HL Deb 30 May 1881 vol 261 cc1603-13

in rising to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the state of the law relative to the protection of young girls from artifices to induce them to lead a corrupt life, and into tin means of amending the same, said, the subject had from time to time occupied the attention of the Government for a good many years past. Several series of correspondence had taken place between the Foreign Office in London and our Diplomatic and Consular Agents in Belgium and Antwerp. The first occurred in 1874, and related to certain English girls who had been decoyed to Antwerp under false pretences:—An Englishman had visited the house in which they were immured, and one of them, who was kept there against her will, wrote a very touching and pathetic letter to the English Consul asking him to come and see her, in order that she might tell him her story. [The, noble Earl then read the letter to the House.] He (the Earl of Dalhousie) would not mention the name, though the signature was there. The letter was intrusted to this Englishman, who, unfortunately, put it in his pocket, and forgot all about it till he came to London, when he delivered it at Great Scotland Yard. It was then forwarded through the Home Office to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Upon its receipt, the Earl of Derby communicated with the Consul at Antwerp. After investigation, one of the girls was found in a hospital. The second, the Consul reported, declined to be sent home, and the third, the one who had written the letter, had left clandestinely, and it was not known where she had gone. In fact, nothing more was ever heard of her again. In connection with the case, the Commissionnaire stated that the girls, who were unacquainted with the French language, had signed a formal declaration, printed in French, to the effect that they wished to become public prostitutes. Another correspondence took place in 1876 with respect to certain English girls who had been decoyed over to Antwerp; but in that case the English chaplain stepped in and frustrated the abominable purpose for which they had been brought over. Nothing more occurred until May, 1879, when the Consul at Antwerp reported to the Foreign Office in London that a well-known procurer named Klyber had been convicted in Belgium of decoying English girls under age, and sentenced to imprisonment for having infringed the Belgian law; but the man stated at the trial, what was the fact, that his doings were perfectly legal in England. There was no further correspondence until the year 1880. On the 3rd of June the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs communicated with the Home Office, and suggested that a police agent should be sent to Brussels to make inquiries. That was accordingly done, but with very little result; for after making inquiries at Rotterdam, Antwerp, Calais, and Boulogne, the police agent reported that he had only found two English girls who had been decoyed away by false pretences. The case of one of these was very distressing. She had been decoyed to Brussels under the false pretence of a promise of marriage. He ought here to say that the Belgian law prohibited the registration of a girl under the age of 21 as a public prostitute; but if she was over that age, it did not interfere except to provide that all public prostitutes should be registered. In this case, the girl had a false certificate furnished to her, which the procurer told her at the police office she must show the police, as it was nothing but a Customhouse formality. The girl, who did not understand a word of French, and was not at all aware of the kind of place she was going to, was then conveyed from the police office, which she took to be the Custom-house, to the house of ill-fame. The case was the more cruel, because the girl happened to be of weak mind and suffered from physical malformation. After suffering great agony, she was eventually sent to hospital. Here she was informed by the police that, having registered herself in a false name, she was liable to 14 days' imprisonment, and on leaving the institution she underwent that term of imprisonment for having made use of a false certificate of birth, although she, unable to speak any language but English, was quite ignorant of the fact that she had been registered at all. In September last the noble Earl the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs suggested to the Home Secretary that an inquiry should be made by some person unconnected either with the police or with any Government Office. The gentleman selected for this duty was a very well known and very able member of the English Bar, Mr. Snagge, who had performed the very difficult and delicate mission intrusted to him in such a manner as to call for the highest commendation. Mr. Snagge, who had the advantage of speaking French perfectly, made a full and exhaustive inquiry, both at Antwerp and Brussels. His first duty was to watch certain trials of keepers of brothels and procurers which were taking place at Brussels. The prisoners, some of whom had worked in England and elsewhere, were charged with having decoyed certain girls under age and counterfeiting certificates of birth. Convictions took place in all these cases, owing, in a very considerable degree, to the assistance received from Her Majesty's Consul at Brussels. During the progress of those trials, the fact was established beyond doubt that for many years there had been a traffic systematically carried on in England, and especially in the streets of London, whereby many English girls, most of them under the ago of 21, had been enticed away to become inmates of brothels in consideration of fees or commissions paid by the keepers of the houses to the procurers who brought them over. Mr. Snagge was afterwards able to establish the fact that there were up- wards of 20 procurers who had been at work to the knowledge of the police ever since 1865. The number of English girls decoyed to the Continent by these wretches they would never know; but Mr. Snagge was able to collect the names and establish the truth of the stories of 32 English girls who had been enticed away within the last 10 years, all of whom were under the age of 21, and had been registered by means of false certificates; and he was convinced that the number of cases he had established by inquiry formed but a small proportion of the total number. The Belgian law allowed registry at the ago of 21; in 1879, 24 English girls were registered; and of these seven were found to have been under the legal age. Therefore, if Mr. Snagge had been able to identify 32 cases of girls under 21 during the last 10 years, the total number of English women exported for purposes of prostitution during that time was probably considerable. He (the Earl of Dalhousie) had seen fac-similes of the letters from the procurers to their clients; and he must say that if the writers did not refer specially to girls he should have thought they referred to some species of cattle, the market price being quoted at £12 for every girl landed, and the letters often contained photographs of the young women. There was no doubt whatever that the business was a very large one, and that many respectable girls were thus ruined. For the most part, they were decoyed over under the false pretence that they were to take situations in hotels or become actresses, and in other cases that they were to go into shops in which girls were required to speak English; but, being totally ignorant both of the language and the places, they were decoyed into brothels and there detained. Among the cases mentioned by Mr. Snagge, one young woman was engaged to enter an hotel, another was engaged as an actress, and a third, perfectly innocent, was sent from Brussels to Antwerp, there violated, then returned to Brussels and entered on the public registry. A fourth died at home in England from the treatment 1.1e had received. A fifth was deliberately seduced in England for the purpose of placing her in a registered house abroad. In these houses the women were treated as valuable cattle; they had plenty to eat and drink, and dis- sipation of all kinds was resorted to with the object of reconciling them to their mode of life. In theory the women were free; a proclamation posted up in six different languages stated that they were free to depart; but practically they were captives, ignorant of the language of the people they were among. The head of the establishment kept the key of the front door; and the inmates were shown to be heavily in debt to the keeper, by a ledger account over which they had no control, beginning actually with the heavy fee to the procurer for decoying them away. It was captivity of the most abominable kind. With regard to the English law on the subject, there was no doubt, as it stood at present, that these procurers could ply their trade in the streets of London and elsewhere with perfect security. There were three enactments which bore upon it without touching it, and the procurers were perfectly aware of this. The writer of one letter, after stating that he had two beautiful English girls to dispose of, remarked—" There is no danger; they will do nothing to you in London." That was true, for them was nothing in the three enactments to prevent the traffic. One made procuration by false pretences a misdemeanour; but if the false pretence could be proved, the offence was completed beyond English jurisdiction. The second enactment applied only to the abduction of women of property; and the third statute applied only to girls under 16. The Statute Law was, therefore, powerless, and the Common Law was equally useless to check the evil, because the difficulty of proving conspiracy at Common Law became an impossibility where some of the agents were abroad. Mr. Snagge had taken some pains to devise a remedy, and his suggestion was that there should be a short enactment passed making it a criminal offence to entice anyone to become a common prostitute, whether within the Queen's Dominions or not. That, however, would be a matter for the Select Committee to determine. The true remedy, of course, was to be found not so much in the punishment of the offenders when they were convicted, but in putting a stop to the practice. The ease with which it was possible for any person to obtain, at Somerset House, a certificate of the birth of any other person gave great facility to the procurers in the carrying on of their business. It was possible for a certificate of birth to be obtained without the knowledge of anyone concerned. No question was asked by the person who granted the certificates of birth. Mr. Snagge recommended that the same regulations should apply to the granting of these certificates as applied to the sale of poisons—that the address of the applicant should be taken clown, and the purpose for which he wanted the certificate should be set against his name, so that an investigation might be made by the police as to who the inquirers were. He also recommended that instructions should be given to Her Majesty's Representatives abroad to require that, in the event of any English girl being registered in any brothel in a foreign town, information should be forwarded to the nearest English Consul, and that the Consul should be instructed to forward it through the Secretary of State to the police authorities in England. He had stated the grounds on which the Government asked for a Committee of Inquiry into the law bearing on that matter. He had shown, on the best authority, that a vile, abominable traffic in English girls, for the purposes of prostitution, was systematically carried on, which the law, as it stood, was incapable of punishing or preventing, but that the law might be easily made efficient. He might have made out a case even stronger than he had by quoting at length numbers of instances which, thanks to the zeal of Mr. Snagge, had been successfully traced and substantiated. He had, however, refrained from going into details, not merely because they were painful and heartrending in the extreme, but also because it would be impossible to do so without entering into particulars of bestiality and brutality which he thought it unnecessary to do. He felt confident he had said enough to show that the inquiry asked for was urgently needed. But he could assure their Lordships that when Mr. Snagge's Report was published they would see how mildly, if not inadequately, he had stated the case. It was impossible to look through that Report without feelings of the deepest indignation and disgust. It was no longer a matter of doubt that for many years past large numbers of English girls, some of whom were perfectly innocent, had been annually exported to supply the demand of foreign brothels. No one could ever know—because the victims had suffered in silence, cut off from intercourse with the outer world, and without the means of communication by letter with their friends, even if the sense of shame had not, for the most part, held them back from trying to do so—how many of those girls had been deliberately entrapped by the lying promises and inducements held out by the professional procurer in the exercise of his abominable calling. But there could be no doubt that, during the last 15 years, many English women had, against their will, endured a life of worse than living death, from which there was no escape, within the walls of a foreign brothel. He would fail if he were to attempt to give their Lordships an adequate description of the life of shame, degradation, and wretchedness which that vile, iniquitous traffic had inflicted on our countrywomen. Fortunately, there was no need for him to do so. He had said enough, and he felt sure that their Lordships would be of opinion that no time should be lost in putting a stop to a practice which, in arrant villainy and rascality, surpassed all that they knew of any other trade in human beings, and in any part of the world, either in ancient or in modern times. He begged to make the Motion which stood in his name. Moved, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the state of the law relative to the protection of young girls from artifices to induce them to lead a corrupt life, and into the means of amending the same."—(The Earl of Dalhousie.)


