Famous and wealthy old men abusing adolescents? Policemen being ordered to falsify their statements? Newspaper editors under arrest? This may all sound familiar, but I’m not actually referring to Sir Peter Morrison, Jimmy Saville, Hillsborough or even Rebekah Brooks. That was last week, I’m talking last century.
In the early 1880s the Victorians were – like us – left reeling after a series of newspaper revelations and government reports exposed just how rotten their ‘respectable’ society really was. The age of consent was then just thirteen. Adolescent girls and boys were regularly enticed or groomed into prostitution, and if not marked out for a wealthy client in a city brothel, they were legally trafficked to Brussels, Paris and beyond. All the while, the Establishment turned a blind eye. That is, until one policeman wrote an incendiary report.
Unlike the Hillsborough officers of the 1980s, who kept ‘shtum’ for 23 years, in the 1880s this Irish inspector, whose name was Jeremiah Minahan, decided to make a stand. His report outlined the widespread corruption of his colleagues and that of the Cabinet members he had seen skulking up the steps of a local high-class brothel. Run by a notorious trafficker named Mary Jeffries, the Chelsea brothel was well known for purveying young flesh to famous and powerful old men.
Inspector Minahan’s report sparked riots, arrests, a tabloid war and the sensational trial of a newspaper editor. This editor, named William Stead, was prosecuted in 1885 for committing a crime in pursuit of a newspaper sensation. He was sentenced to three months in prison. Rebekah Brooks, you have been warned…
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A voice came to him through the blue of an August midnight.
‘It is no good,’ she said, ‘for the police to watch my houses. As I only do business with gentlemen of the highest rank in life.’
Jeremiah paused on his Chelseabeat and turned. He knew who she was. Her reputation was far greater than her physical stature: standing in the shadows of 125 Church Street, she looked a little old lady with a stoop. But to London’s sex industry in the summer of 1882, Mary Jeffries remained a colossus. A shameless show-off, she relished the reverberations she caused in fine society, habitually frequenting respectable night haunts with her entourage: gaggles of ‘fallen girls’ in flashy silk and young boys ‘whose fingers glistened with diamond rings, and whose feet were covered with patent shoes’.
Two years earlier, her infamy had become celebrity. In January 1880, a journalist named Clement Scott found himself at the centre of a widely reported libel trial following his review of an October ball in the Era, a theatrical magazine. Scott was accused of causing reputational damage to the dance’s organizer after describing the mere presence at the ball of one ‘Mrs. Jeffreys [sic], of Church Street, a notorious procuress’ with her ‘semi-levy of young men and young women’. The Old Bailey jury found his revelations to be ‘severe but honest’, and Scott was found not guilty. Jeffries’ fame meanwhile, was sealed in history.
Curious, Jeremiah chose to stop with her awhile, in order, he wrote, to ‘obtain all the information [he] could’.
‘Good evening,’ she said, ‘ . . . you have not been here long.’
He saw a well-dressed woman whose firmly set chin and slightly raised eyebrows bore a look of resigned inevitability. A sixty-two-year-old widow, nearing the end of a long career immersed in all manner of sexual desires, there was little perhaps that surprised Mary Jeffries. Her hooded eyes appraised the ‘well favoured’ police inspector before her. The best London courtesans and brothel-keepers ‘would study every lech, whim, caprice, and desire of her customer’. In Jeremiah, Jeffries saw a powerful man buttoned tightly into his smart blue uniform. And what she surmised about his ‘caprice’ impelled her, misguidedly, to boast.
‘I keep eight houses,’ she said, ‘I pay my taxes and keep my houses in good order . . . the police have watched my houses and only found I conduct them well.’
more Bridget O'Donnell...
Soon after this meeting, Jeremiah quietly began investigating Mary Jeffries. To ascertain exactly how many properties she owned in the area, he checked the Chelsea Vestry Rate Books. She was telling the truth: her taxes had been paid on time for many years. By now Jeffries had begun focusing her operation on three adjacent properties on Church Street: nos. 125, 127 and 129. All three were single-fronted, terraced townhouses. Having sold nos. 121, 111 and 105, Jeffries had re-invested her money in the redecoration of these three and had them ‘ingeniously arranged for the purposes of [her] business’:
Nos. 127 and 129 are connected internally by doorways on the upper floors and the other one  by an entrance through the garden. Practically the three houses are only one set of premises; for persons entering one may leave by another, the object . . . being to escape the notoriety and odium attaching to visiting houses of this kind.
And there were rumours of more: ‘a flogging-house . . . in Hampstead, a house of assorted perversions near the Grey’s Inn Road, and a white slave clearing house [for trafficking girls] conveniently situated on the river near Kew’.
Although the whispers that snaked in Jeffries’ wake were often far more imaginative than the truth, wealthy men continued to be drawn by her cosmopolitan antics and professional acumen. She also offered them what they wanted.
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