Story Of London

Mayhew’s London Prostitutes: IV

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. In this extract we are presented with formidable statistics about the degree of education amongst prostitutes before being introduced to the alluring and colourful Convives!


Degree Of Education Amongst Prostitutes.
The Convives.

Night in the Haymarket

To show the extent of education among women who have been arrested by the police during a stated period, we print the annexed table, dividing the virtuous criminals from the prostitutes.

DEGREE OF INSTRUCTION amongst Prostitutes compared with the Degree of Instruction among Women not Prostitutes, arrested for breaking various laws (London). The City not included

PERIODS – taking 10,000 in each period. Total of women arrested of both classes 405.362.

Degree of Instruction amongst virtuous women brought up in the Police Courts for various offences during the years elapsing from 1837 to 1854 inclusive
PeriodYearsDatesNot able to read or writeAble to read only, or read and write imperfectlyKnowing how to read and write wellVery well instructedTotal
Degree of Instruction among Prostitutes similarly arrested.
PeriodYearsDatesNot able to read or writeAble to read only, or read and write imperfectlyKnowing how to read and write wellVery well instructedTotal

This table shows us that public women are a little less illiterate than those who together with them form the most infamous part of the population. But we must remember that this is hardly a fair criterion of the education of all the prostitutes, or of prostitutes as a class, because we have only summed up those who were arrested for some crime or offence, so we may justly suppose them to have been the worst of their class in every respect.

We see however that of the total number of women arrested during a period of 18 years, there were in every 10,000-

Not able to read or writeAble to read only, or read and write imperfectlyKnowing how to read and write wellVery well instructedTotal

We next come to the consideration of convives, or those who live in the same house with a number of others, and we will commence with those who are independent of the mistress of the house. These women locate themselves in the immediate vicinity of the Haymarket, which at night is their principal scene of action, when the hospitable doors of the theatres and casinos are closed. They are charged enormously for the rooms they occupy, and their landlords defend themselves for their extortionate demands, by alleging that, as honesty is not a leading feature in the characters of their lodgers, they are compelled to protect their own interest by exacting an exorbitant rent. A drawingroom floor in Queen Street, Windmill Street, which is a favourite part on account of its proximity to the Argyll Rooms, is worth three, and sometimes four pounds a week, and the other étages in proportion.

They never stay long in one house, although some will remain for ten or twelve months in a particular lodging. It is their principle to get as deeply into debt as they are able, and then to pack up their things, have them conveyed elsewhere by stealth, and defraud the landlord of his money. The houses in some of the small streets in the neighbourhood of Langham Place are let to the people who underlet them for three hundred a year, and in some cases at a higher rental.

This class of prostitutes do not live together on account of a gregarious instinct, but simply from necessity, as their trade would necessarily exclude them from respectable lodging-houses. They soon form an acquaintance with the girls who inhabit the same house, and address one another as “my dear,” an unmeaning, but very general epithet, an hour or two after their first meeting. They sometimes prefer the suburbs to reside in, especially while Cremorne is open; but some live at Brompton and Pimlico all the year round.

One of their most remarkable characteristics is their generosity, which perhaps is unparalleled by the behaviour of any others, whether high or low in the social scale. They will not hesitate to lend one another money if they have it, whether they can spare it or not, although it is seldom that they can, from their innate recklessness and acquired improvidence. It is very common, too, for them to lend their bonnets and their dresses to their friends.

If a woman of this description is voluble and garrulous, she is much sought after by the men who keep the cafés in the Haymarket, to sit decked out in gorgeous attire behind the counters, so that by her interesting appearance and the esprit she displays, the habitués of those places, but more usually those who pay only a casual visit, may be entrapped into purchasing some of the wares and fancy articles that are retailed at ten times their actual value. In order to effect this they will exert all their talents, and an inexperienced observer would imagine that they indeed entertain some feeling of affection or admiration for their victim, by the cleverness with which they simulate its existence. The man whose vanity leads him to believe that he is selected by the beautiful creature who condescends to address him, on account of his personal appearance, would be rather disgusted if he were to perceive the same blandishments lavished upon the next comer, and would regret the ten shillings he paid with pleasure for a glove-box, the positive market value of which is hardly one-fifth of the money he gave for it.

There is a great abandonment of everything that one may strictly speaking denominate womanly. Modesty is utterly annihilated, and shame ceases to exist in their composition. They all more or less are given to habits of drinking.

“When I am sad I drink,” a woman once said to us. “I’m very often sad, although I appear to be what you call reckless. Well! we don’t fret that we might have been ladies, because we never had a chance of that, but we have forfeited a position nevertheless, and when we think that we have fallen, never to regain that which we have descended from, and in some cases sacrificed everything for a man who has ceased to love and deserted us, we get mad.

The intensity of this feeling does wear off a little after the first; but there’s nothing like gin to deaden the feelings. What are my habits? Why, if I have no letters or visits from any of my friends, I get up about four o’clock, dress (“en dishabille”) and dine; after that I may walk about the streets for an hour or two, and pick up any one I am fortunate enough to meet with, that is if I want money; afterwards I go to the Holborn, dance a little, and if any one likes me I take him home with me, if not I go to the Haymarket, and wander from one café to another, from Sally’s to the Carlton, from Barn’s to Sam’s, and if I find no one there I go, if I feel inclined, to the divans. I like the Grand Turkish best, but you don’t as a rule find good men in any of the divans.

Strange things happen to us sometimes: we may now and then die of consumption; but the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam’s, and yesterday morning they were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The gentleman has lots of money, I believe, and he started off with her at once for the Continent. It is very true this is an unusual case; but we often do marry, and well too; why shouldn’t we, we are pretty, we dress well, we can talk and insinuate ourselves into the hearts of men by appealing to their passions and their senses.”

This girl was shrewd and clever, perhaps more so than those of her rank in the profession usually are; but her testimony is sufficient at once to dissipate the foolish idea that ought to have been exploded long ago, but which still lingers in the minds of both men and women, that the harlot’s progress is short and rapid, and that there is no possible advance, moral or physical; and that once abandoned she must always be profligate.

Another woman told us, she had been a prostitute for two years; she became so from necessity; she did not on the whole dislike her way of living; she didn’t think about the sin of it; a poor girl must live; she wouldn’t be a servant for anything; this was much better. She was a lady’s maid once, but lost her place for staying out one night with the man who seduced her; he afterwards deserted her, and then she became bad. She was fonder of dress than anything. On an average she had a new bonnet once a week, dresses not so often; she liked the casinos, and was charmed with Cremorne; she hated walking up and down the Haymarket, and seldom did it without she wanted money very much. She liked the Holborn better than the Argyll, and always danced.

Go to the IntroductionMayhew’s London prostitutes: Index