Josephine Butler and spaces of reform in Winchester

Canon Street, Winchester, in the 1880s (City of Winchester Trust)

There ought to be a word for the mixture of thrill and dread that comes with hearing someone talk about your home town on the radio or TV. Coming from Winchester, it’s usually dread that someone in red cords is suggesting feeding the poor to their rare-breed pheasants or something. In fact (of course) the town is, just like any other, divided and misrepresented. One of the advantages of growing up in a outward-facing church environment is that you see much more of a place than the Kirstie Allsops and Best-Place-To-Live Guides will show you – the homelessness, the peripheral estates, the lonely people.

Reading about your home town in a history book is a far less nervous moment, but still a little thrilling. This weekend I’ve been reading Judith Walkowitz’s wonderful City of Dreadful Delight, which recounts the shifting representation of women and sexual danger in late Victorian London. One of the recurring figures is Josephine Butler – pioneering feminist, campaigner and reformer. Walkowitz first finds her in 1850’s Oxford, disgusted at the uncritical misogyny she was surrounded with, bringing “fallen women” in the town into her home – particularly those who had been misused by a callous male population. After a few years in Cheltenham, she and her clergyman husband George moved to Liverpool where she continued to seek out the unfortunate. Here we see her collaborative nature: she worked with a Quaker named Mrs Cropper who ran a ‘family home’ and she soon opened an ‘industrial home’ in an envelope factory.

Josephine Butler moves to Winchester

Josephine Butler (Women’s Library@LSE/ Josephine Butler Society)

Butler is probably most associated with her work campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which instructed police to stop women suspected of prostitution (almost always the poor, because of course the police would never presume that prostitutes looked like the middle or upper classes) and not only interrogate them but gynaecologically inspect them. These were brutal, degrading experiences, and it was Butler’s relentless campaigning which led the way to their repeal in the mid-1880s.

By this time, the Butlers were resident in Winchester – George had become a Canon of the Cathedral in 1882, and they moved to 9, The Close. Before I moved out, my pocket money came from washing up at the Cathedral’s cafe/restaurant. The clergy were lovely; the Canon in particular would waft by in his sumptuous robes and greet everyone. The Close is now a largely administrative area, but that didn’t prevent many, many noisy trips across the cobbles with a metal trolley, usually back and forth to the Deanery carting coffee and cakes for some function (in fact, I can distinctly recall on one of these trips finding out about 9/11 for the first time, but that’s another matter). Number 9 was an office of some sort – it never occurred to me to think about the people that had lived there and worked there. But live there they did, and Josephine brought her characteristic drive to her time there.

Hamilton House

Hamilton House, situated on the corner of Canon Street and Culver Road – the picture is from an estate agent’s advertisement, in which the ground floor apartment is to let for an eye-watering £1495pcm (Belgarum)

In 1883, Butler opened a “house of rest” in Canon Street. This was close by the Cathedral, but also – in a barracks town – an area associated with prostitution and therefore under the full gaze of the state through the Contagious Diseases Acts. Hamilton House (64, Canon Street) had been built by the Duke of Hamilton to qualify his son for a place at Winchester College (catchment areas are not a new concern, clearly). When Butler, and her secretary Amelie Humbert, moved to the area they set it up as a ‘Faith Hospital’ for women who were “friendless, betrayed and ruined, judged for one reason or another not quite suitable for other homes or refuges.” George preached there informally every Sunday, and in its first year (existing entirely on subscriptions and donations – testament, perhaps, to Butler’s tenacity and passion for her subject) helped over 40 women.

Rebecca Jarrett and the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’
Josephine Butler’s campaigning took many forms, but always centred on giving women’s voices centre stage. The role of Hamilton House can perhaps best be demonstrated through another of Walkowitz’s recurring cast, Rebecca Jarrett. The 1880s proved a busy decade for Butler: her campaigns led to the suspension of the CD Acts in 1883 and their repeal in 1886, helped in large part by the newspaper scandal of the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. The Pall Mall Gazette, led by editor W.T. Stead, made a series of scandalous allegations against the rich and powerful men of London, describing a trade in which young girls were professionally ‘procured’ for as little as £5, their virginity inspected and certified, and their deflowering sold off to wealthy men. Stead went the whole hog, arranging such a transaction himself, ostensibly purchasing the virginity of the 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong from the slums of Marylebone. Supported by his friend Butler, the outrage and shock caused by the affair led to a spell in prison for Stead, a dramatic court case in which the details of the Armstrong family were obsessively interrogated and reported. One of the star witnesses was the ‘reformed procuress’ Jarrett.

Rebecca Jarrett was a former prostitute and brothel-keeper who had been found and ‘converted’ from her ways by the Salvation Army. She had been sent to Hamilton House by Bramwell Booth. She missed the two ladies receiving her at the station and had to ask strangers for directions to the “faith healing cottage” in Canon Street. She was thrilled with her reception though – she was given supper and prayed for, and she soon became a close friend of Josephine Butler. So much so, in fact, that Butler entrusted Jarrett with the running of a new venture: Hope Cottage at Bar End, High Cliff, Winchester.

