Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - London Labour and the
London Poor - Clandestine Prostitutes - Female Operatives
London Labour and the London Poor
Cyclopędia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That
Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work.
By Henry Mayhew.
Griffin, Bohn, and Company, Stationers' Hall Court. 1862.
[digitised copy kindly provided by Les
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THE next division of our subject is clandestine
prostitution, whose ramifications are very extensive. In it we must include: 1.
Female operatives; 2. Maid-servants, all of whom are amateurs, as opposed to
professionals, or as we have had occasion to observe before, more commonly known
as "Dollymops"; 3. Ladies of intrigue, who see men to gratify their
passions; and 4. Keepers of houses of assignation, where the last-mentioned
class may carry on their amours with secrecy.
This in reality I regard as the most serious side of
prostitution. This more clearly stamps the character of the nation. A thousand
and one causes may lead to a woman's becoming a professional prostitute, but if
a woman goes wrong without any very cogent reason for so doing, there must be
something radically wrong in her composition, and inherently bad in her nature,
to lead her to abandon her person to the other sex, who are at all times ready
to take advantage of a woman's weakness and a woman's love.
There is a tone of morality throughout the rural
districts of England, which is unhappily wanting in the large towns and the
centres of particular manufactures. Commerce is incontestably demoralizing. Its
effects are to be seen more and more every day. Why it should be so, it is not
our province to discuss, but seduction and prostitution, in spite of the
precepts of the Church, and the examples of her ministers, have made enormous
strides in all our great towns within the last twenty years. Go through the
large manufacturing districts, where factory-hands congregate, or more properly
herd together, test them, examine them, talk to them, observe for yourself, and
you will come away with the impression that there is room for much improvement.
Then cast your eye over the statistics of births and the returns of the
Registrar-General, and compare the number of legitimate with illegitimate
births. Add up the number of infanticides and the number of deaths of infants of
tender years - an item more alarming than any. Goldsmith has said that
"honour sinks when commerce long prevails," and a truer remark was
never made, although the animus of the poet was directed more against men than
When alluding casually to this subject before, I
enumerated some of the trades that supplied women to swell the ranks of
prostitution, amongst which are milliners, dress-makers, straw bonnet-makers,
furriers, hat-binders, silkwinders, tambour-workers, shoe-binders, slop-women,
or those who work for cheap tailors, those in pastry-cook, fancy and
cigar-shops, bazaars, and ballet-girls.
I have heard it asserted in more than one quarter,
although of course such assertions cannot be authenticated, or made reliable,
for want of data, that one out of three of all the female operatives in London
are unchaste, and in the habit of prostituting themselves when occasion offers,
either for money, or more frequently for their own gratification.
I met a woman in Fleet Street, who told me that she
came into the streets now and then to get money not to subsist upon, but to
supply her with funds to meet the debts her extravagance caused her to contract.
But I will put her narrative into a consecutive form.
Ever since I was twelve," she said, "I have
worked in a printing office where a celebrated London morning journal is put in
type and goes to press. I get enough money to live upon comfortably; but then I
am extravagant, and spend a great deal of money in eating and drinking, more
than you would imagine. My appetite is very delicate, and my constitution not at
all strong. I long for certain things like a woman in the family way, and I must
have them by hook or by crook. The fact is the close confinement and the night
air upset me and disorder my digestion. I have the most expensive things
sometimes, and when I can, I live in a sumptuous manner, comparatively speaking.
I am attached to a man in our office, to whom I shall be married some day. He
does not suspect me, but on the contrary believes me to be true to him, and you
do not suppose that I ever take the trouble to undeceive him. I am nineteen now,
and have carried on with my 'typo' for nearly three years now. I sometimes go to
the Haymarket, either early in the evening, or early in the morning, when I can
get away from the printing; and sometimes I do a little in the day-time. This is
not a frequent practice of mine; I only do it when I want money to pay anything.
