Heritage: Josephine Elizabeth Butler, the great feminist campaigner of North View, Wimbledon Common

The great feminist campaigner of North View, Wimbledon Common

Josephine Butler in youth

Josephine Butler in old age

First published in Wimbledon Your Local Guardian: Photograph of the Author by

For three years from 1890, one of Britain’s most famous campaigners for women’s social reform lived opposite Wimbledon Common at No 8 North View.

While there, Josephine Elizabeth Butler (1828-1906), whose 185th birthday falls tomorrow, wrote one of her books, Recollections of George Butler.

It was about her late husband and supporter over 38 years. She had cared for him at their home in Winchester until his death on 14 March 1890 and moved to Wimbledon afterwards.

Known for her promotion of women’s education, she was particularly famous as a campaigner for the welfare of prostitutes. Five years before coming to Wimbledon she had joined another local resident, William T Stead of Wimbledon Park Road, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, in helping to expose child prostitution or the “white slave trade” (see Heritage story 6 January 2012).

That had led to the raising of the age of consent from 13 to 16. She had then become active in spreading the word overseas, travelling on the continent to support similar campaigns there.

But her campaigning career dated back long before that. She had been born into a strongly reformist family.

Her father, John Grey, a cousin of the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Grey, had actively supported the abolition of slavery, emancipation of Catholics, and the great Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832.

When Josephine married George Butler, a tutor at Oxford, in 1852, they came to share a lifelong commitment to social reform and Christian values. They lived first in Oxford, then Cheltenham College where George became vice-principal.

There in 1863 the youngest of their four children, their daughter Eva, was killed by falling from the top of stairs, aged six.

The tragedy depressed Josephine and she sought personal solace by ministering to the sufferings of others.

In 1866 George became headmaster of Liverpool College and when the family moved there, Josephine ignored advice by visiting the local workhouse where she became involved with prostitutes, rejecting their lifestyles but attacking the double standards of society.

In a contrasting feminist cause she also joined the women’s suffragist Anne Clough in helping to form the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women.

In 1869, Josephine led a national campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts. These were a blatant example of the bias against women that existed in those days.

They had recently been passed in an effort to control the spread of venereal diseases in the Armed Forces by regulating prostitution.

The men were simply regarded as victims while the Acts allowed forcible medical examinations and detentions of prostitutes for treatment.

In that year, it was proposed that the Acts be extended from the garrison towns and naval ports where they were first implemented, to the entire country.

This aroused strong opposition from civil liberties supporters of both sexes. Josephine concentrated all of her energies on opposing the move, suffering vilification and even physical assault in a campaign that would continue for the next 17 years.

George was criticised too for failing to control his wife as Victorian husbands were expected to do. He stood by her, regardless. Finally in 1886, the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed.

Four years earlier, George had retired from Liverpool College and taken up the canonry at Winchester Cathedral. In their new city, Josephine opened a refuge for women in need of care and shelter.

Always outspoken, she managed to offend both conservative Anglicans by her reformist views and secularists by her strong faith.

She dedicated several years to nursing George after he was taken sick. Then moving to Wimbledon, she wrote her book about him which was published in 1892. But she suffered from poor health and loneliness. After three years in Wimbledon she left the house at North View to return to her native Northumberland where she lived with her eldest son George on his estate at Galewood.

This was followed by another work, Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade which appeared in 1896. When the old cause resurfaced in 1897 with new Contagious Diseases Acts imposed by the British Raj in India, she campaigned once again. In 1898 she published a Life of St Catherine of Siena and in her last years became a passive supporter of the National Union of Suffrage Societies, aiming to secure votes for women.

Josephine Butler died age 78 on 30 December 1906 and was buried nearby at the little church in Kirknewton.


The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.

For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.

Click here for more fascinating articles about Wimbledon's heritage


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