Being a private investigator in Victorian London wasn’t easy. You had to be willing to go that last step – and beyond. Elisabeth O’Donnell was a private investigator, but as a woman she had to be prepared to go even further to solve her cases. She was. Nothing would get between Elisabeth and what she wanted.
I never intended to be an inquiry agent. I was a respectable governess and teacher and then the brother of an old school friend came looking for his sister.
“I’m sorry to bother you with this Elisabeth, but you were always kind to Clara, even when she was behaving badly. I know she tried your patience sorely, but you were always a friend. She knew that, but this last year she has gone back to her old ways. She married you know, James Dunning, a kind gentle man and he seemed to be having a positive effect on her. Then eighteen months ago he was killed. It was clearly an unfortunate accident but Clara never accepted that. She claimed he had been murdered because of his work – but he was a house agent and a less likely victim of a criminal conspiracy you cannot imagine. She became morose and refused to leave the house. I called on her as often as I could and she was always raving that Jim, we all knew him as Jim, had somehow found something out and let it slip so he was murdered to protect their secret. She never said what he’d found or whom it was about, only that Jim had sworn her to secrecy.”
“Then three weeks ago she disappeared. She left a note simply saying ‘I’ve found something. Keep this safe while I investigate. Say nothing to police.’ Attached to that was an envelope with a calling card, a rather unsavoury photograph and an address. We have heard nothing since and our poor mother is beside herself. She has been unwell since Father passed away but losing Clara has made her condition so much worse.”
I remembered David, he was two or so years older than us and seemed rather aloof. Now he had matured into a serious minded gentleman who looked of middle years now and would probably do so for the rest of his life. I remembered their mother too – a kind hearted soul always driven to distraction by Clara’s unruly behaviour.
“But David what can I do? Despite Clara’s note can you not seek help from the Police?”
He did not answer, merely handing me an envelope with a word of apology for the contents. “We cannot have poor Clara associated with this in any way. I was hoping that since you have lived here in London for some years now you will, forgive me, be a little more worldly than mother and I and be able to offer some advice.”
I opened the envelope. The calling card simply said ‘ E Whittaker – broker’ with no address or other information. The photograph was rather more revealing, in numerous ways. As I picked it from the envelope David again stammered an apology. It showed a man and two women in, shall we say, extremely close contact. Both women were naked but their faces, and much else, were clearly shown. The man had his face turned away from the camera but his extremely large, as it appeared to me at the time anyway, male organ was partially inserted into one of the women, who was kneeling and had her face buried between the legs of the other. I felt myself flushing as I observed it. I confess, that even then I was not entirely innocent of such matters, but viewing this photograph in the company of a man I had admired for many years was rather different.
To calm myself, I placed the photograph face down on the table and picked up the slip of paper on which the address was written. It was a Langley House in Chelsea. I waited until my flushed face had calmed a little before raising it to talk again to David. “Have you been to this address” I asked.
“Yes – it is a large property on the river, surrounded by a very high wall. It was apparently unoccupied when I visited. Certainly I could get no response when I rang the bell at the gate. I have not had the opportunity to investigate the river frontage. I could find no boatman willing to take me.”
“That may itself be of some significance” I said. “And this E Whittaker? Have you found anything of note?”
“Nothing at all? This implies some sort of business, yet you found nothing in Kelly’s or any other Directory?”
“Absolutely nothing at all.”
“So what would you wish me to do?”
“Mother and I thought you may have people you could ask, since you move in higher social circles than we do.”
“David, I am a teacher of small children. That offers no great status in London.” I paused. “I will think upon it. Where are you staying in London?”
“With mother’s cousin Daniel, in Carleton Street. I told mother I would stay at least two weeks.”
“Very well. The family for whom I work are in Devon and will not return for three weeks. I have until they return at my disposal, but I will write to you at Carleton street in two days.”
I did not tell David that the name Whittaker was already known to me and not in any positive manner. Only last week. I had overheard my employer and his wife discussing an invitation they had received to a dinner party. “The nerve of that upstart Whittaker,” I heard him say, “he seems to think that his financial worth gives him an entry into decent society. I would never allow my wife to be under the same roof as such a man in any circumstances. His vile business is well known in the City but somehow he flourishes. I fear he has secured a hold on some people of importance who protect him.”
“But my dear,” said his wife “what can he do that is so awful? I understood him to be some sort of broker and that seems quite respectable.”
“Alice” he replied “I am afraid I cannot put this delicately. That man traffics in young girls. His customers must be among the highest in the land if he is allowed to continue in his vile business.”
I heard no more, for the children burst into the room full of life and energy, in stark contrast to the activities their father was describing.
I now resolved to observe the property David had described. Today was a Sunday so I dressed in my finest and made my way to the road in which the house lay, along which I sauntered as if without a care in the world. As I made my way towards the gates I observed a great deal of activity, with a series of closed carriages entering. As I drew near, a carriage entered and I caught a glimpse through the gap in the gates as they entered of several carriages from which were dismounting numerous young women. The brief glimpse I was allowed before the gates closed again suggested that these were not women of a high class, dressed as they were in shabby clothing and in one case I thought just in a shift. As they descended, they were taken in pairs by someone else and ushered away.
I had no intention of lingering, but the glowering face of the gateman ensured I continued on my way without pause. Clearly something was afoot that required hiding from public gaze. I resolved to return under cover of darkness and investigate further.
From childhood I have loved boating. I have no small skill in sculling and in small sailing dinghies and had often passed along this very stretch of river with friends, although I had no clear memory of the house. The public hire of boats ceased at dusk and I had no wish to be seen taking an interest in the house in daylight. Taking a moment to refresh my memory, I recalled a small boatyard very close which left some of its boats tied up at a jetty rather than pulling them from the water at night. It was only a matter of a quarter of a mile downriver from the house. Even against the tide I could pull that far. I would return that very night.
Having decided on my course of action I moved quickly. Once home again I went to the maid’s room and borrowed a dress. For my next steps I needed to look shabbier than normal and my own clothes would not suit. I then left the house again and went to a shop I knew that sold second hand clothes where I bought a set of men’s clothes, ‘for my brother who was a little simple in the head’ that would also fit me. Back home yet again I returned the borrowed dress and changed into the male attire. I tucked up my hair into a large cap and rubbed a little dirt into my hands and my face, transforming me into a grubby young man such as might be found on any London street. I took care to take with me a penknife, a small pistol and a weighted cosh. You may ask why I was in possession of such items, and I will simply say that London was not then always an entirely safe place.
Once darkness fell, I ventured out again and made my way to the boatyard I remembered. The area was fortunately quiet and I was able to quickly break open the inadequate wooden gate and make my way to the jetty. Once there however I encountered a set back since I could find no oars. Eventually in the gloom I found that they had been removed to a small shed. Now safely equipped I embarked on my short journey to investigate this Langley House.
As I set off, I realised that in the darkness I might have difficulty in ensuring I was at the correct property. I need not have feared. The house was ablaze with light and flares burnt in the garden. Unfortunately there was also a jetty, equally brightly lit at which two launches had been tied up. Quietly I pulled the small boat towards the shore, keeping myself as low as possible and trying to remain out of reach of the lanterns on the jetty. I jumped ashore and tied the boat to a riverside tree, hoping it would not be seen. Keeping in the shadows I made my way towards the house.
As I got closer I could see many couples scattered across the terrace and others in more shady areas. At first I thought I had mistakenly intruded on an innocent house party but I was very quickly disabused as I saw what was going on in the shadows. As I edged forward I saw one of the girls who had been delivered to the house earlier. I had noticed her for her long red hair. She was being held from behind by a man with a thuggish face. Facing her was another dressed respectably but his actions were anything but. He had ripped her shift from top to bottom and was examining her clinically. He nodded at the man holding her, who immediately threw her to the ground and quickly bound her hands above her head to a stake hammered in the ground, before stuffing a rag into her mouth to silence her. Then doffing his cap to the other, he left the two of them there. His intentions became rapidly clear as he dropped his trousers and threw himself onto the girl, her muffled screams ignored. I could not let him have his way, so quickly stepping out of the shadows I drew the cosh and slammed it into the back of his head. He collapsed immediately, the girl throwing him off as she struggled violently. I placed a finger to my lips as I pulled out my penknife and released her hands. She pulled out the disgusting rag from her mouth and spat violently.
“Quickly” I said “help me get him out of sight.” Despite her treatment the girl rallied quickly and seizing an arm each we dragged the wretch into the shadows. “We have little time. I can get you out but not the other girls. I am alone. Can you get any clothing?”
“I had none but this shift that is now in shreds” she said, pulling the tattered remains of it around her.
“Then you must wear his clothes. He is short so they should suffice.”
Between us we stripped his outer garments from him, leaving him half naked beneath a hedge, although the girl would have thrown him in the river and I confess I was tempted myself. Carrying the stolen clothing we hurried back to the river bank and the boat. Once there, with some exchanges of garments between us, we both contrived to be if not respectably dressed, then at least covered enough to make our way to my home under cover of darkness. It was only when I removed my shirt to wear the other that she saw me for a woman, exclaiming loudly.
