Strength in adversity

Historical Eye

MA work

'Professional whoring, in short, was a flourishing trade that could be lucrative to the tough, attractive and competitive , but a fearful trap to the feeble and unlucky'

Strength in adversity


As we have already seen, London’s parks were a contested space between mainstream society and vagrants. Parks were also disputed spaces between the mainstream and streetwalkers, the latter frequenting them on the look out for ‘clients’, mostly at evening time.


Mainstream letters of complaint frequently stung the police into reappraising the surveillance of the parks. It was noted, however, that very few streetwalkers had been charged with soliciting or indecency. On 18 July 1892 a report stated: ‘A number of prostitutes have been charged with various offences such as drunkenness, disorderly conduct and obscene language, but none have been charged with soliciting prostitution.’109


There was another difficulty: unlike vagrants who were easier to spot and move on, the police often found it hard to distinguish respectable women from streetwalkers. A report dated 27 August 1894 commented: ‘A number of females are to be seen nightly patrolling about Hyde Park. Some are prostitutes, but many are of a respectable class, servants etc.’110 One way of halting the problem was to clamp down on those seeking out streetwalkers. For example, soldiers were key clients of park prostitutes and the police requested help from army officers to stop these men from engaging in vice in the parks. On 28 August 1903 the Colonel of the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards informed the police he was willing to help ‘as much as possible in suppressing cases of unnatural indecency’.111


Although the case studies we have examined are small, they are also insightful. Certainly they give us a better understanding of the mainstream’s reaction towards streetwalkers: the foul language and lack of hygiene angered them as much as the sexual acts they performed. But we can also see that many mainstream people in filing grievances often resisted using emotive and damning language. As with the response to vagrants, the complainants were primarily concerned with having streetwalkers moved on from what was considered a public place and sent back into the shadows of the Twilight City.


Here we should also briefly note that there are several examples when those associated with the Twilight City, including streetwalkers, stopped mainstream incursions in urban spaces that they believed to be theirs. For example, Pick-me-up magazine on 17 August 1889 recorded how two Salvation Army girls went into the streets ‘where “fast” men and women do congregate’. They had been sent ‘with guitars to rescue victims of Circe. They were told to go home; Circe’s lady disciples and “worshippers of Venus” called them fools, and a mob followed them about and jeered at them.’112


Faces with facts

The Salvation Army often worked closely with female ‘unfortunates’. What light does William Booth shed upon the lives of the Twilight City’s streetwalkers? He cites a number of interesting case studies that, while only reflective of a minute slice of London streetwalkers, are useful in that they at least provide a counterpoint to the raw statistics of a questionnaire. ‘P.S.’, we are told was a 20-year-old woman, born illegitimate, who had gone to see a doctor who ‘took advantage of his patient’. He gave her £4 in ‘compensation’, but the subsequent damage to her reputation and lack of parental support forced her into prostitution. ‘E.A.’, 17, had been adopted by her godparents and then abused by her godfather at the age of 10. This event had apparently set her on the course of prostitution. ‘E.’, meanwhile, had been married to a soldier and had a child by him. Her husband was then discovered to be a bigamist ande, the truth revealed, had promptly left her. ‘E.’ was forced into taking shelter in the workhouse. Her quality of life notably worsened and she was left on the verge of starvation. She then became a prostitute.113


Of course Booth was hardly likely to flag up the stories of women who had become streetwalkers to secure an easier life or simply to avoid factory labour (despite the lethal nature of much factory work, as noted above). Few of his readers and supporters would have thought them deserving of charity – and even less would have sent in donations. However, we should not reject these case studies out of hand simply because Booth was using them to illustrate a streetwalker type that the late Victorian mainstream could easily empathise with. They do at least show that abuse and gross neglect was certainly a pathway to downfall. Entering into the world of vice in order to survive, rather than on their own terms, may well have made up a far higher segment of prostitute numbers than Walkowitz contends.


Another key resource concerning the lives of streetwalkers, but one that is often set aside, are the histories of the Whitechapel murder victims, all of whom were prostitutes. Due to the nature of the deaths, the judiciary, the police and the press carefully noted and recorded their backgrounds, as well as the opinions of those who were related to or knew the women. This offers a unique window into the world of the streetwalker early on in our period of study. However, it must be emphasised that it is not within the remit of this dissertation to analyse the grisly details of the murders, or to dwell on the reaction – often hysterical – of the press and public. Rather, we shall confine ourselves to looking at the lives of three victims: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly. We will chart the course of their personal histories and consider the extent that they match the model of prostitution constructed by Walkowitz and the views of other historians we have touched upon.


Mary Ann Nichols

The first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was also known as Polly. In the early hours of 31 August 1888, she was at her lodging house, 18 Thrawl Street, which was part of the notorious Flower and Dean Street rookery, one of London’s most miserable spots. Asked if she had 4d owing for her lodgings that night by the deputy house keeper, Nichols confidently declared: ‘I’ll soon get my doss money.’ She then proudly pointed to her recently-purchased – but second-hand – ‘jolly bonnet’ as evidence of her ability to earn good money.114


Nichols then went out into the Twilight City to ply her trade as she had done countless times. She was last seen alive at 2.30 am ‘in a state of drunkenness’115 – Nichols found it hard to hold on to her earnings when the craving for a drink reared its ugly head – walking towards Buck’s Row where she met her grisly end.


