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William Morris on Prostitution: A Letter of August 17, 1885

Terry L. Meyers

    The following letter by William Morris refers to the St. James's Hall Conference and Hyde Park demonstration of August 21 and 22, 1885. The letter is not in Norman Kelvin's The Collected Letters of William Morris, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), but appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, August 19, 1885, p. 12. 
    The conference and demonstration were being organized, largely by W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, as part of Stead's "New Crusade" against pornography, indecency, and prostitution, and in support of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill that had just been passed by the House of Commons on August 7, 1885 and accepted by the House of Lords on August 10. Stead was eager to move forward the campaign begun by his famous exposé "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," and hoped that the meeting and demonstration would help, according to his biographer, "to generate sentiment for purity reforms, to spur individual actions, and to form 'Vigilance Committees' in every town."@
    The letter was printed in the Pall Mall Gazette as one of dozens received by the Demonstration Committee expressing regrets at being unable to attend, participate, or speak--there was, given the season, a "general absence of ladies and gentlemen of influence in town" (p. 11). Morris's letter distinguishes itself by its independence of thought, by its setting the problem of prostitution and its solution in an economic and social context, and by its polite skepticism of some of the dynamics and social values behind the movement being celebrated: