Josephine Butler biography

BUTLER, Josephine Elizabeth  (1828 – 1906) 

Josephine Butler was born on 13th April 1828 in Millfield, Northumberland, the seventh of nine surviving children of John Grey and his wife Hannah Annett.  John Grey was an agricultural reformer, a leading Liberal in the English border country next to Scotland.  He was a relative and confidante of Lord Grey, the Whig Prime Minister (1830-1834) who helped to secure the passage of the First Reform Bill. John Grey’s family were members of the Church of England, and strong supporters of the anti-slavery campaign.  The Grey children learned early about the horrors of slavery and Josephine’s first feminist instincts were aroused by the terrible stories of female slaves made pregnant by their masters and then forced to give up their babies.  The girls were educated at home by their mother, and Josephine had only a few years of formal schooling.  Despite that, as an adult she was a prolific writer of books and pamphlets, and became a competent speaker of both French and Italian.

Her childhood home in Dilston, Northumberland, was extremely happy.  The family lived in a large house in beautiful countryside and the Greys were loving parents, who allowed their children plenty of freedom.  They had many pets, including dogs and ponies, and became proficient riders.  Music was encouraged and Josephine was a talented and keen pianist. The Grey siblings remained close throughout their lives, even when marriage took two of the sisters to live abroad.  Their political and Christian commitments inspired them to become involved in a number of philanthropic campaigns, but Josephine was the most dedicated and the most persistent.  Her faith was also an overwhelming motivation for all she did – at 17 she had an experience of conversion which led her to prioritise daily prayer and bible study throughout her life.

It was probably in June 1850, when Josephine was 22, that she met George Butler, who was a classics lecturer at Durham University, the neighbouring county to Northumberland.  The son of the Dean of Peterborough, George was reluctant to be ordained into the Church of England himself and hoped for an academic career at Oxford, his ‘alma mater’.  In autumn 1850 he was appointed to the post of Public Examiner and moved to Oxford.  By this time he and Josephine were corresponding regularly – love poems on George’s side which she initially rebuffed.  One of the attractions for Josephine however was George’s status as a teacher – she yearned for higher education and George offered her guidance through advanced reading, such as John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture,and was of course an advanced classical scholar.  He was also mature – nine years older than her.  If this suggests an unhealthy relationship like Dorothea and Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, nothing could be further from the truth.  George was a passionate and physical man with a love of outdoor pursuits such as fishing.  Josephine and George formed a supremely happy relationship within which she was able to pursue all her ambitions.  Partly because of his own Christian convictions, George viewed her as an equal at a time, the Victorian period, when this was almost unknown.  His letter to her during their engagement proposed “a perfectly equal union, with absolute freedom on both sides for personal initiative in thought and action”.

Josephine and George were married in January 1852, and their first son, George Grey Butler, was born that November.  Josephine found life in Oxford, among mostly unmarried dons, very difficult and felt the huge gulf between them during a discussion of Mrs Gaskell’s novel Ruth about an unmarried mother.  They argued that Ruth was far more culpable, more immoral, than the father of her child – a view Josephine could not abide.  This was the double standard of Victorian Britain – women are blamed for the actions of men.

George was never appointed to a lectureship, and opted for ordination in 1854.  Recalling the ceremony, Josephine commented that, “I felt as if I was being ordained too”.  Her health, collapsed in Oxford which had damp and unhealthy air.  Her lungs had not been strong since a serious illness in her teens.  They were forced to move and George secured a post as Vice-Principal of Cheltenham College, a boys’ school (1857-65).   This career change ,which suited him perfectly,  meant that he became a school master rather than a full-time cleric or universty examiner.

Two more sons, Stanley and Charlie, were born and then a daughter, Eva, a beautiful blonde bundle of energy.  The tragedy of their lives occurred in 1864when, aged five, Eva was killed in a fall from the top floor landing of their Cheltenham home.  Both Josephine and George were devastated.  While still grieving, in 1866 they moved to Liverpool, where Josephine began a ministry among the imprisoned women of the ‘Bridewell’ in Liverpool Workhouse.  It was an act of survival – she was desperate to ‘find some pain keener than my own’ after the death of Eva.  Her loneliness was assuaged by the needs of the women, the lowest of the low, who begged her for help.  She instinctively responded by opening her own home to the most sick, and nursing them there.  Most of the women in the Bridewell were prostitutes who she determined to provide with a better means of income.  She and George raised money to open a ‘House of Help’ and an ‘Industrial Home’ which they both helped to run.

Josephine Butler was empowered from this time onwards with the passionate energy of her enormous conviction, that women at every level of society deserved to be treated with greater respect.  Not content with her commitment to prostitutes, in 1866, she became President of the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women, and helped to establish the first university level lectures (under the ‘University Extension movement) in the North of England.  She was also involved in campaigns to make marriage law fairer.

