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Cathy Le Feuvre: The Armstrong Girl – A child for sale

Cathy Le Feuvre, The Armstrong Girl—A child for sale: the battle against the Victorian sex trade (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2015), 224 pages, ISBN: 9780745956992 (e-book: 9780745968216).

This is a difficult book to read, at least in some respects. But it tells a story of great importance and considerable relevance to us today. The Armstrong Girl is not difficult because it is hard to read or badly written, but rather because the story is harrowing.

Victorian England was Christian. Yet is any country Christian? Certainly some of the things that went on behind the scenes in nineteenth century Britain were horrific and deeply disturbing. One of the worst was child prostitution, and the Armstrong girl could well have become a child prostitute. Instead she became a pawn in a campaign to raise the age of consent and attack the exploitation of the children of the poor.

In 1885 Bramwell Booth, second-in-charge of The Salvation Army, and W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, became aware of children being sold into sexual slavery and, in some cases, being sent to brothels overseas. With the aid of others, who were mainly Christian, they hatched a clever plan to combat this. They “bought” thirteen-year old Eliza Armstrong from her mother and sent her to a brothel in London, where Stead greeted her. They later transported her to Paris, into the care of Salvationists, to show that it could be done. Various safety factors were put in place, to make sure that the girl would not be harmed and that they could not be accused of criminal behavior.

Then Stead launched forth with his “Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon” campaign in the Gazette. It was vivid. It was dramatic. It was an early example of tabloid journalism at its most graphic. And it caused a great stir. Initially there was considerable criticism and some shops refused to sell the paper after the first edition. But as the week of articles progressed the tide turned, and with the support of many, including numerous church groups, the cry burst forth to end this terrible business.

The main result was to raise the age of consent in Britain from 13 to 16, which it still is today. Earlier proposals to raise the age of consent had failed in the House of Commons, so this was a major success.

But then things began to go wrong. They had technically committed a crime. They had broken the law, so in spite of their safeguards two court cases resulted, and Stead, Bramwell Booth and others were put on trial. Bramwell was found not guilty, Stead received six months in jail. Others were also imprisoned or lost their jobs because of their part in this campaign. Wickedly, those who made a living out of this evil trade escaped prosecution.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2015

About the Author: David Malcolm Bennett, Ph.D., is an Anglo-Australian Christian researcher and writer with over 15 books in print. They include The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage, The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers (companion website: SinnersPrayerBook.com), The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology, Edward Irving Reconsidered: The Man, His Controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement, and The General: William Booth. He is also the transcriber, editor and publisher of The Letters of William and Catherine Booth and The Diary and Reminiscences of Catherine Booth.

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