The Victorian Social Purity Movement; a Noble Pursuit or ‘Morality Crusade’?

Published: Posted on

Author: Ella Phillips

An Insight into the Social Purity Movement in Birmingham

By 1885 the Ladies Association for the Care of Friendless Girls (LA), an initiative founded by religio-feminist campaigner Ellice Hopkins, had 106 branches across England. One of its aims, using both preventative and reformative approaches, was to educate young women in a bid to inhibit prostitution; ‘the Great Social Evil’ of Victorian Society. Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home for Friendless Girls, founded in 1878, was one such reformative institution.

The regionalisation of the Ladies’ Association brought with it varying interpretations of Ellice Hopkins’ reform agenda and those involved in the movement, both within Birmingham and nationally, did so with mixed motivations. Mrs. Rogers, wife of a prominent Liberal councillor, was a member of the Civic Gospel; a nonconformist movement founded in Birmingham. The motivations of some of the women involved with social purity campaigns in Birmingham could be attributed to the community-driven view regarding moral reform proposed by George Dawson, an advocate of municipal socialism. That “a town is a solemn organism through which shall flow, and in which shall be shaped, all the highest, loftiest and truest ends of a man’s moral nature,” illustrates the idea that may have shaped Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home and other reformative institutions in Birmingham; it was the duty of the community, perhaps of the ‘cultured’ middle-class, to shape society.

Nonconformist men like Joseph Chamberlain led Birmingham in municipal renovations, taking over local gas and water works and alleviating the cramped living conditions of the working-class. Often the wives of these men, with time and money to commit to causes such as Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home, set about campaigning for social purity with the aim of ridding their community, and sometimes the country as a whole, of societal double-standards and sexual immorality. Prostitution, considered by many to be a moral sin, was an unsettling deviation from the traditional Christian view of sex for marriage and procreation. Hand-selecting first time offenders, Mrs. Mary Rogers housed and educated these women who carried out unpaid laundry-work. Following a prison-like regime, daily structure was considered fundamental to the realisation of social reform.

Causes of ‘the Great Social Evil’

The work of the Birmingham Ladies Association, and the Ladies Association as a national entity, mirrors the concern felt by members of Victorian society as a whole. Countless attempts were made to find the root cause of prostitution in order to carry out both preventative and reformative work. The rise in prostitution, for some Evangelists, was attributed to socialism—arguably a reaction to the Industrial Revolution with the first use of the word ‘socialism’ recorded in 1827. Ralph Wardlaw argued that socialist communities had the “unrestrained instincts of nature, in imitation of dogs and goats”, their communities, he suggested, comparable to brothels. Some Owenite Socialists accused reform movements of being a “hypocritical palliative”, aiding only in abetting one of the many symptoms of capitalism. Ultimately the prevention of prostitution, they argued, was via “socialism alone.” Victorian Britain was a competitive and industrialised society and some critics of capitalism considered that the apparent prevalence of prostitution could be attributed to unemployment, mechanisation of labour, and poverty. New legislation such as the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 also cut relief for the poorest in society and, coupled with a traditional working-class expectation to contribute to family earnings, prostitution proved a profitable, yet unpleasant, way of living.

A more detrimental conclusion drawn by some for the rise in prostitution was the idea of ‘feeble-mindedness’; it was mental incapacity, not structural factors, that led some women to prostitution. A common Victorian attitude towards social ‘deviance’ was to question the mental soundness of the individual in question, further evidenced through the prevalence of ‘lunatic asylums’. The notion that some prostitutes offended out of ‘feeble-mindedness’ was upheld by Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home. First-time offender ‘judicious’ prostitutes were chosen to enter the Home whilst consistently offending prostitutes, perhaps most in need of support, were left unaided. The consistently offending girls may have been viewed as promiscuous and capable of influencing others. Prostitutes were perhaps labelled on a rigid binary as either victims of mental incapacity or as propagators of the moral disease.

Some social reformers, both male and female, opposed apportioning all blame for prostitution upon the women in question. Ellice Hopkins encouraged men to abstain from using prostitutes and instead to “hasten to her side, to raise her up again and restore her to her lost womanhood”, illustrating a paternalistic belief that men, and some women, needed to protect and save those women who had fallen outside of societal expectations. Responsibility for the rise in prostitution could equally be placed on men, and the more lenient social attitudes towards their sexual practices. Josephine Butler, one of the founders of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, opposed the ‘double standards’ of sexual morality; that women were to be punished whilst the actions of men went without impunity.

