Friday 5 June 2015


On my regular runs up to Wimbledon Common, I often go along North View which is situated on the south edge of the common. There are a number of tall elegant Victorian houses along this short stretch of road that borders one of the greens belonging to The Royal Wimbledon Golf Club. Beyond the smooth surface of the green is an area of thick woodland that stretches deep into the common itself. One of these houses has an English Heritage blue plaque located on the left of its fa├žade just above the front door. In the past I have stopped and read the information on this plaque. The blue roundel reads from the top; English Heritage, Josephine Butler, 1828 – 1906 Champion of Women’s Rights lived here 1890 – 1893.

Josephine Butler

I must admit I have never given it much thought. I have looked at it a few times but it has never taken my interest. The only thoughts that occurred to me were that she must have been an upper class ,”do gooder,” a sort of prototype early form of suffragette, one of the lesser known ones. A friend of mine was talking about walking on Wimbledon Common recently and mentioned the plaque to me. I said that I had seen it. Another friend mentioned it recently too. I began to think I must look into this woman’s life further.  After all, English Heritage, do not put up a plaque for just anybody. She didn’t live in Wimbledon for long, three years according to the plaque.

Josephine Butler was born in a village in Northumberland called Milfield, in 1828.Her father was John Grey, a local landowner and Whig politician.. He was a supporter of the abolition of slavery and he wanted an extension to the right to vote. He was cousin of Earl Grey who brought in the Parliamentary reform Act of 1832. Her father encouraged Josephine and her brothers and sisters to take an interest in local affairs and she grew up from an early age discussing politics. She became a committed Christian but her early life was marked only by herself and her sister enjoying the county social whirl of balls and parties.
In 1852 she married George Butler who was a lecturer at Durham University who became an Anglican minister. They moved to Oxford when he became the examiner of schools at Oxford University. She found herself in a male world. Most Oxford dons were unmarried. They looked down on women and didn’t think their views were worth listening to.  After a few years an incident happened which began to change things for Josephine. A don of Balliol College had got a local girl pregnant and abandoned her. In her desperation the girl had killed the baby. She was sent to jail. Josephine appealed to the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, to make the don, who had got the girl pregnant, to realise his crime. Jowett replied,
“It would only do harm to open in any way such a question as this. It is dangerous to arouse a waking lion.”
Josephine was appalled. When the girl was eventually released from prison Josephine and her husband gave the girl a job as their housekeeper.
In 1857 George Butler moved from Oxford to become the Vice principal of Cheltenham College. While at Cheltenham their daughter, Eva, died at the age of six, when she fell down some stairs. This incident affected her for the rest of her life. When her husband was offered the job as the principal of Liverpool College they were only too pleased to move. Cheltenham held such painful memories.
Josephine threw herself into charity work to help her overcome the grief of losing her daughter so tragically. She joined a Christian mission at Brownlow Hill Workhouse. Many of the women in Brownlow workhouse were prostitutes.  Josephine began to invite starving and sick prostitutes in to her own home. She persuaded local businessmen to provide money to set up a house as a woman’s refuge to help these prostitutes. The reasons for them becoming prostitutes was poverty and lack of food. Josephine set about starting a work training scheme to give the girls skills that they could use to gain employment. Also the refuge set up its own business, making envelopes. This created an income to cover the running costs of the hostel.
Brownlow Workhouse, Liverpool ( This is now the site of the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral )

At the same time as setting up the hostel she became involved in a campaign for better educational facilities for women. In 1867 the, North of England Council for Promoting the Higher education of Women, began with Josephine as its first president. The Council organised public lectures which developed into the University Extension Scheme. She also petitioned Cambridge University to admit women to its higher local exams which was achieved in 1869. This provided education for upper class women. In 1868 Josephine wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Education and employment of women.” She argued that poor women did not have the opportunities of the apprenticeship schemes that were set up for boys. She argued that lack of skills and poor employment prospects drove some women to prostitution. She also made it clear that women were not less intelligent than men but that they were equals. This was the first time Josephine stated her beliefs in the equality of the sexes and that they should be treated equally. The following year, 1869, she edited a magazine called “Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture.” Contributors argued for women’s rights in a whole range of areas including education and property rights.
Josephine herself stated,
“I wish it were felt that women who are labouring especially for women are not one sided or selfish. We are human first; women secondarily. We care about the evils affecting women most of all because they react upon the whole of society and abstract from the common good. Women are not men’s rivals but their helpers. There can be no antagonism that is not injurious to both.”
In 1869 something else happened which was to set Josephine on a course that brought her to national significance. She returned home from a holiday in Europe to find a message waiting for her. 1869 was the year that the third Contagious Diseases Act was passed through Parliament and it increased the scope and power of the previous two acts. The first Contagious Diseases Act was passed in 1864. The terms of the act were to be followed and explored for three years to ascertain its effectiveness.
In the 1850’s the Crimean War had created a cause for concern over the health of the army. The major problem was syphilis which the military thought was caused and spread by prostitutes. A Royal Commission on health, was set up in 1857 to look at this question. To find out the extent of venereal disease in the army regiments were encouraged to carry out regular examinations of their men. Both army surgeons and the men themselves complained about the humiliation and degradation of this process so the practice was curtailed. Surgeon Perry of the Royal Artillery complained that he felt degraded having to examine soldiers in this way.

“I thought that I was placed in an utterly false position as a gentleman and as a medical man.”
 In 1864, to replace this earlier attempts at controlling and treating venereal diseases, the Contagious Diseases Act was first passed. This was set up for three years to assess the procedures set out in it. Magistrates had the power to order any prostitute to undergo an examination of their sexual organs by a doctor. All doctors were men of course. If they were found to be infected they would be forcibly detained in a special hospital for three months to undergo treatment. Refusal to do this was punishable by prison. To ascertain if somebody was a prostitute was the reporting of rumours about a woman to the police. All the police had to do was swear before a magistrate they had reason to believe somebody was a prostitute. It was up to the woman to prove she was not a prostitute which would have been virtually impossible. How does somebody prove they are not a prostitute?
The experiment was extended in 1866 when the second Contagious Diseases Act was passed. It included more clauses and increased the number of towns form the original eleven to be covered by the act. The towns chosen where this work was carried out were all military towns or strongly connected with the military; places such as Colchester and Portsmouth. In 1869, when a third, more permanent bill was drafted and passed through Parliament, there were calls from some quarters for it to be extended to cover the whole country.

An advertisement poster for a meeting at which Josephine Butler spoke.

This was when Josephine Butler got involved. In 1869, in Bristol, a group of libertarian activists met to discuss the Contagious Diseases Act and its adverse consequences on women in general. Amongst there number was Josephine Butler. Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who knew Josephine Butler through her work in education had contacted Josephine Butler about this. As a result of the meeting the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act was set up. However, soon after the feminists decided to set up their own organisation, the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. On New Years Day 1870 the Ladies National Association published their manifesto. It covered eight points. They brought attention to the unequal treatment by the Contagious Diseases Acts, of men and women and the degradation the act brought upon women.
The second of the points stated,
“ So far as women concerned, (the Acts) remove every guarantee of personal security which the law has established and held sacred, and put their reputation, their freedom and their persons absolutely in the power of the police.”
The fourth point explained,
“ It is unjust to punish the sex who are victims of a vice, and leave unpunished the sex who are the main cause both of the vice and its dreaded consequences.”
They also pointed out that the act threatened civil liberties by punishing an offence that was nowhere clearly defined.

The two associations carried out a vigorous publicity campaign against the acts. Josephine Butler proved to be a charismatic speaker and a prolific writer of pamphlets and she became the leading figure in the Ladies National Association. In April 1870 at the Newark by election, they conducted such an effective public campaign against Major General Sir Henry Storks he withdrew as a candidate. The government tried to get Storks into government again at a Colchester by election. Once again the repealers acted. They put up their own independent candidate. Eventually the Conservative candidate won and Storks had to wait until later in the year to finally achieve success at a further by-election. What emerged at the Colchester by election though was a violent and aggressive response to the campaign by Josephine Butler and her colleagues. Local pimps and brothel owners grouped together and attacked the hotel Butler was staying in. Eventually she was invited to stay at the home of a local working man.

