'There is no doubt that there is no industrial career in which for a short time a beautiful girl can make as much money with as little trouble as the professional courtesan'
When thinking about the Twilight City’s streets from 1885-1905, many people today visualise prostitutes looking for clients beneath the glow of gas lamps. If not being taken advantage of by lower-class roughs, they are frequently seen as the victims and playthings of wealthy decadents who had taken to sexual ‘slumming’.
Our assumptions regarding late Victorian and early Edwardian prostitution on London’s nocturnal streets often stem from the period itself, including the frequently-held view that streetwalkers were innocent girls forced into the ‘sex industry’ by the wicked machinations of madams or pimps. Others, it was commonly thought, were girls and women who had been deserted by their lovers or husbands, only to find their families unsympathetic to their plight. It was believed that these women, with no support available, had been forced into selling their bodies in order to simply survive. These ‘unfortunates’ were to be pitied and, if possible, reclaimed from the maws of vice. Meanwhile, prostitutes addicted to and spending their earnings on alcohol were condemned. These were the fallen women. The division of prostitutes into victims and perpetrators was neat, but more often than not, utterly impractical – and most late Victorians and early Edwardians knew this.
Before we explore who the streetwalkers of London were and the responses to them, it is vital to engage the recent and extremely influential historiography. In her work, Walkowitz emphatically rejects many of the popular concepts surrounding the late Victorian prostitute and the notion that she was somehow a perpetual victim. Much of Walkowitz’s work stems from an analysis of a sizeable late Victorian questionnaire of 16,000 prostitutes who went through the Millbank Penitentiary in the late 1880s.
White also makes use of the questionnaire, which is certainly useful in that it gives us a greater statistical understanding of prostitutes. For example, the questionnaire revealed that nine in ten prostitutes were the daughters of unskilled or semi-skilled working men. Half of the women had been servants, while the rest ‘had worked in equally dead-end jobs, such as laundering, charring and street selling’.73 It also reveals that many prostitutes had lost one or both parents early in their lives74 and that most entered prostitution at the age of 16.75
According to Walkowitz’s analysis, the ‘career’ of prostitutes were usually short.76 She is also adamant that child prostitution was not, as W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, was want to assert early on in the era,* a reality. Walkowitz writes: ‘[The prostitute was] not the innocent victim of middle-class seduction and betrayal; nor was she the mere child drugged and entrapped into prostitution by white slavers’.77 She adds: ‘metropolitan and provincial police reported the virtual absence of known prostitutes under sixteen.’78
*Stead famously ‘purchased’ a young girl and then wrote a series of salacious articles in 1885 under the banner ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Rather than letting the facts get in the way of a good story,79 Stead projected the fears society had concerning the vile abuse of children back to his readership. While it is useful to be aware of this topic, the sensationalist approach tells us very little about the actuality of Twilight City prostitutes, the abuse they suffered and the ages at which they started to streetwalk.
Pearsall and White disagree, stating that child prostitution – while certainly not on the scale Stead imagined – was present during the era. For example, Pearsall cites a number of extremely unsettling cases and incidents in Birmingham during the 1890s.80
Walkowitz also argues that the ‘entry into prostitution seems to have been voluntary and gradual.’81 So if prostitutes were not cajoled into the ‘sex industry’ why did they think that selling their bodies was preferable to being respectable? One of the reasons often given was a supposed desire among many women to leave their grim working-class districts and secure wealthier lifestyles. White states: ‘Prostitution could provide pretty girls with the quickest possible exit from slums like Seven Dials throughout the century.’82
Others, we are told, aimed higher still, wanting to enter the heart of the Bright Light City and to grab a share of the developing consumer society. Prostitution made this possible, so as long as the woman involved had the beauty and the business acumen. A few did indeed become courtesans to the very wealthy, living a life of luxury undreamed of in most working-class districts.
