Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - London Labour and the London Poor - Introduction

London Labour and the London Poor
A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work.
By Henry Mayhew.
London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, Stationers' Hall Court. 1862.

[digitised copy kindly provided by Les Butler, ed.]

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     The liberty of the subject is very jealously guarded in England, and so tenacious are the people of their rights and privileges that the legislature has not dared to infringe them, even for what by many would be considered a just and meritorious purpose. Neither are the magistracy or the police allowed to enter improper or disorderly houses, unless to suppress disturbances that would require their presence in the most respectable mansion in the land, if the aforesaid disturbances were committed within their precincts. Until very lately the police had not the power of arresting those traders who earned an infamous livelihood by selling immoral books and obscene prints. It is to the late Lord Chancellor Campbell that we owe this salutary reform, under whose meritorious exertions the disgraceful trade of Holywell Street and kindred districts has received a blow from which it will never again rally. If the neighbours choose to complain before a magistrate of a disorderly house, and are willing to undertake the labour, annoyance, and expense of a criminal indictment, it is probable that their exertions may in time have the desired effect; but there is no summary conviction, as in some continental cities whose condition we have studied in another portion of this work.
     We rely for certain facts, statistics, &c., upon Reports of the Society for the Suppression of Vice; information furnished by the Metropolitan Police; Reports of the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Prostitution; Returns of the Registrar-General; Ryan, Duchatelet, M. les Docteurs G. Richelot, Léon Faucher, Talbot, Acton, &c., &c.; and figures, information, facts, &c., supplied from various quarters: and lastly, on our own researches and investigations
     To show how difficult it is to give from any data at present before the public anything like a correct estimate of the number of prostitutes in London, we may mention (extracting from the work of Dr. Ryan) that while the Bishop of Exeter asserted the number of prostitutes in London to be 80,000, the City Police stated to Dr. Ryan that it did not exceed 7000 to 8000. About the year 1793 Mr. Colquhoun, a police magistrate, concluded, after tedious investigations, that there were 50,000 prostitutes in this metropolis. At that period the population was one million, and as it is now more than double we may form some idea of the extensive ramifications of this insidious vice.
     In the year 1802, when immorality had spread more or less all over Europe, owing to the demoralizing effects of the French Revolution, a society was formed, called "The Society for the Suppression of Vice," of which its secretary, Mr. Wilberforce, thus speaks: -
     The particular objects to which the attention of this Society is directed are as follow, viz.-
         1. The prevention of the profanation of the Lord's day.
        2. Blasphemous publications.
        3. Obscene books, prints, etc.
        4. Disorderly houses.
        5. Fortunetellers.

     When speaking of the third division a report of the Society says-
     In consequence of the renewed intercourse with the Continent, incidental to the restoration of peace, there has been a great influx into the country of the most obscene articles of every description, as may be inferred from the exhibition of indecent snuff-boxes in the shop windows of tobacconists. These circumstances having tended to a revival of this trade the Society have had occasion within the last twelve months to resort to five prosecutions, which have greatly tended to the removal of that indecent display by which the public eye has of late been too much offended.
     Before the dissolution of the Bristol Society for the Suppression of Vice, its secretary, Mr. Birtle, wrote (1808) to London the following letter:-
     Sir, - The Bristol Society for the Suppression of Vice being about to dissolve, and the agents before employed having moved very heavily, I took my horse and rode to Stapleton prison to inquire into the facts contained in your letter. Inclosed are some of the drawings which I purchased in what they call their market, without the least privacy on their part or mine. They wished to intrude on me a variety of devices in bone and wood of the most obscene kind, particularly those representing a crime "inter Christianos non nominandum," which they termed the new fashion. I purchased a few, but they are too bulky for a letter. This market is held before the door of the turnkey every day between the hours of ten and twelve.
     At the present day the police wage an internecine war with these people, who generally go about from fair to fair to sell indecent images, mostly imported from France; but this traffic is very much on the decline, if it is not altogether extinguished.
     The reports of the Society for the Suppression of Vice are highly interesting, and may be obtained gratis on application at the Society's chambers.
     Another Society was instituted in May 1835, called "The London Society for the Protection of Young Females, and Prevention of Juvenile Prostitution. We extract a few passages from its opening address.
