Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869


The Present Condition of the Question.

The Laws applying to Street-walkers—-The Keepers of the Haymarket Night-houses—Present Position of the Police-magistrates—Music-hall Frequenters — Refreshment-bars — Midnight Profligacy — "Snuggeries" — Over-zealous Block heads.

    Six or seven years since, such alterations were made in the laws applying to nocturnal street-walkers and disorderly persons generally, as enabled the London magistrates, with the assistance of the police, to reduce the great Haymarket disgrace to manage­able dimensions. To completely abolish so renowned and prodig­ious a nuisance at a blow was more than could be expected; but the public generally were quite satisfied with the gradual and successful working of the plans adopted for the final extinction of the infamous "oyster-shops," and cafes, and wine-shops, that in the olden time made night hideous from St. James's-street to Piccadilly. Suddenly, however, the good work has received a serious check. According to the usual custom, the keeper of a refreshment-house, on being summoned before the magistrate (Mr. Knox) for an infringement of the Act, was fined for the offence; and nothing else was expected but that the fine would be paid, and, except for its salutary effect, there an end of it. But it would seem that the fined "night-house" keeper had cunning advisers, who assured him that the conviction was bad, and that he had only to appeal to a superior court to insure its being set aside. The course suggested was adopted, and crowned with success. Mr. Knox's decision was reversed, it not being clearly shown that the loose women discovered on the premises were really assembled for an immoral purpose.
    The Times, commenting on this, says: "It is matter for general regret, since its probable result will be that in future the keepers of the Haymarket ‘night-houses' will do pretty much what they please, without let or hindrance. It was decided by Sir William Bodkin and his brother magistrates sitting at the Middlesex Ses­sions, on an appeal brought from Marlborough-street, that no case is made out against the keeper of a ‘night-house,' unless the police can prove that the women found in the house were assembled there for an immoral purpose; it was possible they might be there merely for the legitimate purpose of refreshment, and not in prosecution of their wretched trade. It is perfectly obvious that this interpretation of the law, whether or not true to the letter, utterly violates the spirit. The character of the women who fre­quent these ‘night-houses' is perfectly well known. They have, moreover, but one possible object in frequenting them. It is clear, therefore, that they come within the spirit of the law against har­bouring improper characters quite as much as if they visited these houses actually in company of men; and hence it follows that no new principle of legislation, requiring long consideration and repeated discussion, would be introduced if the law were made to reach them. We should, in fact, be not making a new law, but giving an old law its proper effect—an effect actually given it, as Mr. Knox points out, for seven years, and latterly with admirable results. Under these circumstances, we can see no objection to replacing the law on its former satisfactory footing by the simple expedient of a short clause in the Habitual Criminals' Bill. The Bill already deals with the low beer-houses, which are the favourite resorts of certain dangerous classes of the community; and the addition of a few words would enable it to deal with such ‘night-houses' as those we have been discussing. This would not interfere with subsequent more mature and more comprehensive legislation on the subject, while it would obviate the delay which has driven the police authorities to desperation, and which threatens to give a fresh lease to a grave national scandal, just as it was in the way of being repressed."
    The old law alluded to by the Times is the Act of Parliament of the 2d and 3d Vict. cap. 47, and is entitled "An Act for further empowering the Police in and near the Metropolis;" being an amendment of Sir Robert Peel's original statute, the 10th Geo. IV. Clauses 44, 52, 54, 58, and 63, bear especially on the penalties incurred by disorderly fallen women.
    The 44th clause runs as follows:
    "And whereas it is expedient that the provisions made by law for preventing disorderly conduct in the houses of licensed victual lers be extended to other houses of public resort; be it enacted that every person who shall have or keep any house, shop, room, or place of public resort within the Metropolitan-Police district, wherein provisions, liquors, or refreshments of any kind shall be sold or consumed (whether the same shall be kept or retailed therein, or procured elsewhere), and who shall wilfully or know­ingly permit drunkenness or other disorderly conduct in such house, shop, room, or place, or knowingly suffer any unlawful games or any gaming whatsoever therein, or knowingly suffer or permit prostitutes, or persons of notoriously bad character, to meet together and remain therein, shall for every such offence be liable to a penalty of not more than five pounds."