said, that the House and the country were, he was sure, greatly indebted to the noble Earl (the Earl of Dalhousie) for the manner in which he had brought that painful subject before the House, and for moving for a Select Committee upon it; and he (the Earl of Shaftesbury) only hoped that it would prove the means of introducing some change in the law which would save hundreds of young persons from being decoyed and driven into a shameful life. Nothing more cruel, appalling, or detestable could be found in the history of crime all over the world than that abominable traffic. The noble Earl had understated his case. The Motion spoke of the artifices employed "to induce" young girls to lead a corrupt life. The noble Earl might have rather said "to force" them. Anything more horrible, or anything approaching the wickedness and cruelty perpetrated in those dens of infamy in Brussels it was impossible to imagine. A great many girls of tender age, under 16, went across the water in the most guileless innocence. In other cases, persons came over with sums of money, took lodgings, and engaged a young girl as lady's-maid. She went across, and was carried to one of those dens of iniquity, where she could not speak the language, knew no one, and was subjected to the grossest and most atrocious outrage. To allow such things to go on was most discreditable; and he would point out to their Lordships that while abroad the law prevented the harbouring in houses of ill-fame of girls under 21, there was no such restriction in England. Our law needed amendment in this respect. It was not only in Brussels, but in Paris and Vienna, and all over the Continent, that young English girls were to be found entrapped. The trade was a most profitable one. Large sums were given in all the great capitals for girls of tender years. All that showed the necessity of an inquiry to ascertain and to remedy that monstrous evil. He regretted, however, that their attention was also required to be directed to a matter nearer home. The constant importation of young Irish girls into London was frightful, and the Roman Catholic clergy could give their Lordships extensive information. He saw a noble Earl (Earl Spencer) before him who would bear him out when he said that if there was anything pure in the world it was a young Irish girl from the rural districts. As a matter of fact, however, they were imported by scores, being decoyed over here on pretence of "good situations" being obtained for them, and for whom procuresses waited at the railway stations and places of disembarkation. Much of this evil was effected through means of advertisements sent to the papers by advertising agents, who consigned them to houses of ill-fame in London. Of course, when the young girls were persuaded to go abroad to a country where they were utterly friendless, and of which they could not speak the language, their fate was certain. There were also numbers of children of 13 years of age, and even lower, in London, who might be found in such places; and this was what would not be allowed even by Continental law. In his Opinion, all the registry offices that issued advertisements ought to be compelled to keep accounts of the destinations of the girls, and of the names of the persons to whom they were recommended. That might prove a very powerful check upon the traffic. Such details, however, and many others, would have to be considered by the Select Committee. He could only say that, in order to stop the traffic now going on, it would be necessary to lay bare as many horrors and as much cruelty as had ever been exhibited in the history of the world.


