When the Church Triumphed Over the People Traffickers

This coming Sunday, 18th October, has been designated by the European Union as Anti Human Trafficking Day. Churches all over Europe will mark the occasion in some way and pray for the victims of people trafficking. It might be a good time to remember the forgotten story one of the Christian Church’s greatest ever triumphs over the scourge of people trafficking.

In the Nineteenth Century, in most parts of the English-speaking world, it was not unusual for children to be kept as prostitutes. The age of consent was only 13 years old – so the police were powerless to prosecute men who had purchased 14 and 15-year-old children for sex. Decades after William Wilberforce had won his campaign to abolish the North Atlantic Slave trade, thousands of young girls (and sometimes boys too) were being trafficked at the heart of the British Empire.

A crusading tabloid newspaper editor, WT Stead, formed an unlikely alliance with Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army and Anglican and Catholic archbishops. In 1885 Stead’s paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, began to run a series of articles exposing the scandal. The articles were so shocking that retail outlets such as WH Smith refused to sell the newspapers. Undaunted, Stead appealed for volunteers to sell the newspaper on the streets. Some celebrities of the day signed up as temporary paperboys, including George Bernard Shaw.

WT Stead

Many people objected that such stories could not possibly be true. So, to prove how it could be done, Stead purchased a 13-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong from Lisson Grove in West London for 5 pounds, and smuggled her to Brussels (a common route used by people traffickers at the time).

The case caused such agitation in Victorian England that the age of consent was eventually raised to sixteen, a move that was quickly followed in Australia, South Africa and most parts of the United States. However, Stead and Bramwell Booth were both prosecuted for the purchase and abduction of Eliza Armstrong. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered to appear as a witness in their defence (which would have been a legal first) but the court refused to allow him to testify. Booth was acquitted but Stead was sent to prison.

Hundreds of thousands of children were freed from sexual slavery as a result of this incident. Although rarely remembered today, it stands alongside Wilberforce’s slavery abolition campaign as one of the greatest achievements by Christians in combatting human trafficking.

Bramwell Booth went on to become the second General of the Salvation Army, succeeding his father, William Booth.

WT Stead, after his release from prison, continued in a number of campaigns and publishing ventures. Each year, on the anniversary of his conviction, he would proudly wear his prison clothes to the office! He was a passenger on the Titanic in 1912. It was reported that he was last seen floating off into the darkness clasping a piece of the boat’s wreckage along with John Jacob Astor (reportedly the richest man in the world at the time).

George Bernard Shaw, the volunteer ‘paperboy’, later used the case as inspiration for one of his plays. Eliza Armstrong became ‘Eliza Doolittle’, also from Lisson Grove and purchased for five pounds, and the main female character in ‘Pygmalion’ – later immortalised on the silver screen as ‘My Fair Lady.’

(Nick Park is currently writing a book on Bramwell Booth, WT Stead and the Eliza Armstrong case entitled ‘The Conquering Band’)