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0 Paper delivered at Stead 2012 Conference at the British Library 17 April

  • History
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 17-04-2012
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When the obituaries of those who perished on the Titanic began to appear in the newspapers in April 1912 there were many column inches devoted to the life and work of W.T.Stead who was still then a very famous journalist. And there was no doubt that Stead's most celebrated campaign had been the investigation in the Pall Mall Gazette he called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Stead himself had written that he would be happy with a memorial which read: " Here lies the man who wrote the Maiden Tribute". As it happened, Stead disappeared in the Atlantic and he was one of many victims of the disaster whose bodies were never found. But there was a tribute of a kind which even he, with his legendary foresight, could not have anticipated. It came in an oblique and satirical form from his old adversary the playwright George Bernard Shaw.

It so happened that Shaw was working on the script of his play Pygmalion at the time the Titanic sank and the Stead obituaries appeared. He had begun the play years before, in 1897, and had in mind from early on that the story would be of a London cockney girl who is transformed into a Duchess. He told the actress Ellen Terry he wanted Mrs Patrick Campbell to play the part of the girl who would be " an East End dona in an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers. " Shaw waited for the chance to cast Mrs Campbell in the role and he had still not put the finishing touches to the play in April 1912. What was a tragedy for Stead turned out to be a bit of inspiration for Shaw. He was able to weave into the script of Pygmalion many of the details and insinuations from one particular story Stead told in his monumental survey of vice in London in 1885.

 On the evening of 6 July 1885 the newspaper boys selling the Pall Mall Gazette cried out in the streets of London: " Five pounds for virgin guaranteed pure." One shocked bystander heard the boys call to two girls at a bus stop: " Come on Miss, have a copy. This'll teach you how to earn £5". The newsagent W.H.Smith had refused to carry the Gazette that night and the boys had been drafted in to fill the gap. It so happened that Bernard Shaw was a contributor to the Gazette at that time writing unsigned book reviews. He was, it seems, impressed by Stead's campaign and must have known that however sensational the journalism the purpose was admirable. Stead wanted to shock Parliament into raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, an issue on which it had been prevaricating for some time. And it was a triumph. Within a month of the publication of the Maiden Tribute articles over four evenings in early July the Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age of consent to 16 where it remains today.

Shaw said later to Stead's biographer that he had himself offered to sell the Gazette along with the paper boys but that his letter was not answered. And he went on to say that his opinion of Stead and his campaign changed radically when he learned that a story in the Maiden Tribute that had inspired the paper boys to cry " £5 for a virgin guaranteed pure" was fabricated. The words Shaw actually used were that it was a " put up job".

And I have to say I came to agree with Shaw when I myself became interested in the truth about what Stead had written in that most celebrated campaign of his. I came at it more obliquely than Shaw, and I would say, as a journalist myself, my judgement of Stead has turned out to be harsher. A few years ago I wrote a book about the development of early wireless which took me to Marconi and inevitably to the Titanic disaster as it was Marconi wireless operators who sent out the distress signal on 14 April 1912. When I read about it Stead's name inevitably caught my attention. Like many people I had heard of him and I had a very vague memory of his daring escapade in which he demonstrated how easy it was to buy a virgin in London and that he had gone to jail for his trouble. I thought he must have been a hero.

When my book on wireless was finished I decided to take a look at the Maiden Tribute in some detail. I discovered very soon that there was one story in the first of four instalments of the Gazette's investigation which stood out. The sub-heading was simply A child of thirteen bought for £5. Signing himself the Chief Director of the Secret Commission, Stead avowed that he could vouch for the truth of this story while the rest of the investigation was a series of assertions by unnamed brothel keepers, pimps, police and other underworld figures he had interviewed. Intriguingly, he did not say how he knew about the fate of this girl. He called her Lily, described the negotiations that went on for her purchase by a procuress, indicating that the mother was keen to take some money for her, gave a few details of her life, quoted a little verse she had written, described how she had had her virginity verified by a midwife, how chloroform had been bought to render her unconscious, and implied her rapid ruination with her crying: " Take me home, Take me home. "

 Now how did Stead know all this? And why did he not do anything to save the girl from a fate worse than death? The answer became clear when, to Stead's surprise and irritation, the girl's mother, aided by the police and rival journalists, went looking for her. It took some while to find her because she had been sent away first to Paris and then to provincial France to work as a servant with a family in Loriol-sur-Drome. And, of course, it turned out that Stead knew all about what had happened to the girl because he had staged the whole thing himself. And when he came to write up the tale of the girl bought for £5 he judiciously omitted some of the episodes. It was all, as Shaw said, a "put up " job.

