Bishop Frazer on the Social Evil

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Bishop Frazer on the Social Evil

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, October 27, 1871)

We are often compelled to gloss over the curses which afflict our world by words of double meaning. The ghastliest curse which haunts civilised society, which is steadily sapping the very foundations of our morality, lies hidden behind the phrase of “the social evil.”

It must, however, be considered occasionally in all its horrible proportions: therefore we are compelled to draw the attention of our readers to the remarks of the Bishop of Manchester, who handled this subject on Wednesday with his customary common-sense.

In his cathedral town, there are, he says, up to 3,000 women whose livelihood entirely depends upon the sacrifice of their womanhood. Brothels, divans, and casinos exist for the exclusive use of this class, and twenty-seven public and beer houses are reported by the Chief-constable as the known resort of prostitutes and thieves. Of these 3,000 unfortunate victims, three-fourths are estimated to have attended Sunday schools. Many of them are on the verge of childhood, some having commenced the process of slow suicide involved in their dreadful calling at the age of fourteen.

Most of them attribute their ruin to drink, and all of them, as far as they have given an opinion, declare that they could not carry it on without the stimulus of alcohol. To those who have been in Manchester, who have passed along Oxford-street and Piccadilly, who have haunted the environs of Pomona Gardens, between ten and twelve o’clock at night, the numbers given by the Bishop will seem to err rather on the side of caution than of exaggeration. “To wipe off this terrible stain on our existing civilization” is the natural resolve of any man worthy of the name, and Bishop Frazer sets himself honestly to attempt it. Addressing himself to its causes, he finds this supply of three thousand women to be simply owing to the demands which exist in the vicious and unbridled passion of men. In this we do not believe anyone would differ with him. The indulgence in vice, which occasions this monstrous plague spot of our social system, pervades all classes. “Stylish houses of ill-fame which could only be supported by men of wealth and respectability,” are as abundant as the wretched rooms where the degraded, gin-sodden wretches herd together like swine in a stye (sic). It is a contagion which pervades all classes, a soul-blighting curse which is rotting every circle of our land.

The Bishop abandoned the conventional term “ladies”, spoke to audience as “women”, and reminded them that it was their sisters who were thus offered to the lusts of mankind. It is too often forgotten. The virtuous matron, in comfort and ease, who shudders with pious horror at the spectacle of a woman staving off starvation by prostitution, welcomes with smiles and courtesy the abandoned villain to whose reckless passion the ruin of the poor unfortunate is due. Society here, as elsewhere, is so inconsistent as to provoke a bitter smile when it ventures to represent its conventional requirements as based upon the fundamental laws of morality. One of the weaker sex, when betrayed by too much confidence in the faith of the stronger, becomes an outcast to be spurned by the world; her destroyer, whose perjured villainy is infinitely greater crime than her too foolish confidence, loses no social Status, is driven from no “respectable” society, but remains the honoured friend of women who would blush to exchange a word with his ruined victim. The Bishop was right in insisting that the social reformation must come from women, more than from men. Were our women to consider it as degrading to meet a “fast young man”, or a vicious profligate, as they would to meet a courtesan, a beneficial change would come over the tone of society. “Respectability” shudders at theft, but tolerates and approves of profligacy; it bars its doors against the poor, but opens them wide to the abandoned rake. The only stipulation it exacts is that his vice must not be too glaring, and even that is sometimes dispensed with. If we do not speak concerning the guilt of the men to whose criminal desires it is that we owe the myriads of fallen women, it is because the infamy of their conduct demands severer censure than we can bestow. The existence of a hell has been somewhat disputed of late. As long as women are sacrificed to the lusts of men, so long will a hell be absolutely indispensable, if divine justice has to be more than a miserable sham.

The Bishop tuned his attention of the public to the question of the influence of Sunday schools in abating this fearful curse. Two-thirds of the “unfortunates” are said to have attended Sunday schools at some time of their lives. It is so well known that almost every child in Lancashire spends some time in a Sunday school that even the proportion could not be wondered at. Sunday schools contain a fixed and a floating class. The fixed class is very different from the floating one. The former is composed of those who attend regularly for instruction; the other of those who occasionally look into the school for the sake of a change, and who usually swell the attendance just before a “tea fight” or a Summer excursion. They are mere occasional attendants, and it is from this class the ranks of the fallen are recruited. Because a girl drops in casually into a Sunday school half-a-dozen times in the year, those institutions can hardly be blamed for not preventing her descent into vice in after life. We greatly regret that the Bishop thought it necessary to speak of the tea meetings and summer excursions as “touting for scholars” and bribery. That the summer excursions may be carelessly conducted, and in such cases result in harm, is quite possible, but it is unfair to stigmatise one of the most beneficent ideas which ever actuated a body of men as a “touting for scholars”. Children reared in the shade of giant factories, in murky cellars, down gloomy alleys with nothing but the “stormy rushing of iron wheels” to hear by day and the whirl of a great town at night, are taken by their teachers into the country to spend at least one day in the year amid the meadows where “their pale and sunken faces” may grow bright in the summer sunlight as it gleams over the mountains of Derbyshire or transforms Lake Windermere into a sheet of molten gold. A very little care might easily overcome the evils portrayed by the Bishop: the system of excursions itself is one of the greatest boons conferred by the Church upon the wearied little toilers of our great manufacturing towns. With regard to the “tea-fights,” nothing can be alleged against a social gathering, providing it does not degenerate into a mere “hop.” We must confess that we were not aware that Sunday school tea meetings either in Manchester or elsewhere were terminated by a dance. Bishop Frazer testifies to such being the case, and says, properly enough, that it is pregnant with mischief.

We would ask whether he condemns dancing equally in his own private circle as he does for Sunday scholars. If dancing is fit and proper for the young friends of the Bishop, it cannot be so hurtful for Sunday scholars, gathered together for one evening in the year under the presidency of their minister. It is idle preaching to the lower classes that it is wrong for them to do what those higher in the social scale continually practise without a word of expostulation from the episcopate. We believe with Bishop Frazer that promiscuous dancing among Sunday scholars is unsafe, but we are also convinced that it is unsafe in all circles of society, and until the Bishop can make up his mind to condemn the balls of the nobility as strenuously as he does the dances of factory girls, he may as well preach to the wind as seek to prevent one class doing what he allows to another. Until there is a reform in the direction of Puritanism; until all classes set themselves in earnest to root out all customs, whether promiscuous dancing or occasional drinking, which produce and foster the prevailing laxity of morals; and until the tone of society is so improved that a man who tampers with female purity is shunned as carefully as if he were a convicted assassin; we fear that the best efforts of philanthropists will be of no avail at stemming this bitterest scourge of our race. Everyone bears some responsibility in it by assent to some or other of the customs of society which produce it, and by lack of decided dissent from the prevailing tone of public opinion in relation to the male culprit. Legislation can do little; “missions”, we fear, even less. It is in the power of every individual to do that which the community as a whole is powerless to effect. The responsibility of the continuance of the corrupt morality which finds its outcome in three thousand lost women, nightly roaming the streets of Manchester, rests on every individual who, from moral cowardice or careless indifference, neglects to protest by word and action against the false conventionalities of a society which outwardly, indeed, appears white and glistening, but within is full of dead men’s bones and rottenness.