Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sexual Abuse and Sexual Exploitation of Victorian Children

Child Prostitute; year 1871; inscription at the back: Mary Simpson a common prostitute age 10 or 11 year. She has been known as Mrs. Berry for at least two years. She is four month with child.

In the final years of the 20th and the early years of the 21st centuries, child sexual abuse, which has always existed, came more clearly into the arena of public concern. Although less of a topic of conversation in the 19th century, it was, nonetheless, a problem of some disquiet. Yet, as in so many areas of life during the Victorian Era, concern was clearly bounded by class and class interests.

One of the great difficulties in approaching this topic is defining what actually constituted child sexual abuse in a particular period. The legal definition must, inevitably, revolve around questions of age and coercion.  As well, in a much murkier realm, it must be defined by attitudes towards both the "abused" and the "abuser." In approaching this problem, it is worth considering the concept of childhood.  Childhood, as we now think of it, was an idea which was emerging slowly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it was a concept more common amongst the middle and upper classes.  In the lower and labouring classes children were generally considered as a part of the work force and a source of cheap labour.  Quite aside from this being a form of exploitation and abuse, such young children were "street wise," knowing a great deal more about life and sex than either their counterparts in the higher classes or today's young children.  However, children of any class had no standing.  They were, like a man's wife, his chattel, and within very wide bounds he had the freedom to do with them as he desired.

A letter to The Times in 1849 reported on the attempt of "an old man dressed in the garb of a gentleman" to accost a young girl.  He apparently "asked her to go with him to a house in Oxenden-street", and, as the letter writer comments, "you can easily conjecture the object."  At the insistence of the writer, a Constable warned the girl and suggested she go home "but in a few moments afterwards we observed the hoary old sinner already referred to in hot chase after his prey."  The Police Constable, "behaved with exceeding propriety, and appeared to be quite alive to the grossness of the affair, but he said he had no right to interfere." 

Although the writer's intentions were of the best, and he goes on to ask that the Police be allowed to "address parties" who were engaged in such practices, he goes no further and reflects his own class values and his committment to his view of the family when he tells readers, "I could very accurately describe the personal appearance and dress of this person, so as to lead to his identification, if I did not fear that the superannuated scoundrel might have a wife or child whom the relation of his misconduct might shock."  So, rather than place his emphasis on protecting children from abuse, he puts a higher value on protecting middle-class matrons and their children from exposure to an unpleasant reality.

That hoary old reprobate known to us only as "Walter" who chronicled his sexual exploits for over more than half a century, commented, probably some time in the 1860s, that in his view, and probably in the view of other mid-Victorian gentlemen, "a girl of twelve years is competent to judge of her own fitness for f-----g, and many not a month over that age are plugged daily in London." And, certainly, he was well and truly into child abuse, relating how he had sexual relations with girls under the age of ten!

Unfortunately, laws to protect children from abuse - either sexual or physical - whether through intent or neglect, were weak or non-existant.  On the sexual front, it was not until 1861, with the Offences against the Person Act (24 & 25 Vict. c. 100) that even a minimal degree of protection against sexual predators was placed into law.  There were three relevant paragraphs; all of which dealt with girls.  The idea that a boy could be abused seems to be more than British lawmakers were capable of comprehending.

Procuring the Defilement of Girl under Age.

49. Whosoever shall, by false Pretences, false Representations, or other fraudulent Means, procure any Woman or Girl under the Age of Twenty-one Years to have illicit carnal Connexion with any Man, shall be guilty of a Misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour.

Carnally knowing a Girl under Ten Years of Age.

50. Whosoever shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any Girl under the Age of Ten Years shall be guilty of Felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be kept in Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Three Years, or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour.

Carnally knowing a Girl between the Ages of Ten and Twelve.

51. Whosoever shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any Girl being above the Age of Ten Years and under the Age of Twelve Years shall be guilty of a Misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be kept in Penal Servitude for the Term of Three Years, or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour.

Only the act of abuse of a child under the age of ten years was considered worthy of being a felony.  This allowed a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life with hard labour, but it also permitted a sentence as light as two years imprisonment without hard labour!  Procuring carried with it a sentence of only two years with or without hard labour, and abuse of a child between the ages of ten and twelve years might carry with it a maximum sentence of three years with hard labour or one as light as two years without servitude.

When three Wellington schoolboys were expelled in 1872 by headmaster Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for ostensibly seducing a fourteen years-old servant during their Christmas holidays, two of the boys were reinstated by order of the Governors after their parents complained about such summary justice.  The third, and oldest of the boys, had contracted venereal disease which obviously made his misdemeanour greater and he was not allowed to return.