But perhaps a greater, although somewhat more mundane motivator for women becoming prostitutes, was the desire to simply earn enough to avoid the daily and deadly grind of working in London’s factories and sweatshops. William Booth highlighted this factor, writing: ‘Terrible as the fact is, there is no doubt it is a fact that there is no industrial career in which for a short time a beautiful girl can make as much money with as little trouble as the professional courtesan.’83 This attitude becomes all the more understandable when one considers the horrors of working in, say, one of London’s white lead factories, where an early and horrid death from poisoning was a common occurrence.84
Other prostitutes were very occasionally called ‘dollymops’, these were usually older women who held other jobs but supplemented their meagre incomes with irregular acts of streetwalking. These women were at the bottom of the ‘sex industry’. According to Chesney, who uses nomenclature acceptable at the time of his writing, they were ‘whores of the last resort, and ready to escape back to another life as soon as they could.’85
The more professional and streetwise prostitutes, Walkowitz asserts, forged safety and support networks among themselves. They frequently worked in pairs, she writes, ‘to protect themselves from abusive men and to overpower and rob tipsy customers.’86 White concurs, stating: ‘Some prostitutes lured their clients in to be robbed by their bully [pimp or boyfriend, or both]. Often this could occur in a hotel room after the man had fallen asleep. If on the streets, the prostitute could take the client into a dark alley where the bully would mug him or, if he put up a fight, beat him to a pulp and then steal any valuables.’87
Chesney rebuffs this argument, stating that robbery by prostitutes and their bullies was a rare occurrence. To become known as a thief, he asserts, was highly damaging to a prostitute’s standing. A good reputation, declares Chesney, was vital to her success. ‘Her whole manner of working, the way she frequented places where her reputation became known, and also her relations with the police, made it against her interests to rob or attack her customers. It was almost always the desperate or incompetent whore who looked to theft,’ he writes.88
While well-structured, Walkowitz’s model also contains several flaws that deserve to be highlighted. First and foremost, her assertion that streetwalkers were somehow living a life of independence that other women of their class had yet to experience, is shaky at best. ‘Seasoned prostitutes,’ she writes, ‘were capable of independent and assertive behaviour rarely found among women of their own social class.’89 This rather rose-tinted appraisal blithely papers over the rather obvious fact that many prostitutes led lives filled with misery, their options in life restricted, as we shall see below.
The second major flaw in Walkowitz’s model is her constant appraisal of streetwalkers defined almost solely by their sexual encounters with men. She appears to forget that many struck up close and important platonic ties with male friends. Chesney highlights this: ‘It was not just sexual desire that made it enjoyable to share the society of attractive women with whom one could lounge and smoke and joke without constraint.’90 Prostitutes were also able to engage in long-term and meaningful relationships with long-term partners and, with these men, strive to secure better standards of living as a team.
The weakest element to Walkowitz’s model is her assertion that ‘it is particularly difficult to discern precisely what “respectable” neighbours thought of prostitutes and brothel keepers, given the limited historical sources available’. Had she made a detailed investigation of Metropolitan Police files, Walkowitz would have discovered a fairly weighty repository of opinions concerning streetwalkers, including the working class mainstream. Some of the material also informs us about their manners and behaviour. All told, while the arguements of Walkowitz and others are compelling, there is still much historical exploration of streetwalkers at night to be done.
Behind the bright lights
Having highlighted some of the key historiography surrounding prostitution it is important to discuss the areas and spaces in which streetwalking was undertaken. We will see that the commonly-conjured image of prostitutes standing beneath gas lamps on the periphery is fairly far from the truth. If anything, streetwalkers plied their trade in the heart of the Bright Light City or, at the opposite end, on the major thoroughfares or outside shops and public houses in the poorer districts. Only the sexual act itself was undertaken in darkened streets, primarily in the effort to avoid detection and police intervention.
Only the most savvy and beautiful streetwalkers could secure regular custom in the centre of the Bright Light City. Having found a ‘client’, most high-end streetwalkers would go back to a ‘hotel’, which was usually a thinly-disguised brothel. Those prostitutes at the pinnacle of the industry often had the money and recognition to enter many theatres, music halls and night clubs, where they would seek out prospective trade or meet with frequent clients. Their income was steady and secure; if they were prudent, they could also build up savings for their later years.
Those navigating the sidelines of the Bright Light City mostly catered to men leaving the theatres or music halls. Hope Constaple recalled one prostitute’s predicament around the time the theatres emptied. Standing on the Strand, he spotted a woman being led away by two policemen. At first he assumed she was respectable, but soon realised she was ‘one of those beautiful parasites’.91 He then noted: ‘Two or three “swells” with large shirt fronts, opera cloaks, and gleaming silk hats, pass heartless remarks on the woman’s awful condition.’92 Overall, the scene was ‘enough to make a man weep his heart out’.93
Others were less empathetic to the situation of these so-called ‘beautiful parasites’. The character Dick in the novel A Dark Deed arrives in Piccadilly on the path to hunt down his fallen sister’s seducer. Here he witnesses ‘a number of women, there could not have been less than thirty, [attempt to seize] every man who passed along that quarter, and made overtures that sickened him to hear. A torrent of abuse was showered at any man who expressed feelings of detestation at their abominable solicitations.’94
