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 meet two unfortunate women who have been reduced to prostitution but whose appearances force them to ply their trade in the dark and shade of the Mall and St james’ Park in the late evenings and through the night.
PROSTITUTION IN LONDONPark Women, Or Those Who Frequent The Parks At Night And Other Retired PlacesPark women, properly so called, are those degraded creatures, utterly lost to all sense of shame, who wander about the paths most frequented after nightfall in the Parks, and consent to any species of humiliation for the sake of acquiring a few shillings. You may meet them in Hyde Park, between the hours of five and ten (till the gates are closed) in winter. In the Green Park, in what is called the Mall, which is a nocturnal thoroughfare, you may see these low wretches walking about sometimes with men, more generally alone, often early in the morning. They are to be seen reclining on the benches placed under the trees, originally intended, no doubt, for a different purpose, occasionally with the head of a drunken man reposing in their lap. These women are well known to give themselves up to disgusting practices, that are alone gratifying to men of morbid and diseased imaginations. They are old, unsound, and by their appearance utterly incapacitated from practising their profession where the gas-lamps would expose the defects in their personal appearance, and the shabbiness of their ancient and dilapidated attire.I was told that an old woman, whose front teeth were absolutely wanting, was known to obtain a precarious livelihood by haunting the by-walks of Hyde Park, near Park Lane. The unfortunate women that form this despicable class have in some cases been well off, and have been reduced to their present condition by a variety of circumstances, among which are intemperance, and the vicissitudes natural to their vocation. I questioned one who was in the humour to be communicative, and she gave the subjoined replies to my questions:-”I have not always been what I now am. Twenty years ago I was in a very different position. Then, although it may seem ludicrous to you, who see me as I now am, I was comparatively well off. If I were to tell you my history it would be so romantic you would not believe it. If I employ a little time in telling you, will you reward me for my trouble, as I shall be losing my time in talking to you? I am not actuated by mercenary motives exactly in making this request, but my time is my money, and I cannot afford to lose either one or the other.
Well, then, I am the daughter of a curate in Gloucestershire. I was never at school, but my mother educated me at home. I had one brother who entered the Church. When I was old enough I saw that the limited resources of my parents would not allow them to maintain me at home without seriously impairing their resources, and I proposed that I should go out as a governess. At first they would not hear of it; but I persisted in my determination, and eventually obtained a situation in a family in town. Then I was very pretty. I may say so without vanity or ostentation, for I had many admirers, among whom I numbered the only son of the people in whose house I lived. I was engaged to teach his two sisters, and altogether I gave great satisfaction to the family. The girls were amiable and tractable, and I soon acquired an influence over their generous dispositions that afforded great facilities for getting them on in their studies.
My life might have been very happy if an unfortunate attachment to me had not sprung up in the young man that I have before mentioned, which attachment I can never sufficiently regret was reciprocated by myself. I battled against the impulse that constrained me to love him, but all my efforts were of no avail. He promised to marry me, which in an evil hour I agreed to. He had a mock ceremony performed by his footman, and I went into lodgings that he had taken for me in Gower Street, Tottenham Court Road. He used to visit me very frequently for the ensuing six months, and we lived together as man and wife.
At the expiration of that time he took me to the sea-side, and we subsequently travelled on the Continent. We were at Baden when we heard of his father’s death. This didn’t trouble him much. He did not even go to England to attend the funeral, for he had by his conduct offended his father, and estranged himself from the remainder of his family. Soon letters came from a solicitor informing him that the provisions of the will discontinued the allowance of five hundred a year hitherto made to him, and left him a small sum of money sufficient to buy himself a commission in the army, if he chose to do so. This course he was strongly advised to take, for it was urged that he might support himself on his pay if he volunteered for foreign service. He was transported with rage when this communication reached him, and he immediately wrote for the legacy he was entitled to, which arrived in due course.
