“No young girls. I swear, Inspector. No very young girls.”
“None younger than 12 I take it you mean!” said Bucket with ill-disguised contempt in his voice.
(Inspector Bucket and the Beast, Dahlia Publishing, 2012)
As I was saying in my last blog, one of the issues that is in the background of my novel ‘Inspector Bucket and The Beast’, set in London in the 1850s, is the sexual abuse of children.
It is quite shocking, I think, to realise that the age of sexual consent in England, up until 1885, was set, for the majority of that time, as low as twelve, the same age as it had been since the first recorded age-of-consent law in 1275. Canon law in medieval Europe, apparently accepted, even more shockingly, that consent could be meaningful if the child were as young as eight years of age!
According to ‘The Age of Consent: A warning from History – the work of Josephine Butler‘ (Jennifer Davis, 2009) up until 1875 there was no specific law at all against sexual activity with a girl of the age of 12 and upwards. If a girl was raped, according to Ms Davis, “she would have to prove before a court that she had not given her consent. Of course, few ordinary young girls would have been confident or articulate enough to have done so and, even if they were, their evidence against a seemingly respectable person may not have been believed.”
Josephine Butler, the 19th century campaigner for the protection of children
from sexual exploitation, saw for herself the “bitter case of wrong inflicted on a very young girl”. The girl had reportedly been seduced by a don at Oxford University and had become pregnant. When Josephine Butler approached a senior figure at the University to ask him to intervene on the girl’s behalf, she was told: “It could only do harm to open up in any way such a question as this; it was dangerous to arouse a sleeping lion.”
The apathy that Josephine Butler encountered in her attempts to defend young girls seems typical of the attitude to children shown for much of the 19th century and, of course, during the centuries before.
The age of consent, thanks to the work of Josephine Butler and others like her, was set at 16, at last, in 1885 and remains at that age still today, although there are voices which wish to reduce it to the age of 12 again (see ‘Sex is not just for grown ups’ , Miranda Sawyer’s article in the Observer of 2nd November, 2003). The setting of the age of consent at 16 does not, of itself, of course, protect young girls but at least the legislative framework established makes it possible for the law to take action when abuse occurs.
Some of the characters I depict in ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast‘ show, however, the same cold contempt for the rights of children as the magistrate I have quoted above and continue to pay scant regard to any age of consent then prevailing, as perhaps this extract from a scene in a ‘hell club’ might show:
“If you want to avoid the clap, have a young gal every time,” one gentleman was saying. He leaned forward to his crony, waved a large brandy glass by way of emphasis, and then smoothed his broad moustache.
“Wouldn’t want one too young, o’ course, old fellow,” replied his companion. As he did so, he leaned over to light a cigar on a small gas jet protruding from the wall. “Best stay within the law!” He blew out a plume of white smoke and adjusted his heavy stomach into a more comfortable position.
“The younger the better, old bean – and let the law rot!” replied the one with the moustache. He gave an ugly laugh that sprayed out brandy vapour. “Sir Henry says that a young gal will get you clear of siph. He should know. Five years in India and all that. Sounds better than a mercury dose at any rate, what?”
‘The Beast’, as he is called by the newspapers in my novel, has a predilection for “very young girls”, especially those who are dressed up as, or might actually be, the children of the aristocracy. Though based on no particular real historical character his abuse of children might be seen as more widespread than we might like to accept. ‘My secret life, by Walter‘ (published 1888), for example, was an account of Henry Spencer Asbee’s, arguably, real encounters with child prostitutes at a time in England when the age of consent was still only thirteen. In 1885 the journalist, William Stead, proved how easy it was to procure girls of the same age, the resulting outcry assisting Josephine Butler’s campaign to raise the age of consent to 16.
Nothing changes, as they say, for, despite the law and an age of sexual consent which most people might think, on the whole, reasonable, the sexual abuse of young people caries on only too horribly in today’s society.
A charity advert on the underground that I saw recently described the dire plight of young girls who are forcibly married off before they are twelve. Only the other day, as I write, in a report to be found in several national newspapers, the Deputy Children’s Watchdog, Sue Berelowitz, gave a warning that “Girls as young as 11 are ‘commonly’ being gang raped and forced to perform sex acts”. She went on to link this with the recent case in Rochdale involving the sexual grooming and abuse of underage girls. Peter Davies, Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, expressed the view that “group and gang related children’s sexual exploitation is far more widespread than people would care to imagine.” A government spokeswoman said that sexual attacks on both girls and boys was a “notoriously under reported crime.”