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 Poor, extracts from which we continue to publish on this site. In this extract we are introduced to those prostitutes known as Thieves’ Women. One of these tells us the terrible story of how, as a sixteen-year up from the country on a visit, she was tricked and drugged into the life she now leads.
PROSTITUTION IN LONDONThieves’ Women
Part 1The metropolis is divided by the police into districts, to which letters are attached to designate and distinguish them. The head-quarters of the F division are at Bow Street, and the jurisdiction of its constabulary extends over Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and St. Giles’s, which used formerly to be looked upon as most formidable neighbourhoods, harbouring the worst characters and the most desperate thieves.Mr. Durkin, the superintendent at Bow Street, obligingly allowed an intelligent and experienced officer (sergeant Bircher) to give me any information I might require.Fifteen or twenty years ago this locality was the perpetual scene of riot and disorder. The public-houses were notorious for being places of call for thieves, pickpockets, burglars, thieving prostitutes, hangers – on (their associates), and low ruffians, who rather than work for an honest livelihood preferred scraping together a precarious subsistence by any disreputable means, however disgraceful or criminal they might be. But now this is completely changed. Although I patrolled the neighbourhood on Monday night, which is usually accounted one of the noisiest in the week, most of the public houses were empty, the greatest order and decorum reigned in the streets, and not even an Irish row occurred in any of the low alleys and courts to enliven the almost painful silence that everywhere prevailed. I only witnessed one fight in a public-house in St. Martin’s Lane. Seven or eight people were standing at the bar, smoking and drinking. A disturbance took place between an elderly man, pugnaciously intoxicated, who was further urged on by a prostitute he had been talking to, and a man who had the appearance of being a tradesman in a small way. How the quarrel originated I don’t know, for I did not arrive till it had commenced.The sergeant who accompanied me was much amused to observe among those in the bar three suspicious characters he had for some time “had his eye on.” One was a tall, hulking, hang dog-looking fellow; the second a short, bloated, diseased, red-faced man, while the third was a common-looking woman, a prostitute and the associate of the two former. The fight went on until the tradesman in a small way was knocked head over heels into a corner, when the tall, hulking fellow obligingly ran to his rescue, kindly lifted him up, and quietly rifled his pockets. The ecstasy of the sergeant as he detected this little piece of sharp practice was a thing to remember. He instantly called my attention to it, for so cleverly and skilfully had it been done that I had failed to observe it.When we resumed our tour of inspection, the sergeant, having mentally summed up the three suspicious characters, observed:”I first discovered them in Holborn three nights ago, when I was on duty in plain clothes. I don’t exactly yet know rightly what their little game is; but it’s either dog-stealing or ‘picking up.’ This is how they do it. The woman looks out for a ‘mug,’ that is a drunken fellow, or a stupid, foolish sort of fellow. She then stops him in the street, talks to him, and pays particular attention to his jewellery, watch, and every thing of that sort, of which she attempts to rob him. If he offers any resistance, or makes a noise, one of her bullies comes up, and either knocks him down by a blow under the ear, or exclaims: ‘What are you talking to my wife for?’ and that’s how the thing’s done, sir, that’s exactly how these chaps do the trick. I found out where they live yesterday. It’s somewhere down near Barbican, Golden Lane; the name’s a bad, ruffianly, thievish place. They are being watched to-night, although they don’t know it. I planted a man on them.”Two women were standing just outside the same public. They were dressed in a curious assortment of colours, as the low English invariably are, and their faces had a peculiar unctuous appearance, somewhat Israeliish, as if their diet from day to day consisted of fried fish and dripping. The sergeant knew them well, and they knew him, for they accosted him.”One of these women,” he said, “is the cleverest thief out. I’ve known her twelve years. She was in the first time for robbing a public. I’ll tell you how it was. She was a pretty woman – a very pretty woman – then, and had been kept by a man who allowed her £4 a week for some time. She was very quiet too, never went about anywhere, never knocked about at night publics or any of those places; but she got into bad company, and was in for this robbery. She and her accomplices got up a row in the bar, everything being concerted before hand; they put out the lights, set all the taps running, and stole a purse, a watch, and some other things; but we nabbed them all, and, strange to say, one of the women thieves died the next day from the effects of drink. All these women are great gluttons, and when they get any money, they go in for a regular drink and debauch. This one drank so much that it positively killed her slick off.”At the corner of Drury Lane I saw three women standing talking together. They were innocent of crinoline, and the antiquity of their bonnets and shawls was really wonderful, while the durability of the fabric of which they were composed was equally remarkable. Their countenances were stolid, and their skin hostile to the application of soap and water. The hair of one was tinged with silver. They were inured to the rattle of their harness; the clank of the chains pleased them. They had grown grey as prostitutes.I learnt from my companion that “that lot was an inexpensive luxury; it showed the sterility of the neighbourhood. They would go home with a man for a shilling, and think themselves well paid, while sixpence was rather an exorbitant amount for the temporary accommodation their vagrant amour would require.”There were a good many of them about. They lived for the most part in small rooms at eighteen pence, two shillings, and half-a-crown a week, in the small streets running out of Drury Lane.We went down Charles Street, Drury Lane, a small street near the Great Mogul public-house. I was surprised at the number of clean-looking, respectable lodging-houses to be seen in this street, and indeed in almost every street thereabouts. Many of them were well-ventilated, and chiefly resorted to by respectable mechanics. They are under the supervision of the police, and the time of a sergeant is wholly taken up in inspecting them. Visits are made every day, and if the Act of Parliament by the provisions of which they are allowed to exist, and by