Josephine Butler: 19th century campaigner against human trafficking

In 1869, Josephine Butler, a clergyman’s wife then living in Liverpool, agreed to spearhead a campaign against state inspection of women suspected of being prostitutes for venereal diseases. By the time her husband George was appointed a Residentiary Canon of Winchester Cathedral in 1882, she had turned her work towards the eradication of sex trafficking across the world, but also made time to found a refuge for recovered prostitutes in Winchester.

Who was Josephine Butler?

Born in 1828 near Milfield in Northumberland, Josephine Grey was the daughter of a wealthy family of liberal politics and committed Christian faith. From their own involvement with the abolition of slavery, the extension of the franchise and their strong notions of the equality of women, her family instilled in Josephine a belief in the need to work against the social injustices that unfairly contributed to the poverty of many.

In 1852 she married George Butler, the son of the Headmaster of Harrow, with whom she shared this outlook. George, though initially disinclined to become a clergyman, was ordained in 1854. His academic and teaching career took them first to Oxford and then to Cheltenham, where in 1863 tragedy struck the family when their daughter Eva fell from a banister to her death.

What form did her early work against the poverty of women take?

In 1865 George become Headmaster of Liverpool College. Josephine visited and worked alongside the destitute women of the Liverpool workhouses, many of whom had been driven to prostitution by their circumstances and had become ill through poverty. Whilst taking care of some in the family home, Josephine gained the finance of wealthy friends to found a ‘home’ for sick and dying women, and a hostel for those who were able to train for suitable work. As she started to work for change in the social conditions that victimised them, she encouraged workhouse authorities to change the work they provided and with her husband contributed to the movement seeking the right for women to access higher education.

How was she involved in the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866?

In 1869 she was invited to spearhead the campaign against the system of state inspection and detention of women suspected of being prostitutes (which would only affect poor women – as Josephine said, ‘no lady in her carriage would ever be stopped for examination’). Josephine worked against society’s acceptance of this biased morality, engaging in a demanding speaking schedule. In one year she covered 2700 miles, addressed 99 meetings and four conferences. In 1871 she addressed a Royal Commission, explaining how the Act violated civil rights, condoned vice, and brutalised women trapped in a situation that equated to slavery. In 1872 Josephine led abolitionists to stand against the badly thought through Bill. Since women still did not have a vote or a place in Government, this involved engaging a senior parliamentarian to lead the campaign in Parliament. This led in 1883 to the suspension of the Act, but full repeal of these laws was delayed until 1886.

A woman of faith, with a vision for justice.

Fired by a Christian faith to which others attributed their own conversion, in 1874 Josephine turned her attention to the trafficking of women across Europe and the USA. In 1880 she assisted in the release of 34 British girls from Belgian brothels and the prosecution of the brothel keepers and Belgian police chiefs.

George Butler was appointed a Residentiary Canon at Winchester Cathedral in 1882, and together they moved to 9, The Close, now the Cathedral offices. Here, Josephine met Mary Sumner, founder of Mothers’ Union, and founded another hostel for recovered prostitutes in Canon Street. In 1885 Josephine enabled the exposé of the white slave trade in London, leading to the passing of a Bill which raised the age of consent to 16, and penalised those engaged in the transport of women for profit. Josephine was devastated when George died in 1890, however she continued to write and travel until her retirement when she moved back to Northumbria where she died in 1906. With her connections to both Northumbria and Hampshire, she is celebrated in the current partnership link between the Newcastle and Winchester dioceses.