Hope Cottage

George Frederick Prosser, Looking towards Morested Downs from Bar End, Winchester; Cheesehil St, Winton, 1876-1881

Hope Cottage was a short-lived affair. Dedicated on 30th January 1885, it had to wrap up when Butler and Jarrett became embroiled in the scandals surrounding the “Maiden Tribute”. I haven’t been able to locate the exact site of Hope Cottage – the brevity of its use means that it’s not recorded on a map or census. Bar End now is the very edge of Winchester, our route in from Owslebury, passing “High Cliff” (we knew it as the Highcliffe council estate) the Bird In Hand (now knocked down and replaced by a solicitors) and assorted rows of small terraces. In 1885, I think it was probably a leafy, semi-rural district – very different from Whitechapel and Marylebone – and Hope Cottage “a nice large house” in Jarrett’s words. It wasn’t the last either – Butler opened a further “cottage home” in 1887, although I’m not sure exactly where this one was. These homes impressed – “Charlotte Murray prayed that God would grant ‘many similar Houses would be opened in the garrison towns of England'” after her visit (quote from Robinson).

The Close and Mary Sumner

Winchester in 1897. The Close is a walled area opposite the college, accessed via the Cathedral grounds or via Kingsgate, on top of which sits St Swithun’s Church. The Butler’s lived at number 9, the Sumners at number 1. Abutting this rarefied atmosphere was the much bawdier Canon Street – number 64 was taken over by Butler for her hostel. Bar End is somewhat further away (although still a pleasant walk), sat right at the edge of the city(© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. 1897

The Cathedral Close is an enclosed little grotto in the heart of one of the oldest parts of town, and no doubt relationships would have been close not just amongst the clergy, but their family too. Close friendships were formed, and Josephine Butler would doubtless have been glad to find a friend in Mary Sumner whose faith and ideals aligned with hers. Sumner’s husband Charles was Archdeacon and they lived at 1, The Close. Sumner’s career was perhaps less radical than Butler’s, but her foundation – the Mother’s Union – went on to have a huge global impact. Hers was a busy 1885 as well – this was the year when the Union jumped from its local origins in Charles’ former parish of Old Alresford (another childhood haunt – good paddling in the river) to a broader appeal following an address by Sumner to the Portsmouth Church Congress. Both Sumner and Butler were charismatic public speakers and internationalists – Sumner expanded the MU into the Empire during the early 20th century, and Butler spent the rest of the 1880s campaigning on behalf of Indian prostitutes.

Spaces of reform
All of this was news to me, which says something about either the stifling of an important part of women’s history, or my own lack of motivation at that age. Either way, Josephine Butler’s eight years in Winchester (she moved to Wimbledon in 1890 following her husband’s death) came at a crucial time in a long and illustrious life. Her operations were by no means limited to London. She was heavily involved with Stead’s work in London, and travelled the country with her campaigns. But she was certainly one to make the most of her situation: she wasted no time setting up Hamilton House and the other homes, and integrated them straight into her existing networks of support and help. They weren’t reformatories or hospitals as we usually think of Victorian institutions: Butler’s sympathy for her inmates was genuine and progressive and not – in fact, this is exactly what she set herself to campaign against – founded on the principle of fault. For most of her contemporaries, prostitutes were ‘unfortunate’ or ‘fallen’ or simply wicked or idle; for Butler they were women, situated in a patriarchal social and economic system that was based on institutional misogyny.

Social worlds often abut in dramatic fashion, and this is no exception. The high walls of the Close and the gated entry gave – and still give – the Close a rarefied, peaceful atmosphere, helped in no small measure by just how difficult it is to get a car down those small streets. Canon Street though, was – for want of a better description – the red light district, and the particular gaze of the authorities on this area was probably well justified by the proximity of the barracks, just to the West of the map above. These proximities are key to understanding the modern city, but were perhaps even more stark in Victorian England. Here were the highest of the upper classes, and the lowest of low, in adjacent streets. Butler took on this socio-spatial divide directly, building her work within the walls of the Close, reaching outside, and even spreading to the edge of the countryside. For the residents of her homes too, Winchester was a different world to Whitechapel or Marylebone – smaller, more rural and perhaps even more divided on a local scale. Butler took on that scale too, bridging two worlds and in doing so, bringing women from the edges of civilisation to the heart of it. I’d like to think Winchester, and the little world she built around the Close, Canon Street, and Bar End, played a part in a feminist process that’s still ongoing.

Jordan, J. and I. Sharp, Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns: Diseases of the Body Politic, 2003
Robinson, J. Divine Healing: The Formative Years: 1830-1890
Walkowitz, J.R. City of Dreadful Delight, 1992
Walkowitz, J.R. ‘Butler , Josephine Elizabeth (1828–1906)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 5 June 2017]
Winchester Cathedral, Josephine Butler: 19th Century Campaigner Against Human Trafficking [, accessed 5 June 2017]

4 thoughts on “Josephine Butler and spaces of reform in Winchester

  1. Alexander Douglas-Hamilton would have been the Duke of Hamilton In 1833, when Hamilton House was built.
    His son, William, later 11th Duke of Hamilton, would have been 22 in 1833, and was educated at Eton.


  2. Greatly enjoyed your Josephine Butler post.I lived in Canon Street as a child in the early 1950’s, number 48, formerly a pub I believe. My parents rented two rooms (upstairs and downstairs) outside lavatory, tin bath etc.
    It was an amazing place to live really, before gentrification but surrounded by “toffs”!

    Liked by 1 person

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