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Josephine Butler.

1828 - 1906
Campaigner against unfair penalties for prostitutes

Josephine Butler was not a local woman but came to Liverpool in 1866 when she wrote, “it was not difficult to find misery in Liverpool”.  She was born in Milfield, Northumberland, in 1828, the seventh daughter of John and Hannah Grey.  The Grey family was vital and energetic and Josephine’s childhood was free and happy.  From her mother and grandmother she inherited a strong religious intensity.  Nevertheless, at the age of seventeen she appears to have suffered from a year-long bout of depression when she lost the sight of her God.  Finally she felt called to serve by a vision of God standing at the side of , “the woman who was a sinner in the city”.
In 1852 Josephine married George Butler, an academic, and went to live in Oxford.  Though she helped her husband in his work, Josephine did not find Oxford congenial and in1861, when she was expecting her fourth child, on doctor’s advice, they moved to Cheltenham, where George Butler became Vice-Principal of Cheltenham College.  Josephine’s health improved in these surroundings but then in 1864 their only daughter, aged six, tragically died, falling over the banister when running to greet her parents.  Josephine was never really well after this event and under the influence of Elizabeth Garret came to recognise that she felt at her best only when doing strenuous work.

In 1866 George Butler was appointed Principal of Liverpool College and, in an effort to subdue the pain of her own tragedy, Josephine plunged into relieving the sufferings of others in the city.

As in most seaports the number of prostitutes on the streets of Liverpool was large, estimated at more than eight thousand.  The age of consent was twelve and many of these girls were in their early teens.  Mrs. Butler found her way to the Brownlow Hill Workhouse where many of these miserable creatures lived and picked oakum as a means of earning a few “untainted” pence.

The effect of a beautiful, elegant lady coming to pray for and work with them was profound.  Prostitutes were not a popular cause for charity in church circles.  Josephine comforted the sick and took some of the saddest cases into her own home.  When the Butler home became too small for the numbers in need, Josephine acquired a building to provide a Home of Rest for them.  She appealed for financial help and persuaded two doctors to give their services for free but she was treated with great suspicion by her fashionable contemporaries.

Saying, “Economics lie at the very root of practical morality”, Mrs Butler sought employment for the women she rescued and her fame spread beyond the city.  By 1868 she was known nationally and was asked to edit a book on Women’s Work and Women’s Culture.  Josephine Butler did ally herself to the Women’s Movement in general but her most passionate concern was always for prostitutes, whom she believed to be badly discriminated against.

In 1864 the Government was determined to establish State Brothels in an effort to control sexually transmitted diseases.  Experimental brothels were set up in garrison towns with compulsory health checks and special police to arrest any woman suspected of being a prostitute.  Of course, many horrendous mistakes were made and the incidence of disease did not diminish.  The Act lapsed but was renewed in 1866.

Josephine Butler threw herself into campaigning against this Act, despite the usual insults from powerful men of the time and also some damage to her husband’s career.

She travelled in Europe to investigate conditions there under similar Acts and was tireless in her journeys around England.

George Butler had often been censured about his wife’s activities and in 1882, with financial help from a group of friends, he resigned from Liverpool College and subsequently he was appointed a canon of Winchester Cathedral.

Thus ended Josephine Butler’s direct connection with Liverpool.  In 1883 the compulsory health checks she had so opposed were suspended and in 1886 the 1864 Act was finally repealed.  Josephine Butler continued her fight for Women’s Rights until her death, aged  Seventyeight, in Wooler, Northumberland.  Her name lives on in Women’s Refuges in Liverpool.  

 P.E.Brown.