Where is Josephine Butler?

Josphine Butler 1869
Josphine Butler 1869

I haven’t discovered yet whether Josephine Butler was in any way connected to one of my old schools (Blackburn House, where I was unhappily a pupil between the ages of 12-15) but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she had a hand in it. Odd to think that that hand might still in some sense be at work in the world, more than a hundred years after her death. Makes me think of this poem:

We Live In Deeds, Not Years

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some
Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins.
Life’s but a means unto an end; that end,
Beginning, mean, and end to all things—God.
The dead have all the glory of the world.

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902)

There is a strong Liverpool tradition of powerful women doing extraordinary good in educational and social work (just say for now: Eleanor Rathbone, Bessie Braddock, Kitty Wilkinson) and on the not-infrequent occasions when I waited outside the Headmistress’ study at Blackburn House, I think I might have gazed at pictures of those women and the quiet-looking pinafored Victorian girls they helped or educated. At the Everyman Theatre, as a stage-struck 15-year-old, a play about Bessie Braddock  – with the wonderful Gillian Hanna in the title role – moved me profoundly. As a student at the University of Liverpool I attended lectures in the Eleanor Rathbone building. And as a concert-goer at the Philharmonic or drinker in the Phil I walked past Josephine Butler House – scandalously demolished to make way for a car park.  The names of these women seemed in the air I breathed as I grew up in this broken, creative, poor, angry, rich, dying, living city.

So when, as a nominee in the Addidi Inspiration Awards, I was asked to choose a female historical figure to represent, Josephine Butler seemed the obvious choice. I thought I knew who she was: involved in women’s education, wasn’t she? Did she help to set up Girton College ? Wasn’t she a mate of George Eliot (my own real C19 heroine but let’s leave that for another time)? Didn’t she have a house that used to be by the Phil – or was it a Nurses Home?

It’s odd how a space can be held, like mist in a valley, in one’s mind by someone who isn’t really there. Is that a kind of ghost of Josephine Butler I have in my mind, a thin always more faded presence? I try to find out: Did she found Blackburn House?  I do not know. I thought I knew who she was but actually I know nothing.

To bolster my ignorance a little I turn first to Wikipedia – thinking, I’ll get some references for some books.  And there she nearly is – in that historical account of a girl born in the North Country to an anti-slavery family and marrying an Oxford cleric, and moving to Liverpool when he became the Headmaster of Liverpool College. And there is Brownlow Hill workhouse, which I know became the site of the Metropolitan Cathedral. I know the Brownlow Hill  workhouse! And so I read;

The Butlers had strong radical sympathies, including support for the Union in the American Civil War.

Their only daughter, Evangeline died in 1863.[7] This led Josephine to seek solace by ministering to people with greater pain than her own. Against her friends’ and family’s advice, she began visiting Liverpool‘s Brownlow Hill workhouse which led to her first involvement with prostitutes.

But this all feels like (forgive me, you historians) mere history. I want story. I want her story. I don’t want facts, I want feelings.

And here Wiki’s open-source begins to help me. Under the wiki-sub-heading Further Reading, I see someone has added;

Josephine Butler’s daughter Ava died from a accident with the stairs as when her parents came home she ran down the stairs and died this is why Josephine is the person who started acts. Josephine was making a statement to the parliament and they ignored all her letters and pamflets about women saying they can get an education and a better job and situations in life.

Now this is the beginning of a story. This is (I’m guessing, I’m fictionalising) a Liverpool women (look at the Scouse grammar of ‘a accident’ and note the emotional reality of the detail of running downstairs when her parents came home) moved by the Josephine Butler life in some profound way. Perhaps this is a woman whose life has not been an easy one. Yet she is moved to add to the Josephine Butler page in Wikipedia. That means something.

And now this open-source addition to the wiki page has given me the clue I needed to begin to feel Josephine Butler’s presence in the Universe. This feeling is where I start my thinking about her.

This is a novel I’d like to write. I imagine a sex-worker getting some basic education in a street education project. I imagine a live-wire-link between her and the grieving mother whose child died before her eyes.

Later I follow a link to the Josephine Butler Trust and see this charitable body, based here in Liverpool, discussing how to use money now: what would she want now? To speak about the unspeakable, about human trafficking, the child sex trade. I see that some of her works are still in print and I’m sending for them right now.

I want to hear her own voice. I want to find her. In a fragment in the University of Liverpool Special Collection I hear a stronger echo of her presence… ‘Hundreds of other little girls were being cruelly murdered by neglect or by orphanages throwing them into the hands of the destroyers of the innocent…’ Update the language slightly and you have the Rochdale abuse scandal, here, now.

http://liv.ac.uk/library/sca/highlights/h1006JosephineButlerinLiverpool1866-1882.pdf

2 thoughts on “Where is Josephine Butler?

  1. Maggie McCarney June 9, 2013 / 10:58 am

    Hello Jane, Yes Girl keeping following your intuitions,it makes life interesting and these ladies from the past do seem to speak to us in some way. I am also thinking of a Margaret McMillan, a pioneesr for Nursery education for children in Deptford in the early 1900’s. She brought play and and good food and fresh air into the young lives of the workers children. good luck to Josephine Butler and her memory and inspiration.

  2. josephinebutlerpage January 21, 2015 / 12:50 pm

    Thanks for your blog, Jane. It’s about my favourite topic! I don’t think Josephine Butler was connected with your old school, at least I have not seen any evidence to show that. But you are spot on about the ‘live-wire-link ‘between a Liverpool street-worker and ‘the grieving mother whose child died before her eyes’.
    That’s a story that I could not forget and it led me to try to get my own book on Josephine Butler published last year, exactly 150 years after Eva died by falling from the bannisters at their home.
    It took me a long time to write, because Josephine wrote so much, and there are literarally thousands of letters as well. My book is called ‘Patron Saint of Prostitutes’ – it’s not fiction but does tell the story of Josephine’s life.
    You are right – she has almost disappeared. Her home in LIverpool has gone, and, of course, Josephine Butler House. In Liverpool there is only a portrait in the Walker Art Gallery and a stained glass window in the Anglican Cathedral. Her childhood home in Northumberland is still there – DIiston House at Corbridge is now the HQ for Mencap. But there’s not even a statue to her anywhere.
    Her life story is really compelling – how she took desperate women into her home and nursed the dying ones in the best bedroom. How she moved mass audiences to tears with stories of the terrible treatment of prostitutes . How she took a petition against the CD Acts to Parliament on the train from Liverpool, It was so big that she had to buy an extra seat for it! She kept on at MPs until they gave in and repealed the Acts. What a woman!
    There’s more about Josephine, and my book, on my website http://josephinebutlerpage.com/
    Good luck with your own research and writing!
    Helen Mathers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s