    The 52d clause of the same statute provides:
    "That it shall be lawful for the Commissioners of Police from time to time, and as occasion may require, to make regulation for the route to be observed by all carts, carriages, horses, and per­sonS, and for preventing obstructions of the streets or thorough­fares within the Metropolitan-Police district, in all times of public processions~ public rejoicings, or illuminations; and also to give directions to the constables for keeping order and for preventing any obstruction of the thoroughfares in the immediate neighbour­hood of her Majesty's palaces and public offices, the High Court of Parliament, the courts of law and equity, the police-courts, the theatres, and other places of public resort, and in any case when the streets or thoroughfares may be thronged or may be liable to be obstructed."
    The 54th clause provides, in continuation:
    "That every person who, after being made acquainted with the regulations or directions which the Commissioner of Police shall have made for regulating the route of horses, carts, carriages, and persons during the time of divine service, and for preventing obstructions during public processions, and on other occasions hereinbefore specified, shall wilfully disregard, or not conform himself thereto, shall be liable to a penalty of not more than forty shillings. And it shall be lawful for any constable belonging to the Metropolitan-Police force to take into custody, without warrant, any person who shall commit any such offence within view of any such constable."
    The same 54th clause also provides:
    "That every common prostitute or night-walker, loitering, or being in any thoroughfare or public place, for the purpose of prostitution or solicitation, to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers, shall be liable to a penalty of not more than forty shillings, and to be dealt with in the same manner."
    And again, that "every person who shall use any profane, in­decent, or obscene language to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers;" and also "every person who shall use any threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour with intent to pro­voke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned," may be also so dealt with.
    The 58th clause enacts:
    "That every person who shall be found drunk in any street or public thoroughfare within the said district, and who while drunk shall be guilty of any riotous or indecent behaviour, and also every person who shall be guilty of any violent or indecent behaviour in any police station-house, shall be liable to a penalty of not more than forty shillings for every such offence, or may be committed, if the magistrate by whom he is convicted shall think fit, instead of inflicting upon him any pecuniary fine, to the House of Cor­rection for any time not more than seven days."
    The 63rd clause enacts:
    "That it shall be lawful for any constable belonging to the Metropolitan-Police district, and for all persons whom he shall call to his assistance, to take into custody, without a warrant, any person who within view of such constable, shall offend in any manner against this Act, and whose name and residence shall be unknown to such constable, and cannot be ascertained by such constable."
    The police are, under the same Act, empowered to deal with disorder, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, brawling, loitering and obstruction, whether coming by prostitutes or others. Habitual loitering upon certain fixed spots they already keep in check, generally speaking, without tyranny; and next comes to be con­sidered what can be done in case of what is called "solicitation" or importunity, a prominent feature in the general bill of indictment against prostitution.