“Hush! We are not safe yet.” It was then I heard shouting from behind us, as it seemed that the body of the man I had coshed was found. I knew, even if he was conscious that he had seen nothing but we had little time. “Into the boat” I instructed the girl, then jumping in after her, I quietly sculled into the darkness and back to the boatyard. Once there, I tied it up to the landing stage and considered our position. It was still only about 10.00 pm and the streets would still be busy. We had two miles to get to my home and it would be impossible to make that journey while still masquerading as males. My companion was of a much fuller figure than I and her clothing was rather tight.
I resolved that we must admit to our gender and pretend simply to be low girls who had consumed too much strong drink. It was not unknown for such women in those days to wear men’s clothing when out carousing. So I let down my hair and opened my jacket. I had seen a bottle of cheap rum on a shelf in the boathouse so I seized upon it and splashed some of its contents over my person and over my companion, explaining my plan as I did so.
“Now, if we are to get to my home unmolested, we must appear rowdy but not incapacitated. We are simply two good friends making our way home. To that end I must know your name. Mine is Elisabeth, but for the rest of this night you must address me as Lizzy.”
“I am Kate.” She was subdued now, the nearness of her escape having become apparent to her.
“Very well Kate, now listen to me. So long as the streets are quiet, we must endeavour to slip through them unnoticed. Should we meet men alone, then we must ignore them, but larger groups may try to engage us. We cannot afford to allow that to happen, so you must let me deal with them and follow my lead without question. Are you clear?” She nodded. “Good, then let us make our way as quickly as possible.”
I carefully scanned up and down the road, before calling to Kate to follow me out on to the street. I could not refasten the gate, having broken the lock, so simply pushed it closed as tightly as possible. Then, linking arms I led her out and we began out journey home. An added complication was that the most direct route passed the gate to the property where she had been held, so we were forced to make a circuitous detour.
I will not recount in any detail the difficulties we had but after some 40 minutes we made it safely to my apartment. Once home I ran a bath for the unfortunate young woman and selected some of my clothes for her to wear. Once she had cleansed herself of her experiences and had eaten I prevailed up on her to tell me how she came to be at the house in such a situation.
“I was a seamstress in Newcastle. My father could not work having been injured in an accident in the shipyard and my mother could not work because he needed constant attention. My wages, poor as they were, were all there was between us and the workhouse. The, one day a very respectably dressed woman turned up at our door. She said she represented a scheme set up to help families such as ours. She had work available in London at much better rates of pay and lodgings in a hostel for young women such as I. I would be able to gain experience of the world and send home money to keep them in much better circumstances. She even offered an advance on my wages. “
“Given our impoverished state this seemed to be an opportunity not to be missed. The woman handed over £10 to my mother on the spot. I was only making 5s a week in good times, so this was a huge sum. I had little to pack so within half an hour I had said my goodbyes to my parents and went away with the woman. She said her name was Grace and talked a great deal of how pleasant the hostel was and how kind my employer would be. She talked in this manner all the way down the street and onto the main road into Newcastle. There she had what looked like a cab waiting. I had never been in a cab, indeed they were rarely seen in our part of town, so I climbed in quite excited by the prospect of a cab ride and later a rail journey to London.”
“Once inside though her manner changed. We were joined by a great brute of a man who held me tightly while she placed a cloth over my face and I fell insensible. I never saw daylight again until we got to London. When I woke up I was locked up in a tiny room with boards over the windows. There were three other girls there, one no more than 12 or 13. They were in tears when I arrived. I think the opening of the door to thrust me into the room had given them false hope.”
“I don’t know how long we were there – but probably only a few hours during which they all told the same story of being seduced away from their family by the woman who called herself Grace. It was slightly different for the young girl, Alice. Her parents had been unwilling to let her travel to London unaccompanied. Grace had gone away seemingly accepting, then later when Alice was on her way to work she was taken by two men who threw her into the back of a closed cart.”
“From that room we were taken in another closed cart to the docks where we were taken on boards a ship and locked in a cabin. We had only a bucket, some water and a small amount of food. The brutes who locked us up warned us not to create a disturbance since someone would be outside at all times and we would all be beaten if anyone of us made a noise. We were too frightened to test if this was indeed the case.”