During 1871 the Royal Commission took evidence from both the Repealers and the Regulationists. The Regulationists had only ever considered the Act from the point of view of did it reduce the prevalence of VD. The Repealers made them now consider also the question of principle, whether it was right to treat men and women unequally. This changed the tone of the debate and the regulationists found it harder to uphold their stance. In February 1872 the Home secretary introduced a repeal bill but it was really just a milder version of the original acts. Some were prepared to accept it but not Josephine Butler and her colleagues. There was going to be no quick victory to their campaign.

As a Christian, Josephine Butler refused to believe that men could not control their sexual urges. One of the arguments for the Regulationists was that men needed sexual gratification and prostitutes enabled them to fulfil their urges. Male immorality was treated as a trivial matter and the virtue of prostitutes did not count. As a libertarian Butler believed in the ,
” inviolability of the individual.”
The Regulationists on the other hand made their case using the accepted double standards of the Victorian era. One contemporary writer, W.E.H. Lecky wrote,
 “Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue.”
Virtue meaning the virtue of respectable women. Men could satisfy their urges with prostitutes and so not defile their wives. These people actually thought that this was right. Another idea that was used was that abstinence from sex was actually harmful to men’s health.
The Repealers also attacked the medical profession. Many doctors thought that the acts were necessary to prevent venereal disease and any method that worked was the correct approach. Josephine Butler saw this attitude as a form of communism. The idea that if society benefitted as a whole then the acts were right went against her beliefs in the inviolability of the needs of the individual.

The portrait of Josephine Butler by the eminent Victorian artist G F Watts.

In 1874 the campaign carried out by Josephine Butler and her colleagues had a set back. A new Conservative Government under Disraeli got in. Many of the MP’s in Disraeli’s government were Regulationists. Josephine decided to take a break from Britain and campaign in Europe against state regulated prostitution there. France had one of the worst laws regulating prostitutes and Josephine Butler toured France gaining support against regulation.
When she returned to England she set up a new organisation called British, Continental and General federation for the Abolition of Government regulation of Vice. She also set about collecting evidence of abuse. She discovered some terrible cases of abuse by the special police set up to monitor prostitutes. Many of the cases involved innocent women who were not actually prostitutes, just suspected of being so. In one awful case in Chatham, a naval dockyard town, a young nineteen year old girl, Caroline Wyburgh, had been seen walking with her soldier boyfriend late at night. She was woken up in the middle of the night by a special police inspector. She argued and fought furiously when the policeman tried to detain her. She was put in a straightjacket before she could be examined and it was found that she was still a virgin.  One of the things the acts did was force women into prostitution. If a woman was brought before the courts because she was suspected of prostitution, her reputation would be ruined and there would be no possibility of her gaining other employment. Josephine Butler had noticed with her work in the Liverpool workhouses that many prostitutes drifted in and out of prostitution. They only resorted to it in dire circumstances. The acts forced more women into permanent employment as prostitutes. Josephine Butler collected numerous examples of evidence for the maltreatment of women because they were merely suspected of prostitution. As Josephine published her evidence in pamphlets and spoke about the injustices in speeches, the tide of public opinion began turn. Josephine Butler was still faced with violence and at some of her public speaking events she was still attacked and sometimes knocked to the ground. In 1879 the then conservative government agreed to set up a new select committee to look into the acts. In 1882 the committee published two reports,, one in favour of keeping the acts and one for repealing the acts. The repealers lobbied MP’s as hard as they could. In April 1883 the House of Commons passed a motion to repeal the acts. In 1886 the acts were finally repealed.