The Board of Governors, which included the second Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Richmond, Earl Stanhope and Lord Eversley, was described by an assistant master as having “acted like a pack of cynical, hoary old sinners, who looked upon youthful immorality … as a sort of childish complaint, like measles!”   The immorality complained about was, however, sexual.  There seems to have been little concern, at any level with the immorality involved in the abuse of position and power.  David Newsome, in his History of Willington College, described the Governors’ lack of concern over the matter as “a nice indication that the oppressive moral code of the Victorian middle-class had not penetrated the ranks of the aristocracy.”   It might equally be argued that with the growth of the middle-class and the development of schools modelled on the Great Public Schools, the worst aspects of the attitudes of the aristocracy towards the lower and labouring classes found their way downwards.

In 1875, sections 50 and 51 of the Act of 1861 were repealed and in their place the Offences against the Person Act 0f 1875 (38 & 39 Vict. c.94) substituted paragraphs which made it a felony to "unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any girl under the age of twelve years."  To do so carried a sentence only marginally dissimilar from that of the 1861 Act for abuse of a girl under ten.  If the offense was committed against a girl between the ages of twelve and thirteen, it was merely a misdemeanor carrying with it a maximum sentence of two years with our without hard labour.

It was not until 1885, and then after a mighty struggle in Parliament, that the age of consent was raised to sixteen years.

Among the lowest classes, sexual abuse appears to have been endemic.  The writers who explored the social underworld frequently made mention of the early age at which sexual activity took place.  The over-crowded and unsanitary conditions which defined the life of the lower classes; the complete disregard, if not ignorance, of the niceties of marriage, all conspired to create a 'loose'sexual environment.  It was an environment in which sex among the pre-pubescent and between the mature and the very young was no more uncommon than the prostitution and violence that surrounded the lower class and was an integral part of life.  And while the twenty-five years of progress saw changes in the laws, it was not until these had filtered down into changes of attitudes, especially when viewed in class terms, that real progress could be seen to have been made.


Readiness said...

This is the first time I've left a comment but I wanted to let you know I really enjoy your posts. I always feel like I learn something new and interesting when I read your stuff.

Thank you!

Hermes said...

Superb post, very thought provoking.

Pauline Kisner said...


You run an amazing blog. It's the first time I stop by and I will surely come back.

I took the freedom to translate your fine article into portuguese, for a private history forum. With proper credits, of course.

V.R. Christensen said...

This blog is really singular in shedding light on the more obscure aspects of the Victorian Era. I've quoted this post in my own blog, as it has provided support regarding a particular issue I address in a book I am soon to publish. The issue regards the kind of things children of this era understood. I mean to check in often. You have some really great information here. Thank you.

Hector Crane said...

The girl in the photo was also known as Minnie Rae. She was an orphan and prostitute in San Francisco around 1870 before traveling to the United Kingdom with a Mr. Simpson. She claimed to "Mrs. Berry" or "Mrs. Barrie."

She met James Barrie, born the same year she was, who later wrote "Peter Pan and Wendy." Wendy was a sexually flirtatious pubescent girl in Barrie's original story. Minnie Rae may have been part of the inspiration for Wendy.

Frisco Bob said...

Some people say J.M. Barrie couldn't have based Wendy on Mary Simpson or Minnie Rae because he was so naieve about sex but that's just ignorant. If he was as naieve as they say he wouldn't have known what a prostitute was. She'd just be a friendly girl who liked making up stories like he did. The same was true in San Francisco where Minnie Rae came from; everyone there knew a prostitute. Streets were even named after them.

Besides that the original Peter Pan has Peter sneaking into Wendy's bedroom when she's in her night clothes and she tries to seduce him. It's not that innocent. There's an encyclopedia article about Minnie Rae aka Mary Simpson at

Anjuli said...

Hi there,

I really enjoyed your article and your blog is great. I am a university student writing a case study of child prostitution in the Victorian period and was hoping you could tell me where you found the letter to the editor you mention about the man accosting the girl?


Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Anjuli - The specific source is The Times (London, England), Thursday, Nov 29, 1849; pg. 8; Issue 20346.

Sharon Secor said...

Thank you for all of the time and effort you put into your blog posts. I stumbled on your blog quite by accident, and as an ardent social history fan, am so very glad that I did. I'm very impressed and, again, quite appreciative.

Best Regards,

Sharon Secor, Freelance Writer

Lunda said...

"The idea that a boy could be abused seems to be more than British lawmakers were capable of comprehending."

I suspect laws where already in place in the Buggery Act of 1533 and later section 125 of the Criminal Law (India) Act 1828 and section 1 of the Offences against the Person Act 1828.

Two of the laws were against Sodomites and the last against rape.

Since the laws agains Sodomites where considerably more severe than rape, I suspect they would simply find another law to be.. excessive.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, shocking picture of the tragic life of this child sexually abused and exploited in San Francisco and later in London. We have so many laws against this abonimable acts against our children but there is no change for the better now more than ever children and minors and also women and men are being sexually exploited, trafficked all around the world. Sexual trafficking and related pornography are as lucrative as arms sales and drug trafficking