The journalist did something extra, extra to ensure that people would read all about it. And he did so with the help of members of The Salvation Army.

In 1885, campaigning journalist William Thomas Stead had decided to expose the trade in girls for sex that was taking place in Britain. Through contacts with The Salvation Army, which cared for those who had been caught up in prostitution, he arranged for a 13-year-old girl to be bought and taken out of the country. The action landed the campaigners in court.

Photo of Cathy Le Feuvre Cathy Le Feuvre

U.K. freelance journalist and broadcaster Cathy Le Feuvre—a Salvationist herself—was grabbed by the story and has investigated it for her new book, The Armstrong Girl.

“It's quite a modern story even though it happened in 1885,” she says. “When I was carrying out research for the book, a number of newspaper staff were appearing in court and being asked about the way they obtained information. Sex trafficking, too, is a modern phenomenon, and The Salvation Army is still campaigning against it.”

This old-modern story began with a cast of characters who were trying to tackle the exploitation of women and girls in prostitution.

“The first refuge The Salvation Army set up was for women in the East End of London, England—a lot of them wanted to get off the streets and stop working as prostitutes,” explains Le Feuvre.

“That's how Florence Booth, the wife of the second-in-command of The Salvation Army, Bramwell, got to hear about the movement of girls around the country. It disturbed her. She told Bramwell about it.
Catherine, Josephine, Bramwell and Florence decided enough was enough

“At the same time, Bramwell's mother, Catherine, the wife of William Booth and co-founder of The Salvation Army, was working with Josephine Butler, an Anglican who was campaigning for the welfare of women.”

The campaigners believed that the law as it stood made sexual crimes against children almost impossible to prosecute.

“In 1885,” says Le Feuvre, “the age of consent was 13. The campaigners wanted Parliament to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which dealt with issues such as police powers and evidence in court and the raising of the age of consent.

“The Bill kept being raised in Parliament, but it kept getting stalled. A group of people didn't want it to be passed—some called them the 'brothel lobby.' They didn't want the age of consent raised and didn't want police to have the right to raid premises.

“In May 1885, the Bill got thrown out again. That's when Catherine, Josephine, Bramwell and Florence decided enough was enough.

“They enlisted the help of William Thomas Stead, editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, who was already interested in the subject. He came up with the idea that they needed to shame the nation and Parliament into raising the age of consent.

“So he decided to buy a girl to prove that it could happen.”

Florence Booth's diary, referring to Eliza Armstrong Florence Booth's diary, referring to Eliza Armstrong

To carry out the plan, he needed someone who knew the scene. Through his fellow campaigners, he turned to Rebecca Jarrett, a former brothel-keeper who had recently been converted and joined The Salvation Army. In June, Rebecca managed to buy Eliza Armstrong from her mother.

Then, to prove that girls could be smuggled out of the country, the campaigners took Eliza across the Channel.

Eliza was put in the care of The Salvation Army in France. The campaigners had proved that it was possible to traffic a girl.

Stead's exposé in The Pall Mall Gazette hit the streets.

They were prefaced by a warning that readers of a “squeamish” or “prudish” disposition would “do well not to read” The Pall Mall Gazette on subsequent days.

Despite that—or perhaps because of the warning—everyone was keen to read it.
If you doubt that girls are being bought, I'm going to prove it

“Even some of the stuff that comes out in newspapers today is not as lurid as those articles,” comments Le Feuvre. “People thought they were obscene, because he went into intimate detail about what happened to the girls in brothels. And then his point was: If you doubt that girls are being bought, I'm going to prove it—here's the story of Lily (which is the pseudonym he gave to Eliza).”

While Stead's articles were pressing for change, The Salvation Army responded to the news that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was back in Parliament by gathering a petition to call for the raising of the age of consent and for the right of magistrates to search a property if there was reason to believe it contained underage girls detained against their will. It was promoted through The War Cry.

The Salvation Army gathered a petition of 400,000 signatures to raise the age of consent Coverage of The Salvation Army petition to raise the age of consent in The War Cry

Le Feuvre says: “The Salvation Army wasn't a big organization in those days, but in three weeks it gathered nearly 400,000 signatures. It had a roll of paper that was two and a half miles long.

“William Booth decided they would take this petition on a wagon down Whitehall accompanied by a brass band and hundreds of people, carry it into the House of Commons and put it on the floor.

“So while the politicians were debating the Bill, they could see this massive roll of paper—the will of the people. By August 14, the Bill had been passed. The age of consent was raised to 16, where it still is today.”

The law had been changed. Stead's articles had gained him adulation.

“But then,” notes Le Feuvre, “the backlash began. People were asking whether The Pall Mall Gazette should be prosecuted for obscenity. The parents of Eliza were encouraged to bring charges.”

In October, Stead, Bramwell Booth and Rebecca Jarrett and two others were put on trial at the Old Bailey, charged with taking Eliza Armstrong against the will of her father.

Stead wearing prison clothes Stead wearing prison clothes

Stead and Jarrett were found guilty; Booth not guilty.

Le Feuvre admits: “To be honest, I feel sorry for Rebecca Jarrett. After being a brothel-keeper, a procuress and a prostitute for 30 years before her conversion, she initially didn't want anything more to do with that way of life again, but the campaigners persuaded her to buy Eliza.

“In the end, though, the trial centred on a technicality. They broke the law because it was Eliza's mother that had given permission for her to be taken away, whereas the father was supposed to have been the one to give permission. The mother maintained all along that she thought she was sending Eliza into domestic service, but she and her husband were both drunks and unreliable.”

Jarrett and Stead served prison sentences.
When people campaign for something they believe in, things can change

After examining events, what is Le Feuvre's verdict on what Stead and the others did?

“As a journalist, I tried simply to look at the facts,” she says. “Did I feel comfortable at what can only be called a journalistic stunt? Probably not.

“I guess the question is: Did the ends justify the means? I suppose they did. The campaigners had to do something drastic to prove what was going on.

“But it did make me feel uncomfortable, because at the centre of it was this young child, Eliza, who was really a pawn in a game.

“I'm not one who says that we should break the law to make a point, but, on the other hand, I wonder whether I should be braver in standing up for what I believe in as a Christian.

“Parliament raising the age of consent shows me that when people campaign for something they believe in, things can change.”

Even before writing the book, Le Feuvre was conscious that change is still needed when it comes to human trafficking for sex.

“The Salvation Army is still engaged in anti-trafficking work. For the past few years, it has had the Ministry of Justice contract for overseeing specialist support services to adult victims of human trafficking in England and Wales.”

The Salvation Army supports victims of trafficking, particularly after police raids, transporting them to safe places, offering counselling and, through its partners, providing safe houses.

“Some people may ask why a religious group is trying to tackle trafficking,” says Le Feuvre. “But this is part of our heritage.”

Reprinted with permission The War Cry, London © The Salvation Army 2016

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