A few posts ago I started to slip down a philosophical rabbit hole. Is the “right of property” one of the fundamental ‘evils’ in human society? Did we evolve to own property? I’ve kept thinking. Are there other constructs that may have been with us since we were hunting and gathering? Two come to mind perhaps: patriarchy and tribalism (for want of a better all encompassing term), and for that I include all animosity towards the ‘other’, anyone of a different creed, race, caste, or colour. Both are all pervasive now (surely there must be a few exceptions) in every society. Did we acquire them after settling down as early farmers? Or are they an inherent part of human nature?
It is sad that while we have made such tremendous technological advances over the last 8,000 years, yet our civilisation is still firmly in the Mesolithic. And this weekend’s events on Clapham Common have exasperated this depression.
I am wary of posting yet another ‘On this day’ theme so soon after the last but in view of the weekend’s events, this one deserves to be told.
On the 15 March 1881, Elizabeth Burley was in Snargate Street in Dover. She was 18 years of age, and when two police officers approached her she became fearful and started running. A dramatic chase through the streets of Dover ensued, a young woman pursued by two bully police officers, but eventually, in desperation escape and to avoid arrest, she threw herself into the Granville Dock. Once retrieved out of the water, she was charged by the police with attempting to commit suicide1Kennan, Claire. “Mistaken Identity: Elizabeth Burley and the Contagious Diseases Acts.” The National Archives Blog, 14 Mar. 2019, blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/mistaken-identity-elizabeth-burley-and-the-contagious-diseases-acts/, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021..
The obvious question is what had she to fear from the police?
In the 1860s, the Government were concerned by the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases within Britain’s army and navy, so three Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in an attempt to combat the spread.
The Acts gave the police powers to stop any woman suspected of being a prostitute. “They could bring her before a magistrate, who, if he agreed with the police officer, would subject the woman to a forcible examination by speculum. If any signs of sexually transmitted disease were noted, the woman would be sent to a ‘lock hospital’, where she was kept under lock and key until her symptoms disappeared.”
So that’s what Elizabeth Burley was afraid of. The shame and humiliation of a forced speculum examination and arbitrary incarceration. As it later emerged, she was not a prostitute but had been homeless for two weeks after being discharged from a position ‘in service’. She had had one relationship with a soldier.
“The police had no legal right to accost (the girl Burley) in the public street; nor to run after her in the way they did; and that whether the girl was or was not immoral has nothing whatsoever to do with the illegal conduct of the police. The two police officers who had ‘unjustly and illegally’ chased Elizabeth were ‘severely reprimanded’ and moved to different posts, and the case was eventually brought before Parliament.”
I’ve found the newspaper reports so scathing and almost wish our media could take a few lessons. Arbitrarily picking just one:
A SAD AND SHAMEFUL CASE.
A very serious mistake has taken place, which the Home Secretary has treated with unbecoming levity. A young girl, named Elizabeth Burley, a servant out of place, living with respectable people at Dover, was “spotted” by the police-officers specially appointed to put into execution the Contagious Diseases Act, and run down accordingly. She was literally chased by them through the streets of the town, and in order to avoid exposing herself to the disgraceful and infamous process she was certain to undergo if captured, jumped into the harbour, and was near being drowned. It does not appear the police had any grounds beyond suspicion for treating this girl as they do fallen women whose dreadful calling is patent to all. The landlady of the house where she resided, whilst seeking a situation, the matron of the union to which she was consigned after attempting to commit suicide, testify to her orderly, quiet, and respectable conduct, and their belief that she is still virtuous. Even the chairman of the bench before which she was brought the day after her leap into the sea, on a charge of attempted suicide, is of the same opinion. But Sir W. Harcourt seems to think that because his special police had hounded her to attempt self-destruction she must of necessity have been a depraved and abandoned woman! When first questioned on the subject the Home Secretary flippantly said:-
“I have caused inquiries to be made as to this case, and I have had a report upon it from the police. The girl in question had been under the observation of the police for three weeks in consequence of the fact that she was leading an immoral life. In endenvouring [sic] to ascertain these particulars the police seem to have shown a want of discretion and judgment, for which they have been reprimanded. The girl, to avoid the police, threw herself into the water, from which she was rescued, and there is reason to believe further that she will be rescued from the unhappy life to which she had committed herself.”
This philanthropic outburst, worthy of Pecksniff or Micawber, was, however, utterly superfluous, as it appears the young girl Burley had not been leading an “unhappy life;” unless, indeed, domestic servitude may be so styled. There is, on the contrary, abundant evidence to show that she has been, and still is, a well-conducted, virtuous girl. True, she is poor – an orphan – utterly unprotected. But are these reasons why Sir W. Harcourt should, with such smug self-complacency, at once place her in the category of those who lead a life of infamy? Suppose, for instance, that the daughter of a duchess, whilst walking on the beach at Dover, aroused the suspicions of the secret police, and that in order to avoid their pursuit and persecution she leapt into the sea – would they have escaped with a light reprimand, or would Sir W. Harcourt have dared even to hint that the lady was anything but a strictly virtuous person? It is true that on Tuesday he adopted a more serious tone, and spoke of the young girl as having been grievously wronged? In what way? First by the precipitate conduct of the police, and secondly by the Home Secretary jumping to the hasty conclusion that their conduct was justified by the “immoral character” of their victim. Time has been given to make the most minute inquiries, and we should not be surprised if something is trumped up against her character. Be that, however, as it may, there cannot be a doubt that the police greatly exceeded their duty, and that the Home Secretary treated this gross outrage in the first place in a most flippant and unbecoming manner. He appeared utterly unconscious of the fact that the character of a poor servant girl could be a matter of any importance either to herself or any one else.2“A SAD AND SHAMEFUL CASE.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, 15 May 1881. British Library Newspapers, link-gale-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/apps/doc/BC3200580514/GDCS?u=ed_itw&sid=GDCS&xid=19ed8e72. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.
There was a public outcry and the campaign for the repeal of the acts grew more intense. Petitions were sent to Parliament. The Contagious Diseases Acts were eventually repealed five years later.
On my bike for today’s exercise. This is Raisdale, an offshoot of Bilsdale.
- 1Kennan, Claire. “Mistaken Identity: Elizabeth Burley and the Contagious Diseases Acts.” The National Archives Blog, 14 Mar. 2019, blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/mistaken-identity-elizabeth-burley-and-the-contagious-diseases-acts/, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.
- 2“A SAD AND SHAMEFUL CASE.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, 15 May 1881. British Library Newspapers, link-gale-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/apps/doc/BC3200580514/GDCS?u=ed_itw&sid=GDCS&xid=19ed8e72. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.