At seven o’clock in the evening of Thursday 15 December 1887 police constable 432D was on duty in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia. As the officer walked his beat he noticed a young girl ‘reeling about’ and seemingly unwell. He approached her and caught her by the arm and soon ascertained that she was drunk. He asked her name and she told him it was Betsy.
Betsy Embery was just 14 years of age and worked as a servant in Bloomsbury High Street, not far away. The constable took her to the police station and her father was summoned. When Mr Embery arrived he was shocked to see his daughter in such a state and declared that someone must have drugged and assaulted her.
This was a serious allegation that the police were bound to investigate. Betsy was examined by the divisional surgeon, who quickly decided that there had been no assault; in his opinion the girl had just been drinking. The next day she was brought before Mr Mansfield at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of being drunk and incapable.
‘Where did you get the drink, little girl?’ the magistrate enquired.
‘’My sister and a woman gave it to me in a public-house near to Drury Lane’, the girl replied.
Her sister was 23 years old but Betsy didn’t know much more about her than that, not whether she was married, or the name of her drinking companion. Betsy was released into the care of her father but it all seems a little fishy to me. How had she got from Drury lane to Cleveland Street and what was she doing there anyway?
Cleveland Street was about to become notorious in the late 1880s. In 1889 the chance arrest of a 15 year-old boy for a suspected theft uncovered a male brothel that catered to an elite clientele. The Cleveland Street scandal resulted in no prosecutions of anyone ‘in society’ (merely light sentences for some of the male prostitutes that worked there) but it sent shock waves through the establishment.
It has been suggested, but never proven, that Prince Albert Victor (Queen Victoria’s grandson) was a customer. The scandal fuelled contemporary homophobia which culminated in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde two years later for having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.
So I wonder if young Betsy was simply there by accident or whether she had been ‘drugged’ as her father claimed, and taken to Cleveland Street to be used as a child prostitute. This was only a couple of years after William Stead has exposed the extent of child prostitution in ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’; an article that had helped push through legislation to raise the age of consent.
Was Betsy set up by a predatory procuress or had she simply wandered into Cleveland Street after an afternoon of drinking with her big sister? Was her father’s claim correct or was he just trying to rescue his daughter’s (and his own) reputation?
[from The Standard, Saturday, 17 December, 1887]