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Owen Mulpetre, BA (Hons) Mphil

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Richard Webster - The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt

Stead's Reminiscences of the "Maiden Tribute" Campaign (undated)

Quoted in Estelle W. Stead, My Father: Personal & Spiritual Reminiscences (1913) pp. 140-152

It is not often that a man can look back upon his conviction and sentence as a criminal convict with pride and exultation. Such however is my case... I was sent to gaol on Nov. 10th, 1885, and every tenth of November since then has been as a Red-Letter Day in my life, and will be so until I die.

The night of my conviction—the first nights —for I was tried on two counts and found guilty by two separate juries—remains indelibly impressed upon my memory. The crowded Court, the strained excitement, the hushed suspense, the outburst of feeling when the verdict was announced, all recur to me as if they had occurred but yesterday. It was a great experience and one which I would not have missed for anything. Every subsequent year has brought me fresh reason for gratitude that I was so convicted and sent to gaol.

The, story of how I came to be placed in the dock and arraigned for committing one of the very crimes which I had secured the passage of an Act of Parliament to punish more severely, need only be told in outline here. In the spring of 1885 the Chamberlain of the City of London, a venerable old man of seventy-five, came to me in great distress and informed me that owing to the unexpected defeat of Mr. Gladstone's Government and the confusion occasioned by the installation of his successor, a Bill for strengthening the laws for the protection of girls and young women, which had been introduced into the House of Commons by the outgoing Government, would be sacrificed. The need for such an amendment of the law was recognised by both political parties. The Bill was based upon the report of a Select Committee of the House of Lords. Everyone admitted that juvenile prostitution had increased to a terrible extent. All agreed that the law, as it stood, was powerless to deal with the evil. The Bill amending the law had been twice passed through the House of Lords, but it had always been held up in the House of Commons. After years of strenuous agitation, and the earnest prayers of all the Churches, they had hoped that at last they were to obtain the much needed reform. But the change of Ministry had dashed this hope to the ground.

"All our work," said the Chamberlain, "will be wasted unless you can rouse up public opinion and compel the new Government to take up the Bill and pass it into law."

Mrs. Josephine Butler came and added her intreaties to those of Mr. Scott, the City Chamberlain. I then said I would look into the matter and see what could be done. The Bill was a comprehensive measure. It aimed not merely at the corruption of minors but also at the White Slave Traffic—the export of English girls to purchasers in the vice markets abroad. The law as it stood declared that any child of thirteen years of age was legally competent to consent to her own seduction. It also refused to allow little girls under eight to give evidence against the monsters who had outraged them, on the ground that the victims were too young to understand the nature of an oath. The law against abduction was criminally lax, and provided no adequate punishment of those who trafficked in womanhood. What the reformers wanted was to raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, to allow children under eight to give evidence as to their assailants, and to stiffen the law against abduction and the traffic in vice. Like everyone else, I knew that the law ought to be amended, but also like everyone else, I knew that it had not the remotest chance of being amended as things stood.

"I do not know if you can do it,” said the old Chamberlain, "but if you cannot then we are beaten. No one else will help us. You might be able to force the Bill through. Will you try?"

I, naturally, wanted to try, but every instinct of prudence and self-preservation restrained me. The subject was tabooed by the Press. The very horror of the crime was the chief secret of its persistence. The task was almost hopeless. No ordinary means could overcome the obstacles which were presented by the political situation. Through a personal friend who was a member of the new Cabinet I took soundings as to the chance of getting the Bill passed. The answer I received was decisive and emphatic: "The new Ministry will not attempt any legislation whatever. It is utterly impossible to make an exception in favour of this Bill. We are very sorry, but nothing can be done this session."

With such a non possumus staring me in the face, I, nevertheless, risked everything upon that forlorn hope. With the aid of a few faithful friends, I went disguised into the lowest haunts of criminal vice and obtained only too ample proof of the reality and extent of the evils complained of. I then published the Report of the Secret Commission of Enquiry into the Criminal Vice of London under the title of "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," in the Pall Mall Gazette, beginning on the sixth of July and closing its publication on the twelfth. The sensation which these articles produced was instantaneous and world-wide. They set London and the whole country in a blaze of indignation. An influential committee, consisting of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, Cardinal Manning, Mr. John Morley, and Sir Robert Reid, Q.C., investigated the accuracy of my statements.

The Ministry capitulated to the storm of popular passion. The Bill which they had abandoned as hopeless, they revived and strengthened and passed into law with the utmost celerity and dispatch. It was one of the greatest achievements which any journalist single-handed had ever accomplished in the coercion of an unwilling legislature and a reluctant Ministry.

