Last week, Prince Charles used the columns of The Sun to launch an appeal to help the child prostitutes of Nepal, nearly 5,000 miles away.
He had been shocked, he explained, on his visit there in February to be told of the sale of children no older than his two sons, who are 13 and 16. And when he heard of the degradation and deliberate torture of these children, he had been unable to believe “the sheer scale of horror.”
His compassion is welcome, but Prince Charles has no need to travel half way across the planet to find such horror. He need only peek over the back wall of his garden at Buckingham Palace and look among the shadows of the grand hotels on Park Lane to find children selling themselves for sex.
Or he could ask his chauffeur to drive him to the seedier streets around King’s Cross, or to Sussex Gardens near Paddington Station, or to Streatham or Stamford Hill or Finsbury Park or any of the capital’s traditional vice areas. There are children for sale in all of them.
Indeed the Prince could make a royal tour of his future kingdom visiting only the sites of child prostitution. It would take him weeks, because it would lead him into just about every city – to Spencer Place in Leeds; Melbourne Road in Leicester; Chorlton Street in Manchester; Portman Road in Ipswich; to Sheffield and Bristol and Southampton and then beyond the old industrial cities into the shires, to Bournemouth and Eastbourne and Norwich.
The painful truth which he would discover is that 100 years after Victorian society rose in revulsion to put an end to child prostitution, once again it is possible for a man with money in his pocket to buy a child with whom he can have sex.
I stumbled into this twilight world five years ago when I came across two boys behaving in a furtive and suspicious way at a fairground in Nottingham. I saw what they were doing and yet I refused to believe it. Like Prince Charles, I had simply failed to see the emerging scandal.
In search of reassurance, I approached the two boys and persuaded them to talk to me. In the next few hours, they trampled all over my complacency. They not only revealed the grim detail of their own lives but took me out into the streets of the city where they introduced me to a dozen other boys and girls who were running a gauntlet of danger to sell themselves to passing men.
And I do mean “boys and girls.” These were not young adults who happened to be a few months the wrong side of the age of consent. The two boys were aged 11 and 12. Their friends were 14 at the oldest and 10 at the youngest.
That night in Nottingham was an experience so shocking that it propelled me on a journey into a hidden Britain. Over and over again I found children engaged in the same grim trade. Like Prince Charles, I found them not only degraded but physically tortured too, by sadistic punters.
I set out to discover why this was happening and found myself burrowing deep into the underbelly of British life. I spent weeks on grim housing estates where family life had collapsed and whole communities had been ravaged by drink, drugs and hardship. I met street gangs and pimps. I went into crack houses and gambling dens and illegal bars.
It was soon clear that it was this Britain – one of poverty and violence – which was the cradle of child prostitution. Growing up in this chaos, these boys and girls had emerged into adolescence with their personalities so scrambled that it seemed to them quite normal to go out into the night and sell themselves.
I met runaways and throwaways, some who slept on the streets, many who lived in children’s homes and simply walked out each night in their stockings and stilettos. I followed the footsteps of Natalie Pearman, who was murdered in the red light area in Norwich; and of Kit Austin, who died in the brothels of London’s West End. Almost without exception they came from the same background.
Last week, as Prince Charles looked to Nepal, the charity Barnardo’s released a report in which it revealed that its project in Bradford alone had dealt with 100 prostitutes aged between 12 and 17. It stated: “Men are controlling, coercing, assaulting, raping and, in extreme cases, torturing children.”
This government, like its predecessors, shows no interest in acting either to protect these children or to attack the poverty which has produced them.
A House of Lords Select Committee has, though, studied the problem. It reported: “The evidence before the committee proves beyond doubt that juvenile prostitution, from an almost incredibly early age, is increasing to an appalling extent in England…The committee are unable adequately to express their sense of the magnitude, both in a moral and a physical point of view, of the evil thus brought to light; and of the necessity for taking vigorous measures to cope with it.”
That report was written in July 1882, when Queen Victoria ruled. Her great-great-grandson would earn the gratitude of his future subjects if he brought his campaign home from Nepal to the streets beneath his feet.
Nick Davies is author of Dark Heart. The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain, published in paperback this month by Vintage, price £7.99.