Hopkins, Ellice (1836–1904)

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Hopkins, Ellice (1836–1904)

English social reformer who founded the Ladies Associations for the Care of Friendless Girls to tackle the underlying causes of prostitution. Born Ellice Jane Hopkins in Cambridge, England, in October 1836; died in May 1904; her mother was a talented musician and her father was a distinguished mathematics tutor at Cambridge University.

Taught in Sunday schools; lectured on Christian morals to working-class men; involved in rescue and reform work; began Ladies Associations for the Care of Friendless Girls (1876); helped pass an amendment to the Industrial Schools Act (1880); founded White Cross Army (1883); helped found the National Vigilance Association (1885); wrote numerous pamphlets on social purity which include "The Visitation of Dens" (1874), "Notes on Penitentiary Work" (1879), "Grave Moral Questions" (1882), "Village Morality"(1882), "How to Start Preventive Work" (1884), "Drawn unto Death" (1884), "God's Little Girl"(1885), "Homely Talk on the New Law for the Protection of Girls" (1886), and "The National Purity Crusade" (1904).

Prostitution caused great concern in Victorian and Edwardian England. Fears that it might infect the respectable world, destroy marriages, the home, the family, and ultimately the nation, led to attempts to regulate it. Considered a social evil, prostitution commanded attention from the church, the state, and feminists, each of which held different perspectives on its cause and offered a range of solutions for its control. Whereas the British government detained suspected prostitutes under the Contagious Diseases Acts, the Church of England incarcerated them in penitentiaries. In these semi-prisons women were compelled to stay for at least two years, had their hair cropped, and wore a special regulatory uniform. Freedom was curtailed, letters inspected, and visits by friends and family limited. In one institution managed by a convent, inmates were taught to bow low before the nuns and to speak only when spoken to.

Ellice Hopkins, an Evangelical feminist, wrote a pamphlet criticizing these penitentiaries as dreary, ugly places in which only the desperate sought refuge:

How is it, I ask, that Home after Home I go into is so utterly wanting…. Unless I hadseen it for myself I could not have believed that dreariness and ugliness was such a fine art as we have made it for the benefit of these poor girls. The dingy walls, often of some rhubarb and magnesia hue; the torn book, generally unpinned at one corner, and flapping forlornly in the draft; the spiritual posters in the shape of hideous black and white texts hung up; no bright pictures or pretty illuminated texts … these poor girls, shut up with their low memories, low thoughts, low objects, low aims, they want every help.

Prostitutes, she believed, should be offered love and forgiveness, not punishment. Not surprisingly, her ideas were repugnant to many. Just the mention of her name sent quivers into the hearts and minds of many a Victorian gentleman. It was a name that was whispered in hushed tones at dinner tables and spoken with contempt at men's clubs. This small, rather innocuous-looking woman had broken the bounds of propriety expected of well brought up young women. In arguing so forcibly against penitentiaries, Ellice Hopkins ignored some important rules of Victorian England. She spoke out at a time when women were supposed to be silent, and she knew too much about sexual matters. More important, Hopkins challenged the division of women into pure and impure:

As things are now, men divide us women into two classes: us pure women, for whom nothing is too good, and those others for whom nothing is too bad. But let us prove by our actions that our womanhood is ONE; that a sin against our lost sisters is a sin against us.

Ellice Hopkins was born in Cambridge, England, in October 1836, to gifted parents. Her mother was a talented musician while her father was a distinguished mathematics tutor at Cambridge University. One of five children and the youngest of three girls, Hopkins was the favorite of her father whom she idolized. They were constant companions. He taught her how to think scientifically and objectively and to write in the clearest and simplest language.

Like many young women of her class, Hopkins taught for years in her local Sunday school, but, in her 20s, she instructed a more challenging audience. Hundreds of working-class men, who rarely went to church, were converted to Christianity by Hopkins' vivid religious rhetoric. A gifted speaker, she worked hard to perfect her discourse. Soon audiences were entranced by her hard-hitting, witty lectures. Hopkins continued in this work until her father's death in 1866 when she became inconsolable. Soon after, she became ill, had several operations, stopped preaching, and left Cambridge to live in Brighton, an English seaside resort, to convalesce.

With her health regained, Hopkins experienced a striking shift in her life's work. Walking down one of Brighton's streets, she met a pretty child of 13 or 14 traversing a muddy path with her bare feet. Hopkins took her by the hand, she wrote, and led the girl back home to:

a common lodging-house and found that her mother, a drunken Irish woman, sold flowers, and left this pretty girl alone with a lot of low men in the lodging-house all day, and with absolutely no employment … she was fast going to ruin. The girl was almost naked, and the first step was evidently to clothe her for service…. She was literallyalive from head to foot with vermin, her tender girlish body was scarred all over with blows, apparently inflicted with a poker, and one of her arms bore the marks of her mother's teeth, where in her drunken fury she had severely bitten her; and her voracious appetite showed she had been half starved.

This incident, recorded by Hopkins in one of her many pamphlets, inspired her to begin her next crusade: the rescue and reform of prostitutes. It was one of the most popular charitable activities of the Victorian age. Middle- and upper-class women like Josephine Butler , and even men like William Gladstone, the prime minister of England, tried to persuade prostitutes to leave the streets to begin a new life. Rescue work was exhilarating, but it could also be dangerous. People often threw rubbish at them: squashy tomatoes, rotten eggs, and even dead fish were common missiles. Rescue workers were also beaten. Undeterred, Hopkins knocked on the doors of brothels to persuade prostitutes working there to repent.

