This is a book that landed unsolicited on my doorstep, I know I kept the press release but I don't know where I decided to keep it so if you sent it to me - thank you, I really enjoyed it.
Bridget O'Donnell was a producer and director with the BBC before she went off and did an MA in creative non-fiction - not a term I'd heard before, but one I think I like - I generally get quite wound up by non fiction that contains, in my view, to much supposition. Sticking that creative in left me feeling forewarned and forearmed. O'Donnell has also written for newspapers including The Guardian which goes some way to explaining why this book feels so assured despite being her first, it probably also explains why it feels like it would make such good television.
Inspector Minahan was a large (6 foot and a bit) and conscientious policeman who after a couple of decades exemplary service on the force started making waves in the early 1880's. he started by backing a prisoner who had been beaten in custody and carried on by taking exception to the brothel running activities of Mrs Mary Jefferies who catered to clients of the highest rank, and seems to have had the Chelsea police force in her pocket. The bigger picture sketched out here was familiar to me but Minahan was not but he played a vital part in our history.
In the 1860's the age of consent for girls was 13 and the Contagious Diseases act was passed - this allowed the police in navel ports and barracks towns to arrest and examine any woman suspected of being a prostitute to make sure she was 'clean' in an attempt to halt the spread of venereal disease in the troops . There was no question of these women's customers being examined in the same way. One unintended consequence though was a galvanisation of the emerging women's movement and an increased demand for female suffrage.
Twenty years later when Inspector Minahan lost his job after making a fuss about police corruption in Chelsea his actions helped repeal the contagious diseases act and raise the age of consent to 16. Minahan had been watching Jeffries brothels and knew who her clients were - potentially explosive information. It didn't help him much, he was still hounded out of the force every avenue of appeal closed down on him - all of which he pursued right up to an appeal to the Home Secretary who was having non of it.
It was a journey that led Minahan to investigate for various purity campaigners including William Stead who's 'Maiden Tribute' expose caused such a stir, and to keep on challenging the establishment in one way or another for as long as he possibly could. It's a great story full of issues which haven't really gone away, it's also brilliantly handled. O'Donnell's research is impressive (she checked contemporary weather reports for when she wants to throw in a little dark and stormy atmosphere) but her story is also creative - she has a definite interpretation for her facts. Happily the results are compelling as well as convincing. There are also parallels with current events, specifically the grooming of young girls by groups of older men as in the Rochdale case, which call for some consideration. Then, as now, the girls most at risk seem almost disposable - potential commodities rather than people. In a hundred and thirty years you might have hoped we would have come further.