    To a person uninitiated in the law's subtleties, it would seem that the clauses of the Act of Parliament above quoted armed the police with all necessary authority, and that all that was requisite was to compel the observance of the said clauses, strictly and with­out favour, to insure a con~iderable mitigation of the great evil. Indeed, as has been shown, believing themselves justified in the course they have been for years pursuing, the police have undoubt­edly effected a vast and important change in the aspect of the Haymarket and its neighbourhood after midnight. The result, how­ever, of the Assistant-Judge's decision appears to have put the worthy and indefatigable Mr. Knox quite out of heart, as may be gathered from the subjoined newspaper account of the last case that was brought before him:
    "Rose Burton, keeper of a refreshment-house in Jermyn-street, lately known as Kate Franks, appeared to answer two summonses for harbouring prostitutes. The police gave the usual evidence. They visited the house at night. They found men and women there; the women known prostitutes, some taking refreshment. There was no disorder, and the usual signal by ringing a bell had been given when the police presented themselves at the house. For the defence it was urged, that the evidence was similar to that given before the Middlesex magistrates on appeal, after hearing which they quashed the conviction, and that the magistrate should dismiss the summonses. Mr. Knox said he must send the case to the Sessions in order to get a clear declaration of what was meant. If the judgment of the Court was against him, he must wash his hands of the matter. He should inflict the reduced fine of l0s. in order that the conviction should be taken to the Sessions. Mr. Froggatt asked for a decision in the second case. Mr. Knox would act in it the same as in the last case. It was, so to say, a last des­perate effort. If he failed, his honest determination was to take no further trouble in the matter; but to report to the Home Office that the efforts to reform the condition of the Haymarket had entirely broken down. Mr. Edward Lewis, after some consultation with Mr. Allen jun. and Mr. Froggatt, said that, owing to technical difficulties, it would be impossible to get an appeal to Quarter Sessions before the 24th July. Mr. Knox said that would be too late for Parliament to deal with the matter, as the session would most probably close early in August. There was no help for it; the nighthouse-keepers must go on in their own way; the police might give up their supervision and refrain from taking out summonses, as he certainly should decline to convict. He should cancel the three convictions that day, and dismiss the summonses; he was powerless, and therefore disinclined to enforce what for seven years had been considered as law, but what had been suddenly upset by Quarter Sessions. Mr. Knox then requested Mr. Super­intendent Dunlop to communicate what had occurred to the Commissioners of Police."
    At the same time, it is no more than fair to lay before the reader the explanation given by the Assistant-Judge on the last occasion of the matter coming before him. It should be under­stood that the case in question was not that of "Rose Burton," but of another of the fraternity who had been fined by Mr. Knox. The party in question gave notice of appeal, and the police auth­orities intimated their intention of supporting the magistrate in his conviction. From some unexplained cause, however, at the last moment the Commissioners of Police withdrew altogether from the case, leaving it all undefended to be dealt with by Mr. Bodkin. The judgment of the learned Assistant-Judge was as follows:
    "There are two cases in the paper of appeals against convictions by Mr. Knox for causing or allowing prostitutes to assemble; and upon these two cases being called, counsel intimated that the solicitors of the Commissioners of Police had written a letter to say that they should not support these convictions. Under those circumstances no other course was open to us but to quash them. But I mention the fact now because these convictions have been the subject of considerable comment and of interrogation in the House of Commons. I can only say that there is no law in these cases at all. It is entirely a question of fact, and each case must stand upon its own merits. On one occasion we quashed a conviction on the hearing, and upon that decision a great deal has been said. The sole evidence there was, that a policeman went into the house between twelve and one and found men and women having refreshment, some of the women being prostitutes. No question was asked; and there was nothing to show that the person who kept the house knew they were prostitutes. There was nothing to show that any warning had been previously given against harbour­ing or encouraging them to come. There was no ringing of any bell to give notice of the approach of the police. In fact, there was nothing but the mere incident that the police, before the hour of one, when these houses should be closed, found persons in them taking refreshments—some of those persons being prostitutes. Al­though I do not shrink from taking on myself the chief responsi­bility, there were many magistrates present who formed their own opinion upon the question, which was a question of fact; and it seemed so clearly not to be a case which satisfied the requirements of the law, that we did not call upon the counsel for the appel­lants, but at once quashed the conviction. Indeed, after all that has been said, I have no hesitation in stating that if another case came here, and was presented to us in such a bald and unsatisfactory manner, we should again quash the conviction. We are as desirous as Mr. Knox to put an end to any nuisance, whether in the Hay-market or elsewhere; but we cannot forget that we are in a court of law, bound to act upon such testimony as is sworn before us, and not to embark upon inquiries of another kind. There was not a tittle of evidence as to ringing a bell, or of anything more than persons taking refreshment within the hours allowed by law, some of those persons being ‘unfortunates.' I do not think that any bench of magistrates in the kingdom could, under the circum­stances, have arrived at a different conclusion. If other cases come before us, we shall treat them as we treated the last, according to the effect of the sworn evidence in court, and in no other way. I am very sorry if our decision should have induced Mr. Knox, for whom I entertain a great respect, to abstain from convicting in other cases, unless those were cases of the same bald and unsatis­factory character as that which we decided."
    From one point of view maybe it is difficult to overrate the importance of this judgment, especially if, as the Times predicts, it will have the effect of giving the keepers of the Haymarket haunts of infamy liberty to do pretty much as they please. Laying too much stress on this Haymarket business, however, may be harmful in another direction. It may lead the public to the decid­edly wrong conclusion that the well-known thoroughfare indica­ted, and the taverns and refreshment-houses it contains, are the head-quarters, the one main source, from which flows the pro­digious stream of immorality that floods the town with contamination.
    Now this is very far from being the fact. The extent to which the Haymarket haunts are criminal is equalled, and in many cases far excelled, in a dozen different parts of London every night between the hours of ten and one—and that without remonstrance or hindrance on the part of the police authorities or anyone else. I allude to the London music-halls. One of the most disreputable was burnt down the other day; and it would be a matter for re­joicing—for public thanksgiving almost—if the score or so of similar places of popular amusement, polluting every quarter of the metropolis, shared a similar fate. To be sure, the music-halls keep within the letter of the law in the matter of closing their doors before one o'clock; but in every other respect their opera­tion is as mischievous as any of the prosecuted dens at the West-end. And I beg of the reader to distinctly understand that I am not quoting from hearsay. There is not a single music-hall—from the vast "Alhambra" in Leicester-square, to the unaristocratic establishment in the neighbourhood of Leather-lane, originally christened the "Raglan," but more popularly known as the "Rag"   —that I have not visited. And I am bound to confess that the same damning elements are discoverable in one and all.
    At the same time it must be admitted—shameful and disgraceful as the admission is—that it is not the music-hall of the vulgar East­end or "over the water" that presents in special prominence the peculiar features here spoken of, and which, in plain language, are licentiousness and prostitution. He who would witness the perfec­tion to which these twin curses may be wrought under the fostering influences of "music," &c., must visit the west, and not the east or south, of the metropolis. He must make a journey to Leicester-square, and to the gorgeous and palatial Alhambra there to be found. What he will there discover will open his eyes to what a farcical thing the law is, and how within the hour it will strain at gnats, and bolt entire camels without so much as a wry face or a wince, or a wink even.
    I speak fearlessly, because all that I describe may be witnessed to-night, to-morrow, any time, by the individual adventurous and curious enough to go and see for himself. There is no fear of his missing it; no chance of his fixing on a wrong night. It is always the same at the music-hall. Its meat is other men's poison; and it can fatten and prosper while honesty starves. The bane and curse of society is its main support; and to introduce the purging besom would be to ruin the business.
    At the same time, I would wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not desire to convey to the reader the impression that the numerical majority of music-hall frequenters are persons of immoral tendencies. On the contrary, I am well convinced that such places are the resort of a vast number of the most respectable portion of the working-class. This, I believe, is a fact carefully treasured by music-hall proprietors, and elaborately displayed by them whenever their morality is attacked. They point to the well-filled body of the hail, the sixpenny part, where artisans and working-men congregate, and not unfrequently bring with them their wives and daughters; and triumphantly inquire, "Is it likely that the music-hall can be what slanderers represent, when it is so patronised?" And it is quite true that a very large number of honest and intelligent folk are attracted thither in search of harm­less amusement. Let them bless God for their ignorance of the world's wicked ways if they succeed in finding it. It is not impos­sible. Provided they look neither to the right nor left of them, but pay their sixpence at the door, and march to the seats apportioned them; and, still at eyes right, direct their gaze and their organs of hearing towards the stage, from which the modern "comic voca­list" doles out to a stolen tune feeble jingling idiotcies of "his own composing,"—if they are steadfast to this, they may come away not much the worse for the evening's entertainment. But let him not look about him, especially if he have his wife or daughters with him, or he may find himself tingling with a feeling it was never his misfortune to experience before.
