In January 1840 Gladstone first embarked on his work of rescuing and rehabilitating London prostitutes. Gladstone seems to have been a man of intense sexuality; he was also separated from his wife for lengthy periods while he was in London or she was at Hawarden. It was usually during these periods of separation that Gladstone's rescue work increased. H.C.G. Matthew deals with this subject in his biography, Gladstone (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 90-95, from which the following section is quoted.

Anxiety about his political work, his friends' religion, the Oak Farm finances, and his personal problems, aggravated Gladstone's feelings. At first, during the 1840s, he relieved them by reading what he regarded as pornography - mostly Restoration poems, classical authors such as Petronius, and fabliaux (French verse fables, some of them extremely bawdy). These were all readily available in bookshops and in the libraries of friends such as Thomas Grenville. To pornography he later added conversations with prostitutes, some of whom he found beautiful and physically attractive.

At first the 'rescue work' (as he called it) was an act of conventional charity done within the context of the 'engagement'. The 'engagement' was a lay Tractarian brotherhood organised by the Acland brothers on advice from Keble. It had a thoroughly Tractarian ethos. Gladstone was associated with its planning in 1844 and began to attend it early in 1845 . . . Its membership of fifteen . . . was subject to twelve rules, of which the first was to perform 'some regular work of charity'. Gladstone fulfilled with rule in the early days of 'the engagement' by work with destitutes, male and female, who were in or dependent on the House of St. Barnabas in Rose Street, Soho. But by 1848 he found this work 'less suitable than it was' and told Acland it was too time-consuming.

In May 1849 under stress from Oak Farm affairs and the Clergy Relief Bill, he began meeting prostitutes on the streets late at night (there had been some rescue work done earlier, but not systematically). In the Session, he was often in the Commons till midnight. In July 1850, following the Pacifico debate and the death of Peel, when his wife was away at Hagley, and perhaps prompted by an article in the Westminster Review, he began regular meetings with prostitutes in the vicinity of the notorious Argyll Rooms, and the names of individual prostitutes start to be regularly noted in the diary.

The rescue work was at one level exactly that — the attempt to rescue prostitutes from the streets and rehabilitate them in suitable employment, or by marriage, or by emigration, after a time of training. This was done at the House of Mercy at Clewer, by Windsor, where the keeper in the early 1850s was Mariquita Tennantwhom Gladstone had known since 1843. Much time was spent in persuasion and in arranging transport and subsequent employment. Catherine Gladstone was well informed about these activities, and prostitutes were, almost from the start, invited to the Gladstones' house. But it is also clear that for Gladstone rescue work became not merely a duty but a craving; it was an exposure to sexual stimulation which Gladstone felt he must both undergo and overcome. As he admitted to himself,he deliberately 'courted evil'.

The redemption of prostitutes was an activity which, in principle, had an obvious Christian justification. But for Gladstone it also involved temptation. Was the danger to his spiritual well-being balanced by the good he was doing? Inhis talks with prostitute he 'trod the path of danger' as regards himself, while at the same time having little success in proselytising. By January 1854 he had spoken, 'indoors or out', to between eighty and ninety prostitutes but 'among these there is but one of whom I know that the miserable life has been abandoned and that I can fairly join that fact with influence of mine'. The lack of success was not surprising, for the discipline during rehabilitation at the Houses of Mercy at Clewer and Rose Street, Soho, was stronger than that of any Victorian boarding school. Jane Bywater, a partially rescued prostitute, wrote to Gladstone in 1854 after a short spell in the House of Mercy: 'I have no doubt that you wished to do me some service, but I did not fancy being shut up insuch a place as that for perhaps twelve months. I should have committed suicide.' . . .

His predilection for pornography has been noted above. In 1849 Gladstone began to scourge himself to counter stimulation from it. By 1851 he was also scourging himself after conversations with prostitutes during which he felt he had allowed himself to be excessively excited. Sometimes he went to their homes or lodging houses for talks long into the night, sometimes for tea. On occasion he was moved to almost lyrical praise of their beauty, noted in Italian. So far as we know, and there is no evidence to the contrary, he managed to remain, in the end, self-controlled and self-critical.

