London in 1885, Rotherham in 2014 – plus ca change

‘The Maiden Tribute’: Rotherham in 2014 / London in 1885

by Helen Mathers, author of Patron Saint of Prostitutes. Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal

Josephine Butler would not have been surprised by anything in the report published by Alexis Jay last week, which contains appalling revelations about the grooming and violent sexual abuse of girls in Rotherham.  She formed part of  a ‘secret commission’ of journalists and rescue workers, who invesigated child sexual abuse in London in 1885.  The appalling details they uncovered were published by the tabloid editor William Stead in a series of sensational articles called ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’.

The degree of public shock was far greater than we have seen over the past week because the horrific details had never been published in the newspapers before. Rich gentlemen paid large sums to rape virgins, and young girls were imprisoned in brothels and offered to favoured customers. Their virginity was certified by corrupt midwives who might also offer to ‘patch up’ the child afterwards, to repair the damage. One girl “‘wrapped herself up in the bed curtains and screamed and fought’ so much that she had to be held down by the brothel-keeper throughout the rape.” (Mathers, 2014, p.150)

The articles caused an enormous outcry of public horror and, within 6 weeks of publication, led to the raising of the age of consent from 13 to 16. There were unprecedented scenes of jubilation in the House of Commons and a victory rally in London attracted a quarter of a million people.

Josephine Butler, however, had no doubt that legislation alone would not solve the problem – and so it has proved. The age of consent has little influence on men who excuse rape by claiming that an under-age girl has ‘consented’ to sex. The problem, Butler said, lay with the public attitude towards young, poor girls, especially those without parents to support them. They were powerless, ignorant and often desperate and therefore easily exploited by depraved men.

This problem will not go away, she said, until society recognises that everyone has equal value and ceases to (tacitly) condone the exploitation of a certain class of girls and women. These poor girls were treated like slaves – a class to be exploited and abused. She continued to campaign for them, highlighting the terrible experiences of individual girls and insisting that a change in the attitudes of men, of the police, the judiciary and the government, was the only solution.

We may think we have moved on from Victorian attitudes, but it is clear that we have not. The Rotherham report show that it was often children in care (ie. poor and without parents) who were abused and that the police justified their inaction by calling them ‘undesirables’, ‘deviant’, ‘promiscuous’ etc – words which suggest they were asking for it (Jay, 2014) One victim, ‘Emma’, who was interviewed on BBC News on Thursday 28 August, said that, a few years later, she had reported her abuse at the age of 13 to Rotherham police. She even produced evidence – the clothes she was wearing at the time of her first rape. Two days later the police told her they would not proceed with the case and had ‘lost’ her evidence.

This culture, which assumes that there is a class of young girls who are ‘asking for it’ and ‘out of control’, is the chief reason why abuse has continued unchecked. Josephine Butler would have recognised it as the culture of ‘fallen’ women and girls, which allowed Victorian society to treat them with contempt and abuse.

Rotherham is unlikely to be an isolated case. Dr Helen Beckett, of the International Centre at the University of Bedfordshire, was quoted in The Guardian , 27 August, saying “you could write the same report about any number of different places” (Topping, 2014).   Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions, was right to say in The Guardian that a ‘cultural shift in thinking’ is needed.

History backs him up. Until this culture is addressed and destroyed, sexual abuse of girls and women will continue.


BBC, News at Ten, 28 August 2014

Jay, Alexis, Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Rotherham, 1999-2013, August 2014.

Mathers, Helen, Patron Saint of Prostitutes. Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal, The History Press, published August 2014.

Topping, Alexandra, ‘Rotherham child sex abuse could be tip of an iceberg, say campaigners’, The Guardian 27 August 2014

Starmer, Keir, ‘It’s not about individuals’, The Guardian 29 August 2014

Helen Mathers   3/9/2014



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s