     The committee cannot avoid referring to the present dreadfully immoral state of the British metropolis. No one can pass through the streets of London without being struck with the awfully depraved condition of a certain class of the youth of both sexes at this period (1835). Nor is it too much to say that in London crime has arrived at a frightful magnitude; nay, it is asserted that nowhere does it exist to such an extent as in this highly-favoured city. Schools for the instruction of youth in every species of theft and immorality are here established. It has been proved that 400 individuals procure a livelihood by trepanning females from eleven to fifteen years of age for the purposes of prostitution. Every art is practiced, every scheme is devised, to effect this object, and when an innocent child appears in the streets without a protector, she is insidiously watched by one of those merciless wretches and decoyed under some plausible pretext to an abode of infamy and degradation. No sooner is the unsuspecting helpless one within their grasp than, by a preconcerted measure, she becomes a victim to their inhuman designs. She is stripped of the apparel with which parental care or friendly solicitude had clothed her, and then, decked with the gaudy trappings of her shame, she is compelled to walk the streets, and in her turn, while producing to her master or mistress the wages of her prostitution, becomes the ensnarer of the youth of the other sex. After this it is useless to attempt to return to the path of virtue or honour, for she is then watched with the greatest vigilance, and should she attempt to escape from the clutches of her seducer she is threatened with instant punishment, and often barbarously treated. Thus situated she becomes reckless, and careless of her future course. It rarely occurs that one so young escapes contamination; and it is a fact that numbers of these youthful victims imbibe disease within a week or two of their seduction. They are then sent to one of the hospitals under a fictitious name by their keepers, or unfeelingly turned into the streets to perish; and it is not an uncommon circumstance that within the short space of a few weeks the bloom of health, of beauty, and of innocence gives place to the sallow hue of disease, of despair, and of death.
     This fact will be appreciated when it is known that in three of the largest hospitals in London within the last eight years (that is to say, from 1827 to 1835), there have not been less than 2700 cases of disease arising from this cause in children from eleven to sixteen years of age.
     Léon Faucher, commenting on this, exclaims with astonishment, mixed with indignation, "Deux mille sept cents enfants visités par cette horrible peste avant l'âge de la puberté! Quel spectacle que celuilà pour un peuple qui a des entrailles! Et comment éprouver assez de pitié pour les victimes, assez d'indignation contre les bourreaux!" A Frenchman, looking at the way in which his own illustrious country is governed, would very naturally exclaim against the authorities for not taking steps to prevent so much crime and misery, but he forgets that although a system may work well in France, it is no criterion of its excellent working among a nation totally dissimilar in their habits and disposition to his own.
     All French writers have the profoundest horror of our social economics. MM. Duchatelet, Richelot and Léon Faucher, whom we have just quoted, all unite in condemning our system of blind and wilful toleration. They do not understand the temper of the nation, which would never allow the State to legislate upon this subject. But, nevertheless, we must confess that the profligacy of the metropolis of England, if not so patent and palpable as that of some continental cities we have had occasion to refer to, is perhaps as deeply rooted, and as impossible to eradicate. The legislature, by refusing to interfere, have tacitly declared the existence of prostitutes to be a necessary evil, the suppression of which would produce alarming and disastrous effects upon the country at large. When any case more than usually flagrant occurs it falls within the jurisdiction of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the law is careful to punish anything that can be construed into a misdemeanour or a felony. In cold climates, as in hot climates, we have shown that the passions are the main agents in producing the class of women that we have under consideration, but in temperate zones the animal instinct is less difficult to bridle and seldom leads the female to abandon herself to the other sex. It is a vulgar error, and a popular delusion, that the life of a prostitute is as revolting to herself, as it appears to the moralist sternly lamenting over the condition of the fallen; but, on the contrary, investigation and sedulous scrutiny lead us to a very different conclusion. Authors gifted with vivid imaginations love to portray the misery that is brought upon an innocent and confiding girl by the perfidy and desertion of her seducer. The pulpit too frequently echoes to clerical denunciation and evangelical horror, until those unacquainted with the actual facts tremble at the fate of those whose terrible lot they are taught rather to shudder at than commiserate. Women who in youth have lost their virtue, often contrive to retain their reputation; and even when this is not the case, frequently amalgamate imperceptibly with the purer portion of the population and become excellent members of the community. The love of woman is usually pure and elevated. But when she devotes her affections to a man who realizes her ideal, she does not hesitate to sacrifice all she holds dear, for his gratification, ignoring her own interest and her own inclination. Actuated by a noble abnegation of self, she derives a melancholy pleasure from the knowledge that she has utterly given up all she had formerly so zealously guarded, and she feels that her love has reached its grand climacteric, when, without the slightest pruriency of imagination to urge her on to the consummation, without the remotest vestige of libidinous desire to prompt her to self-immolation, without a shadow of meretricious feeling lurking within her, she abandons her person beyond redemption to the idol. she has set up in the highest place in her soul. This heroic martyrdom is one of the causes, though perhaps not the primary or most frequently occurring, of the stream of immorality that insidiously permeates our social system. The greatest, and one equally difficult to combat, is the low rate of wages that the female industrial classes of this great city receive, in return for the most arduous and wearisome labour. Innumerable cases of prostitution through want, solely and absolutely, are constantly occurring, and this will not be wondered at when it is remembered that 105 women in England and Wales are born to every 100 males, which number is further augmented by the dangers to which men are exposed by their avocations, and also in martial service by sea and land. Again, so great are the inducements held out by men of lax morality and loose principles that procuresses find entrapping girls into their abodes a most lucrative and profitable trade. Some are even brought up from their earliest infancy by their pseudopro- tectors with the full intention that they shall embark in the infamous traffic as soon as their age will permit them to do so remuneratively. A revolting and horrible case exemplifying the truth of this statement came under our notice some short time back. We were examining a girl, who gave the following replies to the questions put to her.