That evening he went to the gaming table, and lost every farthing he had in the world. The next morning he was a corpse. His remains were found in a secluded part of the town, he having in a fit of desperation blown his brains out with a pistol. He had evidently resolved to take this step before he left me, if he should happen to be unfortunate, for he left a letter in the hands of our landlady to be delivered to me in the event of his not returning in the morning. It was full of protestations of affection for me, and concluded with an avowal of the fraud he had practised towards me when our acquaintance was first formed, which he endeavoured to excuse by stating his objections to be hampered or fettered by legal impediments.
When I read this, I somewhat doubted the intensity of the affection he paraded in his letter. I had no doubt about the fervour of my own passion, and for some time I was inconsolable. At length, I was roused to a sense of my desolate position, and to the necessity for action, by the solicitations and importunity of my landlady, and I sold the better part of my wardrobe to obtain sufficient money to pay my bills, and return to England. But fate ordered things in a different manner. Several of my husband’s friends came to condole with me on his untimely decease; among whom was a young officer of considerable personal attractions, who I had often thought I should have liked to love, if I had not been married to my friend’s husband. It was this man who caused me to take the second fatal step I have made in my life. If I had only gone home, my friends might have forgiven everything. I felt they would, and my pride did not stand in my way, for I would gladly have asked and obtained their forgiveness for a fault in reality very venial, when the circumstances under which it was committed are taken into consideration. Or I might have represented the facts to the family; and while the mother mourned the death of her son, she must have felt some commiseration for myself.
The officer asked me to live with him, and made the prospect he held out to me so glittering and fascinating that I yielded. He declared he would marry me with pleasure on the spot, but he would forfeit a large sum of money, that he must inherit in a few years if he remained single, and it would be folly not to wait until then. I have forgotten to mention that I had not any children. My constitution being very delicate, my child was born dead, which was a sad blow to me, although it did not seem to affect the man I regarded as my husband. We soon left Baden and returned to London, where I lived for a month very happily with my paramour, who was not separated from me, as his leave of absence had not expired.
When that event occurred he reluctantly left me to go to Limerick, where his regiment was quartered. There in all probability he formed a fresh acquaintance, for he wrote to me in about a fortnight, saying that a separation must take place between us, for reasons that he was not at liberty to apprise me of, and he enclosed a cheque for fifty pounds, which he hoped would pay my expences. It was too late now to go home, and I was driven to a life of prostitution, not because I had a liking for it, but as a means of getting enough money to live upon. For ten years I lived first with one man then with another, until at last I was infected with a disease, of which I did not know the evil effects if neglected. The disastrous consequence of that neglect is only too apparent now. You will be disgusted, when I tell you that it attacked my face, and ruined my features to such an extent that I am hideous to look upon, and should be noticed by no one if I frequented those places where women of my class most congregate; indeed, I should be driven away with curses and execrations.”This recital is melancholy in the extreme. Here was a woman endowed with a very fair amount of education, speaking in a superior manner, making use of words that very few in her position would know how to employ, reduced by a variety of circumstances to the very bottom of a prostitute’s career. In reply to my further questioning, she said she lived in a small place in Westminster called Perkins’ Rents, where for one room she paid two shillings a week. The Rents were in Westminster, not far from Palace yard. She was obliged to have recourse to her present way of living to exist; for she would not go to the workhouse, and she could get no work to do. She could sew, and she could paint in water-colours, but she was afraid to be alone. She could not sit hours and hours by herself, her thoughts distracted her, and drove her mad. She added, she once thought of turning Roman Catholic, and getting admitted into a convent, where she might make atonement for her way of living by devoting the remainder of her life to penitence, but she was afraid she had gone too far to be forgiven.That was some time ago. Now she did not think she