W.T. Stead’s Opening Statement

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W.T. Stead’s Opening Statement

The Old Bailey (October 28, 1885). Quoted in Alison Plowden, The Case of Eliza Armstrong: A Child of 13 Bought for £5 (1974)

Stead: My immediate object was to secure the passing of an effective Criminal Law Amendment Bill. It was altogether foreign to my purpose to prove the possibility of committing crimes for which the law already provided punishment. I had no possible object in abducting a girl, for I did not want to alter the law relating to abduction. To alter the law relating to the procuring of innocent girls for immoral purposes was my aim, and to that aim I directed my operations. In such matters you can rely upon receiving no assistance from the police, for it is contrary to official rule to allow the police to communicate upon such subjects with members of the general public. I wrote to the then Home Secretary, but Sir William Harcourt replied that much as he desired the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, the urgency for which he recognised, it was impossible for him to allow police officials to be interviewed by newspaper reporters. As officials could not speak, it occurred to me that ex-officials might. I thereupon communicated with Mr. Howard Vincent, for many years Director of Criminal Investigations at Scotland Yard, and he came to my office. I asked him whether it was true that innocent girls could be procured for money in houses of ill-fame in London, and he replied, “Oh yes”. “But,” said I, “they know what they come for perfectly well?” Said he, “Oh, no; not in a great number of cases.”

Justice Lopes: Are you going to call Mr. Vincent?

Stead: I am. He is on subpoena and perfectly willing to come.

Justice Lopes: I do not wish to interpose if I can possibly help it, but you are stating motives now at very great length. What the prosecution say is that, assuming your motives to have been honest, high-minded, and pure, still you over-stepped the law in what you did.

Stead: My aim at present is to show that the very nature of the object I had in view, destroys the very hypothesis upon which the prosecution is based. Abduction was entirely foreign to my purpose.

Justice Lopes: I think you are going wide of the issue— very wide.

Stead: It was my conversation with Mr. Vincent which led me to procure a girl. It was procuration and not abduction that I was aiming at. I said that the facts related by Mr. Vincent were enough to raise hell, but he remarked that they did not even raise the neighbours. I said that if I could get such facts of my own knowledge I would not only raise the neighbours, but all England. I thereupon sent Rebecca Jarrett to buy a girl, in order that I might be able to speak of my own personal knowledge. I consulted Mr. Shaen, of the firm of Shaen, Roscoe and Company, solicitors, and after telling him what I wanted to do, asked him how many years hard labour I should receive if I got run in in the course of my operations. He said, “What you are going to do is not a crime. It might be if you did it with criminal intent, but you have no criminal intent, and it will be a question for a jury whether you have criminal intent or not.” I enquired how I could best show that I had no criminal intent, and he advised me to take some person of note into my confidence. I first thought of a member of Parliament, but then I felt that a member of Parliament might not be good enough.


So I went to the Archbishop of Canterbury. His Grace tried to persuade me not to persevere with my mode of action, but I informed him that I did not come to him for counsel, but for the purpose of communicating my resolution to him. Thus I considered I had taken every precaution to show I had no intention to break the law. If I have abducted that girl without her parents’ consent, I have committed a crime punishable with hard labour. But what did I do when I published the account? I stated that I was willing to give all the facts to a responsible committee in confidence, on receiving an assurance that no steps would be taken to punish any of the poor people who had unwittingly been the means of exposing a terrible system. That led to the appointment of the Mansion House Committee, before whom I told the whole story of Eliza Armstrong. Mrs. Armstrong and Mrs. Broughton had the opportunity of telling their story. Rebecca Jarrett also gave evidence, and I leave it to the jury whether, if I had had the faintest suspicion or idea that I had not bona fide bought Eliza Armstrong, I should have voluntarily submitted the entire transaction to the committee. If any member of the committee had said, “you have been deceived, you have been swindled; it is not quite clear that the mother consented” I should have taken instant steps to restore the child; but not one of them suggested that I was unlawfully detaining the child from its mother. I was and always had been willing to give the child up if the mother demanded her, because, although I had purchased the child, the mere passing of the money did not confer the parentage upon me. I am glad to state that, under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the law now is that if a mother has consented to the seduction of her child, she can be deprived of the guardianship. If I strained my right in detaining that child, I only anticipated irregularly a reform which I am proud to think I had some share in placing on the statute book. I am not here to advocate liberties being taken with the children of anyone, least of all the children of the poor; but you must sometimes take risks in order to save poor girls from ruin. I believed that in doing as I did with Eliza Armstrong, I was standing between her and ruin. I shall call witnesses to establish the bona fide character of the whole of my procedure; and I hope and believe that when you have heard my story, and can realise, however imperfectly, as I have realised for months and months, the full significance of this infernal system, there is no body of Englishmen who will return a verdict of guilty against me.