From 1869 onwards, her life was dominated by the women’s campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts.  These Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 allowed the police to detain any woman suspected of prostitution in fourteen naval and military towns, to examine her for venereal disease on pain of imprisonment if she refused, and to detain her in a certified hospital if found to be diseased.  The examination was performed using a speculum inserted forcibly into the vagina.  Women who suffered this appalling and painful indignity described it to Josephine as ‘instrumental rape’.  She saw it as the latest and most shocking example of the double standard and an infringement of the civil rights of all women (for any woman could legally be detained under the Act if the police labelled her a prostitute.)

Josephine agreed in 1869 to become the Secretary of the Ladies National Association for Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, even though she anticipated the cost to her family life, her health and even her respectability, since Victorian morality decreed that it was unacceptable for a respectable woman to speak publicly on such a taboo subject.  Undeterred, she began a supremely courageous campaign of pamphlet and letter-writing, Parliamentary lobbying, petition-gathering and nation-wide speaking which lasted until the acts were repealed in1886.  Although she had a devoted group of followers, the campaign aroused hostility to the extent of putting her in physical danger at times, for example at Pontefract in 1872 where the barn in which she speaking was set on fire.  She spoke to audiences of working men, exhorting them to reject the Acts, and gave evidence before a Royal Commission in 1871, the only woman to do so.  MPs were exceptionally slow to commit themselves in support of her arguments, but some sacrificed their chances of promotion to help her – notably James Stansfeld MP.  Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (1896) is Josephine Butler’s account of the campaign.

Josephine Butler could not rest if there was something she could do to attack the double standard, and her efforts went far beyond the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts.  She had many contacts in Europe, especially through her sister Hatty who had married a Swiss banker based in Italy.  From 1874 onwards she travelled regularly to the continent, especially to Paris, Geneva and Brussels, demanding to inspect state brothels and challenging the activities of the police charged with regulating prostitution. She objected particularly to the open involvement of city councils in the licensing of prostitutes, arguing, for example in Une Voix dans le desert (1875), that all citizens were thereby implicated in the maintenance of an evil system. The British and Continental Federation for the Abolition of Government Regulation of Prostitution was formed in 1875, with Josephine as joint secretary.  This campaign had some success, including the exposure of the traffic in young girls from England to Belgium in 1880.

In 1885, Josephine became involved in W.T. Stead’s hard-hitting campaign against child prostitution in London, conducted through his newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette.  Her contribution was to persuade Rebecca Jarrett, a reformed prostitute, to obtain a child for ‘sale’ to Stead, so that he could demonstrate the ease of the transaction.  Stead was arrested and imprisoned after his protestations of innocent research were disbelieved, but the sensational headlines ensured that the facts of child prostitution became public knowledge, as Butler and Stead had intended.  At that time the age of consent was only 13, but within a few weeks Parliament voted to raise it to 16.

Josephine’s campaigns for ‘purity’ began in the early 1870s and included speeches to audiences of young men about the dangers and disadvantages of uncontrolled sexuality. In 1886 she joined the newly-formed National Vigilance Association for the Repression of Criminal Vice and Immorality, but soon found that its methods, repressive action against ‘immoral’ individuals, clashed with her own favoured approach of inculcating personal morality. She spoke of ‘the necessity of purity of life in all who would join us’ (Sursum Corda, 1871).

In all these campaigns, Josephine had George’s support, even though it must have damaged his career.  He was howled down when he tried to make a speech about the Contagious Diseases Acts at the Church of England Congress in 1872.  After his retirement from Liverpool College, the Butlers moved to Winchester where, due to the support of W.E. Gladstone, George was made a Canon of the Cathedral.  George died after a long illness in 1890, and Josephine grieved throughout the sixteen years of her widowhood, writing a biography of her husband, Recollections of George Butler, which tells us a great deal about her own life as well.  After George died Josephine proved unable to establish a settled home.  She spent time with her sons and their families, and on the continent.  She wrote more than ever, and conducted new campaigns, including one against the CD Acts in India.  She died on December 30 1906 in Wooler, Northumberland, only a few miles from her birthplace, and is buried in the local church, St Gregory’s, Kirknewton.