For many years, Hopkins continued in this work despite physical and personal difficulties. Frail, often ill, rather fastidious, highly strung and temperamental, Hopkins seemed an unlikely candidate for such work. Yet her life was devoted to the cause of eliminating prostitution. When it was realized that ex-prostitutes needed somewhere to live, she proposed that pretty and attractive homes be built for women in place of penitentiaries. These homes marked a small subtle shift from a punitive model of reform to a compassionate one, but the problem of prostitution remained.

Afence at the top of the cliff is better than an ambulance at the foot.

—Ellice Hopkins

Prevention, Hopkins argued, was better than cure. In 1876, she founded the Ladies Associations for the Care of Friendless Girls to tackle the underlying causes of prostitution: poor parenting, unemployment, homelessness, and immorality. Ladies Associations were set up in towns and cities across Britain. By 1879, they were established in Birmingham, Bristol, London, Edinburgh, Torquay, Cheltenham, Southampton, Winchester, Bradford, Dundee, and Perth. These chapters set up night shelters to house homeless young women, free registry offices to help women seek work, and training homes for domestic servants. Some set up branches to help single mothers in workhouses to find jobs and persuade reluctant fathers to pay maintenance.

Ellice Hopkins was a complex woman who held a strange mixture of religious and political beliefs. On the one hand, she was a feminist who supported women's suffrage, believed in the unity of women, and criticized the double sexual standard of Victorian Britain. On the other hand, she advocated repressive sexual politics which undermined human rights.

Hopkins believed that young girls who were brought up in immoral surroundings were likely to be sexually abused. In 1880, after years of campaigning, she pressured the government to pass an amendment to the Industrial Schools Act, making it a criminal offense for children under the age of 16 to live with parents who worked in brothels. It gave the police powers to remove these children and place them in Industrial Schools. This act also enabled relatives and "friends" to obtain a search warrant and enter any house suspected of being a brothel. If children were found, they were compulsorily removed, the owner of the house punished, and the mother and father deprived of parental rights. It was called the "Ellice Hopkins Act."

In 1885, a Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in Britain which raised the age of heterosexual consent to 16, gave police greater powers to close down brothels, and made male homosexuality illegal. In order to help enforce this act, Hopkins, along with people like Josephine Butler, formed the National Vigilance Association (NVA) in the same year. This association dealt with a large variety of subjects connected with the moral well-being of the young. It prosecuted brothel owners and child abusers, tried to prohibit the employment of children on the stage, and attempted to ban obscene literature, photographs, and advertising. As the century progressed, the NVA became repressive and conservative, but Hopkins, unlike Butler, continued to support it. In her effort to improve moral standards, Hopkins distanced herself from the feminist movement she initially espoused.

Hopkins was convinced that men must also change. In 1879, she spoke at a church meeting:

Would it not be possible to band young men together in some sort of brotherhood, or society, or guild, for the protection of women and children from prostitution and degradation—to give them a more aggressive form of purity, something higher and more vivifying than taking care of their own virtue.

Four years later, Hopkins founded a men's social purity organization, the White Cross Army, to do just that. It was the main work of the last 21 years of her life. The White Cross Army was a working-man's movement which originated at a meeting of 300 miners and clerks organized by the bishop of Durham. Encouraged by their response to her speech, Hopkins traveled miles up and down the country speaking to men about the need for chastity. By 1886, England was dotted over with these associations. Branches were formed in the army, the navy, and in local dioceses. It was a worldwide movement: America, India, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, South Africa, China, Canada, Trinidad, Japan and Germany all had branches of the White Cross putting forward the following message:

  1. To treat all women with respect, and endeavor to protect them from wrong and degradation;
  2. To endeavor to put down all indecent language and coarse jests;
  3. To maintain the law of purity as equally binding upon men and women;
  4. To endeavor to spread these principles among my companions, and to try and help my younger brothers;
  5. To use every possible means to fulfil the command "Keep thyself pure."

It was a repressive policy, but Hopkins hoped that it might keep women safe. Many men disagreed with her moral message. Hopkins often spoke of audiences who were "shouting, singing, crowing like cocks, whistling like parrots, cater-wauling like cats and keeping up a continuous uproar" in an attempt to stop her from speaking.

Years of campaign politics and hostile audiences left Hopkins exhausted. In 1888, her health broke down. Excruciatingly painful sciatica combined with inflammation of the eyes made reading, talking, and writing intolerable. For the next 18 months, Hopkins traveled in Italy and Switzerland, leading an invalid life in the fresh mountain air. In August 1903, she suffered from aphasia (losing the ability to speak and listen) and a heart attack from which she never fully recovered. In May 1904, Ellice Hopkins endured a second heart attack which paralyzed her right side. She died that same year.

In a sense, the work of Ellice Hopkins continues. Tucked away in a corner of London, the National Council of Women—a direct descendant of the Ladies Associations—still promotes women's issues. At the end of the 20th century, it was acting as an educational body mainly devoted to women's health: its emphasis was on AIDS.


Barrett, Rosa M. Ellice Hopkins: A Memoir. London: Wells Gardner, 1907.

Bristow, Edward. Vice and Vigilance. London: Gill and Macmillan, 1978.

Hopkins, Ellice. How to Start Preventive Work. London: Hatchards, 1884.

Prochaska, Frank. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century England. Clarendon Press, 1980.

Paula Bartley , Senior Lecturer in History, University of Wolverhampton, Dudley, England, author and joint editor of "Women in History" series, Cambridge University Press

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Hopkins, Ellice (1836–1904)

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