London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with your London fix for July 6th.
Story time. History time.
Today we’ve hopscotched from 1946 to 1885.
July 6th, 1885.
Think of a compass. The drawing tool compass.
With its two legs. The steady leg with a needle point at the end for anchoring. It establishes the centre. The other leg, the adjustable leg, is the one that marks the circumference of whatever circle is being drawn.
Now the question is, where’s the needlepoint – where’s the centre – of the circle that encompasses July 6th, 1885?
Is it in France where on this day the French chemist Louis Pasteur uses his pioneering treatment for rabies for the first time? A pioneering treatment that took the form of an anti-rabies vaccine. And the important thing is it worked – the patient survived. Pretty big story, wouldn’t you say? You can’t gainsay its importance. It’s the one that’s made it into the On This Day records. It’s a big, can’t miss ornament attached – like a Christmas decoration – to the tree of July 6th, 1885.
But no, that breakthrough in France is not the needlepoint of the July 6th compass.
Not on the day, at any rate.
No, the anchor leg of the July 6th, 1885 compass – the white-hot core of that day’s doings – was London. Northumberland Street to be precise.
And here you have one of the very good reasons I put my shoulder to the wheel of these podcasts. It’s like panning for gold. For me, the gold specks in the pan are fascinating bits and bobs I learn about London.
Thanks to this one today I now know that Northumberland Street – it’s the short street that runs off the Strand down to Northumberland Avenue – down at the lower end of the street is the famous Sherlock Holmes Pub – I now know that Northumberland Street was the epicentre of one of the first and greatest pieces of investigative journalism.
I get a kick out of knowing stuff like that. It’s a piece fitted into the puzzle – “oh, so this is where that happened.”
So, yes, let’s go there. To Northumberland Street on July 6th, 1885. To the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette.
Outside, frenzied crowds of newspaper vendors have besieged the place. They’re desperate for reprints. They can’t get enough of them. All of London is trying to lay hands on a copy of that July 6th issue of the paper.
And what’s in it that’s taken London by storm? And will be an international sensation in a matter of days?
On July 4th the crusading Editor – the great William Thomas Stead – had trailed the series under the heading: Notice to Our Readers: A Frank Warning. He said, “all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days. The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell is not pleasant reading, and is not meant to be. It is, however, an authentic record of unimpeachable facts, “abominable, unutterable, and worse than fables yet have feigned or fear conceived.” But it is true, and its publication is necessary.”
So what was that “London Inferno”, that “pilgrimage into a real hell”? Titled, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, it was a shocking disclosure of child prostitution. Stead’s ‘infernal narrative’, as he called it, exposed in graphic detail a criminal underworld of stinking brothels, fiendish procuresses, drugs and padded chambers where upper-class paedophiles could revel in the cries of an immature child.’ Subtitles like The Violation of Virgins and Strapping Girls Down were like whiplashes across the conscience of the world’s greatest city.
And the contents those straplines signposted lived up to their billing.
The opening salvo read: “This very night in London, and every night, year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but many times seven, selected almost as much by chance as those who in the Athenian market-place drew lots as to which should be flung into the Cretan labyrinth, will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.”
Stead and his reporters were a modern Dante, taking readers into the inferno, giving them a tour of hell. The hell of entrapment, abduction and ‘sale’ of young underprivileged girls to London brothels.
In his zeal, Stead cut a little too close to the bone. He sent one of his foot soldiers – a reformed prostitute named Rebecca Jarrett, into Marylebone to purchase a child to show how easily young girls could be procured. Her mother sold her daughter for £5. The child was 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong, the daughter of an impoverished chimney sweep.
The little girl was never physically harmed, but she was put through the rigours of what a real child victim had to undergo. That included being certified a virgin by an abortionist midwife and being taken to a brothel where she was drugged with chloroform. She was then put safely aside. She was put in the care of the Salvation Army and sent to France. Stead then transformed his real-life experiment and proof with a real child into the experience of the semi-fictional girl Lily in the Pall Mall Gazette story. It backfired, though. Eliza’s mother cottoned on that her daughter was the real-life model for Lily, the character in the expose. The mother went to the police. She told them she’d been duped into parting with her daughter. The authorities brought charges of abduction and indecent assault against Stead and his team. There were two lengthy trials. And how did that turn out? Well, let’s hear from Justice Lopes.
“William Thomas Stead…You have been found guilty under two indictments – the one charging you with the abduction of Eliza Armstrong, the other charging you with indecent assault. Now I am prepared to give you credit for good motives from your point of view, but I cannot pass anything but a substantial sentence, and that is that you be imprisoned without hard labour for three calendar months.”
That was one result. And if that was the price he had to pay, Stead happily accepted it because of the other result. The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon series led directly to the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16.
And for a final bow, William Thomas Stead went down with the Titanic. Curiously enough, Stead had often predicted he would die either by lynching or drowning. And why was he on the Titanic? The American President William Howard Taft had asked him to come to America to take part in a peace Congress at Carnegie Hall. His final meal was an 11-course feast. He was in good form, telling his fellow diners thrilling tales, including one about the cursed mummy of the British Museum. And then the Titanic hit the iceberg. Stead helped several women into the lifeboats. He gave his life jacket to another passenger. He was last seen clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV. The water temperature was 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Holding on to that raft was an impossibility in those freezing waters. Both men slipped away into the Atlantic and drowned. Astor’s body was recovered. Stead’s disappeared in those frozen seas.
But, lest we forget, we point to his house in Smith Square on our Old Westminster walk.
And on that note, a tip of the hat and a thank you to the W T Stead Resource Centre for a grounding in The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon tale.
You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast for the 6th of July. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.
And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.
That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.
It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.
Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.
It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –
to front our walks with distinguished
professionals. By way of example,
Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and
subsequently CEO) of Independent
Television News. And Lisa Honan
who had a distinguished career as
diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of
St Helena, the island where Napoleon
breathed his last and, some say, had
his penis amputated – Napoleon
didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot
juste – he was dead.)
Stewart and Lisa – both of them
CBEs – are just a couple of our
The London Walks All-Star team of
guides includes a former London
Mayor, it includes barristers (one of
them an MBE); it includes doctors,
geologists, museum curators,
archaeologists, historians, criminal
defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare
Company actors, a bevy of MVPs,
Oscar winners (people who’ve won
the Guide of the Year Award)… well,
you get the idea. As that travel writer
famously put it, “if this were a golf
tournament, every name on the
Leader Board would be a London
And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.
And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya soon.