Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - Dress Lodgers

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in The Night Side of London - click here

Dress Houses. - The description of brothels called dress houses was much more prevalent a few years ago than is the case at present. It appears from the police returns for 1868, that there are now only two such houses in the Metropolis, containing between them 11 inmates.* (* I am informed that the exception in London is the rule in Edinburgh. It will appear in a subsequent chapter, there is less disease in brothels conducted on the French principle than among isolated prostitutes. I do not know whether the Scotch brothels can boast a similar advantage.) They were maintained to some extent by persons who furnished board, lodging, and clothes to a number of prostitutes whom they sent out into the streets under guard of servants, or kept at home to receive visitors. The girls, who, it is needless to say, were of the most utterly degraded class, received but a small share of the wages of their sin; their condition was almost as abject as the files numerotees of the Continent in general, and they were far more unprotected than those of Berlin, especially against persons speculating in them. The spread of venereal taint was not, as might be imagined, more favoured by this most revolting phase of the evil than by any other. The brutalized woman-farmers had, it is true, no more bowels of compassion for the male sex than for their stock-in-trade, and would drive into the streets with taunts and curses the diseased unfortunate. But the evil reputation which an establishment might acquire by being a focus of disease, induced them to adopt a certain degree of care and precaution. To show, however, the dangers to which the unwary might be exposed under that system, I may mention a case that came under the notice of a friend of my own.
    In the year 1858 his sympathy and curiosity were awakened by the behaviour of a very handsome girl, who, seemingly against her will, was very urgently forced upon his notice by a brothel-keeper, who was hawking her about the streets. Acquiescing in the offer of her company and paying the demands of the house, he put some searching questions to the girl. She at first half confessed slight indisposition, but on his avowing himself a medical man, and showing clearly enough that his curiosity like his gift was dictated by mere charity, she submitted to a superficial examination. No more was required to prove that she was a mass of syphilis.
    The rouged and whitewashed creatures, with painted lips and eyebrows, and false hair, accustomed to haunt Langham Place, portions of the New Road, the Quadrant, the Peristyle of the Haymarket Theatre, the City Road, and the purlieus of the Lyceum, were the most prominent gangs of this description in London. They were watched by persons of their own sex, employed purposely to prevent their abstraction of the lodging-house finery, and clandestine traffic with men. These wretched women, virtually slaves, though nominally free, with bodies and time no longer their own, were restricted, for the convenience of the real proprietors, to certain parades or beats, and from year's end to year's end might be observed on the same side of one particular street, and within a few hundred yards or less of one particular spot. If their solicitations proved unsuccessful, their exertions were stimulated by the proprietor in person, who would sally forth from her den to aid the canvass, to admonish and to swear; and sometimes by the sentinel in charge, who assumed for the time being these functions of authority. 
    Women under like sad conditions, may still be observed in some of the principal streets of London, but I am happy to say a great improvement has taken place in this respect during the last twelve years. There still exist establishments in which the women live with their landlady, by whom they are provided with food, dress, and lodging, all which are charged to the women at an exorbitant price, and the landlady usually contrives to keep them in her debt; they have, however, the right of receiving and retaining their own money, and the privilege of accepting or declining, at their own discretion, the attentions offered by their visitors.

William Acton, Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, 2nd edition 1870