For an account of what really happened in the case of the £5 virgin, I can recommend a close reading of the court proceedings of the trial at the Old Bailey in which Stead, along with others, was convicted by one Jury of abduction and by a second Jury of aiding and abetting indecent assault. This second conviction Stead chose not to mention when asked to recall his triumphant campaign. When I was researching the story I photocopied the whole of the trial in the British Library. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield you can peruse the court record in the comfort of your own home by logging on to Old Bailey online.

There you can discover something about Stead's modus operandi as a journalist as he tried to justify his actions under sharp cross examination. I will mention some highlights.

When there was an outcry about the disappearance of Eliza Armstrong after the publication of the Maiden Tribute Stead told a public meeting:

"We took that child from a place that was steeped in vice; from a mother who has admitted that was she was going to a brothel as she thought, and instead of taking her to a brothel we placed her in good and Christian guardianship. ( at this there was Great cheering). I ought to make one explanation; we did take that girl to a brothel for about half an hour; she did not know it was a brothel. She simply knew she was going to an hotel, but no suspicion or shadow of thought of anything wrong crossed that girl's mind"

In fact, Stead had never been to Charles Street, Lisson Grove where Eliza lived. Nor had any journalist from the Gazette. He relied entirely on a vague memory of what he had been told by Rebecca Jarrett, the reformed brothel keeper, who had taken Eliza away. He described Eliza's parents but he had never met them. He gave an account of Mrs Armstrong pleading for her daughter Eliza to be the girl from Charles Street who would be bought for the pleasure of a London Minotaur. But he was not there. Not only was he not present at this critical event, it was quite clear when he was questioned about it at the Old Bailey that he had become confused about the several stories Rebecca Jarrett had told him. He wrote up the Maiden Tribute a month after his last meeting with Jarrett. He had made no notes and during those four weeks he had been smoking and drinking champagne in brothels when he was, as he said, a non-drinker and non-smoker.

The Old Bailey proceedings revealed what happened when Stead arranged for Eliza to be examined by a French midwife or abortionist ( it was never clear what her profession was ) to confirm that the girl was a virgin and that he had not had " a little harlot" palmed off on him. He did not go with her but left it up to Rebecca Jarrett. He had no compunction in paying a guinea for this woman to indecently assault a girl he believed to be quite innocent whatever the morality of her parents. He also paid for the purchase of some chloroform.

In the brothel in Poland Street Stead asked Rebecca Jarrett to put Eliza to bed and to render her unconscious with the chloroform. But the girl was too smart and threw away the drugged handkerchief. Stead went in to the room where the girl was in bed in her nightclothes, acting the fake Minotaur and imagining Eliza would know nothing about it. But she heard his voice and screamed: " There is a man in theroom." She could not see Stead because there were curtains around the bed. Stead hurried out and Jarrett tried to reassure Eliza by drawing back the curtains and showing her there was no-one in the room, to which Eliza replied: " That is because he has gone out. "

It was by this time very late at night. Stead had got his story but he had clearly not thought about what he would do with the girl. At the Old Bailey, Jarrett said he had told her she could keep any girls she procured, and this seems likely as she had agreed with Mrs Armstrong that Eliza could write home once a week. But Stead was clearly now concerned that Eliza might return home and be able to say what had been done to her at his bidding. He decided he needed to get a certificate to confirm that Eliza had not been sexually assaulted by him. In the early hours of the morning he therefore had Eliza taken to a kind of nursing home in the centre of town and arranged with Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army to get a distinguished doctor to examine Eliza. Rebecca again put Eliza to bed and this time a nurse rendered Eliza unconscious. The doctor, Heywood Smith, then greased his professional finger, examined Eliza and for three guineas signed a certificate to say she was virgo intacta. The next day Eliza was sent off to Paris with Jarrett and a woman from the Salvation Army. None of this was included in the supposedly true story of the ruination of the girl called Lilly.

There was a further episode in Stead's account of how he came to write the story of the girl bought for £5 which illustrates poignantly that the illegal interception of messages did not begin with tapping phones or hacking into mobile phone messages. As mentioned before, when Jarrett took Eliza away it was agreed with her mother that she would write home once a week. After a month there had been no word from her, and at the Old Bailey the reason was revealed. As a dutiful daughter Eliza had written an affectionate letter from Paris. It was correctly addressed. She was being looked after at the time by the Salvation Army. Instead of posting the letter, as they said they would, they handed it over to Bramwell Booth, Chief of Staff of the Army. He in turn gave it to Stead. This was about three weeks before he wrote up the Maiden Tribute story. Not only did Stead purloin the letter, he decided to quote from it in his story about the girl he called Lilly. Eliza had sent her mother an affectionate little verse which read:

As I was in bed
Some little forths (thoughts) gave (came) in my head.
I forth (thought) of one, I forth (thought) of two;
But first of all I forth (thought) of you.

