Josephine Butler

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Josephine Butler
File:Josephine Butler - portrait.jpg
Josephine Butler
Born Josephine Elizabeth Grey
(1828-04-13)13 April 1828
Milfield, Northumberland, England, UK
Died 30 December 1906(1906-12-30) (aged 78)
England, UK
Cause of death Natural death
Nationality British
Ethnicity White British
Occupation Social reformer
Years active 1869–1890
Known for Victorian feminist
Contagious Diseases Acts
International Abolitionist Federation
Spouse(s) George Butler (m. 1852 – 1890 [his death])
Children George Grey Butler (1852–1935)
Arthur Stanley Butler (1854–1923)
Charles Augustine Vaughan Butler (1857–1929)
Evangeline Mary Butler (1859–1864)
Parent(s) John Grey (1785–1868)
Hannah Eliza Annett (1792 – 15 May 1860)

Josephine Elizabeth Butler (née Grey) (13 April 1828 – 30 December 1906) was a Victorian era British feminist and social reformer[1] who was especially concerned with the welfare of prostitutes. She was intensely religious as an evangelical Anglican. Along with other charity efforts, she led the long campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts both in Britain and internationally from 1869 to 1886 because the acts harmed and unfairly imprisoned young women who were suspected of being prostitutes.

Family life

Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born at Milfield House, Milfield, Northumberland[2][3][4] and was the seventh child of John Grey a land agent (1785–1868, b. Milfield, Northumberland) and Hannah Eliza Annett (b. 1792, Alnwick, d. 15 May 1860). The couple married in 1815.[5] John Grey, son of George Grey (d. 1793) and Mary Burn, was an agricultural expert, and cousin of the reformist British Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. He was slavery abolitionist who played a significant role in Catholic emancipation, and also worked for the Reform Act 1832. In 1833 he was appointed manager of the Dilston Estate (Greenwich Hospital), near Corbridge, Northumberland, and the family moved there. He lost most of his savings in the fall of 1857, with the failure of the Newcastle Bank.[6]

Josephine married George Butler (1819–1890 b. Harrow, Middlesex), a scholar and cleric, in 1852. They shared an Evangelical approach to Christianity and a cultural attachment to Italy, as well as a strong commitment to liberal reforms. George Butler encouraged his wife in her public work, and he suffered set-backs in his own career on account of his wife's notoriety. She gave birth to four children: George Grey (b. 1852, Oxford); Arthur Stanley (b. 1854, Oxford); Charles Augustine Vaughan (1857, Clifton, Gloucestershire); Evangeline Mary (Eva)(1859–1864), Cheltenham].[7] The Butlers had strong radical sympathies, including support for the Union in the American Civil War.

Their only daughter, Eva died in 1863, following a fall from the staircase at their home.[8] This led Josephine to seek solace by ministering to people with greater pain than her own. She began visiting Liverpool's Brownlow Hill workhouse which led to her first involvement with prostitutes. She set up a House of Rest and an Industrial Home for them. [9]


Bust of Josephine Butler in 1865, aged 36, by Alexander Munro
Josephine Butler's name on the lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

From her twenties on, Butler was very active in feminist movements. This was particularly spurred by the accidental death of her five-year-old daughter Eva in 1864 when the Butlers were living in Cheltenham, where George served as vice principal at Cheltenham College. In 1866 George Butler was appointed headmaster of Liverpool College, and the family moved to Liverpool. Josephine now became involved in the campaign for higher education for women, and in 1867 together with Anne Jemima Clough, later principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, she was instrumental in establishing the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. However, she had also been very closely involved with the welfare of prostitutes; as a passionate Christian, she abhorred the sin, but she also regarded the women as being exploited victims of male oppression, and she attacked the double standard of sexual morality. So when a national campaign was begun in 1869 to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, she was an obvious woman to lead it.

Contagious Diseases Act

Josephine Elizabeth Butler in old age, by George Frederic Watts, 1894

The Contagious Diseases Acts had been introduced during the 1860s (1864, 1866, 1869) as a form of state regulation of prostitution, to control the spread of venereal diseases, especially in the British Army and Royal Navy. This gave magistrates the power to order a genital examination of prostitutes for symptoms of VD, and detain infected women in a lock hospital for three months to be cured. Refusal to consent to the examination led to imprisonment. An accusation of prostitution by a police officer was sufficient to order an examination; women so accused often lost their livelihoods and, notoriously, one woman committed suicide.

Butler's description of this at a public meeting – she had been known to refer to the procedure as "surgical rape" – caused Hugh Price Hughes, Superintendent of the West London Mission, who was thanking her formally on the platform, to leave the stage in tears[10] – something most unusual in those days and commented upon widely at the time.

The various Acts only applied to certain specified areas such as ports and garrison towns – but in 1869 the "Association for the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts" was formed to campaign to extend their operation over the whole of the United Kingdom.[11] This led to vehement opposition from Christians, feminists and supporters of civil liberty and to the setting up of two organisations: the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, led by doctors, and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, led by Josephine Butler. Josephine threw all her energies into the campaign despite vilification and occasional physical assault, and the Acts were finally repealed in 1886.

In 1885 she was drawn into another related campaign led by the campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead. He had published a series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon exposing the extent of child prostitution in London. As a result of this campaign, the age of consent in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was raised from 13 to 16 that same year.