Aged 44 when murdered, Nichols’ slide into steetwalking and poverty was due to several factors. Daughter of a locksmith, she had married William Nichols, a printer, in January 1864. The couple had five children but the marriage was unsuccessful and marked by a number of separations over the years. The final parting came in 1880. Begg writes: ‘William Nichols claimed their separation had been caused by Mary Ann’s heavy drinking, but her father, whilst acknowledging that she drunk heavily, alleged that William Nichols had taken up with a women who had nursed Mary Ann [when she was pregnant in 1876].’116 William asserted that she had been the one to leave him.


Whatever the cause for their final break up, William Nichols paid his estranged wife a small stipend of 5s a month.117 He cancelled the payments in 1882 after discovering she was living with another man. In 1883, she had a blazing row with her father who opposed her lifestyle. For Polly, the years of near destitution, with frequent visits to various workhouses, had begun.


By spring 1888, it looked as though her luck was finally turning after she secured a job as a domestic servant in Wandsworth. Indeed, she was excited enough to write to her father, from whom she was also estranged, with some pride, noted that she was often left in charge when the couple she worked for left the premises. However, she could not resist the temptation to steal and, two months after her letter, Nichols absconded after stealing clothing worth £3 10s.118 Nichols returned to her life in the Twilight City, moving to the East End, where she prostituted herself for drink, food and for a space in the lodging houses.


At first glance, Nichols’ life after her marriage failed and until her murder was one of drunkenness, vagrancy, petty theft and opportunities wasted. Jack London might have placed her at the bottom of the Abyss, highlighting the failure of late 19th century capitalism. Charles Booth might have simply recorded her as another statistic. But it would do Nichols a great disservice to explore her life and her fellow streetwalkers through these prisms. Nichols’s character was filled with complexities and contradictions. Despite her numerous foibles, it became apparent at the hearings after her murder that Nichols was a popular with her friends. Horsler writes: ‘Nichols was a flawed woman…but she could still inspire fondness in her father and make friends among those in a similar situation.’119 In short, Nichols may have lived in and been shaped by the ‘Abyss’, but this did not make any less or more of an individual – an individual with unique strengths, attributes, flaws and failings.


Annie Chapman

The next victim of Jack the Ripper was Annie Chapman. Born in 1841, Annie married John Chapman, a coachman, in 1869 at the age of 28. According to a statement given by Annie’s friend, Mrs. Pearcer, John had managed to secure a good job with a ‘nobleman’ who lived in Bond Street. He was forced to leave the position due to his wife’s dishonesty.


By 1881, the couple was living in Windsor and had three children: two girls and one boy. One of the girls died from meningitis at the age of 12, while their severely disabled son was eventually sent to a home. By the early 1880s, the marriage was falling apart: both John and Annie were heavy drinkers, the latter being arrested several times in Windsor for drunk and disorderly conduct.120 Separating by mutual consent in 1884 or 1885, Annie moved to the East End, with John paying his wife a weekly allowance of about 10s until his death from cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy on Christmas Day 1886.121 Although Chapman was living with a sieve maker at this time, the news of her estranged husband’s death was a cause of great grief. Adding to her misery, the sieve maker left as soon as the news arrived, suggesting he had been sponging off her.


Another friend, Amelia Palmer, stated that Chapman was deeply despondent and ‘she seemed to have given away all together’122 after the death of her husband. But, at a practical level, she had good reason to be depressive: without the stipend, Annie was forced to consider and then become a streetwalker to make ends meet. Annie entered into a relationship with a bricklayer’s mate towards the end of her life. The autopsy discovered that Chapman was also terminally ill, although she was probably unaware of the severity of the disease.


On the last night of Annie’s life, the deputy of the lodging house, Timothy Donovan, remembered that she was in a relatively happy mood, although he noted she had been drinking. Donovan recalled: ‘She was very sociable in the kitchen; I said to her, “You can find money for your beer, and you can’t find money for your bed”.’ 123 Chapman told Donovan to keep her regular bed for her and then walked out into the Twilight City’s streets looking for a ‘customer’ and money to pay for her lodging. She found Jack the Ripper instead…


Strength in adversity

The last victim of the Ripper, Mary Jane Kelly, was 25 at the time of her murder on 8/9 November 1888. The man who had lived with her for a year and eight months before her murder, Joseph Barnett, testified that he had left her at the end of October that year because Kelly had allowed other prostitutes to stay in their lodgings. According to Barnett, ‘she was good hearted and did not like to refuse them shelter on bitter and cold night.’124


At first glance, Kelly’s actions conform to Walkowitz’s assertion that prostitutes looked out for each other, forming something of a rudimentary safety net. But in this case, it seems more likely that Barnett was attempting to portray his girlfriend in a better light, while also trying to preserve his own reputation. At that time he had left her, Barnett was an out-of-work fish porter and sometime fruit hawker. He was reliant on her wages and often forced to skulk around the Twilight City or sit in public houses as Mary Kelly and other prostitutes used their lodgings to earn money. This was not a situation one would want to openly air at a public hearing.


