Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A new morality?

From the early-nineteenth century, until absorbed by the new social purity movements of the 1880s, the Society for the Suppression of Vice (founded in 1802) remained the Victorian’s basic legal force against the obscene. [1] Its work demonstrated the often close relationship between private vigilance and public authorities. It was the persuasion of the Vice Society that led to the Obscene Publications Act 1857.[2] Through the 1870s and 1880s, the ‘abolitionists’ were a major social force and the stimulus for the emergence of vigorous social-purity organisations such as the National Vigilance Association. Why was there a major attempt at moral restructuring in the last decades of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries? Various causes can be identified. From the 1870s, following what was seen as a decline in standards in the 1850s and 1860s, a new confidence in the moralistic ethic can be detected.[3] In the early years of the century, moral reformers had been sustained by the threat of revolution. No such fears limited them in the 1880s and 1890s but there were a series of causes and scandals that maintained their momentum: the iniquities of the Contagious Diseases Acts to the scandalous leniency meted out to high class ‘madams’; from the exploitation and abduction of young girls in the White Slave Trade to the divorce case of Charles Dilke in 1886[4] and the Irish leader Parnell in 1890[5]; the scandal of the Cleveland Street homosexual brothel 1889-1890 said to involve the duke of Clarence, eldest son of the heir to the throne [6] and the Tranby Croft gambling scandal of 1891 that did involve the Prince of Wales. [7]

There was a constituency ready to be stirred by such scandals, in the lower middle-class and the respectable working-class whose values were being attacked by radicals and libertarians.[8] Respectability, with its stress on values such as self-help and self-reliance, the value of work and the need for social discipline and the centrality of the family, was threatened by public immorality. Here was a strong basis for social purity. Behind this, giving the campaigns a tremendous dynamism was an evangelical revival, bringing large sections of the feminist movement into alliance with nonconformity, an alliance sealed in outrage against double standards. Many of the leaders of the campaigns in the 1880s were products of this Christian revival. W.T. Stead described himself as ‘a child of the revival of 1859-60’ that had swept across the Atlantic and won hundreds of thousands of converts. Social purity was also able to mine very deep fears of a more secular kind. 1885, an immensely important year in sexual politics, was also the year of the expansion of the electorate in the Third Reform Act, there were fears of national decline following the defeat and death of General Gordon, anxieties about Ireland and all this in the context of a socialist revival and feminist agitation. Social purity became a metaphor for a stable society and in 1885 was able to tap an anxiety that found a symbolic focus in the ‘twin evils’ of enforced prostitution and the exploitation of young girls.

Largely as a result of the efforts of feminists and other social reformers, legislation, in the form of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, was introduced into Parliament in the early 1880s with the intent of protecting young women. This was to be done through the dual means of raising the age of female consent from thirteen to sixteen and making brothels more susceptible to legal controls. For several years the Bill languished in Parliament. At a crucial moment, support for it was energised by a sensational report, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ serialised in the daily Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, documenting the complexity and reach of organised prostitution as an industry and its reliance on sophisticated techniques for the entrapment of young girls. [9] W.T Stead’s sensational expose generated a sense of outrage with which a wide range of public opinion found itself in sympathy. The result was the Criminal Law Amendment Act that attempted to suppress brothels, raised the age of consent for girls to sixteen and introduced new penalties against male homosexuals in private as well as in public. Further changes, in the Vagrancy Act 1898 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1912, underlined the new legislative involvement with prostitution and homosexuality. Reformers in 1885 had no doubt that their cause was right: a crusade against ‘a dark and cruel wrong’. Yet they were directing their energies at many of the wrong targets, illustrating the nineteenth century preference for moral campaigns rather than structural social reforms.

There seems to be interplay between criminal statistics and periodic fears of crime and disorder and it is probable that the collection and publication of national crime figures led to the perception of crime as a national and impersonal problem. Statistics made crime national and made the criminal a national figure. Crime could be shown to be offences perpetrated on a large scale against respectable people by a group that, by being measured statistically, could be defined collectively as criminals or as the ‘criminal classes’.


[1] Roberts, M.J.D., Making English morals: voluntary association and moral reform in England, 1787-1886, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, 2008 provides a valuable overview. See also, Hall, Lesley A., ‘Hauling Down the Double Standard: Feminism, Social Purity and Sexual Science in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Gender & History, Vol. 16, (2004), pp. 36-56.

[2] Hunt, Alan, Governing morals: a social history of moral regulation, (Cambridge University Press), 1999, pp. 57-76.

[3] Fisher, Trevor, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of Late Victorian Britain, (Alan Sutton), 1995 is a useful and readable examination of this issue.

[4] Nicholls, David, The lost prime minister: a life of Sir Charles Dilke, (Continuum), 1995, pp. 177-194, Horstman, Allen, Victorian Divorce, (Croom Helm), 1985, p. 140.

[5] Ibid, Horstman, Allen, Victorian Divorce, pp. 140-141.

[6] On this see Chester, Lewis, Leitch, David and Simpson, Colin, The Cleveland Street Affair, (Weidenfeld), 1976. This book demonstrates clearly the ambiguous attitudes to homosexuality by the Establishment. When the affair seemed likely to become the most explosive scandal of the nineteenth century and the taint of homosexuality came close to the royal household, it was quickly and quietly buried.

[7] Havers, Michel, Grayson, Edward and Shankland, Peter, The Royal Baccarat Scandal, 1977, (Souvenir Press), 1988

[8] Ibid, Hunt, Alan, Governing morals: a social history of moral regulation, pp. 140-191 and Roberts, M.J.D., Making English morals: voluntary association and moral reform in England, 1787-1886, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp. 245-289.

[9] Four articles which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, Monday, 6 July 1885, Tuesday, 7 July 1885, Wednesday, 8 July 1885 and Friday, 10 July 1885; the articles, though unsigned, were acknowledged to be the work of W.T. Stead, its editor. Stead was convicted of kidnapping and abetting indecent assault for procuring Eliza Armstrong and served three months in prison. See, Schults, Raymond L., Crusader in Babylon: W. T. Stead and the Pall Mall Gazette, (University of Nebraska Press), 1972 and Eckley, Grace, Maiden Tribute: A Life of W.T. Stead, (Xlibris Corporation), 2007.

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