Sex trafficking is sadly nothing new. Photo / 123RF
Oamaru teenager Lydia Harvey disappeared in early 1910, only to turn up months later as a key witness in a high-profile London sex-trafficking case. More than a century later, her life has much to say about pressing issues today, historian Julia Laite tells Bruce Munro.
“That night it was back to the casino, with Marie taking charge,” writes historian Julia Laite, telling the story of Oamaru 17-year-old Lydia Harvey’s second night as a prostitute in early-20th century Argentina.
“She approached a ‘gentleman’ … saying, ‘This is my little friend, a very nice girl, quite young. Why not take my little friend?’
“‘She is too young,’ the man replied. And she was — four years younger than the minimum registration age for prostitutes in Buenos Aires, which was 21.
“‘Well, take both of us,’ Marie said with a laugh, and off they all went in a taxi to the apartment. Lydia was horrified: ‘The man was old, dirty and very repulsive to me,’ she later explained.”
So began Harvey’s short-lived, traumatising sojourn in the international sex trade, news of which made brief waves at the time but would likely have remained an overlooked historical footnote if not for Laite’s tenacious research and engaging writing.
It is the story of one forgotten New Zealand woman caught in global machinations. But Laite’s new book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: One trial, six lives and the dawn of the twentieth century, speaks volumes to forces and attitudes still in play 111 years later.
The book tells how Harvey, born in Dunedin and raised in Oamaru, ended up in South America and then Great Britain working as a prostitute. It documents how she became a useful pawn in an ineffectual attempt to bring one group of sex-trade traffickers and pimps to account. And then tracks her back across the globe to a new life and an untimely death.
Global inequality, blatant prejudice and pernicious hypocrisy flood Harvey’s story, presented by Laite from the perspective of six key characters: Harvey, a British detective, a New Zealand journalist, a London social worker, an Italian trafficker and his Australian prostitute-wife. But the story’s themes also spill into the present as some of today’s pressing issues.
Laite first came across Harvey’s story in century-old British police files, the University of London historian says. She speaks in a Canadian accent still strong after 20 years in the United Kingdom.
When she first saw Harvey’s name, Laite was researching her first academic book, about the history of commercial sex in London.
“I just couldn’t get Lydia out of my head, wondering what happened before and what happened after,” she says.
Five years ago, she went back to the police file, with plans to write a general academic book about the history of sex trafficking in Britain.
“But Lydia had other plans for me.”
Laite started trying to find any other historical record of this solitary, ordinary, girl a long way from home. It was a search that would take her around the globe.
“So, it’s such a pleasure to do this interview … because the Otago Daily Times was really integral in helping me piece together little details of her life and where she lived and grew up.”
Lydia was born in Roslyn, Dunedin, on June 3, 1893, the illegitimate child of piano teacher Emily Badeley and solicitor Harry Harvey.
The young mother followed the reluctant father when he shifted to Oamaru. When he later moved to Christchurch and married, Badeley took him to court for “bastardy”, winning maintenance payments for Harvey and one of her sisters.
In May, 1909, at the age of 15, Harvey won second prize in an Oamaru beauty contest. It was the same month her mother gave birth to twins, Harvey’s fifth and sixth sisters. Three months later, Harvey left town to work in Wellington as a cleaner, maid and nanny, doing 15-hour days, six days a week, with a half-day off on Sundays.
By early 1910, she had resigned, moved to a boarding house and found work as a photographer’s assistant in Lower Hutt.
A few weeks later, she was introduced to a well-dressed couple who hinted at prostitution while speaking openly about the prospect of nice clothing and overseas travel.
In February, Harvey boarded the SS Ruahine, bound for South America. The letter she wrote her mother shortly before heading overseas was the last Badeley would hear of her daughter until she read between the lines in an Oamaru Mail article about a scandalous “white slave traffic” court case in England.
The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey is meticulously researched, extensively footnoted and reads like a novel.
Research and writing took years and spanned half a dozen countries.
“It began with a commitment to take seriously the lives of humble, obscure, unknown people in the past.”
Laite researched what she could in England, went to Geneva, Switzerland, to read the records of the early anti-trafficking movement and then on to Turin, Italy, on the trail of bygone traffickers.
“I asked myself, what am I doing? Most people make pilgrimages to famous people’s houses, but here I was standing outside the house of a trafficker wondering what his life was like,” Laite says with a laugh.
In 2018, a research grant enabled her to travel to New Zealand and Australia.
Time was spent in Dunedin, Oamaru and Wellington, as well as Melbourne and Sydney.
Research can be a needle in a haystack effort.
There were two important breakthroughs.
The first was the moment Laite proved who Harvey’s father was.
“I had my suspicions, based on other clues, that it was a solicitor who had lived in Oamaru.”
But it would have been a wild accusation if she had not made a discovery while trawling through Dunedin magistrate court records held in the city’s branch of Archives New Zealand.
“That’s when I found the smoking gun, which is Lydia’s mother taking this solicitor to court on bastardy charges.”
The other big moment was in the Wellington branch of Archives.
“I was almost finished for the day. Then I noticed this file reference that had a name that could have been the misspelled name of one of the pseudonyms of the trafficker.”
She asked for the file. It turned out to be the missing third of the official story — the official New Zealand file on the traffickers.
“It was an amazing moment. I think the archivist thought I was a bit nuts, actually.”
One regret for Laite is that she never found a verified photo of Harvey.
