A Flame which shall never be Extinguished
W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, July 8, 1885)
The report of our Secret Commission, it is now evident, has produced an effect unparalleled in the history of journalism. The excitement yesterday in London was intense. The ministerial statements were comparatively overlooked in the fierce dispute that went on everywhere over the revelations of our Commission.
We knew that we had forged a thunderbolt; but even we were hardly prepared for the overwhelming impression which it has produced on the public mind. The great monopoly of railway bookstalls that bears the name of one of the members of an Administration which has just declared in favour of amending the law to deal with the criminals we have exposed, forbade the sale of the most convincing demonstration of the necessity for such legislation. This helped us somewhat by reducing a demand which we were still utterly unable to meet. In view of the enormous result that has followed the simple setting forth of a few of the indisputable facts which the public has hitherto been afraid to face, we are filled with a new confidence and a greater hope. With all humility we feel tempted to exclaim with the martyr Ridley, "Be of good cheer, for we have this day lighted up such a flame in England as I trust in God shall never be extinguished."
We have been most fortunate, not only in our supporters, but even more so in our assailants. The evil seems to unite with the good in order to increase to the uttermost the dynamic effect of our revelation. When we learned by whom the attempt to hide these crimes from the eye of the public was headed in Parliament and in the press, we took courage. Next to the honour of heading a cause in which we have the enthusiastic support of the best men, we covet nothing so much as that of having to face the strenuous opposition of the worst. We have fluttered "dovecotes of Corioli," and no mistake, and the vehemence of the vituperation with which we are assailed is some slight indication of the necessity for the task which we have undertaken. As for the threats of criminal prosecution in which some even more foolish than the rest of their fellows have thought fit to indulge, that is the one thing of all others which to those who shriek for silence most dread. Surely those simpletons who send down every afternoon to ask if we have been arrested can hardly imagine that the conspirators of silence will create for us such an opportunity of publicity as would be afforded by a trial, in which, as a distinguished correspondent writes, we might subpoena almost half the Legislature in order to prove the accuracy of our revelations. Mrs. Jefferies pleaded guilty in order to save her noble and Royal patrons from exposure. There would be no such abrupt termination to any proceedings which might be commenced against us, and that is very well known to those who talk this nonsense about prosecuting as criminals those who have been reluctantly driven to expose crimes at which the nation stands aghast. We await the commencement of those talked-of proceedings with a composure that most certainly is not shared by those whom in such an extremity we should be compelled to expose in the witness-box.
Let there be no mistake about this thing. We have put our hand to the plough and we are not going to draw back. All this angry clamour we foresaw, and allowed for. It is very natural, and it amounts to very little. If any "Constant Subscribers" and "Old Readers," about a dozen of whom with characteristic courage have sent us anonymous epistles of abuse, could but read the assurances of enthusiastic support which reach us by every post from the men whom all England recognizes as leaders in every moral and religious movement, they would cease their carping, or at least would be bold enough to sign their names. We are aware that to many good men the shock of these revelations must be so great that they may wonder whether they may not do more harm than good. This is quite frankly recognized by Mr. Spurgeon, who in a characteristic letter says:–
"I feel bowed down with shame and indignation. It is a loathsome business, but even sewers must be cleansed. I pray that great good may come of this horrible exposure. It will incidentally do harm, but the great drift of its result will be lasting benefit. I do not think our Churches have failed, for they have kept a pure remnant alive in the land; but I really believe that many are unaware of the dunghills which reek under their nostrils. Thank all the co-operators in your brave warfare. Spare not the villains, even though they wear stars and garters. We need to set up a Committee of Vigilance, a moral police, to put down this infamy. Meanwhile let the light in without stint."
In like manner write to us the foremost men in all the Churches– Anglican, Catholic, Wesleyan, and Nonconformist. It is the "men of the world" who cry out–the accomplices of the criminals and the apologists for the offences which we have exposed. If we had only committed these crimes instead of exposing them not one word would have been said. This is, perhaps, the most fatal sign of the corruption which has eaten into the heart of our luxurious society. In reading the report which we continue to-day, we feel as if our Commissioners "had stirred up Hell To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost, In fiery whirls of slime;" but not all the damnable crew on whose deeds they have shed so lurid a light–no, not even the great London Minotaur himself–that portentous incarnation of lust and wealth–fill us with such sorrow and shame as are occasioned by the attitude of some decent people who, while admitting the truth of all these horrors, would have them continue for ever rather than that their ears should be shocked by hearing of the horrors which others have to endure. That surely is the lowest depth yet fathomed by human selfishness.
One word more. Some exception has been taken to the stress which we laid upon the fact that one of the most frightful features of London brotheldom is the evidence which it affords of the extent to which wealth is used to corrupt, to demoralize, and to destroy the daughters of the poor. That witness is true. All these pimps, and panders, and procuresses, and brothel-keepers are comparatively innocent. The supreme criminal is the wealthy and dissolute man. There are bad men enough among the poor. But poverty, no matter how immoral, does not claim as a perquisite the right to corrupt and destroy the daughters of the rich. This is dangerous talk, perhaps, and revolutionary, and we know not what. It is not so dangerous as allowing this havoc to continue unchecked, nor so revolutionary as the attempt to gag the single voice that is raised to impeach the rich for their crimes against the poor. No society, that is based on such rottenness as that which we are exposing can long endure without some great change. The revelation of these things, if not followed by reformation, may be the precursor of convulsion. "Rest awhile, children of wretchedness." Yet is the day of Retribution nigh–
When stung to rage by Pity, eloquent men
Will rouse with pealing voice th' unnumber'd tribes
That toil and groan and bleed, hungry and blind.
In view of that contingency, possibly even those gentlemen who cheered Mr. Cavendish Bentinck yesterday may see fit to do what they can to expedite the passing of the vital clauses of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, with which the Government, in more or less half-hearted fashion, intends to persevere.