Saturday, January 4, 2014

Age of Consent - England

In writing my Late Victorian humorous sleuth series, I’ve done a great deal of research in diverse areas. I wish to share my discoveries alphabetically with you. 

So today I discuss my first entry:  


Let’s take a brief historical walk:

– a statute made it a misdemeanor to "ravish" a "maiden within age," whether with or without her consent. The phrase "within age" was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.

300+1 years later:

A 1576 law upgraded raping a child to a felony for a woman child under the age of 10 (1-9) with a lesser punishment for acts against 10 & 11-year-old girls. However, if a man married a child, the rape law did not protect her. Also, juries would often reject the age criteria and judge the case on if victim looked like a proper child to them.

300-1 years later:

In 1861, it was a felony to have unlawful “carnal knowledge” of a girl under the age of 10, and a misdemeanor to have sex with a girl between the ages of 10 and 12.

In 1875 they bumped the misdemeanor law to
include 13 yr old girls. 

(The average age of puberty for a girl back then was 15).

The major revision of the 1875 law was to help protect the very wealthy. In a desire to keep heiresses from running off with men their parents didn’t approve, they imposed the most severe penalties on those who would seduce or abduct women without their parents' consent even though the perpetrator intended to marry his quarry. Girls over the age of 13 and the poor had no protection under this “improved” law.
In fact, the 1875 law included a disturbing section (conceived to fight the spread of syphilis). It gave the police the right to arrest any woman whom they thought looked like or might be a prostitute and have her examined by force for syphilis. Men were exempted from this humiliation.
Needless to say this did NOT go over well with the growing number of ladies who wanted more rights, not less.
Feminists of the Social Purity movement such as Josephine Butler and others, were instrumental in securing the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and upon doing so, turned their efforts to the problem of child prostitution by the end of the 1870s.

In 1881 a new law was put before parliament.
And languished for four long years.
Benjamin Scott pushed Lord Granville to enact legislation to protect young English girls from being shipped to Continental Europe for "immoral purposes". Upon investigating, the Select Committee determined there was an increase in child prostitution and white slavery. From their study came the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, including raising the age of consent to sixteen years as well as increased penalties for sexual offenses.
In 1883: The Bill passed easily in the House of Lords, but was dropped in the House of Commons.
In 1884 the bill was reintroduced but dropped during the struggle over Parliamentary reform.
In April 1885, the bill was introduced a third time and went through the Lords in May — where they lowered the age of consent to fifteen (which was the average age for puberty back then) but the fine men of the House of Commons wished to go on holiday and no vote was taken on the measure by the time Parliament was adjourned on 22 May 1885.

Thus, supporters of Bill decided to take drastic action.
Investigative journalist William Thomas Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette decided to expose the problem of child prostitution in the London underworld through a publicity stunt. So he "purchased" one victim, Eliza Armstrong the 13-year-old daughter of a chimney sweep and an alcoholic mother, for £5 and took her to a brothel where they drugged her with chloroform.
He then published four exposés entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, which shocked its readers with tales of child prostitution and the abduction, procurement and sale of young English virgins to Continental Europe "pleasure palaces". The "Maiden Tribute" was an instant hit with the public and Victorian society was thrown into an uproar.

Fearing riots on a national scale, the Home Secretary Harcourt begged Stead to stop publication of the articles. Stead refused. A wide variety of reform groups held protest meetings and marched together to Hyde Park demanding the age of consent be raised.

Given little choice, the government finally passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 raising the age of consent to 16 and clamping down on prostitution.
And to prove English law moves slowly:
The age of consent remains unchanged. However, now the law explicitly protects both homosexual and heterosexual engagements.

Recently, a push was made to LOWER the age of protection to 15.


Faculty of Public Health president Prof John Ashton said society had to accept that about a third of all boys and girls were having sex at 14 or 15. He believes the move would make it easier for 15-year-olds to get sexual health advice from the NHS.
Fortunately, the Prime Minister rejected the plan, reiterating, the law is there to protect children.

Liza’s response: Seriously, if you want a 15 yr old to get sexual health advice from the NHS, then POST IT ON THE INTERNET!!! Have an anonymous Q&A page. You don’t have to lower your already low bar for sexual predators to achieve the goal of disseminating information.

Liza rolls eyes and sighs.

Oh England, you need to protect your children better.


  1. Great post. This is horrible that the age of consent was so low. Added to this is these girls were not marrying (or whatever) with men their age, but much much older men. Often, it was a man whose wife had died during childbirth. Probably because she was too young to be having babies.

    1. You are correct. Normally the man was much older. The only chance of the two being a similar age is if the marriage was arranged when they were children to secure matters between the two families. Daughters were most used to secure a promising connection to another family

  2. What an interesting post. How scary to be a woman or girl child back then. I would want my family to be rich to have some protection. It appears that the poor were the ones that had the hardest time. Sex has always been a commodity and continues to this day. White slavery is still going on but our legal system has a better chance to getting into the matter and stopping it.

    1. Rich young women's fate depended solely upon their father. Bad father, bad life. Loving father, a much better life.

  3. Adding a tidbit - England had animal abuse laws long before there were ones for women and children. Isn't is wonderful to know where "we" stand.

    1. Rich men felt a great deal for their horses, so I'm not surprised they'd make laws to protect horses and other animals. But if a man had troubles with a wife, surely the fault was the wife's. I cannot fault Vic for decided she'd rather grow up impersonating a man, than be a woman. I also understand why her "New Woman" Aunt not only allowed it, but instructed the butler to teach Vic the behaviors of a proper young man.

  4. Things really don't change much and for years, many of the US states had very low ages of consent. I remember how long it go some states to raise the age to 16 from 12. Very sad. Tweeted.

    1. You are correct. When I went to school, there was a coach who seduced a different young girl each year. One tried to kill herself when her bible belt parents found out. Because age of consent was 12, the teacher had not broken any laws. Finally the school board was compelled to fire him, but they did so with great reluctance. He moved to Texas and became a principal. I suspect he's still seducing young girls. However, the age of consent finally got raised to 16 in Arkansas.

  5. interesting post, Liza. it is heartbreaking when children are the last ones protected

  6. It is sad to say that England is so far behind in things like the protection of children and women. And you are completely right, when writing historicals the best we can do is figure out excuses for the girls to be unmarried at age 18. In medieval times they were usually married at 14, so that proved a challenge to make my heroine 17 and unmarried. Because no one will touch a romance novel where the heroine is less than 18. Of course, historical fiction has no such restraints on it. Fantastic post, Liza!

    1. Thanks. Next I do baby bottles. You would think that would be a happy topic, but it isn't.


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