There is an Oamaru Middle School photo, which Harvey is in. But which girl she is, no-one knows. Laite was unable to find the photo Harvey entered in the beauty contest. A photo referred to in the London police file is also missing.
“There must have been a picture of her out there somewhere. And maybe one day I will find it.”
Harvey was met in Buenos Aires by trafficker and pimp Antonio Carvelli and his prostitute-wife Veronique White, both of whom used various aliases.
Their few weeks in Argentina were, for Harvey, a traumatic introduction to the sex trade, and not the lucrative opportunity the other two hoped for. The three sailed for London, where Harvey spent her first month in hospital being treated for gonorrhoea and scabies.
She was then sold to another pimp.
For several weeks she solicited on the streets near Piccadilly Circus. Then she was approached by a policeman, Detective Inspector Ernest Anderson, who was on the trail of Carvelli.
Harvey became the star witness in the prosecution of Carvelli and an associate, Alessandro di Nicotera, for trafficking.
They each received sentences of six months’ prison, without hard labour, and were then deported, without an escort. Both men returned to running brothels in New Zealand and Australia.
The case, won by Harvey’s testimony, was heard in the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court. It was reported on by a New Zealand journalist working in London, Guy Scholefield, who had been born in Dunedin and raised in Milton.
Scholefield’s articles portrayed Harvey as a hard-working, respectable young woman lured by unscrupulous people and subjected to a “horrible” ordeal. Suggesting that New Zealand was tainted by “white slave trafficking” — a particular panic of that time — did not sit well with the New Zealand government. The authorities had Scholefield’s first article suppressed for a month, allowing Wellington police enough time to gather evidence that Harvey was not of “good character”. On that basis, Prime Minister Joseph Ward announced in Parliament, the day after the article was published, that the girl had been living “an immoral life” in the capital before leaving for Buenos Aires.
The story has many parallels to contemporary trends and issues — globalisation, low-wage economies, trafficking, international policing, migration, inequalities, attitudes to sex …
Laite highlights three.
Foremost, she says, is working poverty, illustrated by Harvey’s exploitation in perfectly legal work as a domestic servant in Wellington.
“It was this … knowing I’m going to work 75 hours a week and still only have pennies in my purse that drove her decision to go with Carvelli to Buenos Aires on the promise of a more affluent life.
“This is a social and economic reality that is very real today for the majority of working women around the globe.”
It is the single biggest factor that drives women into sex work and makes them vulnerable to trafficking.
A second big theme is the way victimhood is idealised by the anti-trafficking movement.
“They did, and continue to, peddle melodramatic and simplified stories of innocence and ruin.”
This has consequences for trafficked women, Laite says. If they do not fit the narrow definition of what a victim of sexual exploitation looks like — in their story, background and behaviour — then they are often treated as criminals rather than as victims who need understanding and support.
Thirdly, Laite points to sexual abuse and violence perpetrated against children and women.
Harvey’s sexual exploitation as a prostitute was part of the bigger picture of constant sexual harassment and exploitation she experienced.
“Foreign traffickers were not the biggest danger. However much more comfortable it is for us to think that, the very present reality is that the vast majority of women and children experience this kind of abuse in their daily lives — in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their institutions.”
When Harvey’s mother read in the Oamaru Mail of a London trafficking case involving a New Zealand girl who had worked at a photography studio in Wellington, she went running to the town’s police station.
But attempts to get Harvey back to New Zealand were thwarted by the government, which considered her “not of good character” and therefore not the government’s responsibility. She spent a further five months in London, living at the Metropolitan Police Home for Women and Girls, until the British Home Office, not the New Zealand government, eventually stumped up the £28 for her passage home.
Harvey stayed a few months in Oamaru with her mother and, now, seven sisters. She then went to Dunedin where she joined a touring Australian vaudeville act. The police in New Zealand and Australia had unsubstantiated suspicions she returned to the sex trade.
In 1915, a year after the start of World War 1, Harvey met a young sailor, Herbert Ockenden. The two married on July 27, at St James’ Church, Hyde Park, Sydney.
They moved to Melbourne and then to Newcastle.
During the next three years Ockenden was often at sea.
The end of the war brought not just peace but a deadly global pandemic, the Spanish flu. It killed between 20 million and 50 million people, including, on June 24, 1919, Harvey, aged 26.
Laite tracked down and then visited Harvey’s grave, in Sandgate Cemetery, Newcastle.
“It broke my heart when I saw this heart-shaped grave … I think he really did love her.
“By now, I was no longer wondering what I was doing here, as I was in Turin, because I was confident that what I was doing really did matter.”
Laite hopes her book helps reframe what is considered to be “history”.
“We have this notion that books need to be about famous people or well-known events.
“My book is making a contribution to getting people to think about how ordinary lives matter and can tell us as much, if not more, about the world.”
Laite also hopes her telling of Harvey’s story helps people see the complexity in stories of prostitution, trafficking and sexual exploitation.
“In these super-simplified stories of trafficking, the victims aren’t supposed to have after-lives. They are supposed to be forever ruined.
“It was so lovely to know that Lydia defied those expectations.”
SEXUAL HARM – DO YOU NEED HELP?
If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone contact the Safe to Talk confidential crisis helpline on:
• Text 4334 and they will respond
• Email email@example.com
• Visit https://safetotalk.nz/contact-us/ for an online chat
Alternatively contact your local police station – click here for a list.
If you have been abused, remember it’s not your fault.