After the law had received the Royal Assent it was discovered that in one of the first—nay the very first experiment which I had made to verify at first hand the truth of the statement that British mothers were willing to sell the virginity of their girls for a five-pound note to the procurers of vice, I had omitted to take the necessary precautions to prove legally the fact. My only excuse was that I was utterly inexperienced, that I had of necessity to rely upon the assistance of people whose character made them very bad witnesses, and that from the first I had refused to do anything to incriminate individuals. I was an investigator exposing a vast system of organised crimes. I could not bring myself to be a detective worming myself into the confidence of criminals in order to betray their trust and to secure their punishment. Be that as it may, the fact was that the first child of thirteen procured for me in my disguise as an immoral man in return for the usual payment to the procuress and to the mother, was handed to me without the consent of the father, and without any written evidence as to the payment to the mother. The mother, of course, as soon as the hue and cry was raised, protested that she had only let her daughter go to be a servant girl. The father quite truly swore that he never consented for her to go at all. The opportunity was tempting. The opponents of the reform which the Pall Mall Gazette had forced upon the Government and the House of Commons exulted over the chance which this case afforded them of dealing what they believed would be a fatal blow to the man who had defeated them.

So the very legal officer, the Attorney-General, who had been compelled by one agitation to carry the amending Bill through the House of Commons, prosecuted me and three or four of my comrades on the charge of abducting the girl in question.

The trial created almost as great a sensation as the original publications. We were several days in the Police Court, and then we were sent to the Old Bailey for trial.

A public defence fund of six thousand pounds was raised. Sir Charles Russell, afterwards Lord Chief Justice, Mr. Henry Matthews, afterwards Home Secretary, and other leading counsel were retained for the defence of my comrades. I defended myself.... The trial placed in the full light of day the facts which the majority of newspapers had carefully shrouded in obscurity. On the main question our evidence was overwhelming. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, Cardinal Manning, Mr. John Morley, Mr. Arthur Balfour, were among my witnesses subpoenaed to prove the purity of my motives.

On the second hand, the existence of the evil its extent, the hopelessness of any reform, and the fact that almost single-handed I had forced the legislature to pass the Bill, were not only proved but admitted to be true by the prosecution.

All that the enemy could hope to secure by way of consolation, was a verdict against the defendants for failing to produce evidence to prove the consent of the parents to the abduction of their daughter. It was admitted that the child had never been better cared for in her life. It was proved that the only reason why she had not been returned to her mother was the belief, which the police shared, that if she went back she would be sold in deadly earnest next time. But the consent of the father had never been obtained, and the judge ruled that this was fatal to our defence and that the jury had no option but to return a verdict of guilty. But if I had but persisted in asking one question, this fatal fault would have been wiped out. I wanted to ask the mother for her marriage lines. Sir Charles Russell, who was leading counsel on our side, protested against a question that imputed immorality to any woman, no matter how degraded she might be, unless there was solid basis to go upon. I said that I had nothing to go upon beyond the fact that she was admittedly a drunken woman, who in my belief had sold her own daughter into prostitution. "That," said the great barrister, "is not enough. I will never be a party to such licence of cross-examination." I gladly concurred, for I had frequently protested against the way in which women were insulted in the witness-box by cross-examining counsel. But months after I had served my sentence and had come out of gaol, it was discovered at Somerset House that the child had been born out of wedlock, and that the nominal father had no legal rights over the girl who bore his name. It was then too late, and I have never ceased to be grateful that the fact was not discovered till afterwards. If I had asked that question I should probably have been acquitted, and so have lost that experience in prison which was one of the most valuable lessons of my life....

The trial lasted several days. The Court was crowded, and had been so from start to finish.... The break-down in the witness-box of one of our witnesses, who frankly declared that she would perjure herself rather than betray her companions, left the issue in little doubt. The Judge had spent the whole day summing up against us. His animus was undisguised. He constructed a series of questions, to which the jury would have to answer yes or no, with such care that it was simply impossible for them to do other than return the verdict of guilty. But so signal had been the vindication of the motives and the method of the defendants, that there were many who believed that the jury, despite the charge of the Judge, would persist in returning a verdict of not guilty.

I had no such expectations. I knew that I should be convicted. I knew also that I should have to spend two months in gaol. My friends rallied me about the absurdity of my forecast. It was one of the intuitions which enable us sometimes to foresee what is about to happen..

It was even more remarkable and entirely precluded any possibility of my premonition having any influence whatever in bringing about its realisation.... When the trial was drawing to a close, conviction being certain, the question was naturally discussed what, the sentence would be. Many of my friends, including those actively engaged in the trial on both sides, were strongly of opinion that under the circumstances I should only be bound over in my own recognisance to come up for judgment when called upon.... The jury had found me guilty, but strongly recommended me to mercy on the ground, as they said, that I had been deceived by my agent.... But I was never a moment in doubt. I knew I was going to gaol from the moment Rebecca Jarrett broke down in the witness-box. This may be said to be nothing extraordinary; but what was extraordinary was, that I had the most absolute conviction that I was going to gaol for two months. I was told by those who considered themselves in a position to speak with authority that I was perfectly safe, that I should not be imprisoned, and that I should make preparations to go abroad for a holiday as soon as the trial was over. To all such representations I always replied by asserting with the most implicit confidence that I was certain to go to gaol and that my sentence would be two months.

