Eliza Dolitle in Lisson Grove

One of the few things most people remember about Lisson Grove is the reference in 'Pygmalion'. In the play Professor Higgins is under the portico of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, noting down the dialects of the bystanders. He is challenged as a police spy, and retorts to Eliza, "What are you doing so far east of Lisson Green?" Later, when Eliza has gone to Professor Higgins' house to learn to speak correct English, her father turns up and demands money for bringing up his daughter to "an age to be of interest to a gentleman like you." He claims to be "one of the undeserving poor" and they give him five pounds.

It is interesting to speculate how these three ideas may have come together in Shaw's mind as he wrote the play. In 1885 there had been a notorious case in which W. T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, was charged with having bought a child of thirteen from her parents for £5 for immoral purposes. A Bill to raise the Age of Consent to sixteen was before the House of Commons and was backed by religious and rescue societies. There appeared overwhelming support for the measure, but Gladstone, for purely short-term political reasons, proposed to jettison the Bill. Stead was outraged and carried on a highly charged newspaper campaign. He decided to prove how easy it was to buy a child and did so.

The girl was Elizabeth Armstrong, who lived in Charles St, now Ranston St, and probably went to Bell St School. (The similarity between Elizabeth and Eliza is another coincidence). In fact the girl had been put in the care of the Salvation Army, taken to Paris to prove how easy it was to take a child abroad, and there given a safe home and even used to sell the 'War Cry', the Salvation Army newspaper.

Stead was arrested. At the trial the parents claimed that they thought Elizabeth was going into domestic service. Evidence was very confused. Stead's witnesses contradicted what they had told him earlier. His middle class morality was foreign to people who had to pick up a living as best they could. Stead failed to prove why the £5 had been paid. Money had been given, but its purpose was disputed and the trial disintegrated into mutual incomprehension.

The father was a personable rogue who appealed to the journalists and always had a quotable remark ready, not unlike Dolittle in the play. Had it been realised that the parents of the child were not married, it might, in the moral climate of the period, have influenced the decision, or even the decision to prosecute Stead and General Booth in the first place. As it was, the judge ruled as out of court the social background of the case, saying that Stead's reasons for buying the child could not be used in evidence. The sole point at issue before the court, he said, was Stead’s procuring of the child.

pic117
Charles Street 1885, the house
where Elizabeth Armstrong lived.
This was one of the houses that
Octavia Hill demolished when
she rebuilt Charles Street
(now Ranston St).

 

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Updated June 7, 2011