Feminist and social reformer, Josephine Butler (1828-1906) visited Kent in the Spring of 1870. She was on a country-wide tour to campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act.

The Act which had been passed ‘for the prevention of contagious diseases at certain naval and military stations’ in 1864 was the first of four acts. It gave the police powers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes and subject them to physical examinations for venereal disease. The women were then sent to lock hospitals until they were cured. The Act was in force in the Kentish towns of Woolwich, Sheerness, Chatham and Shorncliffe. It came under criticism as men were not subject to the same inspections.

Butler recalls in her memoir:

‘It was on landing at Dover from our delightful summer tour in-1869, that we first learned that a small clique in Parliament had been too successfully busy over this work of darkness during the hot August days, or rather nights, in a thin House, in which most of those present were but vaguely cognisant of the meaning and purpose of the proposed constitutional change’.1

She was referring to the extension of the Act that summer which increased the period of detention in the lock hospitals from 6 months to 9 months.2 It also extended the act to Canterbury, Dover, Gravesend and Maidstone.

Butler established the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and published An Appeal to the People of England, by ‘an English Mother’, early in 1870. She argued that hospital admissions should be on a voluntary basis and that prostitutes should be examined by women doctors. She began a nationwide campaign to repeal the act, giving talks in towns and cities up and down the country, including Chatham, Whitstable and Canterbury. By the middle of June, Butler had travelled 3700 miles campaigning against the Acts.3

In the Spring of 1870, Butler was invited by Wesleyan minister, Reverend Hugh Price Hughes and Councillor Rowland Rees to speak at a public meeting in Dover. She spoke for an hour to a mixed assembly of men and women on the theme of ‘the poor and outcast women at the hands of immoral men’.4 One hundred and twenty women had undergone examination in Dover since the instigation of the Act, of whom 74 had been sent to hospital.5 Her talk received a mixed reception as some audience members felt it was inappropriate for a woman to speak about the topic ‘in all its nauseating detail’ in front of men.6

Continuing in her campaign, Butler spoke at the Corn Exchange, Maidstone, at the end of April with Annie Young and Mrs Bottomley to a women-only meeting.7 By May, Butler was reported as having told the Home Secretary that ‘she had visited the garrison towns of Kent, and could assert that the grossest and most indecent outrages on women were practiced under the operation of these new laws, and the excitement in consequence was dangerous to the peace’.8

Butler continued to campaign until the Act was finally repealed in 1886. However, as the practice of forced examinations continued in India Butler renewed her campaign, determined that no woman should suffer.

A letter from Josephine Butler written in July 1902 is contained in the Dover Methodist Scrapbook which was written two months after the end of the Second Boer War, a military campaign Butler had supported in her publication Native Races and the War (1900). In the letter, Butler writes of the ‘immense evils of present times’ but argues that she cannot believe that ‘our people and nation are rushing to destruction’. She expresses her respect for the memory of Rowland Rees, with whom she had stayed during her visit of 1870, and who had died earlier that month.9 Butler died four years later on the 30 December 1906 at Kirknewton, Northumberland.

Centenary services to commemorate the life of Josephine Butler were held in 1928, of which one took place at Rochester Cathedral.


  1. Butler, Josephine. An Autobiographical Memoir, p.96 

  2. Prochalska, F. K. Women and Philanthropy in 19th Century England, OUP, 1980, p.205. 

  3. Butler, Josephine. An Autobiographical Memoir, p.99. 

  4. The Dover Express 21 April 1870. 

  5. The Dover Express 1 April 1870. 

  6. The Dover Express 21 April 1870. 

  7. Chatham News 23 April 1870. 

  8. Kentish Gazette 10 May 1870. 

  9. Dover Methodist Scrapbook, Canterbury Christ Church University Library, DMS.75.4.3.