“We were at sea I think, four days. The weather was rough and we were thrown around as the ship pitched through the waves. Two of the girls were dreadfully sick and by the time we heard the noises of the ship tying up at a quay somewhere they were very weak. We were left there though for several hours more until darkness, although we heard the noise I think of coal being unloaded. Once night fell we were dragged on deck and forced to get into what looked like a Railway Company van. We had no idea where we were, but hearing English spoken on the streets as we were driven away gave us a little hope.”
“The van eventually pulled into a yard of some sort. We were dragged out and taken upstairs and put into a bare room. There were filthy mattresses on the floor and some tattered blankets but nothing else. After a couple of hours we could see it was getting light through cracks in the boards over the windows. Then the door was thrown open and a young girl such as us brought in a tray with bread, cheese and water. She said nothing, but was watched all the while by yet another thug who forced her out of the room as soon as she had put down the tray. The two who had been seasick could not eat, but we made them drink some water and saved some food for them, since we had no idea how long it would be before we were fed again.”
“As far as we could tell we were there several days. We only ever saw the same girl with our food, but sometimes could hear other female voices, but we dared not call out. In any case we had been lured to this place by a woman so had no guarantee that the voices we heard would be sympathetic. In our time there we were always fearful but never abused. We talked to each other only in whispers. At some point Alice was taken away, kicking and screaming, and never returned. A couple of hours later two new girls were dumped in the room. As they were pushed in we saw three more being thrust into another room opposite ours. We heard them crying and weeping for some time until they were threatened with a beating if they were not quiet. Over the course of a couple of weeks we were moved several times, always at night. “
“After a few days more, we were taken to the house in which you found us in a sealed coach. Once behind the walls we were told to bathe. We were then given only flimsy shifts to wear before we were taken to a large room with drawn curtains. A succession of men came through, and we were forced to stand before them. One by one we were taken way. I was one of the last. You saw how it ended.
I showed Kate a photo of Clara, but she was unknown to her. Then with apologies I showed her the photograph Clara had left for David. She immediately recognised one of the girls with whom she has shared the sea journey and began to weep. I could do get no more from her so put her in my bed and sat at her bedside until she cried herself to sleep.
The next morning, I explained my interest and questioned her again about what had happened to her. Having recovered her composure since the previous night, I gained a little more intelligence of where she had been last held. I implored her to come with me to the police, but she refused, wanting only to go home to her family. I could not disagree, indeed from what I had overhead from my employer I was not convinced that would achieve much.
Instead I took her to King’s Cross Station and placed her on a train back to Newcastle, promising to let her know if I discovered more. I gave her a card to send to me once she was safely home and cautioned her to be very careful to whom she spoke. As we conversed, an elderly clergyman and his wife, also travelling to Newcastle, overhead my cautions and promised to keep a watch on her safety. Much relieved I returned to my apartment to consider my next steps.
It seemed clear now, that my employer’s suspicions concerning the mysterious Whitaker were well-founded. I was still no further to discovering his identity, but from Kate’s testimony, young women and girls were certainly being taken and abused. Action was required, but I had to heed my employer’s other claim, that Whitaker was under the protection of one or more persons of standing in society. It was best then to avoid the police, for the time being at least. Fortunately I had others on whom I could call.
I immediately wrote a card to my friend Adela, who I knew could assemble if needed a band of willing, and fearless, assistants. I gave no details other than to say that I was in need of help. As a fellow suffragist I knew she would respond, and would find Whitaker’s activities as repellent as I. I also wrote to David, simply telling him I had no firm news, but was making some progress.
That evening I received a visit from Adela and I gave her the full story, so far as I knew it. She was aghast at my actions. Her distress was however, not that I had acted, but that I had acted alone. She spared no concern for the man I had struck, merely saying that she was of the same mind as Kate, that we should have tipped him into the river. With her guarantee of support, we began to plan.
According to Kate’s testimony the girls were presumably housed elsewhere until required. I had seen the carriages arriving with the girls, which confirmed it. According to Kate they had been moved regularly, so unless we were to follow the coaches back to their origin after one of these gatherings we had no intelligence of their location. In any case it was surely unacceptable that we should allow their suffering to be prolonged one minute more than was absolutely necessary.
The plan we devised was a compromise. Adela would arrange for a canvas of nearby properties under the guise of respectable girls looking for employment. Others would attend at the front door claiming to be looking for a missing cousin. Both would make enquiries about Langley House. Yet others would make inquiries across the East End any sightings of the girls or their movements. Steps would also be taken to discreetly observe comings and goings at Langley House, both from the street and if possible from across the river. Such information as we might gather from this would inform our next steps.
Provisionally we determined on a two pronged approach.