would live long, she had injured her constitution so greatly; she had some internal disease, she didn’t know what it was, but a hospital surgeon told her it would kill her in time, and she had her moments, generally hours, of oblivion, when she was intoxicated, which she always was when she could get a chance. If she got ten shillings from a drunken man, either by persuasion or threats, and she was not scrupulous in the employment of the latter, she would not come to the Park for days, until all her money was spent; on an average, she came three times a week, or perhaps twice; always on Sunday, which was a good day.She knew all about the Refuges. She had been in one once, but she didn’t like the system; there wasn’t enough liberty, and too much preaching, and that sort of thing; and then they couldn’t keep her there always; so they didn’t know what to do with her. No one would take her into their service, because they didn’t like to look at her face, which presented so dreadful an appearance that it frightened people. She always wore a long thick veil, that concealed her features, and made her interesting to the unsuspicious and unwise. I gave her the money I promised her, and advised her again to enter a Refuge, which she refused to do, saying she could not live long, and she would rather die as she was. As I had no power to compel her to change her determination, I left her, lamenting her hardihood and obstinacy. I felt that she soon would be-One more unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Gone to her death.In the course of my peregrinations I met another woman, commonly dressed in old and worn-out clothes; her face was ugly and mature; she was perhaps on the shady side of forty. She was also perambulating the Mall. I know she could only be there for one purpose, and I interrogated her, and I believe she answered my queries faithfully. She said:-”I have a husband, and seven small children, the eldest not yet able to do much more than cadge a penny or so by caterwheeling and tumbling in the street for the amusement of gents as rides outside ‘busses. My husband’s bedridden, and can’t do nothink but give the babies a dose of ‘Mother’s Blessing’ (that’s laudanum, sir, or some sich stuff) to sleep ’em when they’s squally. So I goes out begging all day, and I takes in general one of the kids in my arms and one as runs by me, and we sell hartifishal flowers, leastways ‘olds ’em in our ‘ands, and makes believe cos of the police, as is nasty so be as you ‘as nothink soever, and I comes hout in the Parks, sir, at night sometimes when I’ve ‘ad a bad day, and ain’t made above a few pence, which ain’t enough to keep us as we should be kep. I mean, sir, the children should have a bit of meat, and my ole man and me wants some blue ruin to keep our spirits up; so I’se druv to it, sir, by poverty, and nothink on the face of God’s blessed earth, sir, shou’dn’t have druv me but that for the poor babes must live, and who ‘as they to look to but their ‘ard-working but misfortunate mother, which she is now talking to your honour, and won’t yer give a poor woman a hap’ny, sir? I’ve seven small children at home, and my ‘usban’s laid with the fever. You won’t miss it, yer honour, only a ‘apny for a poor woman as ain’t ‘ad a bit of bread between her teeth since yesty morning. I ax yer parding,” she exclaimed, interrupting herself – “I forgot I was talking to yourself. I’s so used though to this way of speaking when I meant to ax you for summut I broke off into the old slang, but yer honour knows what I mean: ain’t yer got even a little sixpence to rejoice the heart of the widow?
“You call yourself a widow now,” I said, “while before you said you were married and had seven children. Which are you?”
“Which am I? The first I toll you’s the true. But Lor’, I’s up to so many dodges I gets what you may call confounded; sometimes I’s a widder, and wants me ‘art rejoiced with a copper, and then I’s a hindustrious needle-woman thrown out of work and going to be druv into the streets if I don’t get summut to do.
Sometimes I makes a lot of money by being a poor old cripple as broke her arm in a factory, by being blowed hup when a steam-engine blowed herself hup, and I bandage my arm and swell it out hawful big, and when I gets home, we gets in some lush and ‘as some frens, and goes in for a reglar blow-hout, and now as I have told yer honour hall about it, won’t yer give us an ‘apny as I observe before?”It is very proper that the Parks should be closed at an early hour, when such creatures as I have been describing exist and practise their iniquities so unblushingly. One only gets at the depravity of mankind by searching below the surface of society; and for certain purposes such knowledge and information are useful and beneficial to the community. Therefore the philanthropist must overcome his repugnance to the task, and draw back the veil that is thinly spread over the skeleton.