W. T. STEAD, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of the Secret Commission, (ed., with annotations and introductory essay, Antony E. Simpson). The True Bill Press: Lambertville, N.J., 2007). 207 pages. ISBN 9780979111609. Hardback, $60.00
It is rather surprising, in this virtual age, to discover that these historically important articles by W. T. Stead are not digitally accessible on the internet. This seems curious, given the proliferation of an enormous variety of key nineteenth century texts online, and considering the significance of the publication of the 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon' articles in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 as a pivotal event in the history of moral reform, as an exemplar of campaigning journalism, and for the evidence they supply concerning certain mentalities around sexuality, gender, class and childhood in of the late Victorian era. [NB: this was the case at the time this review was written: the text of these articles is now available here]
As is probably well-known by now, these articles were considered at the time and by later historians to have been instrumental in the passing of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which raised the age of female consent to 16 (from 13, to which it had only recently been raised from 12), and enacted various measures to restrict the activities of those engaged in profiting from the exploitation of prostituted women. Also, and most notoriously, for reasons which to this day remain obscure and the focus of debate amongst historians, this Act incorporated the 'Labouchère Amendment' which made 'gross indecency' between males, in public or in private a misdemeanour punishable by two years hard labour. While this did not create a new offence (much homosexual activity was already being dealt with under the rubric of 'attempted sodomy') it gave the police wider powers of intervention and, because of its inclusion of acts committed in private, created 'a blackmailer's charter'.
It is exceedingly useful to have this series of articles gathered together in one place, inclusive of Stead's own commentaries (not always easily distinguishable from the actual reports) on the progress of the campaign he had whipped up for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and the raising of the age of consent, and the published responses of his readership for and against the case he was making. However, a price of $60 for a hardback edition makes this perhaps rather less generally valuable than it might be, even if Amazon UK does have copies available at under £10. The text has helpful footnotes translating words and phrases in other languages in the original, explicating usages or allusions which might be opaque to the modern reader, identifying named individuals, and so forth.
There is also an introduction by the editor, Antony E. Simpson. This is workmanlike, provides an extremely solid account of the relevant laws and their history, and goes some way to contextualising Stead's articles and their historical significance, but it is surprisingly lacking in engagement with recent and important historiography in the relevant areas. Works notably absent from the list of secondary sources include Paula Bartley' s Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860-1914 (London: Routledge,1999), Lucy Bland's classic Banishing the Beast: English Feminism and Sexual Morality, 1885-1914 (London: Penguin, 1995), Alan Hunt, Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Jane Jordan's biography of Josephine Butler (London: John Murray, 2001), Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (London: Routledge, 2003), M. J. D. Roberts, Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787-1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): and Anne Summers' Female Lives, Moral States: Women, Religion and Public Life in Britain (Newbury, Berks: Threshold Press, 2000). This rather weakens the value of this introduction as a means of situating Stead's work within current historical debates, and indeed as a means of understanding its significance. Simpson also fails to resist the temptation to reiterate the canard concerning the Labouchère amendment, Queen Victoria, and the existence of lesbians, on the grounds that it is 'too good a story to ignore'.
The works mentioned might also have modulated Simpson's statement that the Criminal Law Amendment Act 'is widely perceived as the piece of 19th century British legislation most effectively designed to protect women, and particularly young girls, from sexual exploitation, and to penalize those profiting from prostitution as an organized business'. Current thinking is rather more ambivalent about the effects of this Act even for women (quite apart from its dire consequences for homosexual men), given that whatever the intention to protect women and girls in many cases the law in operation was frequently more akin to policing them. Simpson does mention Stead's tendency to melodramatic posturing, and his unpleasant lack of concern for the repercussions upon the specific individual women he involved in constructing his narrative, not only the girl 'Lily' but the former prostitute Rebecca Jarrett whose collusion he coerced. Also, caution is implied over making any assumptions that Stead's phantasmagorical vision of London as 'The Modern Babylon' forms an accurate picture of its underworlds of vice in the 1880s.
Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library, London