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. Here is part two of his extensive introduction to the study.
PROSTITUTION IN LONDONINTRODUCTION
Part 2The love of woman is usually pure and elevated. But when she devotes her affections to a man who realizes her ideal, she does not hesitate to sacrifice all she holds dear, for his gratification, ignoring her own interest and her own inclination. Actuated by a noble abnegation of self, she derives a melancholy pleasure from the knowledge that she has utterly given up all she had formerly so zealously guarded, and she feels that her love has reached its grand climacteric, when, without the slightest pruriency of imagination to urge her on to the consummation, without the remotest vestige of libidinous desire to prompt her to self-immolation, without a shadow of meretricious feeling lurking within her, she abandons her person beyond redemption to the idol she has set up in the highest place in her soul. This heroic martyrdom is one of the causes, though perhaps not the primary or most frequently occurring, of the stream of immorality that insidiously permeates our social system.
The greatest, and one equally difficult to combat, is the low rate of wages that the female industrial classes of this great city receive, in return for the most arduous and wearisome labour. Innumerable cases of prostitution through want, solely and absolutely, are constantly occurring, and this will not be wondered at when it is remembered that 105 women in England and Wales are born to every 100 males, which number is further augmented by the dangers to which men are exposed by their avocations, and also in martial service by sea and land. Again, so great are the inducements held out by men of lax morality and loose principles that procuresses find entrapping girls into their abodes a most lucrative and profitable trade. Some are even brought up from their earliest infancy by their pseudoprotectors with the full intention that they shall embark in the infamous traffic as soon as their age will permit them to do so remuneratively. A revolting and horrible case exemplifying the truth of this statement came under our notice some short time back. We were examining a girl, who gave the following replies to the questions put to her.
“My name is Ellen, I have no other. Yes, I sometimes call myself by various names, but rarely keep to one longer than a month or two. I was never baptized that I know of; I don’t know much about religion, though I think I know the difference between right and wrong. I certainly think it is wrong to live as I am now doing. I often think of it in secret, and cry over it, but what can I do? I was brought up in the country and allowed to run about with some other children. We were not taught anything, not even to read or write; twice I saw a gentleman who came down to the farm, and he kissed me and told me to be a good girl. Yes, I remember these things very well. I was about eleven the last time he came, and two years after I was sent up to town, carefully dressed and placed in a large drawing-room. After I had been there some time a gentleman came in with the person I had been sent to, and I directly recognized him as the one I had seen in the country. For the first time in my life I glanced at a looking-glass that hung on the wall, they being things we never saw in the country, and I thought the gentleman had changed his place and was standing before me, we were so alike. I then looked at him steadily for a few moments, and at last took his hand. He said something to me which I don’t remember, and which I did not reply to. I asked him, when he had finished speaking, if he was my father. I don’t know why I asked him. He seemed confused, and the lady of the house poured out some wine and gave me, after that I don’t know what happened.”
This may be a case of rare occurrence, but it is not so morally impossible as at first it appears.In 1857, according to the best authorities, there were 8600 prostitutes known to the police, but this is far from being even an approximate return of the number of loose women in the metropolis. It scarcely does more than record the circulating harlotry of the Haymarket and Regent Street. Their actual numerical strength is very difficult to compute, for there is an amount of oscillatory prostitution it is easy to imagine, but impossible to substantiate. One of the peculiarities of this class is their remarkable freedom from disease. They are in the generality of cases notorious for their mental and physical elasticity. Syphilis is rarely fatal. It is an entirely distinct race that suffer from the ravages of the insidious diseases that the licence given to the passions and promiscuous intercourse engender. Young girls, innocent and inexperienced, whose devotion has not yet bereft them of their innate modesty and sense of shame, will allow their systems to be so shocked, and their constitutions so impaired, before the aid of the surgeon is sought for, that when he does arrive his assistance is almost useless.We have before stated (p. 211) the assumed number of prostitutes in London to be about 80,000, and large as this total may appear, it is not improbable that it is below the reality rather than above it. One thing is certain – if it be an exaggerated statement – that the real number is swollen every succeeding year, for prostitution is an inevitable attendant upon extended civilization and increased population.We divide prostitutes into three classes. First, those women who are kept by men of independent means; secondly, those women who live in apartments, and maintain themselves by the produce of their vagrant amours; and thirdly, those who dwell in brothels.The state of the first of these is the nearest approximation to the holy state of marriage, and finds numerous defenders and supporters. These have their suburban villas, their carriages, horses, and sometimes a box at the opera. Their equipages are to be seen in the park, and occasionally through the influence of their aristocratic friends they succeed in obtaining vouchers for the most exclusive patrician balls.Houses in which prostitutes lodge are those in which one or two prostitutes occupy private apartments; in most cases with the connivance of the proprietor. These generally resort to night-houses, where