The Truth about out Secret Commission

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The Truth about out Secret Commission

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, July 9, 1885)

Some people are denying the accuracy of our Report. That I hope may before long be subjected to the crucial test of a judicial investigation. Pending the arrival of the hour when I shall be able to testify on oath before the judges of the land as to who are the men in high places whose misdeeds our Commission is exposing, the time has now arrived when the legitimate curiosity of the public may fairly be satisfied as to the origin and the constitution of the Commission, and the support and assistance which it has received in the course of its investigations – investigations which, I may add, are continuing at this moment, the publication of the fourth and concluding article being postponed for a day in order to permit of the completion of two very damning pieces of evidence of guilt which, as much as anything yet brought to light, will astound the world.

It was determined to begin this inquiry on the Saturday before Whit Sunday. The personal investigations were commenced on Whit Monday, and have been prosecuted without intermission night and day ever since. At its inception the inquiry was limited to the objects aimed at in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, and it was instituted in order to arouse sufficient public interest in that measure to save it from the extinction to which it had been doomed by the eloquence of Mr. Cavendish Bentinck the night before my inductions were issued.

It may interest the City Solicitor to know that the suggestion that such an inquiry should be undertaken reached the Pall Mall Gazette office from his colleague the City Chamberlain, Mr. Benj. Scott, whose position as chairman of the London Committee for the Prevention of Traffic in English Girls enabled him to speak with considerable authority on this question.

He brought news of what is called the Shoreham case–the escape of the girl Annie from a Pimlico brothel, thanks to the address of the Salvation Army on the back of an old hymn book. The first step in the inquiry was to ascertain from the headquarters of the Salvation Army whether the story was correctly reported. This brought me into close communication with the chiefs of the Salvation Army, with whom I had previously been in communication on the subject, by whom this inquiry was welcomed with enthusiasm and assisted to the uttermost in every way by all its members from the Chief of the Staff down to the humblest private. And here let me state as a matter of simple justice to the Salvation Army that, so far as our inquiry necessitated operations of rescue, our Commission would have been almost helpless without the aid which was extended to us without stint at any hour of the day or the night, at any sacrifice of personal trouble or risk of personal danger, by the intrepid soldiers of that admirable organization. Nor does that by any means exhaust our indebtedness to the Army. In the elucidation of facts, in the investigation of obscure cases, in the furnishing at a moment’s notice of men and women ready to do anything and go anywhere, the aid which we received from Mr. Bramwell Booth and his devoted comrades was simply incalculable, and far exceeding that rendered by all the other existing organizations put together.

After verifying the facts about the Shoreham case, and being assured of the hearty co-operation and loyal support of the London Committee for the Suppression of the Traffic in English Girls, of Mrs. Josephine Butler, whose vast experience was placed unreservedly at our disposal, and of the Salvation Army, the work of investigation was begun in earnest The general idea was to waste no time on mere vice, to stick to the investigation of crime, and to bring up to date the evidence on the subjects dealt with by the Lords’ Committee. The Secret Commission organized under my direction was composed of members of the staff of the Pall Mall Gazette, and it was instructed to elucidate facts altogether independently of the police. Communications were opened with the Home Office and the Local Government Board, but Sir W. Harcourt, while welcoming any independent investigation calculated to prove the need for a bill so urgently demanded by the interests of the working classes, deprecated on official grounds the interviewing of police superintendents and inspectors by newspaper people. Thus we were saved at the outset from a false step which might easily have marred the success of the whole inquiry. If the nature of our investigation had been generally known to the police, the brothel-keepers would have been put on their guard, and we should have learned nothing. For that escape, and for that alone, we have to thank Sir William Harcourt. It is the only contribution of importance which he has rendered to the cause. From the Local Government Board I received some assistance in procuring statistics from masters of workhouses, together with the assurance of the Under-Secretary’s hearty sympathy.

At an early stage in the inquiry I waited upon the Archbishop of Canterbury. He deprecated the risk, physical and moral, which would be run by members of our Commission, and did his best to dissuade me personally, with the utmost kindness, from an enterprise which might end in my being killed in a brothel. But he was very cordial, and promised that he would use his utmost exertions to further the object I had in view. The Bishop of London, Dr. Temple, to whom the operations of the Commission were communicated, was equally hearty in his assurances of support. In addition to these prelates of the Establishment, I discussed the whole matter with the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, from whom I received the warmest welcome, the heartiest support, and the kindliest counsel. To him and to his devoted clergy, especially to Canon Ring, I am deeply indebted for their ready help and Christian sympathy. From the Congregational Union also the Commission received ungrudging and constant support. Mr. Mearns, and the indefatigable men who assisted in getting up the facts on which was based “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London” threw themselves heartily into the work, and their assistance in our inquiry in the East was invaluable. Mr. Charrington also rendered us good service. His work in the East-end is only beginning to be appreciated. He is a good, earnest man, who has a personal acquaintance with so many of the worst characters, reclaimed and yet to be reclaimed, that he was able to furnish us with many hints and some most valuable introductions. From the chaplains of the Westminster and Clerkenwell Gaols I received the most valuable information, and not less valuable encouragement and support.

