The past is a foreign country: it is now rare for the editor of a London newspaper to buy a thirteen-year-old in pursuit of a story. This, though, was the method of William Thomas Stead, whose Pall Mall Gazette exposed, in 1885, an underground network supplying the daughters of Britain’s poor to continental brothels. Vested interests meant that legislative countermeasures would result only from a national hullabaloo. That required, in Stead’s view, a demonstration. So with five pounds, a notepad and some witnesses, he engaged the services of a procuress, through whom he obtained Eliza Armstrong from her alcoholic mother. To show it could be done, he ‘trafficked’ her to Paris, where she was received by the Salvation Army. He then spent three months in prison – on a charge of failing to secure the permission of Eliza’s father for her journey. But the plan worked. We owe to Stead and Armstrong our current laws governing the age of consent.
Stead is the idol of Martin Bridges, who narrates Paul Binding’s The Stranger from the Sea, a coyly scandalous elaboration of Ibsen’s late play The Lady from the Sea. After a visit – thankfully abortive – to the sort of establishment Stead targeted, Martin leaves London for the Kentish