The Patron Saint of Prostitutes

Josephine Butler

Sex trafficking, horrific thing that it is, has been moved front and center as an issue in recent years. Again. This ugly blot on human history has plagued us for centuries in spite of efforts of many to eradicate it, none more diligent than Josephine Butler, a Victorian era campaigner. The BBC describes her rather blandly as “a social reformer, who played a major role in improving conditions for women in education and public health,” and yes, Butler involved herself in women’s education and many other progressive activities, but her work to stop the forced kidnapping of women and girls for sexual purposes and child prostitution stand out as her greatest passions.

Butler was born into a family of reformers, and developed strong feminist beliefs deeply rooted in Christian faith from childhood. Not so surprisingly, she married a man who viewed her as an equal partner in life. While courting, George Butler wrote to her proposing, “a perfectly equal union, with absolute freedom on both sides for personal initiative in thought and action.”

In her late thirties the family moved to Liverpool, and Butler, deeply grieving the loss of her only daughter, threw herself into prison ministry. What she did, she did with whole heart. Most of the women imprisoned there in Bridewell were prostitutes. She explained that she needed to work with those who experienced pain “keener than my own.” She determined to improve conditions for these women. She and her husband raised money to create an “Industrial Home,” and other outlets for them. The Butlers maintained hostels for women throughout their life.

Her conviction that every woman, regardless of her station in life deserved to be treated with respect became an outspoken passion. As she grew in familiarity with sex workers, she came to despise laws that unfairly punished women. The innocuously named Contagious Diseases Acts, a series of laws passed in the 1860’s in reaction to venereal disease among the men of the British army and navy, attacked women as carriers of disease and did nothing about the men who used their services. Under these laws women suspected of prostitution (no evidence was needed) could be forcibly detained and examined for disease by the police. Women described the examination to her as “instrumental rape.” Any woman could be suspected and so treated; refusal to comply resulted in imprisonment. A woman found to have disease was confined to a hospital. Women had no civil rights in these cases. Lower class women picked up and examined often found their reputations shredded. Though innocent they were often forced into prostitution when previous work closed to them. The double standard and inhumane treatment enraged Butler.

Butler spent the next five years campaigning ferociously against the acts—speaking, writing, and campaigning. She helped found the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. Florence Nightingale was one of her supporters. George supported her work as well. He was shouted down when he attempted to make a speech before the Church of England Congress in 1872. Her work was reviled, attacked, disrupted, and ultimately unsuccessful in this period. Even with a liberal and relatively progressive government in place there was not enough public support. In 1874 Disraeli’s conservative government took office dooming repeal efforts.

Not one to give up, Butler turned her energy to a study of prostitution across Europe, researching laws, corresponding with reformers and, in typical fashion, interviewing sex workers and brothel owners.

She became aware an even greater evil, the trafficking of young women and girls from England to the continent, what was then known as “white slavery.” Returning to England she wrote scathing reports about legal houses of prostitution in Brussels filled with English girls, “… little children, English girls of from twelve to fifteen years of age … stolen, kidnapped, betrayed, got from English country villages by every artifice and sold to these human shambles.” She traveled back to Brussels, becoming involved in investigations that ultimately resulted in exposing police collusion in trafficking, and the arrest of high-ranking police officials along with twelve brothel owners.

W.T. Stead

Soon after, another governmental change in England opened up the debate about the Contagious Diseases Act, keeping the Butlers busy, but Josephine continued to work to eradicate child prostitution at the same time. She recruited a newsman, W.T. Stead to the cause. His hard-hitting articles for the cause reached a climax with a sensational case. Butler is known to have introduced him to a reformed madam. It is unclear who develop the plan to “buy” a girl in order demonstrate how easy it was to do so, but that is exactly what he did. Working through Butler’s contact he bought a thirteen-year-old girl from her parents, put her through a brothel, and transported her to Europe. He exposed the entire process in his papers. Ten days later Butler gave one of her speeches railing against the practice.

The uproar was massive. Police arrested Stead and he was imprisoned for three months. Butler was called back from a family trip and had to answer questions, but she avoided prosecution. The sensation, however, had the desired effect. Public outrage demanded action. That same summer a bill that had been lying dormant in Parliament, the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed. It raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen and criminalized procurement of girls for prostitution using drugs, fraud or intimidation. It also criminalized the kidnapping of a girl under eighteen for “purposes of carnal knowledge.” It is hard to hear that things like that had not been a crime in England previously.

Butler 1894

Butler continued her work in women’s causes, devoting considerable energy in fighting for the eradication of the provisions of Contagious Diseases Act still in effect in the outposts of the British Empire, particularly India. George died in 1890 and Josephine continued to write and lecture for the final sixteen-year of her life, dying in 1906. She briefly allied herself with organizations aimed at the abolition of prostitution, but she ultimately had no truck with the “purity societies” that grew up after the Criminal Law Amendment Act, believing their moral self-righteousness which included attacks on literature, entertainment, and even birth control to be excessive and hypocritical.





Fiction on this subject, as many others, can have a vital role in raising awareness. It can also be done as mere titillation, alas. Trafficking has become a common trope in modern suspense novels, but is less common in historical fiction. Here are a few I found.






For more information try:

Butler, Josephine Grey, Misc. books on Project Gutenberg,

“Josephine Butler (1828 – 1906)” on BBC: History,

Josephine Butler biography,” The Josephine Butler Page,

Mathers, Helen, Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal, The History Press; 1 edition (November 1, 2014)

Mulpetre, Owen. “W.T. Stead & the Eliza Armstrong Case,” on W.T. Stead Resource Site, 2012.

Caroline Warfield who loves history and all things historical, continues to write historical romance and family sagas covering the late Georgian, Regency, and Victorian periods. Her novel, Christmas Hope is a different turn, a story in four parts each ending on Christmas 1916, 17, 18, 19. It takes place in and around Amiens and northern France, and is currently available for pre-order pending an October release.

You can find her here: