Have you ever found a lady of
the night in your family? Perhaps you did, but didn’t recognise her.
The census enumerators rarely, if ever, described ‘prostitute’ as an
occupation, yet we know from contemporary sources that in every town
and city women were forced by circumstances into the oldest profession.
What we know for certain is that prostitution was common in Victorian
England. Mayhew tells us that in 1857 there were 8,600 prostitutes in
London known to the police but that the true number may have been
nearer to 80,000. Prostitution was seen as a social nuisance and a
moral threat not just in Britain but also elsewhere in the world. From
1864 legislation was introduced licensing brothels in military and
naval centres. This was introduced to improve the sexual immorality
which was considered essential for soldiers and sailors. All women
living within certain areas could be declared ‘common prostitutes’
after police investigation. As such they had to undergo periodical
medical examination. Women who refused could be punished by repeated
terms of imprisonment. In earlier times penalties were harsh. In the
seventeenth century all ‘bawds’ were whipped openly and branded with an
AB on their forehead, while later in the same century the Society for
the Reformation of Manners called for all prostitutes to be whipped.
Some Victorian philanthropists tried to do more than persecute women.
Charles Dickens, having written extensively about prostitution in a
number of his novels, was persuaded by Miss Burdett Coutts, the
youngest daughter of the Burdett-Coutts banking family, to set up a
home for fallen women. It was Dickens who found the house in Lime
Grove. Urania Cottage was, he wrote in May 1847, ‘retired, but
cheerful. There is a garden and a little Lawn.’ He was concerned that
the women entering the house should be encouraged rather than
constantly reminded of their sin: ‘She is degraded and fallen, but not
lost, having the shelter; and the means of Return to Happiness.’
Dickens was involved with choosing the staff for Urania Cottage, he
kept a close eye on the accounts and he interviewed prospective inmates.
While most prostitutes continued to live in poverty a few prospered.
One drew such a crowd while riding in Hyde Park that traffic was
delayed getting to the Crystal Palace exhibition. A number of foreign
policemen who came to London at the time of the Great Exhibition to
identify known troublemakers spread their net wider and investigated
night life in Soho where bars and cabaret houses provided opportunities
for gamblers and prostitutes to meet their clients. One agent found
them operating at midnight in arcades in the Haymarket while a
pickpocket was living in Golden Square with a group of French and Irish
women of the night.
A Scene from Hogarth ‘s Harlot’s Progress
It has been claimed that Jack the Ripper’s fixation with prostitutes
may have arisen because he caught venereal disease from a woman he had
been with. The police rarely showed any inclination to prosecute these
women, although they clearly knew who they were and where they
practised their trade. One policeman reported on a well known brothel
in a coffee shop at the corner of the market in Boverie Street, with
other women living in the Edgware and Marylebone roads. Another
policeman reported on the situation in New Cross claiming that
prostitution ‘is not as bad as formerly or it is better concealed’
although New Cross Road and Lewisham High Road were used.
Many brothels in the census returns are hidden as lodging houses. If a
householder is listed as a lodging-house keeper and the residents are
women, or servants, then it is possible that they were prostitutes.
Other women are listed as milliners, seamstresses, or launderers.
However, it can be too easy to make assumptions. Some brothels were
managed by men and when they were brought before the magistrates then
police and newspaper accounts can be a valuable source of information
on how the trade operated.
If you cannot find a man at home on census night then it is entirely
possible he was in bed with a ‘low kept woman’. One 1841 enumerator
noted in his return for Lambeth that he found women living in one house
and when he talked to neighbours he was told that at least 12 men were
there on census night.
So watch out — your past could be more unsavoury than you thought.