The Case Of Elizabeth Burley

In 1864, Parliament passed what would prove to be an extremely controversial Act – The Contagious Diseases Act.

The intention behind the Act was to attempt to regulate prostitution in garrison ports, towns, and cities in order to reduce the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in the British army and navy.

The Contagious Diseases Act, made it compulsory by law for women suspected of prostitution to register with the police and for them to submit to an invasive and intimate medical examination in order to discover if they themselves were infected by venereal disease. If the woman was found to be suffering from such a disease, then she was to be sent to a ‘lock hospital’ where she was to be confined until pronounced ‘clean’.

Significantly, it gave specially appointed police officers the right to decide which women were prostitutes and to arrest them accordingly.

Although the Act was repealed in 1885, police constables were still deciding on the morals of women whom they found out on the streets several years later, as is illustrated by the infamous Miss Cass case of 1887.

An illustration showing PC Endacott arresting Miss Cass.
Police Constable Endacott Arrests Miss Cass. From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Needless to say, women approached by this “morals squad” would do whatever it took to resist being detained, as happened on the 15th of March 1881 in a case that was reported by The Dover Chronicle in its edition of Saturday the 19th March, 1881:-

On Wednesday, before R. Rees, T. V. Brown, and S. Finnis, Esqrs., Elizabeth Burley – a tall and good-looking girl, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by jumping into the Granville Dock on the previous day.

William John Sanderson, a porter in the employ of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company, said:-

“About 12.30 yesterday, I had just got into the street from the pier, when I saw the prisoner running as fast as she could from Elizabeth-street towards the Creswell, and I saw two inspectors of the Contagious Diseases Act, together with a mob of boys, following her.

I stepped into the road to see what they were going to do with her.

When they got as far as Hawkesbury-street one inspector stopped to keep the boys back, but the other continued to chase her, going by the Pavilion Tavern.

I went through the station and saw her run through Bradley’s passage, the inspector following. I saw him stop her at Mr. Bradley’s store, where he had some conversation with her, but I cannot say what it was.


After this, the young girl walked away, but on turning round again to look I saw the inspector following her again.

She then deliberately stepped over the chain and jumped into the Granville Dock.

I halloed out, and assistance came. A rope was then got and thrown to her, which she got hold of. A buoy was also thrown into the water, and subsequently, she was rescued by a boat. She did not scream much, but I heard her scream once.”


John Barber, a master mariner, said:-

“About half-past twelve yesterday I was in the road, when I saw this young person, pursued by a man, coming from the direction of Bradley’s passage, and she jumped into the Granville Dock.

The man who had been pursuing her did not try to save her, but stood on one side.”


Constable Carey, said:-

“I am one of the constables stationed at Dover under the Contagious Diseases Act.

I have known this young woman for about five weeks, and, during the last three weeks, she has been about the streets in company with soldiers.

I told the inspector, and he instructed me to get her name and address.


At about 9.30 last Monday night I saw her in Snargate-street, in company with two soldiers and another girl. I asked her for her name and address, but she ran away and I could not catch her.

About 12 30 yesterday I was in Snargate-street again, in company with Police-constable Griffiths, when I met the prisoner. I went up to her and told her I was a constable under the Contagious Diseases Act, and asked for her address.

Griffiths said if she would not give her name or address she had better go to the inspector’s place. She said, “All right,” and I asked her whether she knew where the place was, and she said, “Yes.”

She then started in that direction, and we walked about twenty yards behind her.

She went over the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway bridge and down Elizabeth Street, but when she got to the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway station she commenced to run, and round by the Crosswall up by the back of the station again, and through one of the courts on to the quay.


I caught her by the side of Mr. Bradley’s stores, and asked her why she ran away. She replied, “I do not like to go down.” I told her she might give me her name and address, as I did not mind which she did. She then said, “I’ll go down.”

I then turned round in front of her intending to go through the court, but I found she was not following me.

When I turned I found that she had run across the road towards the dock, where she lifted up the chain, went under it, and jumped into the dock.

Several other men came round at the time and threw a rope to her, which she clung to, and a man jumped into the water after her. She was thus rescued and taken to the Sailors’ Home.”


Supt. Sanders stated that the constable said that the defendant had been living at 23, York Street, and that she had been brought up in the Union until she was seven years of age, when she went to service.

The Magistrate said it was a very dreadful thing to attempt to commit suicide, and she was liable to be committed for trial. They did not want to do that, however, but wanted to save her from her life of crime; therefore, if she would consent to go to the Union until she got a place, they would dismiss her.


The Rev. B. Pearce, who was present, said that he believed the prisoner was only young in crime, and whilst she was at the Sailors’ Home she had expressed her desire to live a better life, if anything could be done for her.

The prisoner consented to go to the Union, and consequently was dismissed.