    The honest believer in the harmlessness of music-halls would, if he looked about him as he sat in the sixpenny "pit," discover in more quarters than one that which would open his innocent eyes. If his vision were directed upwards towards the boxes and balconies, there he would discover it. Brazen-faced women, blazoned in tawdry finery, and curled and painted, openly and without disguise bestowing their blandishments on "spoony" young swells of the "commercial" and shopman type, for the sake of the shilling's-worth of brandy-and-water that steams before them, and in prospect of future advantages. There is no mistaking these women. They do not go there to be mistaken. They make no more disguise of their profession than do cattle-drovers in the public markets. They are there in pursuit of their ordinary calling, and, splendid creatures though they appear, it is curious to witness the supreme indifference to them of the door-keepers as they flaunt past them. It makes good the old proverb about the famili­arity that breeds contempt; besides, as a customer in simple, the painted free-drinking lady is not desirable. I should not for a moment wish to impute without substantial proof so dastardly a feature of "business" to any spirited music-hall proprietor in particular; but I am positively assured by those who should know, that on certain recognised nights loose women are admitted to these places without payment. I know as a fact, too, that it is no uncommon thing for these female music-hall frequenters to enlist the services of cabmen on "spec," the latter conveying their "fare" to the Alhambra or the Philharmonic without present payment, on the chance that she will in the course of the evening "pick up a flat," who will with the lady require his services to drive them to the Haymarket or elsewhere. How much of extortion and robbery may be committed under such a convenient cloak it is not difficult to guess. The evidence not being quite so unobjectionable as it might be, I will not mention names; but I was recently informed with apparent sincerity by one of those poor bedizened unfortu­nates—a "dress lodger" possibly—that a certain music-hall proprie­tor issued to women of her class "weekly tickets" at half-price, the main condition attaching to the advantage being that the holder did not "ply" in the low-priced parts of the hall; that is to say, amongst those who could afford to pay for nothing more expen­sive than pints of beer.
    But it is at the refreshment-bars of these palatial shams and impostures, as midnight and closing time approaches, that profligacy may be seen reigning rampant. Generally at one end of the hall is a long strip of metal counter, behind which superbly-attired barmaids vend strong liquors. Besides these there are "snuggeries," or small private apartments, to which bashful gentlemen desirous of sharing a bottle of wine with a recent acquaintance may retire. But the unblushing immodesty of the place concentrates at this long bar. Any night may here be found dozens of prostitutes enticing simpletons to drink, while the men who are not simple-tons hang about, smoking pipes and cigars, and merely sipping, not drinking deeply, and with watchful wary eyes on the pretty game of fox-and-goose that is being played all round about them. No one molests them, or hints that their behaviour is at variance with "the second and third of Victoria, cap. 47." Here they are in dozens, in scores, prostitutes every one, doing exactly as they do at the infamous and prosecuted Haymarket dens, and no one inter­feres. I say, doing all that the Haymarket woman does; and it must be so, since the gay patroness of the music-halls does simply all she can to lure the dupe she may at the moment have in tow. She entices him to drink; she drinks with him; she ogles, and winks, and whispers, and encourages like behaviour on his part, her main undisguised object being to induce him to prolong the companion­ship after the glaring gaslight of the liquor-bar is lowered, and its customers are shown to the outer door. If that is not "knowingly suffering prostitutes to meet together" for the more convenient prosecution of their horrible trade, what else is it? And yet the cunning schemes and contrivances for misleading and throwing dust in the eyes of the police are not practised here. There are no scouts and "bells," the former causing the latter to chime a warning on the approach of the enemy. The enemy, the police, that is to say, are on the spot. In almost every case there will be found in the music-hall lobby an intelligent livened guardian of the public peace, here stationed that he may take cognisance of suspicious-looking persons, and eject improper characters. Should he happen, as is most likely, to be a policeman whose "beat" is in the neighbourhood, he will by sight be quite familiar with every loose woman who for a mile round in the streets plies her lawless trade. He recognises them, as with a nod of old acquaintance they pass the money-taker; he saunters to the bar, where the women gather to prime their prey, and he witnesses their doings, but he takes no notice, and never complains.