For more than a week the dock at the Old Bailey had been the centre of interest throughout the whole country. The dock itself is an inspiration. Many of the men who have made history, from William Penn downwards, have faced hostile judges from that coign of vantage. The well of the Court was crowded with counsel. The leaders of the Bar were there, and, on either side, gathered the friends of the opposing parties. The jury were absent for a considerable time, and the crowded Court buzzed with eager conversation as everybody canvassed the possible verdict with his neighbours. I think that I was about the most unconcerned person in Court. When you know what is going to happen you do not get so excited as those who are still in suspense. In the dock with me were Bramwell Booth, chief of the staff of the Salvation Army, and another devoted member of the Army, Madame Combes, who had rendered yeoman service in the enquiry. With them also was an old war correspondent of Greek descent, who had aided me in my excursions into regions where he was much more familiar than myself. The remaining occupants of the dock were a Frenchwoman of infamous repute, who was convicted and died in gaol, and a converted procuress who had aided me in exposing the traffic by which she had formerly made her livelihood. Our friends, legal and otherwise, were crowded round the dock, confidently expressing their belief in our acquittal.

Suddenly there was a thrilling whisper: — "They are coming, they are coming." Everyone hushed his talk. Those who had seats sat down. Those who crowded the corridors craned their necks towards the jury box. The twelve good men and true, headed by their foreman, filed back into the box. Then the Judge, in a silence profound as death, asked if they had agreed upon their verdict. "We have," said the foreman. Everyone held his breath and waited to hear the next fateful words. It was a verdict of "Not Guilty" against Bramwell Booth and Madame Combes. Of "Guilty" against the Frenchwoman and the exprocuress, "Guilty" also against the Greek war correspondent, and "Guilty" against me. But in my case the jury added an extraordinary rider. They found me guilty of being deceived by my agents. They recommended me to mercy, and they unshed to put on record their high appreciation of the services I had rendered the nation by securing the passage of a much needed law for the protection of young girls.

When the last word was spoken the tension was relaxed and the whole Court hummed with excitement. I never can forget looking down from the dock upon the crowd below. Some of my friends were very angry. But I could not for the life of me see how the jury could have done otherwise. The foreman of the jury called upon my wife and explained, with tears in his eyes, how utterly impossible he had found it to answer the Judge's questions in any other way. "Tell him," I wrote to my wife from gaol, "Tell him not to grieve. If I had been in his place I should have done the same as he did." Next day was Lord Mayor's Day, and I spent hours walking up and down the streets through the thousands who turned out to see London's annual pageant. I was going to be secluded from my fellow creatures for some months. I wanted to take my fill of the crowd before I returned to my cell.

The next day the second charge springing out of the same incident was tried before a second jury. I took no part in the proceedings, and when the inevitable verdict came and we stood up for sentence, the Judge sentenced me to three months' imprisonment. I was so certain that I was going to prison for two months that I with difficulty restrained myself from saying: "My Lord, have you not made a mistake? It ought to be two months." I fortunately restrained myself. When I got into my cell I found that the sentence ran from the opening of the Session, and that the precise period of detention I had to undergo was two months and seven days. The Judge had come as near verifying my prediction as it was possible for him to do.

When the sentence was pronounced, all our friends crowded round us cheering us with all manner of friendly assurances, and not less friendly imprecations on the prosecution. My dear wife, who had displayed the most splendid courage through it all, bade me good-bye, and then the gaoler led us down dark corridors into Newgate. The contrast between the dark crowded Court and the cold silent cell was very great. Another hour passed and then we were packed into the prison van and driven through the streets of London to Coldbath in-the-Fields prison.

About this website

I founded this website in 2001 to assist me in my own research on W.T. Stead, little knowing then that it would become the largest online resource on Stead's life and career. Today this site is used by students, scholars and institutions around the world and has significantly contributed to the Study of W.T. Stead and the evils which he campaigned against. I hope you find it useful.

If you have a question that explicitly concerns any of the content on this website, feel free to Contact me and I will get back to you at my earliest convenience. However, please note that I no longer work in academia. With a very "busy" business to run, the time I can spare responding to enquiries through this website is finite, to say the least. So, please do not ask me to do research for you or assist in matters of family history.

Finally, though this website includes a section on Stead's obsession with spiritualism, I myself am not remotely interested in the subject. So, if you think you have seen Stead's ghost in your kitchen or believe you are the reincarnation of the great editor himself (or anyone else who died on the Titanic), I beg you not to tell me about it..

Owen Mulpetre, BA (Hons) MPhil