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This month I am starting with a fictional tale which needs a warning as it is not an easy read. Then I follow it with a brief description of the laws upon which the story is based.

A night of horror

Darkness enveloped Esmie as she ran out of the yard, slipping on the wet cobblestones and tripping on the uneven flags. The gaslight at the end of the street flickered in the blustery wind. Few people were about and the lack of horse hooves told her it was late. The side alleys smelled of boiled vegetables, sweat and worse. But Esmie had to check each one.

Suddenly a policeman stepped out and grabbed her roughly by the arm. She quivered, ‘Honest, you’re wrong, I’m a good girl.’ A hollow laugh rang out as he marched her down the cobbled, muddy street. He was right, he knew he was; I mean, he thought, just look at the way she’s dressed.

At the police station she was shoved into a cold, dark cell. She shivered, well aware of what was to come. She could refuse the examination but then she’d just be locked up. Or she could tell the truth but her anger stopped her. Why, she screamed in her head, did these men in power always think the worse of women?

The freezing night dragged on. The church bell marked the passing of time and her stomach rumbled; breakfast had been small and a long time ago. Heavy footsteps approached and stopped outside her cell, she curled up, knowing what was to happen next.

The door banged open. ‘On your back, pull down your knickers, legs open. You probably do it plenty each night but we won’t pay you.’ His laughter was harsh, cruel and cold, just like the instrument she saw him wielding.

Another man came up and held her shoulder to the hard wood bench. He looked at her kindly and said ‘what’s your story, luv?’ Fear gripped her and she thought of her gran, probably still confused and wandering the streets after all these hours. If only she had waited to put a top over her vest this would never have happened. ‘Please, I was looking for my gran.’

The man holding her shoulders indicated to his mate to step away. ‘Come on Harry’, he snarled. ‘I’ve heard every story under the sun. This is just another cock and bull tale.’ The kindly policeman again stopped his mate. ‘Let’s at least hear her tale. Come on luv, tell us your name and why are you out on a winter’s night dressed like this.’

Esmie shuffled and covered her legs. She told them her name and about how her gran had been sparky and loving until recently. But now she was weird, forgetting who she was and screaming for no reason. The worst was that she would wander off and get lost, forgetting where she lived. Esmie had to go out day and night in all weathers to find her.

‘I’ve heard enough. On your back, knickers down.’ As fear gripped Esmie once more the cell door flung open. ‘I need some help out here. There’s a dirty old woman in a torn dress, banging on the desk, shouting she’s Flo. What do I do?’

Relief flooded through Esmie. Her gran had turned up and so her night of horror was over.

Contagious Diseases Acts

In the story Esmie’s night of horror was over but for many women the horror went on. In the 1860s a number of Contagious Diseases Acts were passed. They allowed a policeman to arrest a woman on suspicion of her being a prostitute. She would then be subjected to a harsh internal examination; unlike the story, this would be conducted by a doctor who would often use a dirty instrument.

The hypocrisy of the law was clear in the report of the Royal Commission (1871) which stated that: ‘With one sex the offence is committed as a matter of gain; with the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse. Despite John Stuart Mill and many others speaking out against these laws they were cruelly enforced for over fifteen years. In 1869 Elizabeth and Josephine Butler set up the Ladies National Association which campaigned tirelessly against these laws until their repeal in 1886.