    It would soften the hearts of many, and hold the hands of those who would break down the bridge behind the sinner, could they know the awful misery that frequently attends the life of a fallen woman. The 921 questionably quoted as “well dressed, and living in houses of ill-fame,” do not at all represent the horrors of the social evil in all its ghastly integrity. Such women are at least free to a certain extent to act as they please. No restriction is set on their movements; they may remain at home or go abroad, dress as they please, and expend their miserable gains according to their fancy. But they have sisters in misfortune to whom the smallest of these privileges is denied. They are to be found amongst the un­happy 2216 who are described as “well dressed, and walking the streets.” Unlike the gay lady, who makes her downy nest in the top-most branches of the deadly upas-tree, and is altogether above suspicion or vulgar reproach, this poor wretch is without a single possession in the wide world. She is but one of a thousand walking the streets of London, the most cruelly used and oppressed of all the great family to which they own relationship. They are bound hand and foot to the harpies who are their keepers. They are infinitely worse off than the female slaves on a nigger-plantation, for they at least may claim as their own the rags they wear, as well as a share of the miserable hut common to the gang after working-hours. But these slaves of the London pavement may boast of neither soul nor body, nor the gaudy skirts and laces and ribbons with which they are festooned. They belong utterly and entirely to the devil in human shape who owns the den that the wretched harlot learns to call her “home.” You would never dream of the deplorable depth of her destitution, if you met her in her gay attire. Splendid from her tasselled boots to the full-blown and flowery hat or bonnet that crowns her guilty head, she is abso­lutely poorer than the meanest beggar that ever whined for a crust.  
    These women are known as “dress lodgers.” They are poor wretches who somehow or another are reduced to the lowest depths of destitution. Sometimes illness is the cause. Sometimes, if a girl gets into a bad house, and is as yet too new to the horrible business to conform without remonstrance to the scandalous extortions practised by the brothel-keeper, she is “broken down and brought to it” by design and scheming. A girl not long since confided to a clergyman friend of mine the following shocking story. Rendered desperate by the threats of the wretch who owned her, she applied to him for advice. “I was bad enough before, I don’t deny it; but I wasn’t a thief. I hadn’t been used to their ways for more than a month, and had a good box of clothes and a silver watch and gold chain, when I went to lodge there, and it was all very well while I spent my money like a fool, bought gin, and treated ‘em all round; but when I wouldn’t stand it any longer, and told her (the brothel-keeper) plain that I would pay her the rent and no more (nine shillings a-week for a small back room), she swore that she’d break me down, and ‘bring me to her weight.’ I didn’t know that at the time; I didn’t hear of it till afterwards. She was fair enough to my face, and begged me not to leave her, flattering me, and telling me she would be ruined when her cus­tomers found out that the prettiest woman had left her. That’s how she quieted me, till one day, when I came home, she accused me of robbing a gentleman the night before of a diamond shirt­pin, and there was a fellow there who said he was a ‘detective,’ and though my box was locked he had opened it before I came home, and swore that he had found the pin, which he showed me. It was all a lie. I had been with a gentleman the night before, but he wore a scarf with a ring to it; that I could swear to. But it was no use saying anything; I was the thief, they said, and I was to be taken into custody. What was I to do? I begged of the detective not to take me; I implored Mother H— to intercede for me, and she pre­tended to. She went into another room with the detective, and then she came back and told me that the man would take ten pounds down to hush it up. I’ve seen that man since; he is a ‘bully’ at a bad house in the Waterloo-road, but I truly believed that he was a private-clothes policeman, as he said he was. Of course I didn’t have ten pounds, nor ten shillings hardly; but Mother H— said that she would lend the money ‘on security;’ and I made over to her—sold to her, in fact—in writing, every scrap of clothes that I had in my box and on my back. ‘Let’s have them too, Meg,’ Mother H— said, ‘and then you’re safe not to run away.’ I made over to her the box as well, and my watch, and gave her an IOU besides for five pounds, and then she ‘squared’ it with the detec­tive, and he went off.  
    “That’s how I came to be a ‘dress lodger.’ She didn’t wait long before she opened her mind to me. She up and told me that very night: ‘You’ve got a new landlady now, my fine madam,’ said she; ‘you’ve got to work for your living now; to work for me, d’ye understand? You can’t work—can’t earn a penny without you dress spicy, and every rag you’ve got on is mine; and if you say one wry word, I’ll have ‘em off and bundle you out.’ So what could I do or say?” continued the poor wretch, tears streaming down her really handsome face; “all the girls there were ‘dress lodgers,’ and I believe that they were glad to see me brought to their level. They only laughed to hear Mother H— go on so. I’ve been a ‘dress lodger’ ever since, not being able to get a shilling for myself, for she takes away all I get, and besides is always threaten­ing to strip me and turn me out, and to sue me for the five pounds I owe her.”  
    My informant asked her, “How does she exercise this amount of control over you? She is not always with you; you leave her house to walk the streets, I suppose?”  
    “So I do, but not alone. Dress lodgers are never allowed to do that, sir. I haven’t been one long, but long enough to find that out. There’s always a ‘watcher.’ Sometimes it’s a woman—an old woman, who isn’t fit for anything else—but in general it’s a man. He watches you always, walking behind you, or on the opposite side of the way. He never loses sight of you, never fear. You daren’t so much as go into a public for a drain of gin but he is in after you in a minute, and must have his glass too, though he isn’t allowed to do it—to have the gin, I mean; and you ain’t allowed it either, not a drop, if the old woman knows it. You’re supposed to walk about and look for your living, and the watcher is supposed to see that you do do it—to take care that you look sharp, and above all that you don’t take customers anywhere but home. And what do you get for it all? You’re half fed, and bullied day and night, and threatened to be stripped and turned out; and when you’re at home, the watcher is generally hanging about, and he’ll ‘down’ you with a ‘one’r’ in the back or side (he won’t hit you in the face, for fear of spoiling it) if Mother H— only gives him the wink, though perhaps you’ve risked getting into trouble, and stood many a glass of gin to him the night before.”  
    It is difficult, indeed, to imagine a human creature more deplor­ably circumstanced than the one whose sad story is above narra­ted, and who is only “one of a thousand.” There are those of the sisterhood who appear in a more hideous shape, as, for instance, the horde of human tigresses who swarm in the pestilent dens by the riverside at Ratcliff and Shadwell. These may have fallen lower in depravity, indeed they are herded in the very mud and ooze of it, but they do not suffer as the gaily-bedizened “dress lodger” does. They are almost past human feeling. Except when they are ill and in hospital, they are never sober. As soon as her eyes are open in the morning, the she-creature of “Tiger Bay” seeks to cool her parched mouth out of the gin-bottle; and “ your eyes, let us have some more gin!” is the prayer she nightly utters before she staggers to her straw, to snore like the worse than pig she is.  

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here