Kelly told Barnett that she had been born in Limerick, Ireland, and moved to South Wales with her family while still young. She married a young coalier who died in a pit explosion. With no support available, Kelly went to Cardiff and ended up becoming a prostitute. She moved to London in 1884 and started to work as a prostitute in the West End. At this point a procuress seems to have stepped in and taken Kelly to France, which was not to her liking and she had returned to London soon afterwards. In returning to Britain, writes Begg, Kelly probably made ‘some serious enemies’,125 which may explain why she went to the East End and not back to the West End to ply her trade.


By 1887 things began to look brighter for Kelly as she had met and entered into a relationship with Barnett. The major difficulty at this stage was the couple’s inability to cover their rent: they were often forced to move from house to house. Drinking added to their problems. For example, Kelly and Barnett were thrown out of lodgings at Paternoster Court due to drunken behaviour and for being behind in the rent.


They finally ended up in a single room, 13 Miller’s Court, the ‘back room of 26 Dorset Street’.126 Dorset Street, according to Begg, ‘was one of the most notorious and reputedly one of the most dangerous streets in the East End’.127 In early September 1888 Barnett lost his job and Kelly, in order to keep money coming in, was forced back into streetwalking. Having found a ‘client’ she would take him back to their lodgings to complete the ‘transaction’. As we have seen, this arrangement and other related factors became too much for Barnett, who eventually ended the relationship.


While few people like to speak ill of the dead, especially those who had suffered the most gruesome of fates, the formal statements about Kelly’s character and personality are almost all strikingly positive. For example, her friend and fellow prostitute, Maria Harvey, stated that Mary Kelly was ‘much superior to that of most persons in her position in life’.128 Drinking, however, had been a regular (although not a persistent) problem for her. In his statement to the authorities, her landlord, John McCarthy, said that he had ‘frequently seen the deceased worse for drink. When sober she was an exceptionally quiet woman, but when in drink she had more to say’.129


On the night of her murder, Kelly had been drinking heavily. At 11.45 pm, Mary Ann Cox, another prostitute, met Kelly and later stated: ‘I last saw her alive on Thursday night, at a quarter to twelve, very much intoxicated’.130 Kelly, she noted, was with a stout man, shabbily dressed and carrying a ‘pot of ale’. Cox said ‘goodnight’ to Kelly who replied ‘Goodnight, I am going to sing’.131 Sometime after 1.00 am, Kelly had found a new ‘customer’, who she then took back to 13 Miller’s Court…


Common threads

The first two victims of Jack the Ripper were not the young and savvy women of Walkowitz’s model. Firstly, both were in their early 40s and both had seen their marriages collapse, with drink being a major factor. Secondly, their entry into prostitution was far from a temporary career. It was a matter of survival. The support of friends and fellow prostitutes in their cases was not as strong as the model suggested by Walkowitz. The effects of alcoholism compounded their misfortunes.


We should also note that the third and forth victims of the Ripper, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – both murdered on the same night, 30/31 September 1888 – were also in their early 40s and, again, both suffered from alcohol dependency. All four of these women were considered by the press and the public to be the representative of streetwalkers in the Twilight City. Very little by way of the personal troubles they faced, or the regard and friendships they forged, were highlighted for public consumption. The gruesome details of the autopsy reports and the hysteria around the identity of the killer made sure of this.


From the perspective of Walkowitz’s model and analysis of the questionnaire, Mary Jane Kelly appears to have a more ‘conventional’ background. A young woman who had the greatest of ‘success’ up until her early twenties, she then had the misfortune to wind up on the streets of the East End. She made the most of a bad situation and, although she seems to have had good relations with her fellow prostitutes, she found it hard to cope. But with Barnett, Kelly seems to have made a concerted effort to leave the world of streetwalking behind. It was the loss of his loss of income that forced her to return to the ‘trade’. Owing 29 shillings in rent at the time of her murder,132 prostitution was the only means of making money Kelly knew. Ultimately the decision doomed her relationship with Barnett and, sadly and unexpectedly, led to her untimely death.


None of the streetwalkers of the Twilight City that we have considered, from Booth’s small case studies to the extensive historical record on the lives of the three Ripper victims, deliver a clear-cut template. These women may have entered the world of prostitution because they were innocents corrupted, or because they aspired to achieve the wealth and luxury afforded to the most successful of courtesans. For the majority, however, it seems to have been a matter of necessity. In his summation of Victorian prostitution Chesney wrote: ‘Professional whoring, in short, was a flourishing trade that could be lucrative to the tough, attractive and competitive, but a fearful trap to the feeble and unlucky.’133 But our study of those who walked the Twilight City clearly shows that while many at the bottom of the heap were ‘unlucky’ and had indeed entered a fearful trap, they were emphatically not ‘feeble’. They were survivors.


Conclusion (click to continue)


Creed of the Assassins


Cathedrals of consumption


William Morris and the Thames


New York Saloons 1845-1895


TheTwilight City


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