Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - East End prostitutes

see also Thomas Archer in The Pauper, The Thief and The Convict - click here

Some shades of prostitution unknown to the more fashionable West are to be discerned in the East End of London. To acquaint myself with these, I made a pilgrimage in company with Captain Harris, Assistant Commissioner of Police, to the notorious Ratcliffe Highway. We were attended by the Superintendent of the Executive Branch of the Metropolitan police, and two Inspectors. The night being very wet, the streets were comparatively empty, and therefore I can say little or nothing from personal observation about the condition of street prostitution in this district. I understand that it in no respect differs from what we see elsewhere. The first house we entered was one in which prostitutes reside. It was kept by a dark, swarthy, crisp-haired Jewess, half creole in appearance, who stated that she was a widow, and that having married a Christian, she had been discarded by her own people. To my inquiry whether she knew of many Jewesses who led a life of prostitution, she replied in the negative, giving as a reason that the Jews look after their people better than Christians, and assist them when in distress. The police Inspectors corroborated her statement, which seems to contradict the prevalent notion that houses of ill-fame are frequently kept by Jewesses. We went upstairs, and saw the rooms, eight in number, which were let out to as many women. The landlady told us that they pay 2s. when they bring home a visitor, and she thought that on an average they are lucky when they bring two each in the course of the evening. This woman was clearly indisposed to let us into her secrets, seeing us accompanied by the Inspectors, and entered into a rambling statement as to the care and leniency with which she treated her lodgers when they were 'out of luck'. She asserted, and the statement was corroborated by the girls, that they kept themselves; two may chum, or sleep together, when disengaged; but they receive the money they earn, and are not farmed out. The utmost pressure put upon them is, perhaps, that they are induced to go out and persevere in prostitution when otherwise indisposed to do so. When ill, they apply to the hospital, and St Bartholomew's appeared to be the favourite establishment. This house may be taken as a fair sample of the brothels existing in the East End of London.
    The Inspectors next introduced us into a long, dirty room, behind a public-house. In the distance was a German band, such as one often sees in the streets. Several couples were waltzing, and other visitors were arranged round the room, smoking long pipes and drinking beer. We were next ushered into a large music-hall connected with a public-house. On the stage some interesting drama was going on, while the spectators drank and smoked; the majority were men, but they were in many instances accompanied by their wives and sweethearts. To make observations on the latter was my object, and I noted that in and out of the passages and bar were passing crowds of well-dressed women, according to East End fashions; some were prostitutes, but many were married women, according to the belief of my informants. This curious amalgamation - this elbowing of vice and virtue - constituted a very striking feature, and was to me a novel one. It is brought about, I presume, by the modern plan of these public-house amusements, enabling the mechanic, his wife and his daughters, to rationally spend the evening, as it is called, in witnessing plays, hearing music, and seeing dancing, at the same time that the man can smoke his pipe and drink his beer by the side of his wife. The landlords - two brothers, Jews, who told us they had been in Australia - assured us that they took the greatest pains to maintain order and decorum. My chief interest lay in considering the effect produced upon married women by becoming accustomed at these reunions to witness the vicious and profligate sisterhood flaunting it gaily, or 'first-rate', in their language - accepting all the attentions of men, freely plied with liquor, sitting in the best places, dressed far above their station, with plenty of money to spend, and denying themselves no amusement or enjoyment, encumbered with no domestic ties, and burdened with no children. Whatever the purport of the drama might have been, this actual superiority of a loose life could not have escaped the attention of the quick-witted sex.
    What the result may be remains to be seen, but the enormous increase of establishments similar to the above must, I think, tend to the spread of immorality both in the East and West End of London. One explanation that I have received of the phenomenon, and it seems to me a plausible one, is that it is not unusual for the mechanic's wife to have sisters who are frail, and to these are accorded the greatest measure of kindness, and a sort of commiseration, which not infrequently culminates in their having a drop o' gin' together, and so forgetting for a time their mutual troubles - for the mechanic and the mechanic's wife have their troubles, and very serious ones, in providing for their daily wants, and any persons connected with them whom they see well-dressed, and with money in their pockets, command a kind of respect, although the source from whence the means are obtained may be a disreputable one. This same mingling of vicious with presumably respectable women is also noticeable at the Alhambra and other music-halls at the West End of London, and in this respect they seem to me to exercise a more evil influence on the public morals than the casino, as to these last the notoriously profligate only resort.

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