by W.T. Stead (Edited and with Annotations and Introductory Essay by Anthony E. Simpson). Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press, 2007. 207pp. Cloth $65.00. ISBN: 9780979111600.

Reviewed by Natalie P. Kapur, Department of Political Science, University At Albany. Email: nk318523 [at]


In THE MAIDEN TRIBUTE OF MODERN BABYLON, the work of W.T. Stead is reprinted in its entirety. Originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, this is the first time the articles have been brought together in one volume. Professor Anthony Simpson provides the reader with a lengthy introduction that provides context to the work. In publishing and investigating the issue of female sexual exploitation and female sexuality more generally, Stead intended to provide the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette with a public demonstration of the ease with which the professional sexual exploitation of children could be accomplished” (p.27). In addition, Stead wanted to reveal how widespread child prostitution was across London and called this phenomenon of juvenile prostitution a “veritable slave trade.” This was an issue that plagued nineteenth century Great Britain and beyond as young women were often brought across to London from the continent.

The book has a clear thesis and Stead speaks to this throughout. He does not waiver from his intended aim to bring to the fore the widespread prostitution surrounding London, not only among working class girls in Great Britain but also among those girls who are brought into England for the sole purpose of being seduced. The book is not a scholarly piece in the conventional sense, but rather the amalgamation of a lengthy investigation into an issue that Stead felt to be important nonetheless. Simpson does Stead’s work a great service by lending his voice to the piece, bringing together complexities the reader would not have otherwise understood. The introduction is a crucial addition to the work and brings together the arguments Stead attempts to make. Stead’s position and opinions are clearly noted throughout the articles, the original sources are quoted without change, and without evidence to the contrary it appears that the assumptions about the life of working class girls in London are correct. Simpson’s introduction certainly validates some of the arguments that Stead makes throughout the body of the text.

The original articles and the direct quotations of young women are accompanied by Stead’s own commentary, adding meaning and context to the articles. This is a tremendous work with a vast array of original sources. Although this is obviously a useful endeavor, it is at times difficult to distinguish between Stead’s commentary and the articles themselves, which does in part confuse the reader over who is the voice behind particular comments. Despite this short coming, it is remarkably useful to have the articles synthesized in one volume along with the voices of individuals [*180] who, at the time, commentated on Stead’s activity, either in support or opposition to it.

The book is loosely divided into chapters which demarcate the days Stead wrote. The volume moves from July 6th to July 10th 1885, with the introduction giving the reader background information on the issues that were involved. Simpson’s introduction details the origins of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which was an “Act to make Further Provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the Suppression of Brothels and other Purposes” (p.9). According to Simpson, this act was largely expected to protect young girls from the exploitation they faced in Victorian Great Britain, despite the fact prostitution has never been illegal in the country. Various laws had been passed previously, including the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which was designed to regulate “disorderly conduct and other anti-social behavior associated with prostitution” (p.11). Further legislation that was specifically motivated by the need to address prostitution was the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, which, although outlawing solicitation, was remarkably hard to enforce as the three elements necessary for prosecution were difficult to prove. In fact, members of law enforcement knew of the actions of the brothels but did very little to prevent their continuation. Stead quotes police offers who comment that they had knowledge of the brothels, and during the entire investigation Stead notes that there was not a single arrest.

Simpson’s introduction and annotations throughout the text are indispensible to this collection of articles – he translates words and corrects grammatical errors thoroughly. This helps give the reader a broader understanding and ability to analyze Stead’s observations. The work is acknowledged to have been poorly written at points, but these careful additions and contextual explanations certainly add to its value for scholars.

Stead’s use of direct quotations from victims and lengthy passages by young girls retelling their stories adds tremendous weight to the legitimacy of Stead’s and his companion’s arguments. Stead’s to infiltrate and gain the confidence of these young women is remarkable, given the level of indoctrination they had endured by the brothel owners. The words of the young women expressed the dread they felt when being led into a room and approached by a stranger. Many of these women were only young teenagers and were forced to participate, albeit passively, in horrific acts. The descriptions by the individuals are vivid and clearly demonstrate their innocence regarding what is about to happen to them. In the words of one, for example, “The first time I was very frightened, and when the gentleman began to undress me I cried for I did not know what he was going to do” (p.94).

This, and other passages throughout the work, serve to demonstrate the unwillingness and innocence of these working class girls. They were often lied to and tricked into meeting gentlemen, not only by brothel owners, but also by older girls who had been indoctrinated. Another victim remarked that, after she was seduced and a girl who she thought was her friend paid her: “she gave me half and kept the other half for herself, as her pay for getting me seduced” (p.88). [*181]

Stead also details the methods the brothel owners used to entice young teenagers into rooms under false pretenses with the talk of money in amounts that these working class girls were not used to seeing. Although these were working class girls, they did not have sufficient knowledge and experience at the age of thirteen to contemplate and understand the act of rape the brothel owners and patrons inflicted on them. Despite this, one brothel owner defended her trade thusly: “if a girl is to be seduced it is better she should be seduced by a gentleman, and get something for it than let herself be seduced by a boy or a young fellow who gives her nothing for it” (p.90).

There is an emphasis throughout that brothel owners are only interested in virgins and by and large would not pay the whole sum for the young woman unless virginity was proven, because the vast majority of gentlemen would not be interested otherwise. These young women were known as “fresh girls”(p.67).

The book is enhanced by including the voices of the public, both those who praised Stead’s undertaking and those who disagreed with him. For example, Mr. Francis Peak “writes . . . thanking you for your bold exposure of the devilish traffic going on in female virtue” (p.153). He went on to refer to the sexual exploitation of these women as “social evil” (p.155). Coupled with such letters of support are notices condemning Stead’s work, largely expressing disbelief that this was really happening. Dr. John Harvey, for example, believed that the “vice is much exaggerated” (p.161).

As a collection of articles, although excellent, the author presents a one-sided argument save a few pages of criticism from readers of the Pall Mall Gazette. Of course, Stead was commenting on activity in Great Britain at this time and was not necessarily required to put forth an alterative view of the situation. He was not making an argument per se, but rather presenting the facts as he saw them during his six week investigation. Although it is important to present the work in its entirety and this is clearly an important issue to uncover and delve into more deeply, it is at times repetitive, especially when young girls recite their experiences. Unfortuately, they all faced similar ordeals, and some of their stories could have been eliminated.

This book makes a useful contribution to the study of Victorian Great Britain and will be of great value to historians interested both social development and legal development in the UK. In addition, criminologists and European legal scholars will find this book of importance. The history surrounding the age of consent is especially significant and could benefit from further investigation. It is most definitely a book that scholars will benefit from reading, and it would be a worthwhile assignment for upper level undergraduate or graduate British and International History courses.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Natalie P. Kapur.