Once we became aware of another gathering, we would at a suitable time cause a distraction at the front gates. Adela was all for blowing them off their hinges, but I counselled restraint, since we did not want the intervention of possibly armed police. At the same time I would be landing, as before, this time accompanied by a party of strong sturdy girls, armed with stout clubs. I would have my pistol. We would secure any girls we found in the garden but otherwise go straightway to the house. Given what I had seen previously, I expected no quarter would be given if there was any resistance.
The canvas confirmed our worst suspicions. Without exception, any girl indicating they might seek employment at Langley House was warned off. Similar, although more delicately expressed, disdain was shown to the enquirers for the missing cousin. No one recognised Clara’s photograph when shown, which was not unexpected, but it was clear that any young girl who found themselves in that establishment would not fare well. It was also discovered that gatherings were frequent, taking place every Friday and Saturday evening. It now being Wednesday, we had no time to waste.
On the Thursday I went with Adela to Whitechapel, where she had gathered a good three dozen women all eager to knock the heads of any man they might find on the premises. All had been also trained in ju-jitsu in preparation for any confrontation with police, a skill which seemed likely to be equally useful when we entered the house. I was surprised to see so many, but another of her acquaintances had managed to obtain two large rowing boats for our use, rather than the sculls I had envisaged. These each had a capacity of 20 and in an emergency perhaps another 10. We could therefore land a much larger party than we had thought possible. Six rowers in each boat would stand ready to take anyone rescued from the garden, while the rest of us entered the house. Three of the women would also have pistols. One of them would remain with the boats. I agreed it was better to appear in strength, since we had no idea of what we might face.
In private I also met the two women charged with creating the diversion. They had scouted the area and concluded that the best way to distract the occupants of the house was to cause multiple diversionary attacks. Incendiary devices would be thrown over the walls, controlled by a timer. Other devices would be set against the walls, in an attempt to partially bring them down. These would be triggered immediately the incendiaries detonated. Groups of women would then gather at each gap, with fireworks and other noise-making implements. If any attempt was made to leave they would disrupt that effort too.
We decided also that we should have with us as many small cameras as we could secure in the time, generally to capture what we saw, but also to photograph as many of the men as possible. Adela gave instructions for the gathering together of as many cameras as possible and for those who would be carrying them to be shown the basics of their operation.
We had now done all we could and retired to our homes to rest until tomorrow.
At the appointed hour I assembled with the boat party at a landing stage upstream of the house. Adela was to lead the groups creating the diversion. We all clambered in and slowly made our way downstream, where we managed to tie up without being detected. As before the house was fully lit and flares were scattered through the garden. I whispered a last minute instruction to topple as many of the flares as possible when we ran for the house.
We seemed to be waiting for hours, and I was beginning to fear that the diversion party had been caught in some manner, when the sky was lit by a bright red flaring light near the house, followed by several more at intervals. Soon afterwards we heard three explosions and the sound of falling masonry. The flares had died away, but we heard the noise of fireworks exploding and whistles blowing energetically.
“Now!” I shouted and we all leapt on shore, running full tilt towards the house. A man suddenly appeared from out of the shrubbery, but before he could speak he was bowled over by two women. I didn’t wait to see what happened next. I could sense the darkness gathering as flares were over turned. In no time at all we were at the rear of the house, where we found numerous men, in various states of undress milling around. One of my companions immediately set to photographing them using the light spilling out from the house. Another guarded her, while the rest of us crashed through the open doors. Everyone knew which floor they had to search, so, brandishing their clubs, striking out at any man they saw, they set about their task.
Within minutes, we had assembled a large group of unfortunate young women, some still dressed, others wrapped only in bed linen. These we hustled out of the house and back to the boats. Shouting and cries of pain could be heard from across the house. It seemed that any man caught here tonight would pay dearly for it. The door crashed open behind me and I quickly turned, pulling out my pistol. It was Adela, bleeding from a cut on her forehead, but exultant.
“They are running Lizzie! Oh what fun, to see these pillars of society running down the street in their undergarments, chased by angry women. Now we must go, before the police arrive.”
We withdrew from the house, so far as we could tell with no serious casualties having rescued at least a dozen girls, none of them so far, Clara. Suddenly I heard my name “Lizzy, Lizzy,” and from out of the darkness a figure hurtled towards me, pulling me into an embrace.
“Oh Lizzy, you found me.”
“It seems I did, but now we must be away.”
We formed up in a protective cordon around the women and made our way to the boats. It was a tight squeeze, but we made it, and pulled away into the darkness of the river, leaving the house blazing behind us.