With an eye for detail, Machray gives a less vindictive account of prostitutes in Piccadilly Circus, whom he calls ‘pavement ladies’ and ‘daughters of the Circus’. He notes how policemen were far from judgemental in dealing with them, writing that they were familiar with and almost friendly towards these women. According to Machray, a policeman was more likely to view West End streetwalker as a sad interlopers from the Twilight City into the Bright Light City, rather than some form of degenerate harpy. ‘The London police,’ Machray wrote, ‘are not bad men, and in their hearts is a good deal of pity and sympathy too for these poor creatures of the Half-World’.95
When he entered Piccadilly Circus, Jack London bawdily observed ‘its pavements were brightened by well-dressed women without escort, and there was more life and action there than elsewhere, due to the process of finding an escort. But by three o’clock the last of them vanished, and it was then very lonely indeed’.96
Further down the scale of streetwalkers, public houses were frequent haunts for prostitutes looking for ‘trade’. According to Walkowitz, they ‘had regular customers at pubs’.97 But in his work on the Victorian public house, Mark Girouard opposes this arguement, stating that publicans were extremely wary of the police and the threat of legal action taken against them if prostitutes were found soliciting on their premises. Girouard writes: ‘The law was fairly strictly enforced and tarts were not encouraged by the publicans. The place to find them was on the streets or, most likely, in the music halls.’98 Girouard’s argument is given some credence by the Metropolitan Police file Mepo 2/384, which outlines how in 1895 the publican of the Wayland Tavern (also known as the Wayland Hotel), Hackney, was successfully prosecuted for allowing prostitutes to frequent his premises. He was fined £10 and ordered to pay £5 5s in costs. More importantly, for the publican, the licence to sell intoxicating spirits was revoked when it came up for renewal in 1896.99
Responding to vice
Despite voicing sympathy for streetwalkers, most late Victorians and early Edwardians detested the notion of sex for sale. For most, it was the sexual transaction itself that represented the Twilight City at its worst. And it no surprise that streetwalkinI also became closely tied to notions of degeneracy and the view that prostitutes were conduits for disease, contagion, filth and decay, although we should note these opinions were frequently voiced by those with little knowledge of the realities on the ground, often by academics or journalists whipping themselves into frenzy of indignation. For example, only a few weeks before the savage butchery of Mary Jane Kelly by Jack the Ripper, a Daily News’ correspondent wrote that Whitechapel prostitutes were ‘bloated by drink and distorted by passion’.100
Taking a socialist stance, Jack London highlights streetwalkers and the problem of prostitution as yet another example of the destructive nature of the British capitalist system on the urban working classes. He divides prostitutes into two camps: on one side he places young women plummeting straight to the bottom of the ‘Abyss’, while on the other is the ‘finished product’: the prematurely-aged, alcohol-abusing and disease-riddled hag. Walking through Whitechapel at night, many women ‘begged me for pennies, and worse. They held carouse in every boozing den, slatternly, unkempt, bleary-eyed, and tousled, leering and gibbering, overspilling with foulness and corruption’.101 They were, he adds, ‘blasted by disease and drink till their shame brought not tuppence in the open mart’.102 There were also ‘young girls, of eighteen and twenty, with trim bodies and faces yet untouched with twist and bloat’.103
Setting aside the agenda of whether prostitutes represented working-class degeneracy or the corruptive nature of capitalism, alcoholism (see below) was indeed a major disease wrecking the lives of streetwalkers. The victims of the Whitechapel murders all, to a lesser or greater extent, suffered problems stemming from alcohol abuse.
Metropolitan Police reports regarding prostitution are less burdened by emotive language or underlying agendas. They also give us a good idea of the ‘mainstream’ response that Walkowitz had such trouble uncovering. Of particular interest for our purposes is the file relating to police surveillance of prostitution in and around the Euston and St. Pancras areas of London.
Take, as a case study, two joint letters of complaint about streetwalkers to the police by Mr. Stocken, a dentist at 21 Endersleigh Gardens, and Mr. Elton, the chemist at 28 Endersleigh Gardens. In Elton’s first letter to the police, dated 22 February 1892, he wrote: ‘It is a very common occurrence for my doorstep to be used by these women for disgusting purposes, and the language used by them is simply disgusting’.104 Mr. Stocken’s letter (also dated 22 February 1892) states the hours between of 10pm and 12am were those favoured by streetwalkers and their clients. He adds: ‘It is not fit for a respectable female to walk about and any young man cannot do so without molestation…the language is filthy [and] door steps are made urinals of.’105 Four days after his letter arrived, the police interviewed Elton. He went into greater detail, outling many of the grim actualities of sex for sale, something many historians often fail to highlight. ‘Men,’ the police noted ‘can often be seen having sexual intercourse with them against the railings of the gardens opposite to his house.’106
In considering the situation at Endersleigh Gardens, the police quickly concluded that much of the trouble stemmed from the introduction of new electric lighting at St. Pancras. The bright glare made the prostitutes ‘working’ there feel uncomfortable and so they shifted their attention to finding ‘clients’ on Gower Street up to the Euston Road (and including Endersleigh Gardens). The Police then noted that the local vestry had compounded matters by ‘extinguishing certain public st[reet] lamps’.107 The best course of action, the police decided, was to ask the vestry to reinstate the lighting.
The police's decision to use indirect action worked in this case. In early April 1892, they returned to interview Mr. Elton. The chemist informed them that the situation had changed dramatically due to the installation of a new lamp directly opposite his shop. The police noted that the lamp ‘has been a great assistance in putting a stop to this nuisance’.108
Creed of the Assassins
Cathedrals of consumption
William Morris and the Thames
New York Saloons 1845-1895
© 2015. All rights reserved