Another important element of her work was to stop the kidnapping of British girls who were then taken to brothels in Belgium. She collected evidence for these atrocities. She presented her evidence to the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. He took her seriously although the Belgium authorities were ready to sue her. A statement by Josephine Butler was published in the Belgium press and any attempts at a cover up evaporated. In December 1880 various Police des Moeurs, the Belgium equivalent of the British special police who monitored prostitution, were found guilty of aiding brothel keepers and eleven brothel keepers in Belgium were all prosecuted.
After the Belgium scandal Josephine Butler turned her attention to child abduction and prostitution in Britain. Two police inspectors made a statement describing the prostitution of young girls far worse in Britain than it had been in Belgium. Josephine Butler tried to get the age of consent raised from that of thirteen to sixteen. There were some powerful men involved in patronising this youthful prostitution trade and they tried to get any changes in the law blocked. Incredibly they argued that the raising of the age would put their sons at a disadvantage. After various ploys by powerful individuals to prevent any changes Josephine Butler showed the evidence she had gathered. On the 23rd May 1885, Benjamin Scott, the chairman of the London Committee went to see W T Stead the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette . He was famous for his lurid headlines and publishing sensational stories. He was also a devout Christian. As a character he was emotionally unstable and Josephine Butler and others were reticent about approaching him. However they felt desperate measures were called for. Stead certainly took up the cause with energy. On the 16th July 1885 he published a story called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Other editors were against Stead for publishing the story. However the public were incensed and thousands marched through the streets of London. On the 14th August that year the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed raising the age of consent to sixteen. W.T. Stead then set up a new organisation called the National Vigilance Association. Josephie Butler and many of her followers broke away from Stead. He wanted to go too far and intrude into people’s private lives. Josephine Butler had worked tirelessly for abuses against women and children to be stopped but personal privacy and what people consent to in their own private lives was something that should be left up to individual consciences she thought.

The house Josephine Butler lived in for three years on the edge of Wimbledon Common.

On the 26th August 2014 Professor Alexis Jay published a grim report on the sex abuse s that had occurred in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013. Gangs of mainly Muslim youths had targeted vulnerable teenage girls as young as twelve years of age, kidnapped, forced them into prostitution, raped, abused and trafficked them. The report said that a conservative estimate was that 1400 girls had been abused in Rotherham and that thousands of others throughout the country had been abused too. Sex abuse scandals have been uncovered in Rochdale, Derby, Oxford, Bristol, Telford and Peterborough so far. This seems to suggest that child abuse and coercive prostitution has not changed since Josephine Butler’s day 150 years ago. The laws might be different but Josephine Butler in her day acknowledged that it took more than a change in the law it needed proactive action within communities including, education and police action. All these things were failing in Rotherham primarily because there was a culture of not wanting to be accused of racism when challenging an ethnic community such as the Muslim community. Since Professor Jays report the Muslim community has come out strongly in support of the report and are appalled by the behaviour of some of their young men who were creating careers out of this dire situation. The failures of society in Josephine Butler’s day can be mirrored nowadays. Laws do not need to be changed but attitudes do. In many ways she is an icon for modern times.

The Library of Women's Studies at the London School of Economics Library, just off The Aldwych, holds a number of collections related to Josephine Butler. These include the Records of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene renamed the Josephine Butler Society i honour of its founder;Over 2,500 letters in the Josephine Butler Collection and the Josephine Butler Society Library consisting of books and pamphlets collected by the society. In 2005 The University of Durham honoured her by naming the Josephine Butler College after her.

Josephine Butler (1828-1906):Feminist, Christian and Libertarian  (Libertarian heritage No. 10) The Libertarian Alliance.

The Guardian, Wednesday 27 August  2014.  The Guardian Editorial “The Guardian View on the Rotherham child abuse scandal.”

The Josephine Butler Society (www,

Josephine Butler (From Wikipaedia. the free encyclopaedia)


  1. Tony, thanks for once again furthering my education. I had never heard of Josephine Butler. I'm going to tweet this post (I don't think you are on Twitter, are you?).

    1. Hi Jean. Yes you can tweet it! Thank you. I do send a link to Twitter and Pinterest, but the more the merrier.
      When I started to explore the life of Josephine Butler I was totally taken by her. She was very special.