Stead quoted this in the Gazette story to add bathos and he still had the letter when he appeared at the Old Bailey.

Eliza Armstrong's father was a chimney sweep, who before he had taken up that trade was in the Militia and had been discharged because of poor eyesight but of good character. The mother was a drinker but she was an affectionate mother who sent her children to Sunday school. When this was put to Stead at the Old Bailey he shouted: " There are plenty of mothers whose children go to Sunday-schools who are perfectly ready to assent to their seduction, just as there are rich mothers who sell them to rich husbands who do not love them a bit; I think it is just as immoral in the one case as in the other. " The Armstrong family lived in Charles Street, Lisson Grove. They were desperately poor as were all the families in the street, most of whom lived in just a single room. But there were no prostitutes living there, nor were there any brothels, as Stead imagined.

For an account of the extent to which Shaw borrowed from the scandal of 1885 when scripting the final drafts of Pygmalion, I am indebted to a paper entitled Parodying the Five Pound Virgin: Shaw and the Playing of Pygmalion by an American academic Celia Marshik which was published in 2000.

So we have the real Eliza Armstrong from Lisson Grove, and the fictional Eliza Doolittle also from Lisson Grove. The real Eliza's father was a chimney sweep, the fictional Eliza's father a dustman, Alfred P. Dolittle who happily classes himself as one of the "undeserving poor", not a bad description of Stead's view of the people of Charles Street. When Alfred Dolittle tracks his daughter down to Professor Higgins's home he enters into a negotiation for the sale of Eliza. He puts it like this:

" Well, the truth is, I've taken a sort of fancy to you, Governor; and if you want the girl, I'm not so set on having her back home again but what I might be open to an arrangement. Regarded in the light of a young woman, she's a fine handsome girl. As a daughter she's not worth her keep; and so I tell you straight. All I ask is my rights as a father; and you're the last man alive to expect me to let her go for nothing; for I can see you're one of the straight sort, Governor. Well, what's a five pound note to you? And what's Eliza to me?"

When Higgins appears outraged that Dolittle is prepared to sell his daughter, apparently for immoral purposes, Dolittle says that the price for that would be nearer £50 . Higgins offers £10, but Dolittle will have no more than the £5 he initially asked for. Happy with the deal, and announcing with cheerful confidence that the whole of the fee will be spent " by Monday", the dustman Dolittle exits this early scene without ever asking what Higgins wants with Eliza.

When, reluctantly, Professor Higgins agreed to take on the challenge of turning Eliza Dolittle into a lady, he tells his housekeeper to take the clothes she is in and to burn them, just as the real Eliza Armstrong had been bought new clothes paid for by Stead. Eliza Dolittle is shocked: "You' re no gentleman, you're not, to talk of such things. I'm a good girl, I am; and I know what the like of you are, I do." To which Higgins responds: " We want none of your Lisson Grove prudery here, young woman. You've got to learn to behave like a duchess. Take her away, Mrs. Pearce. If she gives you any trouble wallop her."

It is possible to imagine Shaw chuckling to himself as he penned these lines, the working class Eliza Dolittle offended by the forwardness of Higgins, who treats her with disdain and who might just have sexual designs on her. Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper, is not too sure about what these gentleman want with a rough flower girl. And when Higgins offers Eliza a chocolate she is hesitant: " How do I know what might be in them? I've heard of girls being drugged by the like of you. " To reassure her, Higgins cuts the chocolate in two, and pops one half into his own mouth.

These farcical circumstances echo some of the absurdities of Eliza Armstrong's real-life drama and are not much more far-fetched than Stead's imaginary recreation of what happened in Lisson Grove in June 1885.

In a note attached to Pygmalion, Shaw refuses to speculate on what happens to Eliza Dolittle after she has been successfully turned into a well-spoken lady. Similarly we have no account of what became of Eliza Armstrong after her brief initiation into respectable life. I did my best to track her down but got only as far as her leaving the Princess Louise Home for the protection of young girls in Wansted in 1888. It was a fee paying institution and the money came from donations from the public who contacted Mr Poland, a prosecuting counsel, saying they would like to help the Armstrong family. According to the newspaper reports after the trial, Eliza was offered a handsome fee to appear in Music Hall, but her parents turned it down.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Stead believed to the very end that Eliza Armstrong was a commodity ripe for sale in the market for virgins and that she would have been better off left with a bourgeois family in the South of France. No doubt he talked about this at his dining table during the last hours of his life on the Titanic. Though many thought that what he did to a girl who he himself recognised was perfectly innocent was quite shocking and immoral he never apologised and one of the few regrets he said he had about the case was that he did not ask Mrs Armstrong for a receipt for the purchase of her daughter. Even Shaw could not have made that up.