16 Pages

The child’s word in court: cases of sexual abuse in London, 1870–1914

Louise Jackson

Since the furore surrounding the 1987-8 sexual abuse cases in Cleveland, England,1 a proliferation of studies has emerged focusing on the treatment of the child victim by the contemporary legal system and the manner in which children’s evidence is extracted and treated.2 Historians have been quick to point out that concern over child abuse is not a “new” phenomenon and, indeed, the period 1870-1914 has been highlighted as an era when the forces of media publicity, mass campaigning and statutory legislation were mobilized over the emotive topics of child prostitution, incest and the age of consent in England.3 In France the issue of sexual abuse was recognized from the 1850s onwards as it attracted the attention of prominent forensic doctors and criminologists.4 Its later “discovery” in England was the product of a coalition of interests between the social purity societies and the burgeoning child welfare movement. In July 1885 W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, printed the results of his own private investigation into juvenile prostitution in London in a series of articles entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”.5 Stead intended to mobilize popular opinion and force Parliament to raise the age of consent to 16. It is clear that the term “juvenile prostitution” had become, by the late Victorian period, yet another euphemism – along with those of “moral outrage”, “corruption” and “immorality” – to refer to what we now describe as child sexual abuse. Although not widespread, the term “sexually abused” was indeed used by a St Andrews surgeon in his 1864 translation of a German work on forensic medicine.6 Widely voiced concerns about child molestation and sexual assault render it appropriate to deploy the terminology “sexual abuse” as a useful umbrella category within a nineteenth-century context.