The Widow’s Coffee House, Bury St. Edmunds

 On 14th January 1890, the Bury & Norwich Post published the following letter:


A correspondent writes:- “I have long been seeking a clue to the personality of Mrs. Letitia Rookes, of Bury St. Edmunds, a portrait of whom by Bunbury, if I remember aright, is preserved in the admirable collection of engravings in the Archaeological library in the Bury Athenaeum. I had already discovered that the memorial tablet affixed to the wall outside St. James’s Church, near the Norman Tower, is to her memory, but the note in the ‘Jottings from old newspapers,’ in your interesting ‘Memorials of the Past’ has afforded me considerable enlightenment as to who and what this woman was, for there is no doubt that she was the occupier or proprietress of the coffee house which stood under the shadow of the Norman Tower, and between it and St. James’s Church, and that she was probably the proprietress of the ‘Sirop de Capillaire,’ which may have been a medicine in which considerable faith was placed at the time. I may point out that the day of her death was 23rd September, 1782.”

The writer was referring to a snippet of information that had been re-published in the newspaper on 7th January 1890:

“Bury St. Edmunds, 1st of October, 1776. Mrs. Rookes begs leave to return her grateful Acknowledgements to her Friends, for their Favours received during the Time she has kept the Coffee-House; She is very sorry it is not in her power to continue it any longer, but her bad State of Health makes it requisite for her, after this Week, to retire from Business. The true genuine Sirop de Capillaire, so much esteem’d may be had of P. Deck at Post-Office, Bury.”

Sirop de Capillaire was a French liqueur made from the maidenhair fern which was supposed to have medicinal properties. Of course, Mrs. Rookes may well have had the monopoly on sales of the stuff at her coffee house, but other references to her in the Bury Post and elsewhere suggest that she provided the citizens, and particularly the clergy, of Bury St. Edmunds with other things altogether.

Bury & Norwich Post, 24th March, 1887: “There was also a coffee-house called the ‘Widow’s coffee-house’ – in what sense I cannot say… kept by one Laetitia Rookes. .. Laetitia succeeded Felicia, of the same name, and was a well-known character in St. Edmundsbury.”

And, as late as March 1951, the following item appeared in an article about the Suffolk artist, Henry Bunbury, in the East Anglian Magazine: [The Widow’s Coffee House] “was kept by the notorious Mrs. Laetitia Rookes, … who was assisted by her two daughters. It was an establishment never referred to in polite or mixed society. Warren, in his map of Bury had an engraving of this building showing Mrs. Rookes’ two beautiful but frail daughters ogling the passers-by from the upstairs window. The widow remained in business until 1776 when she retired to live in another part of the town for the remaining sixteen years of her life. The caricature is absolutely devoid of offence but the curves of the mouth and face are so cleverly drawn that anybody looking at it cannot be in dount for one moment of the old lady’s true vocation in life.”

Laetitia Rookes was supposedly also buried within the precincts of the church, so grateful were the local clergy for the services that she and her daughters had provided to them. Or at least, half of her was buried within the consecrated ground. According to this story – which may be apocryphal – the other half was buried outside the precincts of St. James’s. I will leave you, dear reader, to decide which half that was.

“The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”: the Victorians & child sex trafficking

As the Guardian reports on Barnardo’s plea for action against organized child sex abuse  and a Member of the UK Parliament hints that victims may have brought abuse upon themselves, I was reminded of the case of W. T. Stead, a crusading journalist of the nineteenth century.

Stead, along with activists like Josephine Butler, was part of a movement campaigning for the raising of the age of consent for girls. In 1875 they succeeded in having it raised to 13, but their attempts to further increase the age to 15 were stifled by the reluctance of Parliament. (I wonder why.)

Stead was notorious for the sensationalist qualities of his journalism and he has been criticized for his methods. In 1885, with a general election coming up and the possible derailment of yet another attempt to raise the age of consent, Stead, along with Butler and the Salvation Army, set up a “committee of inquiry” into what we would now call child sex trafficking. Mrs. Butler and her son, posing as a procuress and a pimp, managed to buy children from brothels in London. Stead then set up a stunt in which he “bought” a 13-year old girl for £5 from her alcoholic mother. The idea was to demonstrate that young girls were being bought and sold, many to end up in brothels in continental Europe. This, we must remind ourselves, is the Victorian era, in which people supposedly covered up the legs of pianos for decency’s sake.

On Saturday, July 4, 1885, Stead published his story in the Pall Mall Gazette. It was written in a lurid style as The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Newspaper vendors refused to sell the journal and the Salvation Army had to take over its distribution. Public reaction to the article resulted in the amendment to the law being passed by Parliament and the age of consent for girls was raised to 15.

But for Stead personally, the stunt backfired badly. He was prosecuted for buying the girl and sentenced to three months in prison.

Interestingly, from the 1880s to the present day, discussion of this case has not usually been about the fate of the girls involved (which is largely ignored or dismissed) but there has been a debate about Stead’s controversial tactics and style as a journalist – most of it very critical of him. It was, according to Roland Pearsall in The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality (1969), “the death knell of responsible journalism.”

The Guardian article tells us that the present Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, has said that in 2011 children as young as 10 are still being trafficked around the UK for sexual exploitation. The article also reports that Barnardo’s have dealt with 417 children who have been exploited in this way. Once more, our law makers drag their feet or in some cases blame the victims. As the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s says: “Those 417 children can’t wait, their lives are being trashed while we are devising an action plan.”