have run away with teenage girls, such as that of Jeremy Forrest who tried to escape to France with a 15 year-old pupil. We don’t know the circumstances of Wilkinson’s relationship with Harriet. It may have legitimate in their eyes but Harriet clearly got ‘cold feet’ quite quickly. Then again it might have been something much more sinister.
Wilkinson was being prosecuted under the terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which had been forced through Parliament after a campaign by Benjamin Scott supported by William T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette (pictured above). The legislation was aimed at tackling the problem of the sexual exploitation of young girls in London and elsewhere and Stead crewed a sensation by organising the abduction of Eliza Armstrong, a 13 year-old girl who he ‘bought’ for £5.
The action cost Stead his liberty (he spent three months in prison) but it was effective. The expose (entitled ‘the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’) was a media sensation and whelped force the bill through the House of Commons and into law. It raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and also made it illegal to abduct to abduct a girl under the age of 18 for the purposes of carnal knowledge. I can find no record of Wilkinson’s prosecution before a jury but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t tried and convicted. Cases with a sexual content weren’t aways reported.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 29, 1887]
NB: the Director of Public Prosecutions role was relatively new in 1887. The post had been created in 1879 under the Prosecution of Offences Act and emerged with the Treasury Solictor’s Department in 1884. So in this case we see both these new roles in action, the case was brought a Treasury solicitor and an opinion on the public prosecution of Wilkinson was expressed by the DPP.