Wednesday, April 27, 2011

May 13, 1855 --- Mr. Gladstone's "Rescue Work"

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. William Gladstone appears in Marlborough Street Court to press charges against a would-be blackmailer. The details of Gladstone's so-called "rescue work," hitherto known only to intimates, prompt "great surprise, curiosity, and interest." Gladstone has the unusual avocation of seeking out prostitutes, offering little sermons, some money and directions to an appropriate shelter.

Two nights before, returning from the opera, Gladstone had stopped to converse with one such unfortunate near Covent Garden. Suddenly, he was accosted by William Wilson, who vowed to go to the Press unless his silence was purchased with money or a government post. Promising "neither sixpence not situation," the defiant Gladstone, his tormentor at his heels, walked for blocks in a frustrating search for a policeman. By the time he found one, Wilson was in tears, begging forgiveness. Ignoring his friends, scorning controversy and embarassment, Gladstone refuses to let the matter drop. The Police Court is crowded with the curious. Gladstone details the night in question and presents a jailcell letter from Wilson: "I cannot conceive how a mere selfish and visionary aim prompted me so to act, imputing motives depreciatory of one so good and great. I beg your pardon from my very heart."  The plea failed and Wilson is convicted and given a year's hard labor.

The battle won, Gladstone then pressed for Wilson's early release. The man served six months. While most of the leading newspapers covered the matter with grudging, if bemused, restraint, The People's Paper, a leading radical journal, questioned Gladstone's story: "All this may be true, but why was not the unfortunate woman produced?" In his diary, Gladstone concedes, "These talkings of mine are certainly not within the rules of worldly prudence: I am not sure that Christian prudence sanctions them for such a one as me."

But Gladstone never gave up his "rescue work." The prostitutes, especially those at "the top of the tree," knew him well; they called him "old Glad-Eye." One admiring courtesan wrote of Gladstone, "One longs to stroke that magnificent head."

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