Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Butler, Josephine Elizabeth

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BUTLER, Mrs. JOSEPHINE ELIZABETH (1828–1906), social reformer, born on 13 April 1828 at Millfield Hill, Glendale, Northumberland, was fourth daughter of John Grey of Dilston [q. v.] by his wife Hannah Annett, whose family was of Huguenot extraction. Much influenced in girlhood by her father's strong religious and ethical convictions, she was educated at home, save for a short period at the boarding-school of a Miss Tydey at Newcastle-on-Tyne. She studied in girlhood much Italian and English literature, and read translations of the fathers. On 8 Jan. 1852 she married George Butler [q. v. Suppl. I], then engaged in tuition at Oxford. The first five years of her married life were spent in Oxford, whence she moved successively to Cheltenham, Liverpool, and Winchester, where her husband held in turn educational or ecclesiastical appointments.

From an early period Mrs. Butler, moved by what she believed to be a divine call, devoted her energies to the moral elevation of her sex. She supported in its early stages the movement for the higher education of women (cf. her introduction to Woman's Work and Woman's Culture, 1869), but after the accidental death by a fall before her eyes of her youngest child and only daughter, she concentrated her efforts on the protection and reclamation of women subjected to vicious influences. Having settled in Liverpool in 1866, she visited women in the workhouse and helped to establish homes and refuges for the drifting population of workgirls and fallen women. Many of the latter were with her husband's assent received into their home. At the end of 1869 she engaged in the agitation then just begun for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869, which gave a legal sanction to vice by placing women living immoral lives under police supervision while exposing them to cruel injustice. These measures only applied to seaports and garrison towns, but their extension to the whole country was recommended by their more extreme advocates. After an agitation for repeal of the Acts had been begun by Daniel Cooper, secretary of the Rescue Society, the Ladies' National Association for Repeal was formed in 1869, with Mrs. Butler as hon. secretary, and it gained influential support not only from Englishwomen like Florence Nightingale [q. v. Suppl. II], Harriet Martineau [q. v.], and Lydia Becker [q. v. Suppl. I] (Daily News, 31 Dec. 1869), but from foreigners like Mazzini and Victor Hugo. For sixteen years Mrs. Butler was indefatigable in the cause with pen and speech. At a by-election at Colchester (October-November 1870), when the government candidate, Sir Henry Storks [q. v.], championed the Acts, Mrs. Butler actively opposed him, and was rewarded by his defeat. She similarly intervened in 1872 with smaller success when a member of the government, H. C. E. Childers [q .v. Suppl. I], offered himself for re-election at Pontefract. In March 1871 she gave evidence before the royal commission which was appointed in deference to the agitation; and next year opposed a bill introduced by the home secretary, Henry Austin Bruce, afterwards Lord Aberdare [q. v. Suppl. I], which substituted for the Acts provisions under the Vagrancy Act. She was equally energetic in denouncing the working of the offending law in India. At length in May 1883 the English Acts were repealed in part, mainly through the exertion of (Sir) James Stansfeld [q. v. Suppl. I]; and in 1886 they were totally repealed. In 1896 Mrs. Butler published an account of the conflict in 'Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade.'

Meanwhile Mrs. Butler had extended the agitation to the continent, where her zeal evoked much active sympathy. After urging continental action at a meeting at York on 25 June 1874, she visited France, Italy, and Switzerland (1874-5). At Brussels in 1880 she exposed in the newspaper 'Le National' the treatment of English girls, under age, who were detained, it was alleged, in licensed houses with the connivance of the 'police des mœurs,' of whom the chief and his subordinate were in consequence dismissed. To meet the evil she formed in London a committee for the suppression of 'the white slave traffic.' It was largely through her influence that the law affecting the state regulation of vice was reformed in Switzerland, Holland, Norway, France, and Italy.

In 1886 the serious illness of her husband, who fully sympathised with her aims, prevented further public activity. After her husband's death at Winchester in 1890 she lived near the residence of George Grey Butler, her eldest son, at Wooler, Northumberland, where she died on 30 Dec. 1906. She was buried at Kirknewton. Her three sons survived her. A crayon drawing of Mrs. Butler in youth, by George Richmond, and an oil painting by Jacobs are in the possession of her son, George Grey Butler, Ewart Park, Wooler. The former is reproduced, with the inscription 'Josephine Butler and all brave champions of purity,' in the atrium of the Lady chapel, Liverpool cathedral. An oil-painting by G. F. Watts, begun in 1895, was intended by the artist to be placed in the National Portrait Gallery at his death, and is in the possession of his widow, at Guildford. A pencil drawing made by Emily Ford in 1903 was reproduced for the subscribers to a presentation to Mrs. Butler in 1906. Of two marble busts by Alexander Munro, who also produced a medallion in profile, one is at Ewart Park, and the other belongs to Mrs. Butler's brother-in-law, Dr. H. M. Butler, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Besides numerous pamphlets and the memoirs of her father (1869), her husband (1892), and her sister, Madame Meuricoffre (1901), Josephine Butler wrote a 'Life of St. Catherine of Siena' (1898), which Gladstone praised, and a 'Life of Pastor Oberlin' (1882). 'The Hour before the Dawn' (1876) was probably the most widely read of her very numerous writings upon abolition. 'Rebecca Jarrett' (1886) was a reasonable defence of the witness whose evidence was discredited at the trial of W. T. Stead in that year. In 'Native Races and the War' (1900) she defended the government against pro-Boer criticism during the South African war.

[G. W. and L. A. Johnson, Josephine E. Butler, 1909 (with bibliography); W. T. Stead, Josephine Butler, 1888; The Times, 2 Jan. 1907; A Rough Record of Events connected … with Repeal. Compiled by H. J. Wilson; the Shield, January and May 1907; Benjamin Scott, A State Iniquity, 1890; private information.]

E. S. H-r.