Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - numbers of prostitutes

Of the lower classes of London society, it would be a matter of impossibility to give a description. They form the largest portion of the inhabitants, and with accurate accounts of them, many volumes might be filled. There is one class however, on which it is necessary to say a little, inasmuch, as it is connected with every every other class, and is as much an institution of London, as slavery is of the Southern States, or as free labor is of the Northern. This class attracts as much of the attention of the London legislators an(l the public press, as does slavery in the States, and should I omit it, the omission would be considered too great by any who know anything of London. I allude to courtezans. It is said, that these form about one-fortieth part of the entire population, or, are in number about fifty-five thousand. Many reasons are given why this class is so large, but there can be no doubt that the chief reason is, the general state of poverty among the lower classes, caused in a great measure by the wholesale system of taxation. The children of the poor, almost as soon as they can walk or talk, are sent to the workhouse. For girls, these are the primary schools for prostitution. The large number constantly leaving the workhouse for service, renders work scarce, and the number of the unemployed great. Thus, of necessity, they become vicious. There is not a particle of doubt, but that stern necessity makes more persons wicked, than does the love of iniquity. On the countenance of these girls, nothing but joy and animation can be seen, while the very vulture of misery is gnawing-hour after hour- day after day - at their hearts. Originally seduced from a state of innocence, and then abandoned by every one who held them in any degree of estimation, they are left upon the world, and have no alternative but to go on in the way they have commenced. They are then exposed to insult without the means of redress, imposed upon by the police, must stand all kinds of weather, often without a friend in misery, or a place to call home. Fifty-five thousand such creatures roam the streets of London. No wonder that the journals teem with cases of suicides. Of these, fifty-five thousand nine-tenths die prematurely of disease and in misery, having lived lives of almost unimaginable hardships, and having, during those lives corrupted twice, or thrice nearly, their number of young girls - to say nothing of the ruin showered upon strong masculine constitutions. In a police report, I recently noticed a return of four parishes, containing in all, about 12,900 houses, and 70,000 inhabitants. Of the houses, 510 were of ill-fame, and of the inhabitants about 4,000 were prostitutes.

W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859

   To obviate the possibility of misapprehension, I remind the reader that I regard prostitution as an inevitable attendant upon civilized, and especially closely-packed, population. When all is said and done, it is, and I believe ever will be, ineradicable. Whether its ravages, like those of disease and crime, may not be modified by unceasing watchfulness - whether it may not be the duty of the executive, as a French writer suggests, to treat it as they do such ordinary nuisances as drains, sewers, and so forth, by diminishing its inconvenience to the senses, and, in fact, rendering its presence as little noticeable as possible - it will be my business to inquire in a future chapter. In the present I shall offer as complete a survey of that portion of it which stalks abroad, tête levee, in this metropolis, and other parts of the kingdom, as the facts at any English writer's disposal admit of.
    The number of prostitutes in London has been variously estimated, according to the opportunities, credulity, or religious fervour of observers, and the width of interpretation they have put upon the word. To attempt to reconcile or construct tables upon the estimates I have met with would be a hopeless task. I can merely give a few of the more moderate that have been handed down by my predecessors. Mr Colquhoun, a magistrate at the Thames Police Court, rated them at 50,000 some sixty years ago. The Bishop of Exeter spoke of them as reaching 80,000; Mr Talbot, secretary of a society for the protection of young females, made the same estimate. The returns on the constabulary force presented to Parliament in 1839, furnished an estimate of 6,371 - viz., 3,732 known to the police as kept by the proprietors of brothels', and 2,639 as resident in lodgings of their own, and dependent on prostitution alone for a livelihood. It was estimated by the Home authorities in 1841, that the corresponding total was 9,409 - which, I need hardly point out, does not include the vast numbers who  regularly or occasionally abandon themselves, but in a less open manner.
    I am indebted to the courtesy of Sir Richard Mayne, the late Chief Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, for the subjoined return, as well as for those of 1837 (made up in 1841):

[* click here for 1868 figures]

A. Whitehall, the Parks, Palaces, Government Offices.
B. Westminster, Brompton, Pimlico, part of Chelsea.
C. St James's, Regent-street, Soho, Leicester-square.
D. Marylebone, Paddington, St John's Wood.
E. Between Oxford-street, Portland-place, New-road, and Gray's-inn-lane.
F. Covent Garden, Drury-lane, St Giles's.
G. Clerkenwell, Pentonville, City-road, Shoreditch.
H. Spitalfields, Houndsditch, Whitechapel, Ratcliff.
K. Bethnal-green, Mile-end, and from Shadwell to Blackwall.
L. Lambeth and Blackfriars, including Waterloo-road, &c.
M. Southwark, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe.
N. Islington, Hackney, Homerton, &c.
P. Camberwell, Walworth, part of Peckham.
R. Deptford, Greenwich, and neighbourhood.
S. Kilburn, Portland, Kentish and Camden Towns to Cattle Market.
T. Kensington, Hammersmith, North End, Fulham.
V. Walham-green, Fulham, Chelsea, Cremorne.