they have a greater chance of meeting with customers than they would have were they to perambulate the streets.Brothels are houses where speculators board, dress, and feed women, living upon the farm of their persons. Under this head we must include introducing houses, where the women do not reside, but merely use the house as a place of resort in the daytime. Married women, imitating the custom of Messalina, whom Juvenal so vividly describes in his Satires, not uncommonly make use of these places. A Frenchwoman in the habit of frequenting a notorious house in James Street, Haymarket, said that she came to town four or five times in the week for the purpose of obtaining money by the prostitution of her body. She loved her husband, but he was unable to find any respectable employment, and were she not to supply him with the necessary funds for their household expenditure they would sink into a state of destitution, and anything, she added, with simplicity, was better than that. Of course her husband connived at what she did. He came to fetch her home every evening about ten o’clock. She had no children. She didn’t wish to have any.It must not be supposed that if some, perhaps a majority of them, eventually become comparatively respectable, and merge into the ocean of propriety, there are not a vast number whose lives afford matter for the most touching tragedies, – whose melancholy existence is one continual struggle for the actual necessaries of life, the occasional absence of which entails upon them a condition of intermittent starvation. A woman who has fallen like a star from heaven, may flash like a meteor in a lower sphere, but only with a transitory splendour. In time her orbit contracts, and the improvidence that has been her leading characteristic through life now trebles and quadruples the misery she experiences. To drown reflection she rushes to the gin palace, and there completes the work that she had already commenced so inauspiciously. The passion for dress, that distinguished her in common with her sex in former days, subsides into a craving for meretricious tawdry, and the bloom of health is superseded by ruinous and poisonous French compounds and destructive cosmetics.A hospital surgeon gave us the following description of the death of a French lorette, who at a very juvenile age had been entrapped and imported into this country.”She had, according to her own statement, been born in one of the southern departments. When she was fourteen years old, the agent of some English speculator in human beings came into their neighbourhood and proposed that Anille should leave her native country and proceed to England, where he said there was a great demand for female domestic labour, which was much better paid for on the other side of the Channel. The proposition was entertained by the parents, and eagerly embraced by the girl herself, who soon afterwards, in company with several other girls, all deluded in a similar manner, were leaving the shores of their native country for a doubtful future in one with the language of which they were not even remotely acquainted.”On their arrival their ruin was soon effected, and for some years they continued to enrich the proprietors of the house in which they resided, all the time remitting small sums to their families abroad, who were unwittingly and involuntarily existing upon the proceeds of their daughters’ dishonour, and rejoicing in such unexpected success. After a while Anille was sent adrift to manage for herself. Naturally of a refined and sensitive disposition, she felt her position keenly, which induced a sadness almost amounting to hypochondria to steal over her, and although very pretty, she found this a great obstacle in the way of her success. She knew not how to simulate the hollow laugh or the reckless smile of her more volatile companions, and her mind became more diseased day by day, until she found it impracticable to think of endeavouring to hurl off the morbidity that had taken possession of her very soul. At last she fell a victim to a contagious disorder, the neglect of which ultimately necessitated her removal to the hospital.”When there, she was found to be incurable; an operation was performed upon her but without success. She bore her illness with childish impatience, continually wishing for the end, and often imploring me with tearful eyes by the intervention of science to put an end to her misery. One afternoon, as usual, I came to see her. She exclaimed the moment she perceived me, I am cheerful to-day. May I not recover; I suffer no pain. But her looks belied her words; her features were frightfully haggard and worn; her eyes, dry and bloodshot, had almost disappeared in their sockets, and her general appearance denoted the approach of him she had been so constantly invoking. Unwrapping some bandages, I proceeded to examine her, when an extraordinary change came over her, and I knew that her dissolution was not far distant. Her mind wandered, and she spoke wildly and excitedly in her own language.”After a while she exclaimed, “J’ignore où je suis. C’en est fait.” An expression of intense suffering contracted her emaciated features. “Je n’en puis plus,” she cried, and adding, after a slight pause, in a plaintive voice, “Je me meurs,” her soul glided impalpably away, and she was a corpse.”As a pendant to these remarks, I extract an expressive passage from an old book.”There are also women (like birds of passage) of a migratory nature, who remove after a certain time from St. James’s and Marylebone end of the town to Covent Garden, then to the Strand, and from thence to St. Giles and Wapping; from which latter place they frequently migrate much further, even to New South Wales. Some few return in seven years, some in fourteen, and some not at all. During their stay here, like birds they make their nests upon feathers, some higher, some lower than others. At first they generally build them on the first-floor, afterwards on the second, and then up in the *****-loft and garrets, from whence they generally take to the open air, and become ambulatory and noctivagous, and as their price grows less, their wandering increases, when many perish from the inclemency of the weather, and others take their flight abroad.”Return to Introduction part 1Mayhew’s London prostitutes: Index