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;
Their only daughter, Evangeline died in 1863. 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.