Josephine was also very active in spreading the campaign internationally, and travelled to the French Third Republic and Switzerland where she met with hostility from the authorities, and strong support from feminist groups. As a result of her efforts, international organisations including the International Abolitionist Federation that she was a founder of, were set up to campaign against state regulation of prostitution and the traffic in women and children. Also, in 1897 in British Raj India, new Contagious Diseases Acts were imposed by the British government, and she led a new campaign against this.

Meanwhile, George had retired from Liverpool College and been made a Canon of Winchester Cathedral, and he died 14 March 1890. Josephine continued campaigning until the early 1900s, and died in 1906.


Josephine Butler was not only a vehement feminist but a passionate Christian; she once said "God and one woman make a majority". She is now considered to have invented many of the strategies that would later be used by the suffragettes and it has even been argued that her alliance with the "new journalism" of W.T. Stead initiated the methods of sociological enquiry.[12] In the Church of England she is celebrated with a Lesser Festival on 30 May and 30 December. She is also represented in windows in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, and St Olave's Church in the City of London.

The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics, holds a number of collections related to Josephine Butler. These include the Records of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene (3AMS)renamed the Josephine Butler Society in honour of its founder; Over 2,500 letters in the Josephine Butler Letter Collection (3JBL); and the Josephine Butler Society Library consisting of books and pamphlets collected by the Society.[13]

In 2005, the University of Durham honoured her by naming Josephine Butler College for her. This reflects the fact that she was married to a Durham University lecturer, and was a local of the North-East.[14]

Josephine Butler House after Maghull Group removed the cladding

Her connections to the UK city of Liverpool were also once memorialised. One of the "Faculty of Business and Law" buildings of Liverpool John Moores University was named "Josephine Butler House". The building (previously the first Radium Institute in the UK), at the centre of the Cultural Quarter, Hope Street, Liverpool, and which dated back to 1867, was demolished in 2013 for the site to become a car park[15] and subsequently student housing due to open in 2015. [16] Josephine Butler's house in Cheltenham, The Priory in London Road, was demolished in the 1970s. However, there remains a blue plaque on the apartment building which now occupies the site.

Her name is listed on the south side of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

Selected writings

  • The Education and Employment of Women (1868)
  • Memoir of John Grey of Dilston (1869)
  • An Appeal to the People of England on the Recognition and Superintendence of Prostitution by Governments, by an English Mother (1870)
  • The Constitution Violated (Edmondson and Douglas. 1871)
  • Une Voix dans le Désert (1875)
  • Catharine of Siena. A Biography (1878)
  • Recollections of George Butler (1892)
  • Personal reminiscences of a Great Crusade (Horace, Marshall and Son, 1896)
  • Josephine Butler, an autobiographical memoir (edited by George and Lucy Johnson, London: J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd., 1913)

See also


  1. "Butler, Josephine". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 265.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The National Archives". Census 1881 (RG11/3642/122/22). |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Ridley, Nancy (1966). Portrait of Northumberland. London: Robert Hale.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Walkowitz, Judith (2004). "Butler, Josephine Elizabeth (1828–1906)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. Missing or empty |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Birth years for John Grey, Hannah Grey, Charles G. Grey [b. 1824–26], Josephine Grey, George Butler: "The National Archives". Census 1851 (HO/107/2414/344/13). |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6.  Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney, eds. (1890). [ "Grey, John (1785–1868)" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. 23. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 195.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> See also: Josephine E. Butler, Memoir of John Grey of Dilston (revised 1874); Gent. Mag. 1868, pt 1, pp. 678–79; Times 27 January 1868:10.
  7. Information on George & Josephine's children: "The National Archives". Census 1861 (RG9/1797/16/25). |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Information on Evangeline Mary Butler, from England & Wales Birth/Death Index. Volume 6a, p. 259, July–Aug–Sept 1864.
  9. Mathers, Helen (2014). Patron Saint of Prostitutes. Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Predicaments of Progressive Methodism – Christopher Oldstone lecturing on Hugh Price Hughes
  11. Gordon, Peter; Doughan, David (2005), Dictionary of British women's organisations, 1825–1960, Routledge, p. 16, ISBN 978-0-7130-4045-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. F. Regard, Feminisme et prostitution dans l'Angleterre du 19e siecle : la croisade de Josephine Butler, Lyon, ENS Editions, 2014.
  13. The Women's Library
  14. Durham’s latest College salutes social reformer and women’s campaigner
  15. Liverpool Confidential: Josephine Butler... from champion of the oppressed to £4.9m car-park
  16. The Business Desk: US buyer for Josephine Butler site


The archives of Josephine Butler are held at The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics, ref 3JBL There are also important collections at the University of Liverpool, [1] and the Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn, Ashington, Northumberland. [2]

Further reading

  • Boyd, Nancy. Three Victorian Women Who Changed Their World: Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale (Oxford University Press, 1982)
  • McHugh, Paul. Prostitution and Victorian social reform (Routledge, 2013)
  • Mathers, Helen. Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and the Victorian Scandal (The History Press, 2014)
  • Neal, Diana, eds Sex, Gender, and Religion: Josephine Butler Revisited (Peter Lang, 2006)
  • Petrie, Glen. A singular iniquity: the campaigns of Josephine Butler (Macmillan, 1971)
  • Strachey, Ray. The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) pp 187–222
  • Walkowitz, Judith (2004; online edn, May 2006). "‘Butler , Josephine Elizabeth (1828–1906)’". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).

Primary sources

  • Butler, Josephine Elizabeth Grey. Personal reminiscences of a great crusade (H. Marshall, 1896)

External links