Besides the Churches, I placed myself in personal communication with most of the associations formed for rescue or preventive work, the matrons of hospitals and homes, and generally with all those whose philanthropic or religious zeal placed them in direct contact with actual facts. The Minors Joint Protection Committee, of which Mr. Charles Mitchell and Mr. Bunting are leading members; the White Ribbon Army, which has Miss Ellice Hopkins as its Joan of Arc; the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children–an excellent society, not to be confounded with that half-moribund association the Society for the Protection of Women and Children; the London City Mission, to which I was recommended by Lord Shaftesbury; the Reformatory and Refuge Union, of which Mr. Maddison is the secretary at Charing cross; the Rescue Society in Finsbury-pavement; Mr. Thomas’s rescue work, the Pimlico Ladies’ Association, the various vigilance associations, that excellent society the Moral Reform Union, whose indefatigable secretary, Miss Albert, furnished me with much useful information–all were enlisted in the cause, and assured us of their hearty support and sympathy in the attempt to drag this great evil to light.

Members of our Commission visited the Lock Hospital, Miss Steer’s Bridge of Hope, Mrs. Wilkes’s Home at Poplar, the Church of England Homes for Little Children at St. Cyprian’s, Hurlingham, Walthamstow, &c., the Rescue Home which Mrs. Bramwell Booth has established at Clapton, and various other public institutions. All this maybe said to have been preliminary. The collating of information from the good went on side by side with the direct investigation into the crimes of the bad. How the Commission conducted its investigations in the subterranean region from which it is now at last emerging in unexpected safety I shall not say, beyond remarking that it was carried out on the sound journalistic principle of the universal interview. Individually and collectively we interviewed every one, from Lord Dalhousie and Archdeacon Farrer to Mesdames X. and Z. and Mrs. Jefferies. And here let me say one word for that much maligned lady. She was good enough to accord one of the ablest and most indefatigable of my staff two interviews of several hours’ duration, in the course of which she shed a flood of light upon the profession of which she has been for many years the acknowledged chief. So far as our inquiry goes Mrs. Jeffries kept her business on as respectable a footing as that ghastly calling permits. Compared with other keepers (concerning whom Mrs. Jefferies was very communicative), the houses of accommodation which she is said to have kept for ––––––, and which, according to her own story, were frequented by personages who would take precedence of either, were well conducted, and it was the irony of destiny that they should have been singled out for prosecution while so many others so much worse were allowed to flourish untouched. As an instance of the thoroughness with which this inquiry was conducted, I may say that in the execution of my duty I even interviewed Mr. Cavendish Bentinck. To avoid exciting undue expectations, I may say it was disappointing.

Of the results of the inquiry I need not speak. It speaks for itself. Awful as are the revelations which we have brought to light, they are far less awful than the actual facts. We have but skimmed the surface of the subject. All that has been done has been done in six weeks, at a total outlay of not more than £300 in expenses – less than a rich man will spend in procuring the corruption of a single shop girl of the better class, say the daughter of a clergyman or of a doctor. “It is unutterably painful to read of these crimes,” says horrified society, which finds it infinitely easy to allow them to be perpetrated by those who have the entry to all its drawing-rooms, but how much more painful must it have been, think you, to have to see the victims face to face, to see their tears and hear their sobs, and to watch the toils closing round the doomed without being able to interfere against an individual without betraying the interests of the investigation undertaken in the interests of the whole ? In the whole of that horrible pilgrimage, however, one thought sustained me. Yet a little while, and the day would come when I should be able to declare trumpet-tongued over sea and land the whole infernal truth in the ears of a startled world. If only they knew of these things the conspiracy of silence would perish, and the good forces of the world would at last be set free to combat the evil in the one field in which the latter has had all its own way. And strong in the strength of that hope we persisted in our dreadful work. Be the results what they may, no nobler work could a man ever be privileged to take. Even a humble part in it is enough to make one grateful for the privilege of life. It was terrible but Divine to toil with bleeding heart, and eyes that oft could hardly see for bitter weeping, up one of those mounts of anguish which mark–

How each generation learned
One new word of that Credo which in prophet hearts hath burned,
Since the first man stood God-conquered with his face to heaven upturned.