Scandal in fashionable Chelsea as three brothels are exposed

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In 1885 Parliament passed a Criminal Law Amendment Act. Its subheading explained its purpose: ‘An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. It raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and followed a campaign by Josephine Butler and others to change the law. The bill had become deadlocked in parliament as it was opposed by powerful elite interest who felt that they and their sons had a natural right to the bodies of young working class girls.

The act was finally passed after the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette William T Stead orchestrated a sensational news story involving the sale of a 13 years old girl into prostitution. Stead and his accomplices, Elizabeth Jarrett  and Bramwell Booth, were prosecuted and Stead and Jarrett went to gaol, but his goal was achieved and the act passed.

One of the terms of the act was to allow the use of summary proceedings for the prosecution of brothel owners. In December 1885 Ellen Randall (alias Johnson) a 34 year-old landlady was charged at Westminster Police court with renting two houses in Chelsea (at 5 and 7 Elm Park Road) ‘with the knowledge that they were used for immoral purposes’. She was fined £20.

On the same day Edwin Summerfield (59) and Ellen Dewhurst (alias Summerfield) were charged with keeping a disorderly house at number 12 Elm Park Road. Both cases drew ‘considerable interest’ from the public gallery as these addresses were not in the poorer districts (often associated with immorality and crime) but slap bang in the middle of ‘one of the best parts’. Mr Partridge fined Mr Summerfield £20.

The 1885 act was wide ranging and multi purposed. While it undoubtedly helped protect some vulnerable women and young girls it also criminalized homosexuality. Section 11 (known as Labouchere’s amendment) was vague and allowed for the prosecution of any men who engaged in any form of homosexual act. In 1895 it was used against Oscar Wilde who was accused and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sent to prison. It virtually destroyed Wilde, ruining his reputation and crippling him financially. The amendment wasn’t repealed until 1967.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 12, 1885]

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