I am out now with the avowed intention of picking up a man, or making an
appointment with some one for tomorrow or some time during the week. I always
dress well, at least you mayn't think so, but I am always neat, and respectable,
and clean, if the things I have on ain't worth the sight of money that some
women's things cost them. I have good feet too, and as I find they attract
attention, I always parade them. And I've hooked many a man by showing my ankle
on a wet day. I shan't think anything of all this when I'm married. I believe my
young man would marry me just as soon if he found out I went with others as he
would now. I carry on with him now, and he likes me very much. I ain't of any
particular family; to tell the truth, I was put in the workhouse when I was
young, and they apprenticed me. I never knew my father or my mother, although
'my father was, as I've heard say, a well-known swell of capers gay, who cut his
last fling with great applause;' or, if you must know, I heard that he was hung
for killing a man who opposed him when committing a burglary. In other words, he
was 'a macing-cove what robs,' and I'm his daughter, worse luck. I used to think
at first, but what was the good of being wretched about it? I couldn't get over
for some time, because I was envious, like a little fool, of other people, but I
reasoned, and at last I did recover myself, and was rather glad that my position
freed me from certain restrictions. I had no mother whose heart I shou'd break
by my conduct, or no father who could threaten me with bringing his grey hairs
with sorrow to the grave. I had a pretty good example to follow set before me,
and I didn't scruple to argue that I was not to be blamed for what I did. Birth
is the result of accident. It is the merest chance in the world whether you're
born a countess or a washerwoman. I'm neither one nor t'other; I'm only a mot
who does a little typographing by way of variety. Those who have had good
nursing, and all that, and the advantages of a sound education, who have a
position to lose, prospects to blight, and relations to dishonour, may be blamed
for going on the loose, but I'll be hanged if I think that priest or moralist is
to come down on me with the sledge-hammer of their denunciation. You look rather
surprised at my talking so well. I know I talk well, but you must remember what
a lot has passed through my hands for the last seven years, and what a lot of
copy I've set up. There is very little I don't know, I can tell you. It's what
old Robert Owen would call the spread of education.
I had to talk some time to this girl before she was so
communicative; but it must be allowed my assiduity was amply repaid. The common
sense she displayed was extraordinary for one in her position; but, as she said,
she certainly had had superior opportunities, of which she had made the most.
And her arguments, though based upon fallacy, were exceedingly clever and well
put. So much for the spread of education amongst the masses. Who knows to what
it will lead?
The next case that came under my notice was one of a
very different description. I met a woman in Leadenhall Street, a little past
the India House, going towards Whitechapel. She told me, without much
solicitation on my part, that she was driven into the streets by want. Far from
such a thing being her inclination, she recoiled from it with horror, and had
there been no one else in the case, she would have preferred starvation to such
a life. I thought of the motto Vergniaud the Girondist wrote on the wall of his
dungeon in his blood, "Potius mori quam fdari," and I admired the
woman whilst I pitied her. It is easy to condemn, but even vice takes the
semblance of virtue when it has a certain end in view. Every crime ought to be
examined into carefully in order that the motive that urged to the commission
may be elicited, and that should be always thrown into the scale in mitigation
or augmentation of punishment.
Her father was a dock labourer by trade, and had been
ever since he came to London, which he did some years ago, when there was great
distress in Rochdale, where he worked in a cotton factory; but being starved out
there after working short time for some weeks, he tramped with his daughter,
then about fourteen, up to town, and could get nothing to do but work in the
docks, which requires no skill, only a good constitution, and the strength and
endurance of a horse. This however, as every one knows, is a precarious sort of
employment, very much sought after by strong, able-bodied men out of work. The
docks are a refuge for all Spitalfields and the adjacent parishes for men out of
work, or men whose trade is slack for a time. Some three weeks before I met her,
the girl's father had the misfortune to break his arm and to injure his spine by
a small keg of spirits slipping from a crane near to which he was standing. They
took him to the hospital, where he then was. The girl herself worked as a
hat-binder, for which she was very indifferently paid, and even that poor means
of support she had lost lately through the failure of the house she worked for.
She went to see her father every day, and always contrived to take him
something, if it only cost twopence, as a mark of affection on her part, which
he was not slow in appreciating, and no doubt found his daughter's kindness a
great consolation to him in the midst of his troubles. She said, "I tried
everywhere to get employment, and I couldn't. I ain't very good with my needle
at fine needlework, and the slopsellers won't have me. I would have slaved for
them though, I do assure you, sir; bad as they do pay you, and hard as you must
work for them to get enough to live upon, and poor living, God knows, at that. I
feel very miserable for what I've done, but I was driven to it; indeed I was,
sir. I daren't tell father, for he'd curse me at first, though he might forgive
me afterwards: for though he's poor, he's always been honest, and borne a good
name; but now - I can't help crying a bit, sir. I ain't thoroughly hardened yet,
and it's a hard case as ever was. I do wish I was dead and there was an end of
everything, I am so awfully sad and heart-broken. If it don't kill me, I suppose
I shall get used to it in time. The low rate of wages I received has often put
it into my head to go wrong; but I have always withstood the temptation, and
nothing but so many misfortunes and trials coming together could ever have
induced me to do it."
