The Case of the £5 Virgin: The True Story of a Victorian Scandal


As the villain of my story about a celebrated Victorian scandal went down with the Titanic in April 1912 I agreed with the publisher Backstory to bring out a limited edition of the book last year to coincide with the centenary of the disaster. The new edition which is now available is substantially the same but with a new title which more accurately reflects the content. 

At a time when the allegedly underhand practices of senior newspaper journalists are about to be examined in Court the sensational trial of a Victorian editor accused abducting a teenage girl, having her indecently assaulted and shipped abroad has a sharply topical resonance. No phone tapping went on in 1885, but W.T.Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette went on trial at the Old Bailey accused of fabricating what he claimed was a sensational scoop. In one of a series of articles on prostitution in the capital, which he called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, Stead claimed he had first hand knowledge of a case in which a "drunken" mother sold her daughter to a procuress knowing the girl would be violated in a brothel. The price paid was £5.

When the story was first published in July 1885 the newspaper boys hawking the Gazette on the streets of London cried in a read-all-about-it fashion: " £5 for a virgin warranted pure!" Many were outraged and there were demands for the edition to be withdrawn. In the City of London the police rounded up the paper boys on the grounds that they were distributing obscene material and causing an obstruction as crowds gathered round them eager for a copy.Stead stood his ground and within a month of his great scoop was triumphant. 

Quietly, however, Stead's duplicity was being revealed. When the case came to Court he found himself in the dock with a bizarre gang of accomplices: a reformed brothel keeper, a French abortionist, a foreign journalist, and two members of the Salvation Army, including the Chief of Staff and son of the founders, Bramwell Booth who followed proceedings with an enormous ear trumpet. Cross examined, Stead had to own up to some shockingly underhand and deceitful journalistic practices. Despite this history has awarded him status as a hero. There are memorials to him in London and New York.

When Stead went down on the Titanic in 1912 the many obituaries published on both sides of the Atlantic were mostly adulatory. However there was one gainsayer who chose the occasion to satirise Stead's fabrications. The playwright George Bernard Shaw was a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 and was familiar with the Maiden Tribute story. He was shocked when he learned Stead had invented the whole thing and in 1912 incorporated some of the Maiden Tribute story into his play Pygmalion. In this way Stead unwittingly helped Shaw to complete his most famous play which became the musical My Fair Lady.