which they are regulated, is broken, their licences are taken away directly. Some speculators have several of these houses, and keep a shop as well, full of all sorts of things to supply their lodgers.There is generally a green blind in the parlour window, upon which you sometimes see written, Lodgings for Travellers, 3d. a night; or, Lodgings for Gentlemen; or, Lodgings for Single Men. Sometimes they have Model Lodging-house written in large black letters on a white ground on the wall. There are also several little shops kept by general dealers, in contiguity, for the use of the inmates of the lodging-houses, where they can obtain two pennyworth of meat and “a haporth” i.e. a Halfpenny’s worth of bread, and everything else in proportion.There are a great number of costermongers about Drury Lane and that district, and my informant assured me that they found the profession very lucrative, for the lower orders, and industrial classes don’t care about going into shops to make purchases. They infinitely prefer buying what they want in the open street from the barrow or stall of a costermonger.What makes Clare Market so attractive, too, but the stalls and barrows that abound there.There are many flower-girls who are sent out by their old gin-drinking mothers to pick up a few pence in the street by the sale of their goods. They begin very young, often as young as five and six, and go on till they are old enough to become prostitutes, when they either leave off costermongering altogether, or else unite the two professions. They are chiefly the offspring of Irish parents, or cockney Irish, as they are called, who are the noisiest, the most pugnacious, unprincipled, and reckless part of the population of London. There is in Exeter Street, Strand, a very old established and notorious house of ill fame, called the ——, which the police says is always honestly and orderly conducted. Married women go there with their paramours, for they are sure of secrecy, and have confidence in the place. It is a house of accommodation, and much frequented; rich tradesmen are known to frequent it. They charge ten shillings and upwards for a bed. A man might go there with a large sum of money in his pocket, and sleep in perfect security, for no attempt would be made to deprive him of his property.There is a coffee-house in Wellington Street, on the Covent Garden side of the Lyceum Theatre, in fact adjoining the playhouse, where women may take their men; but the police cannot interfere with it, because it is a coffee-house, and not a house of ill-fame, properly so called. The proprietor is not supposed to know who his customers are. A man comes with a woman and asks for a bed-room; they may be travellers, they may be a thousand things. A subterranean passage, I am told, running under the Lyceum connects this with some supper-rooms on the other side of the theatre, which belongs to the same man who is proprietor of the coffee and chop house.We have before spoken of “dress lodgers:” there are several to be seen in the Strand. Any one who does not understand the affair, and had not been previously informed, would fail to observe the badly-dressed old hag who follows at a short distance the fashionably-attired young lady, who walks so gaily along the pavement, and who only allows the elasticity of her step to subside into a quieter measure when stopping to speak to some likely-looking man who may be passing. If her overtures are successful she retires with her prey to some den in the vicinity.The watcher has a fixed salary of so much per week, and never loses sight of the dress-lodger, for very plain reasons. The dress-lodger probably lives some distance from the immoral house by whose owner she is employed. She comes there in the afternoon badly dressed, and has good things lent her. Now if she were not watched she might decamp. She might waste her time in public-houses; she might take her dupes to other houses of ill-fame, or she might pawn the clothes she has on, for the keeper could not sue her for a debt contracted for immoral purposes. The dress-lodger gets as much money from her man as she can succeed in abstracting, and is given a small percentage on what she obtains by her employer. The man pays usually five shillings for the room. Many prostitutes bilk their man; they take him into a house, and then after he has paid for the room leave him. The dupe complains to the keeper of the house, but of course fails to obtain any redress.I happened to see an old woman in the Strand, who is one of the most hardened beggars in London. She has two children with her, but one she generally disposes of by placing her in some doorway. The child falls back on the step, and pretends to be asleep or half-frozen with the cold. Her naturally pale face gives her a half-starved look, which completes her pitiable appearance. Any gentleman passing by being charitably inclined may be imposed upon and induced to touch her on the shoulder. The child will move slowly and rub her eyes, and the man, thoroughly deceived, gives her an alms and passes on, when the little deceiver again composes herself to wait for the next chance. This occurred while I was looking on; but unfortunately for the child’s success the policeman on the beat happened to come up, and she made her retreat to a safer and more convenient locality.Many novelists, philanthropists, and newspaper writers have dwelt much upon the horrible character of a series of subterranean chambers or vaults in the vicinity of the Strand, called the Adelphi Arches. It is by no means even now understood that these arches are the most innocent and harmless places in London, whatever they might once have been. A policeman is on duty there at night, expressly to prevent persons who have no right or business there from descending into their recesses.They were probably erected in order to form a foundation for the Adelphi Terrace. Let us suppose there were then no wharves, and no embankments, consequently the tide must have ascended and gone inland some distance, rendering the ground marshy, swampy, and next to useless. The main arch is a very fine pile of masonry, something like the Box tunnel on a small scale, while the other, running here and there like the intricacies of catacombs, looks extremely ghostly and suggestive of Jack Sheppards, Blueskins, Jonathan Wilds, and others of the same kind, notwithstanding they are so well lighted with gas. There is a doorway at the end of a vault leading up towards the Strand, that has a peculiar tradition attached to it. Not so very many years ago this door was a back exit from a notorious coffee and gambling house, where parties were decoyed by thieves, blacklegs, or prostitutes, and swindled, then drugged, and subsequently thrown from this door into the darkness of what must have seemed to them another world, and were left, when they came to themselves, to find their way out as best they could.