Classics and prostitution

Renton’s showgirls often supplemented their income by sex work. One of the stranger tales of the collision of Classics and class in the later 19th century involves the symbolism of the mythical Minotaur being used in the campaign against on child prostitution. William Thomas Stead (whom we have encountered previously as a publisher, above pp. 61-4) deplored what he characterised as the voracious ‘Minotaur’ constituted by the appetite of rich men for girl prostitutes in their earliest teens. Educated at home and at Silcoates School in Wakefield, Stead was an exceptional Latinist. Profoundly religious, he channelled his fervour into reformist journalism and was appointed Chief Editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington at the age of only 22. ‘I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands,’ he later recalled, ‘to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed’.’7

In 1883, Stead became editor of the gentleman’s gossip journal The Pall Mall Gazette, and transformed it into a vehicle for sensational, political exposes.58 The most famous was the 1885 series of four articles investigating the traffic in young girls in the underworld of London, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of our Secret Commission. Stead invented modern journalism by organising a complicated undercover investigation and writing in a lurid, sensationalist style, using a comparison with a famous mythical monster who committed atrocities.

The first article in the series consists of a detailed account of the Minotaur story, with long quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses VIII, emphasising the death of innocent girls cast to a beast who was himself ‘the foul product of an unnatural lust’. But then Stead turns to the ‘maze of London brotheldom’, and the Minotaur to which thousands of impoverished girl-children are sacrificed every month, because the

maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable, and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again ... And if we must cast maidens-not seven, but seven times seven-nightly into the jaws of vice, let us at least see to it that they assent to their own immolation, and are not unwilling sacrifices procured by force and fraud.’9

Stead’s campaign was successful, and precipitated the raising of the age of consent, by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, from just 13 to 16. He suffered for his efforts, however: he had staged the purchase of a girl as part of his detective work. He served a three months’ prison sentence for abducting her.60 His career never fully recovered. He turned to Spiritualism, and died as a passenger on the Titanic on 15th April 1912.61

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