said, he could not but express his deep gratitude to the noble Earl (the Earl of Dalhousie) and to the Government for the earnestness and courage displayed by them in dealing with this subject. The details of this traffic had become known to him (the Bishop of Peterborough) from several ladies in Paris, who were doing their best to deal with it in that city, and he could assure their Lordships that both the noble Earls who had spoken had understated the case; but it would have been hardly possible for them to have done otherwise, for it was impossible for any body of gentlemen truly and fully to state the details of the nameless misery and horror of this traffic as concerned the welfare of those whose cause the noble Earls had pleaded. God only knew how black a page, on the one hand, of human crime, and, on the other, of innocent human suffering, was disclosed by that traffic. He would remind their Lordships that the trade of these procurers was not confined to London, but it tended all over the country, and many poor girls were decoyed away to be sunk in the flood of iniquity of the great cities on the Continent, and it was the cause of many a poor country girl being lost to her sorrowing parents. Neither were foreigners more to be blamed than people in this country, because it was very well known that a similar traffic was carried on in London of decoying Belgian, French, and German girls over here. He rose not to add any further details or arguments to what had been already said, but to make one sugges- tion—namely, that it would be well, if possible, to spread among girls going abroad some knowledge of their future legal position as lodgers or as employées. It seemed to him that their complete ignorance of such matters necessarily increased their helplessness, and put them altogether in the power of unscrupulous persons. He again thanked the Government for taking the matter up, and in the name of English Christianity he wished them God-speed, and the Committee success in their labours. He should be glad to see the subject taken up and vigorously dealt with both here and abroad in the interest of humanity generally.


said, he only wanted to add one word on this painful subject. What had passed in the course of the discussion had shown that there was plenty to be done in connection with it, and strongly confirmed the opinion that Her Majesty's Government had taken the right course in asking for a Select Committee. He thought the noble Earl who introduced the subject (the Earl of Dalhousie) had done well in moving for the Committee without unnecessarily dwelling on the nauseous details inseparable from the question, while he gave ample proof of the necessity of the inquiry. In reply to the right rev. Prelate (the Bishop of Peterborough), he might say that it was not intended that the Committee should confine its inquiries to the traffic of the Continent; but it would also inquire into the state of the law as it affected this country. Representations were made to him last autumn in the matter. He suspected at the time there was exaggeration as to the facts; but it was his duty to put himself into communication with the English Minister at Brussels, and the English. Consuls at different seaports, and he had found that there was no exaggeration. Of course it was difficult to deal with the regulations of foreign countries in reference to such a subject; but he was bound to say that, when representations were made to other Governments on the subject, immediate steps were taken to render assistance, and all the information that could be given was forwarded to our Consuls. He could only add that he quite concurred in the commendation given to Mr. Snagge for the able way in which he had carried out his investigations.

He thanked their Lordships for the cordial spirit in which they agreed with the Government that an inquiry should be made into that sad and discreditable subject.

On question, agreed to.

And on June 14, the Lords following were named of the Committee:—

M. Salisbury. L. Penzance.
E. Mount Edgcumbe. L. Aberdare.
E. Belmore. L. Ramsay.
E. Cairns. L. Tollemache.
L. Bp. London. L. Norton.
L. Braye. L. Mount Temple.
L. Leigh.