© Helen Mathers 

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13 thoughts on “Josephine Butler biography

  1. Annette Faber says:

    dear maker of this website,
    I am studying Elise van Calcar (1822-1904), a Dutch lady who was in contact with Josephine Butler (by letter). A visit to Luik (Liege in Belgium) is mentioned (probably in 1879). The letter was writtten in Brussels, 30th of August. Do you know anything about this visit to Luik or about the contacts between these women?
    Thank you very much for your reply,
    Annette Faber (Bennekom, The Netherlands)

    • Dear Annette,
      You are correct – Butler went to Liege in August 1879 for the annual conference of her International Federation against the State Regulation of Vice. Here is a quote from my book Patron Saint of Prostitutes:
      “The Butlers spent July in Coblenz, Germany, before going to Liège, in a heavily industrialised part of Belgium. The conference here proved, in Josephine’s opinion, to be one of the Federation’s most “brilliant successes”. Since the contentious Geneva Congress, delegates had accepted that the essential principle of their cause was “the defence of individual liberty and right”. She knew that “absolute principles” like this were the best means of uniting a widespread movement: they were “our best security against inconsistency”. At public meetings the citizens were warned: “you are not free…. Paris, Brussels and your fine city of Liège are not free so long as any woman can be deprived of her civil rights at the caprice or tyranny of a police agent, or through the denunciation of a scoundrel”.

      Josephine visited the Maison Hospitalière, which she called “a true child of the Federation”, because it was modelled on her own Industrial Home in Liverpool. One of the women’s meetings was addressed by four female speakers representing different nations. They prepared their speeches together in their hotel with Madame de Morsier correcting the French. The hall was packed, with an extra audience listening outside the windows, and the speakers struggled to leave at the end, due to women asking questions and holding their hands. On the last night of the conference, there was an audience of 700-900 for a public meeting chaired by Aimé Humbert. Afterwards Josephine remembered their visit to Seraing, the largest foundry in Europe, where English delegates addressed the workmen, and the friendly atmosphere at Chenée where they sang hymns together in chapel. The experience of “uninhibited friendliness” among a group of men and women from different nations and religions was unprecedented and inspiring. Lasting friendships were formed and Josephine received a bunch of roses every day.”

      I hope this is helpful. For details of my book, please see the home page of my blog
      Best wishes,
      Helen Mathers

  2. […] a single man, under the Contagious Diseases Acts, may destroy the character of a woman” (78). Butler argued that under the Acts, there was no clear definition for discerning between a woman walking […]

  3. […] from that era, I happened to be reading last week a biography of that courageous British campaigner Josephine Butler, who led the push for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act (in 1886) – this was, perhaps […]

  4. hayley mullin says:


    I would like to speak to someone about telling the story of Josephine Butler.
    can anybody help me?

  5. […] “Josephine Butler biography,” The Josephine Butler Page, […]

  6. Zohar says:

    First of all, thank you for this interesting information.
    I have a question- where can I find the origin of the quote “a perfectly equal union, with absolute freedom on both sides for personal initiative in thought and action”?
    I looked in archives of letters of Josephine but couldn’t find it.
    Actually I wasn’t able to find any letter of correspondence between George and Josephine.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Zohar, The quote is taken from a letter George wrote to Josephine during their engagement. It is quoted in her biography of George, called Recollections of George Butler (1892). That’s the best source for letters between them!
      Happy to give you more help if I can.
      Best wishes, Helen

    • Hi Zohar,
      Thanks for asking. The quote is taken from Josephine’s biography of George,
      called Recollections of George Butler (1898). That’s also the best source for letters between them!
      Best wishes,

  7. Yurie says:

    Hello, I’ve been reading ‘fallen woman’ novels and that’s how I came across Josephine Butler, who is my latest Victorian heroine. Thank you for this summary of her biography. I was interested in the part you mentioned about Butler reading Gaskell’s Ruth. Could you please point me in the direction where I might find the primary source for that information? Thank you very much!

    I can’t wait to read your book when the paper back comes out in 2 weeks!

    • Dear Yurie,
      It’s great to hear that Josephine Butler is your latest Victorian heroine! Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth really influenced her a lot when she was a young woman.
      The source is Josephine’s biography of her husband, Recollections of George Butler. I consulted this biography in the Women’s Library (at London School of Economics) but there is a new edition which can be bought online.
      I am so glad that you are looking forward to the paperback! She was such an amazing woman and her story is really compelling. I hope you enjoy the book – please review it if you can!
      Thanks for getting in touch.

      • Yurie says:

        Dear Helen,
        Thank you very much for your reply and help. I wouldn’t have thought to start with George Butler’s biography. I found the passage, and it has helped me to understand some mid-Victorian views of fallen women. I read a little further to learn that the Butlers hired women who was imprisoned for murdering her infant. Considering George Eliot’s characterisation of Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede (1859), that is an amazing thing the Butlers did. I would really like to do more reading on Josephine Butler and read writings by her. I will definitely read your book and try my best at reviewing it. Thanks again.

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