Locating ‘the Prostitute’ in a Wider Legal Context

A visiting surgeon at Kent Parson when referring to identifying prostitutes stated “it is more a question as to mannerism than anything else”, highlighting the prejudice and ignorance surrounding prostitution. A suitable definition, legal or otherwise, was difficult to find due to a lack of understanding around what led some women to prostitution. Instead, different factions of society came up with their own understanding. Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home was arguably one such faction, assuming prostitution was a symptom of feeble-mindedness and that a ‘judicious’ attitude could put women on the right path, Mrs. Mary Rogers’ Home ignored the presence of male prostitutes, middle-class prostitutes, women from ‘genteel poverty’, and prostitutes who were repeat offenders. Other assumptions like “every woman who yields her passions and loses her virtue is a prostitute” equated sexual deviancy with prostitution; conclusions were made which failed to address the variety of causes of prostitution.

The Contagious Diseases Acts reflected the middle-class’ fixation with ‘respectable behaviour’ and demonstrated, as Shannon Bell has written, “a hegemonic male voice of legal discourse on prostitution”. The term ‘prostitute’ was left undefined in the Acts. It was at the discretion of male police ‘spies’ to determine which women were to be internally examined. If suffering from venereal disease, she would be forcibly incarcerated for a maximum of nine months. Women displaying the suitable ‘mannerisms’ were targeted and examined, their humiliation ultimately a futile intervention as failure to test and treat male clients meant that diseases continued to spread.

Some members of the Birmingham Ladies’ Association campaigned for the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which included clauses to prevent the abduction of girls and women for prostitution. This Act was successful in increasing the number of cases reported to police but, fining and imprisoning brothel owners resulted in poverty and destitution for many women. In 1888, the closing of brothels in Aldershot left more than four hundred women and children homeless. Help was to be given for those who chose to lead “an honourable and honest life.” Only one girl was said to have taken up the offer, showing how detrimental and ineffective the Victorian social purity movement could be.

A Critical Evaluation of the Social Purity Movement

The reformers and the state seem to establish a relationship with the prostitutes synonymous with Victorian attitudes and expectations of the mother as care-giver and moral mentor. Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home for the Care of Friendless Girls is clearly euphemistic in name. The use of ‘ladies’ contrasts with ‘girls’ signifying, perhaps, a desire for a caring, maternal relationship between the middle-class proponents and the ‘fallen girl’. This is evidenced further through the Industrial Schools Amendment Act 1880 which was supported by Ellice Hopkins. This Act allowed the state to assume a quasi-parental role for children under fourteen whose mothers were suspected of prostitution, dismissing the wishes of parent and child in order to enforce their own moral agenda.

As Sue Morgan has argued, the work of organisations such as Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home was clearly “plagued by class limitations” and damaging to working-class culture. The reformers, although holding a variety of views, were mainly collective in the exercise of their vision which further propagated class divide and exclusivity. Their ‘caring’ surveillance, although not malicious, was overtly authoritarian.

They were, however, also collective in breaking down traditional constructions of sexuality and gender. Women, such as Mrs. Rogers, were politicised; their philanthropist efforts transcending into work in local government. Reform campaigns fought against sexual ‘double-standards’ by questioning male sexual practice. Unfortunately, instead of replacing ‘double standards’ with sexual autonomy for all, they proposed diminished sexual independence. This was perhaps a reflection of an unwieldly religious influence; opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts out of a moral or religious resistance rather than out of care for the prostitutes themselves.

The middle-class female reformists were arguably limited in their capacity to successfully aid in lowering rates of prostitution as a result of their inability to enforce legal change themselves. It was ultimately men who decided the legal rights of prostitutes and middle-class women who adjudicated their moral education. The most notable absence in researching Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home and the LA was the voice of the prostitute herself. Her lack of agency respecting her personal liberty, legal rights, and body were also reflected in the historical records of the time. Accounts of prostitution in journals are either, as Karel Williams writes, “tiresome Victorian soft porn”, romanticised accounts of seduced women, or reflections of prostitution in poetry by middle-class white women.

Despite this, the role of the reformists in confronting societal norms was in some way revolutionary. Perhaps the challenge was using the law as a tool to take issue with principles they found unacceptable; a problem many feminists are still faced with. When the fundamental issue may be with societal attitudes towards sexuality and gender as a whole, legal strategies, may not be successful in any eventuality.



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