Scene In The Gardens Of - "Closerie Des Lilas" Paris

     My name is Ellen, I have no other. Yes, I sometimes call myself by various names, but rarely keep to one longer than a month or two. I was never baptized that I know of; I don't know much about religion, though I think I know the difference between right and wrong. I certainly think it is wrong to live as I am now doing. I often think of it in secret, and cry over it, but what can I do? I was brought up in the country and allowed to run about with some other children. We were not taught anything, not even to read or write; twice I saw a gentleman who came down to the farm, and he kissed me and told me to be a good girl. Yes, I remember these things very well. I was about eleven the last time he came, and two years after I was sent up to town, carefully dressed and placed in a large drawing-room. After I had been there some time a gentleman came in with the person I had been sent to, and I directly recognized him as the one I had seen in the country. For the first time in my life I glanced at a looking-glass that hung on the wall, they being things we never saw in the country, and I thought the gentleman had changed his place and was standing before me, we were so alike. I then looked at him steadily for a few moments, and at last took his hand. He said something to me which I don't remember, and which I did not reply to. I asked him, when he had finished speaking, if he was my father. I don't know why I asked him. He seemed confused, and the lady of the house poured out some wine and gave me, after that I don't know what happened.
     This may be a case of rare occurrence, but it is not so morally impossible as at first it appears.
     In 1857, according to the best authorities, there were 8600 prostitutes known to the police, but this is far from being even an approximate return of the number of loose women in the metropolis. It scarcely does more than record the circulating harlotry of the Haymarket and Regent Street. Their actual numerical strength is very difficult to compute, for there is an amount of oscillatory prostitution it is easy to imagine, but impossible to substantiate. One of the peculiarities of this class is their remarkable freedom from disease. They are in the generality of cases notorious for their mental and physical elasticity. Syphilis is rarely fatal. It is an entirely distinct race that suffer from the ravages of the insidious diseases that the licence given to the passions and promiscuous intercourse engender. Young girls, innocent and inexperienced, whose devotion has not yet bereft them of their innate modesty and sense of shame, will allow their systems to be so shocked, and their constitutions so impaired, before the aid of the surgeon is sought for, that when he does arrive his assistance is almost useless.
     We have before stated (p. 211) the assumed number of prostitutes in London to be about 80,000, and large as this total may appear, it is not improbable that it is below the reality rather than above it. One thing is certain - if it be an exaggerated statement - that the real number is swollen every succeeding year, for prostitution is an inevitable attendant upon extended civilization and increased population.
     We divide prostitutes into three classes. First, those women who are kept by men of independent means; secondly, those women who live in apartments, and maintain themselves by the produce of their vagrant amours; and thirdly, those who dwell in brothels.
     The state of the first of these is the nearest approximation to the holy state of marriage, and finds numerous defenders and supporters. These have their suburban villas, their carriages, horses, and sometimes a box at the opera. Their equipages are to be seen in the park, and occasionally through the influence of their aristocratic friends they succeed in obtaining vouchers for the most exclusive patrician balls.
     Houses in which prostitutes lodge are those in which one or two prostitutes occupy private apartments; in most cases with the connivance of the proprietor. These generally resort to night-houses, where they have a greater chance of meeting with customers than they would have were they to perambulate the streets.