This, I have every reason to believe, was a genuine
tale of distress told with all simplicity and truth, although everything that a
woman of loose morals says must be received with caution, and believed under
have a bad reputation, which is in most cases well
deserved. To begin with their remuneration - it is very poor. They get from nine
to eighteen shillings. Columbine in the pantomime gets five pounds a week, but
then hers is a prominent position. Out of these nine to eighteen shillings they
have to find shoes and petticoats, silk stockings, etc., etc., so that the pay
is hardly adequate to their expenditure, and quite insufficient to fit them out
and find them in food and lodging. Can it be wondered at, that while this state
of things exists, ballet-girls should be compelled to seek a livelihood by
resorting to prostitution?
Many causes may be enumerated to account for the lax
morality of our female operatives. Among the chief of which we must class-
1. Low wages inadequate to their sustenance.
2. Natural levity and the example around them.
3. Love of dress and display, coupled with the desire
for a sweetheart.
4. Sedentary employment, and want of proper exercise.
5. Low and cheap literature of an immoral tendency.
6. Absence of parental care and the inculcation of
proper precepts. In short, bad bringing up.
Maid-servants seldom have a chance of marrying,
unless placed in a good family, where, after putting by a little money by
pinching and careful saving, the housemaid may become an object of interest to
the footman, who is looking out for a public-house, or when the housekeeper
allies herself to the butler, and together they set up in business. In small
families, the servants often give themselves up to the sons, or to the policeman
on the beat, or to soldiers in the Parks; or else to shopmen, whom they may meet
in the streets. Female servants are far from being a virtuous class. They are
badly educated and are not well looked after by their mistresses as a rule,
although every dereliction from the paths of propriety by them will be visited
with the heaviest displeasure, and most frequently be followed by dismissal of
the most summary description, without the usual month's warning, to which so
much importance is usually attached by both employer and employed.
Marylebone was lately characterised by one of its
vestrymen as being one of the seven black parishes in London. Half the women it
is asserted who are sent from the workhouse, and have situations procured for
them by the parochial authorities, turn out prostitutes. I have no means of
corroborating the truth of this declaration, but it has been made and sent forth
to the world through the medium of the public press, though I believe it has
been partially contradicted by one of the workhouse authorities; however this
may be, there can be no doubt that the tone of morality among servant-maids in
the metropolis is low. I will not speak in the superlative - I merely
characterise it as low. I had an opportunity of questioning a maid of all work,
a simple-minded, ignorant, uneducated, vain little body, as strong physically as
a donkey, and thoroughly competent to perform her rather arduous duties, for the
satisfactory performance of which she received the munificent remuneration of
eight pounds annually, including her board and lodging.
She said: "I came from Berkshire, sir, near
Windsor; father put me to service some years ago, and I've been in London ever
since. I'm two and twenty now. I've lived in four or five different situations
since then. Are followers allowed? No, sir, missus don't permit no followers.
No, I ain't got no perleeceman. Have I got a young man? Well, I have; he's in
the harmy, not a hoffisser, but a soldier. I goes out along of him on Sundays,
leastways on Sunday afternoons, and missus she lets me go to see a aunt of mine,
as I says lives at Camberwell, only between you and me, sir, there ain't no
aunt, only a soldier, which he's my sweetheart, as I says to you before,
Maid-servants in good families have an opportunity of
copying their mistress's way of dressing, and making themselves, attractive to
men of a higher class. It is a voluntary species of sacrifice on their part. A
sort of suicidal decking with flowers, and making preparations for immolation on
the part of the victim herself. Flattered by the attention of the eldest son, or
some friend of his staying in the house, the pretty lady's maid will often yield
to soft solicitation. Vanity is at the bottom of all this, and is one of the
chief characteristics of a class not otherwise naturally vicious. The housemaids
flirt with the footmen, the housekeeper with the butler, the cooks with the
coachmen, and so on; and a flirtation often begun innocently enough ends in
something serious, the result of which may be to blight the prospect of the
unfortunate woman who has been led astray.
There are book-hawkers, who go about the country,
having first filled their wallets from the filthy cellars of Holywell Street,
sowing the seeds of immorality; servants in country houses will pay, without
hesitation large prices for improper books. This denomination of evil, I am glad
to say, is much on the decrease now, since the Immoral Publications Act has come
Maid-servants live well, have no care or anxiety, no
character worth speaking about to lose, for the origin of most of them is
obscure, are fond of dress, and under these circumstances it cannot be wondered
that they are as a body immoral and unchaste.