Story Of London

Mayhew’s London Prostitutes: IIa

In 1862, Henry Mayhew published his analysis of the prostitution business in London. It formed a part of his magnificent survey: London Labour and the London Poorextracts from which we continue to publish on this site. Here is part one of his extensive introduction to the study.

Part 1In The Gardens Of Closerie Des Lilas, Paris 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, etc., 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, etc., etc.; and figures, information, facts, etc., supplied from various quarters: and lastly, on our own researches and investigationsTo 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.-The prevention of the profanation of the Lord’s day.Blasphemous publications.Obscene books, prints, etc.Disorderly houses.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.