    To be sure, the man is not to blame; were he ordered to dis­perse congregations of prostitutes wherever he found them, and to warn the persons who dispense liquors to them—just as is expec­ted of him in the case of the ordinary public-house—that they are harbouring bad characters and must cease to do so, undoubtedly the policeman would perform his duty. Until he receives express orders on the subject, however, he is helpless, and very properly so. Although one would desire to see ample powers for the sup­pression of prostitution placed in the hands of the police, it is highly necessary that the said power, in the hands of ordinary constable X, should be scrupulously watched by those who are set in authority over him. Policemen make sad mistakes at times, as witness the following monstrous instance, furnished by the police-reports not more than a month since:
    At Southwark, Mrs. Catherine C—, aged twenty-eight, the wife of a respectable man in the employ of the South-Eastern Railway Company, but who was described on the charge-sheet as a prosti­tute, was charged by Jas. Benstead, police-constable 17 M Reserve, with soliciting prostitution near the London-bridge railway ter­minus. The constable said that about ten o'clock on the previous night he was on duty near the railway terminus, when he saw the prisoner accost a gentleman. Believing her to be a prostitute, he went up to the gentleman, and from what he said he took her into custody for soliciting him. The prisoner here said she had been most cruelly used. She was a respectable married woman, and lived with her husband in the Drummond-road, Bermondsey. She had been to see her sister at Peckham, and had a return-ticket for the Spa-road; but when she arrived at the London-bridge terminus, she was too late for the train; consequently she determined to walk home, and as soon as she turned into Duke-street, a gentle­man stopped her and asked her whether there was an omnibus left there for Whitechapel. She told him she did not know, and as soon as he left, the constable came up and took her into custody. She had been locked up all night. The prisoner here produced the half of a return-ticket for the magistrate's inspection. The husband of the prisoner said he was in the employ of the South-Eastern Rail­way Company, and resided at No. 190 Drummond-road, Bermond­sey. His wife left home on the previous afternoon to visit her sister at Peckham, and he expected her home at ten o'clock. He was surprised at her absence, and as soon as he ascertained she was locked up, he went to the police-station, but was not permitted to see her. He could produce several witnesses to prove the respect­ability of his wife. Mr. Burcham ordered the prisoner to be dis­charged immediately.
    And so terminated the case as far as the magistrate was con­cerned; but one cannot help feeling curious to know whether no more was done in the matter. The outraged and cruelly-used woman was discharged, but was Reserve-constable James Benstead permitted to retain his situation in the police-force? How did the monstrous "mistake" arise? It is evident that the poor young woman spoke the truth; Mr. Burcham settled that point by order­ing her immediate discharge. From any point of view, James Benstead showed himself utterly unworthy to remain a constable. In interfering with a decently-dressed woman, who must have been a stranger to him, simply because he saw her "accost a gentle­man," he exhibited himself in the light of an over-zealous block­head. If the woman's statement is to be believed, he told a wicked and malicious lie when he said that he took her into custody "on account of what the gentleman told him." Where one is left in the dark, to solve a mystery as one best may, it is not impossible that one may guess wide of the mark; but it will under such conditions occur to the recollection that before now "unfortunates," new to the life, have given deadly offence to policemen by not "paying their footing," as black-mail of a certain abominable kind is called; and blundering James Benstead may have sustained a pecuniary disappointment. It is to be sincerely hoped that that secret tri­bunal before which erring policemen are arraigned (where is it?) will not let so flagrant a case pass without notice; and if, after close investigation, policeman James Benstead is proved to be the dangerous person he appears, that he may be promptly stripped of his official uniform. Even supposing that James Benstead is nothing worse than a blundering Jack-in-office, he is just of the sort to bring the law into contempt and ridicule, and the sooner he is cashiered the better.