    The headings of the above table demand a few explanatory observations. It is, in the first place, desirable that the reader should understand the distinction between the three classes of houses, termed by the police, brothels. The first, or 'houses in which prostitutes are kept', are those whose proprietors overtly devote their establishments to the lodging, and sometimes to the boarding, of prostitutes, and prostitutes only. At first sight it might appear that, by the phrase employed, were indicated houses in which prostitutes are harboured, fed, and clothed at the cost of speculators, who derive a revenue from the farm of their persons. Such is, however, not the intention of the framers of the document. The houses last mentioned are, doubtless, included in the first column of the above returns, but [as will be seen in the next table] these have now almost disappeared from the Metropolis. 
    By 'houses in which prostitutes lodge', the reader must understand those in which one or two prostitutes occupy private apartments, generally with, though perhaps in rare cases without, the connivance of the proprietor. It often occurs, it must be remembered, that females of no virtue are so desirous of preserving the appearance of it before those among whom they reside that they will not introduce their paramours to their apartments; but both they and their domicile, being generally known to the police, both figure on the return. Houses to which prostitutes resort' represent night houses - the brothels devoted to casual entertainment of these women and their companions, and the coffee-shops and supper- shops which they haunt.
    The 'well-dressed, living in lodgings' prostitute is supposed to be the female who, though to all intents and purposes common, extending her pursuit of acquaintances over the town at large, or limiting it to the places of public recreation, eschews absolute streetwalking'.
    The 'well-dressed, walking the streets' is the prostitute errant, or absolute street-walker, who plies in the open thoroughfare and there only, restricting herself generally to a definite parade, whereon she may always be found by her friends, and hence becomes, of course, 'perfectly well known to the police'.
    The 'low prostitute, infesting low neighbourhoods', is a phrase which speaks for itself. The police have not attempted to include - in fact, could not have justly included, I might almost say - the unnumbered prostitutes whose appearance in the streets as such never takes place; who are not seen abroad at unseemly hours; who are reserved in manners, quiet and unobtrusive in their houses or lodgings, and whose general conduct is such that the most vigilant of constables could have no pretence for claiming to be officially aware of their existence or pursuits. The 1869 Report on the Contagious Diseases Act enables us for the first time to show the proportions of common prostitutes to soldiers at Aldershot. Thus, Inspector Smith gave in a report proving that there were in June 1869, 243 recognized prostitutes to about 12,000 troops. This paucity of prostitutes, according to Dr Barr, causes some of them to have intercourse with 20 or 23 men in one night. * [Report from the Select Committee on Contagious Diseases Act (1866) (1869), q. 751.]
    The falling off (amounting almost to extinction of the class) of the number of 'houses where prostitutes are kept', which is shown by the table of i868, cannot fail to strike the reader, the number given being two only as against 410 in 1857 and 933 in 1841. It appears that of the eleven prostitutes returned, as inhabiting such houses, one only resides in one of these houses, and ten in the other; this latter is kept by a Frenchwoman. It is satisfactory to find that this class of house is, if we may trust the police, rapidly disappearing from London. It is not too much to say that the brothel where prostitutes are kept is an institution alien to English feelings, and that even if the government should sanction the maintenance of such houses, which is far from probable, public opinion may be confidently expected to work their extinction. I may here call attention to a lesson taught us pretty clearly by these returns, which is, that to attempt to put down prostitution by law is to attempt the impossible. Notwithstanding the numerous prosecutions and parish raids which have been directed against prostitutes and their dwellings during the past few years, there were in the year 1868, 1,756 houses where prostitutes lodge, against 1,766 in 1857. What can show more strongly the impossibility of [suppressing prostitution by the arm of the law]? Eleven years ago I pointed out that if a prostitute is prosecuted for plying her trade in one parish, she will only move into another. The result has proved the truth of my prediction, and recent failures add their testimony to that of world-wide experience, and prove the impolicy of making attempts of this nature, except in cases when the houses proceeded against are shown to be productive of open scandal or a cause of intolerable annoyance.
    I must observe that these returns give but a faint idea of the grand total of prostitution by which we are oppressed, as the police include in them only those women and houses whose nature is well and accurately known to them. There can be little doubt that numbers of women who live by prostitution lead apparently respectable lives in the lodgings or houses which they occupy; but all such are necessarily excluded from the returns.
    Were there any possibility of reckoning all those in London who would come within the definition of prostitutes, I am inclined to think that the estimates of the boldest who have preceded me would be thrown into the shade

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

As to the quality and behaviour of certain walkers of the streets there, any one returning to London after a lapse of years will notice a remarkable alteration. On the south side of the Strand they appeared to claim a right of way; two enormous women stood on guard at the entrance to Charing Cross station, and youths were accosted and hustled as they made their way to the trains. Further west, throughout the hours of the day and night, there was a parade in Leicester Square and detachments marched up and down the Haymarket, and towards Piccadilly. Later a new route was adopted that went from Bloomsbury to New Oxford Street, and along Oxford Street and then northwards. Certain licensed premises depended on the custom which these women brought; it was not until the 'nineties that I saw the notice 'No lady served in this bar unless accompanied by a gentleman,' and from that time on charges of harbouring were occasionally brought against publicans at the Sessions.

W. Pett Ridge, A Story Teller : Forty Years in London, 1923