     Brothels are houses where speculators board, dress, and feed women, living upon the farm of their persons. Under this head we must include introducing houses, where the women do not reside, but merely use the house as a place of resort in the daytime. Married women, imitating the custom of Messalina, whom Juvenal so vividly describes in his Satires, not uncommonly make use of these places. A Frenchwoman in the habit of frequenting a notorious house in James Street, Haymarket, said that she came to town four or five times in the week for the purpose of obtaining money by the prostitution of her body. She loved her husband, but he was unable to find any respectable employment, and were she not to supply him with the necessary funds for their household expenditure they would sink into a state of destitution, and anything, she added, with simplicity, was better than that. Of course her husband connived at what she did. He came to fetch her home every evening about ten o'clock. She had no children. She didn't wish to have any.
     It must not be supposed that if some, perhaps a majority of them, eventually become comparatively respectable, and merge into the ocean of propriety, there are not a vast number whose lives afford matter for the most touching tragedies, - whose melancholy existence is one continual struggle for the actual necessaries of life, the occasional absence of which entails upon them a condition of intermittent starvation. A woman who has fallen like a star from heaven, may flash like a meteor in a lower sphere, but only with a transitory splendour. In time her orbit contracts, and the improvidence that has been her leading characteristic through life now trebles and quadruples the misery she experiences. To drown reflection she rushes to the gin palace, and there completes the work that she had already commenced so inauspiciously. The passion for dress, that distinguished her in common with her sex in former days, subsides into a craving for meretricious tawdry, and the bloom of health is superseded by ruinous and poisonous French compounds and destructive cosmetics. A hospital surgeon gave us the following description of the death of a French lorette, who at a very juvenile age had been entrapped and imported into this country. She had, according to her own statement, been born in one of the southern departments. When she was fourteen years old, the agent of some English speculator in human beings came into their neighbourhood and proposed that Anille should leave her native country and proceed to England, where he said there was a great demand for female domestic labour, which was much better paid for on the other side of the Channel. The proposition was entertained by the parents, and eagerly embraced by the girl herself, who soon afterwards, in company with several other girls, all deluded in a similar manner, were leaving the shores of their native country for a doubtful future in one with the language of which they were not even remotely acquainted. On their arrival their ruin was soon effected, and for some years they continued to enrich the proprietors of the house in which they resided, all the time remitting small sums to their families abroad, who were unwittingly and involuntarily existing upon the proceeds of their daughters' dishonour, and rejoicing in such unexpected success. After a while Anille was sent adrift to manage for herself. Naturally of a refined and sensitive disposition, she felt her position keenly, which induced a sadness almost amounting to hypochondria to steal over her, and although very pretty, she found this a great obstacle in the way of her success. She knew not how to simulate the hollow laugh or the reckless smile of her more volatile companions, and her mind became more diseased day by day, until she found it impracticable to think of endeavouring to hurl off the morbidity that had taken possession of her very soul. At last she fell a victim to a contagious disorder, the neglect of which ultimately necessitated her removal to the hospital. When there, she was found to be incurable; an operation was performed upon her but without success. She bore her illness with childish impatience, continually wishing for the end, and often imploring me with tearful eyes by the intervention of science to put an end to her misery. One afternoon, as usual, I came to see her. She exclaimed the moment she perceived me, I am cheerful to-day. May I not recover; I suffer no pain. But her looks belied her words; her features were frightfully haggard and worn; her eyes, dry and bloodshot, had almost disappeared in their sockets, and her general appearance denoted the approach of him she had been so constantly invoking. Unwrapping some bandages, I proceeded to examine her, when an extraordinary change came over her, and I knew that her dissolution was not far distant. Her mind wandered, and she spoke wildly and excitedly in her own language. After a while she exclaimed, "J'ignore où je suis. C'en est fait." An expression of intense suffering contracted her emaciated features. "Je n'en puis plus," she cried, and adding, after a slight pause, in a plaintive voice, "Je me meurs," her soul glided impalpably away, and she was a corpse. As a pendant to these remarks, I extract an expressive passage from an old book.
     "There are also women (like birds of passage) of a migratory nature, who remove after a certain time from St. James's and Marylebone end of the town to Covent Garden, then to the Strand, and from thence to St. Giles and Wapping; from which latter place they frequently migrate much further, even to New South Wales. Some few return in seven years, some in fourteen, and some not at all. During their stay here, like birds they make their nests upon feathers, some higher, some lower than others. At first they generally build them on the first-floor, afterwards on the second, and then up in the cock-loft and garrets, from whence they generally take to the open air, and become ambulatory and noctivagous, and as their price grows less, their wandering increases, when many perish from the inclemency of the weather, and others take their flight abroad."