Beginning in October 1845 during his visit to his sister Helen in Germany, Gladstone analysed his feelings about both pornography and prostitutes in a series of remarkable passages, some in the diary, some on separate sheets of paper which were folded and enclosed with the diary. He kept records of his temptations and of his measures to overcome them. These were listed as 'Channels', 'Incentives'. 'Chief actual dangers', and 'Remedies', each broken down into several sub-headings and categories. The presence of the Aristotelian philosophical tag [in respect of things of a certain kind] and the abstract form of the other categories shows the pervading influence of the Oxford Schools even on Gladstone's most private thoughts . . .

Notes of his self scourgings were kept first on the separate sheet, later in lists in the diary, and then day by day by signs in the diary entries. The last started the day he read Froude's Nemesis of Faith. This series of lists, explanations, and entries must be regarded as a classic of mid-Victorian self-analysis of guilt., It is also very characteristically Gladstonian; a strange mixture of detail, thoroughness, generality, and principle, carried through with cool efficiency, passion, self-confidence, and religious repentance . . .

Gladstone's self-analysis of an explicitly sexual topic was made in language which treated it implicitly. In this, despite the privacy of his diary and the various codes and foreign languages available to him, he remained within Victorian public conventions. Thus it is impossible to know the exact nature of Gladstone's relationship with the prostitutes he visited. The language is guarded but occasionally suggestive. In 1896, seventeen months before he died, he assured his son and pastor, Stephen, that he had never 'been guilty of the act which is known as that of infidelity to the marriage bed'; he specifically limited himself 'to this negation' a precise and obviously qualified declaration.

What is clear is that on occasion these confrontations were followed by self-scourging. Gladstone's use of the scourge or discipline is marked in the diary or on his lists by the sign [Lambda], presumably because of its resemblance to a whip. An entry characteristic of its use, and of the oblique references to what may seem to be some form of limited physical encounter, is that of 13 July 1851, in the crisis of Hope and Manning's apostasy, which literally 'demoralised' him. In the urgency of the crisis — a crisis as Gladstone saw it of national as well as of personal identity — he lost for a time his moral sense. Numbed, disorientated, overwhelmed by a development he had failed to anticipate, he

Went with a note to E[lizabeth] C[ollins]'s — received (unexpectedly) & remained 2 hours: a strange and humbling scene — returned & [Lambda]

This and all other entries when a prostitute was involved suggest that the flagellation was self-administered in private, following, not during, the meeting.

It is true that flagellation was known as 'the English vice' and doubtless figured in the pornography which Gladstone read. Nonetheless, the idea of its use for what was intended as a punishment for sin probably came to him in a Tractarian context. Newman certainly used a scourge and described it in his novel, Loss and Gain, as 'an iron discipline or scourge, studded with nails'. EB Pusey asked Gladstone's closest friend, James Hope, to bring him a discipline from the Continent, and hoped that Keble, his confessor, would advise him to use it. Gladstone may well have found the discipline being used by brother members of the 'engagement', rule ten of which would have allowed for mutual instruction in this, though there is no evidence found that this was so.

From the diary it seems that Gladstone used the scourge without consultation. In 1840 he contemplated 'voluntary periodical confession', recognising that 'for many consciences I should not think it necessary in any degree; but for mine it is a question to be pondered'. When considering a paper by Keble planning the 'engagement in 1844 which provided for group confession, he wrote:'it often occurs to me what a blessing it will be to our children if they can be brought up in the habit of constantly disclosing the interior of their minds'. It is perhaps remarkable in view of this, and of his apparent Anglo-Catholicism, that he neither practised sacramental confession, as a number of his friends did, nor sought the advice of a spiritual director, lay or clerical, in these times of temptations. ...

Gladstone's involvement with prostitutes was therefore in no way casual, nor was it merely charitable work which might equally have taken another form... The time spent on it, the obvious intensity of many of the encounters, the courting of evil, show how at the centre of a Victorian family and religious life was a sexual situation of great tension. It is tempting to see Gladstone, because of his religious and political prominence, as exceptional in these matters, but perhaps if more middle-class Victorians had recorded their secret lives so assiduously and honestly he would not seem so; indeed he might seem, rather than a curiosity, predominantly an abstainant.

Last modified 18 March 2002