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 learn about those women who live as sailor’s “wives” and who are to be found in the East End. Here we visit paddy’s Goose and Bluegate and meet an avaricious old woman.
PROSTITUTION IN LONDONSailors’ Women
Part 2We afterwards searched two houses on the opposite side of the way. The rooms occupied by the women and their sailors were larger and more roomy than I expected to find them. The beds were what are called “fourposters,” and in some instances were surrounded with faded, dirty-looking, chintz curtains. There was the usual amount of cheap crockery on the mantel-pieces, which were surmounted with a small looking-glass in a rosewood or gilt frame. When the magic word “Police” was uttered, the door flew open, as the door of the robbers’ cave swung back on its hinges when Ali Baba exclaimed “Sesame.” A few seconds were allowed for the person who opened the door to retire to the couch, and then our visual circuit of the chamber took place. The sailors did not evince any signs of hostility at our somewhat unwarrantable intrusion, and we in every case made our exit peacefully, but without finding the felonious woman we were in search of; which might cause sceptical people to regard her as slightly apocryphal, but in reality such was not the case, and in all probability by this time justice has claimed her own.A glance at the interior of the Horse and Leaping Bar concluded our nocturnal wanderings. This public-house is one of the latest in the district, and holds out accommodation for man and beast till the small hours multiply themselves considerably.Most of the foreign women talk English pretty well, some excellently, some of course imperfectly; their proficiency depending upon the length of their stay in the country. A German woman told me the following story:-“I have been in England nearly six years. When I came over I could not speak a word of your language, but I associated with my own countrymen. Now I talk the English well, as well as any, and I go with the British sailor. I am here to-night in this house of dancing with a sailor English, and I have known him two week. His ship is in docks, and will not sail for one month from this time I am now speaking. I knew him before, one years ago and a half. He always lives with me when he come on shore. He is nice man and give me all his money when he land always. I take all his money while he with me, and not spend it quick as some of your English women do. If I not to take care, he would spend all in one week. Sailor boy always spend money like rain water; he throw it into the street and not care to pick it up again, leave it for crossing-sweeper or errand-boy who pass that way. I give him little when he want it; he know me well and have great deal confidence in me. I am honest, and he feel he can trust me. Suppose he have twenty-four pound when he leave his ship, and he stay six week on land, he will spend with me fifteen or twenty, and he will give me what left when he leave me, and we amuse ourself and keep both ourself with the rest. It very bad for sailor to keep his money himself; he will fall into bad hands; he will go to ready-made outfitter or slop-seller, who will sell him clothes dreadful dear and ruin him. I know very many sailors – six, eight, ten, oh! more than that. They are my husbands. I am not married, of course not, but they think me their wife while they are on shore. I do not care much for any of them; I have a lover of my own, he is waiter in a lodging and coffee house; Germans keep it; he is German and he comes from Berlin, which is my town also. I is born there.”Shadwell, Spitalfields, and contiguous districts are infested with nests of brothels as well as Whitechapel. To attract sailors, women and music must be provided for their amusement. In High Street, Shadwell, there are many of these houses, one of the most notorious of which is called The White Swan, or, more commonly, Paddy’s Goose; the owner of which is reported to make money in more ways than one. Brothel-keeping is a favourite mode of investing money in this neighbourhood. Some few years ago a man called James was prosecuted for having altogether thirty brothels; and although he was convicted, the nuisance was by no means in the slightest degree abated, as the informer, by name Brooks, has them all himself at the present time.There are two other well-known houses in High Street, Shadwell – The Three Crowns, and The Grapes, the latter not being licensed for dancing.Paddy’s Goose is perhaps the most popular house in the parish. It is also very well thought of in high quarters. During the Crimean war, the landlord, when the Government wanted sailors to man the fleet, went among the shipping in the river, and enlisted numbers of men. His system of recruiting was very successful. He went about in a small steamer with a band of music and flags, streamers and colours flying. All this rendered him popular with the Admiralty authorities, and made his house extensively known to the sailors, and those connected with them.Inspector Price, under whose supervision the low lodging-houses in that part of London are placed, most obligingly took me over one of the lowest lodging-houses, and one of the best, forming a strange contrast, and both presenting an admirable example of the capital working of the most excellent Act that regulates them. We went into a large room, with a huge fire blazing cheerily at the furthest extremity, around which were grouped some ten or twelve people, others were scattered over various parts of the room. The attitudes of most were listless; none seemed to be reading; one was cooking his supper; a few amused themselves by criticising us, and canvassing as to the motives of our visit, and our appearance altogether. The inspector was well known to the keeper of the place, who treated him with the utmost civility and respect. The greatest cleanliness prevailed everywhere. Any one was admitted to this house who could command the moderate sum of threepence. I was informed those who frequented it were, for the most part, prostitutes and thieves. That is thieves and their associates. No questions were asked of those who paid their money and claimed a night’s lodging in return. The establishment contained forty beds. There were two floors. The first was divided into little boxes by means of deal boards, and set apart for married people, or those who represented themselves to be so. Of course, as the sum paid for the night’s lodging was so small, the lodgers could not expect clean sheets, which were only supplied once a week. The sheets were indeed generally black, or very dirty. How could it be otherwise? The men were often in a filthy state, and quite unaccustomed to anything like cleanliness, from which they were as far as from godliness. The floors and the surroundings were clean, and highly creditable to the management upstairs; the beds were not crowded together, but spread over the surface in rows, being a certain distance from one another. Many of them were already occupied, although it was not eleven o’clock, and the house is generally full before morning. The ventilation was very complete, and worthy of attention. There were several ventilators on each side of the room, but not in the roof – all were placed in the side.The next house we entered was more aristocratic in appearance. You entered through some glass doors, and going along a small passage found yourself in a large apartment, long and narrow, resembling a coffee-room. The price of admission was precisely the same, but the frequenters were chiefly working men, sometimes men from the docks, respectable mechanics, etc. No suspicious characters were admitted by the proprietor on any pretence, and he by this means kept his house select. Several men were seated in the compartments reading newspapers, of which there appeared to be an abundance. The accommodation was very good, and everything reflected great credit upon the police, who seem to have the most unlimited jurisdiction, and complete control over the low people and places in the East-end of London.Bluegate Fields is nothing more or less than a den of thieves, prostitutes, and ruffians of the lowest description. Yet the police penetrate unarmed without the slightest trepidation. There I witnessed sights that the most morbid novelist has described, but which have been too horrible for those who have never been on the spot to believe. We entered a house in Victoria Place, running out of Bluegate, that had no street-door, and penetrating a small passage found ourselves in a kitchen, where the landlady was sitting over a miserable coke fire; near her there was a girl, haggard and woe-begone. We put the usual question, Is there any one upstairs? And on being told that the rooms were occupied, we ascended to the first floor, which was divided into four small rooms. The house was only a two-storied one. The woman of the place informed me, she paid five shillings a-week rent, and charged the prostitutes who lodged with her four shillings a-week for the miserable apartments she had to offer for their accommodation; but as the shipping in the river was very slack just now, times were hard with her.The house was a wretched tumble-down hovel, and the poor woman complained bitterly that her landlord would make no repairs. The first room we entered contained a Lascar, who had come over in some vessel, and his woman. There was a sickly smell in the chamber, that I discovered proceeded from the opium he had been smoking. There was not a chair to be seen; nothing but a table, upon which were placed a few odds-and-ends. The Lascar was lying on a palliasse placed upon the floor (there was no bedstead), apparently stupefied from the effects of the opium he had been taking. A couple of old tattered blankets sufficed to cover him. By his bedside sat his woman, who was half idiotically endeavouring to derive some stupefaction from the ashes he had left in his pipe. Her face was grimy and unwashed, and her hands so black and filthy that mustard-and-cress might have been sown successfully upon them. As she was huddled up with her back against the wall she appeared an animated bundle of rags. She was apparently a powerfully made woman, and although her face was wrinkled and careworn, she did not look exactly decrepit, but more like one thoroughly broken down in spirit than in body. In all probability she was diseased; and the disease communicated by the Malays, Lascars, and Orientals generally, is said to be the most frightful form of lues to be met with in Europe. It goes by the name of the Dry —-, and is much dreaded by all the women in the neighbourhood of the docks. Leaving this wretched couple, who were too much overcome with the fumes of opium to answer any questions, we went into another room, which should more correctly be called a hole. There was not an atom of furniture in it, nor a bed, and yet it contained a woman. This woman was lying on the floor, with not even a bundle of straw beneath her, rapped up in what appeared to be a shawl, but which might have been taken for the dress of a scarecrow feloniously abstracted from a corn-field, without any very great stretch of the imagination. She started up as we kicked open the door that was loose on its hinges, and did not shut properly, creaking strangely on its rusty hinges as it swung sullenly back. Her face was shrivelled and famine-stricken, her eyes bloodshot and glaring, her features disfigured slightly with disease, and her hair dishevelled, tangled, and matted. More like a beast in his lair than a human being in her home was this woman. We spoke to her, and from her replies concluded she was an Irishwoman. She said she was charged nothing for the place she slept in. She cleaned out the water-closets in the daytime, and for these services she was given a lodging gratis.The next house we entered was in Bluegate Fields itself. Four women occupied the kitchen on the ground-floor. They were waiting for their men, probably thieves. They had a can of beer, which they passed from one to the other. The woman of the house had gone out to meet her husband, who was to be liberated from prison that night, having been imprisoned for a burglary three years ago, his term of incarceration happening to end that day. His friends were to meet at his house and celebrate his return by an orgie, when all of them, we were told, hoped to be blind drunk; and, added the girl who volunteered the information, “None of ’em didn’t care dam for police.” She was evidently anticipating the happy state of inebriety she had just been predicting.One of the houses a few doors off contained a woman well known to the police, and rather notorious on account of her having attempted to drown herself three times. Wishing to see her, the inspector took me to the house she lived in, which was kept by an Irishwoman, the greatest hypocrite I ever met with. She was intensely civil to the inspector, who had once convicted her for allowing three women to sleep in one bed, and she was fined five pounds, all which she told us with the most tedious circumstantiality, vowing, as “shure as the Almighty God was sitting on his throne,” she did it out of charity, or she wished she might never speak no more. “These gals,” she said, “comes to me in the night and swears (as I knows to be true) they has no place where to put their heads, and foxes they has holes, likewise birds of the air, which it’s a mortial shame as they is better provided for and against than them that’s flesh and blood Christians. And one night I let one in, when having no bed you see empty I bundled them in together. Police they came and I was fined five pounds, which I borrowed from Mrs. Wilson what lives close to – five golden sovereigns, as I’m alive, and they took them all, which I’ve paid back two bob a week since, and I don’t owe no one soul not a brass farthing, which it’s all as thrue as Christ’s holiness, let alone his blessed gospel.”The woman we came to see was called China Emma, or by her intimate associates Chaney Emm. She was short in stature, rather stout, with a pale face utterly expressionless; her complexion was blonde. There was a look almost of vacuity about her, but her replies to my questions were lucid, and denoted that she was only naturally slow and stupid.My father and mother,” she said, “kept a grocer’s shop in Goswell Street. Mother died when I was twelve years old, and father took to drinking. In three years he lost his shop, and in a while killed himself, what with the drink and one thing and another. I went to live with a sister who was bad, and in about a year she went away with a man and left me. I could not get any work, never having been taught any trade or that. One day I met a sailor, who was very good to me. I lived with him as his wife, and when he went away drew his half-pay. I was with him for six years. Then he died of yellow fever in the West Indies, and I heard no more of him. I know he did not cut me, for one of his mates brought me a silver snuff-box he used to carry his quids in, which he sent me when he was at his last. Then I lived for a bit in Angel Gardens; after that I went to Gravel Lane; and now I’m in Bluegate Fields. When I came here I met with a Chinaman called Appoo. He’s abroad now, but he sends me money. I got two pounds from him only the other day. He often sends me the needful. When he was over here last we lived in Gregory’s Rents. I’ve lived in Victoria Place and New Court, all about Bluegate. Appoo only used to treat me badly when I got drunk. I always get drunk when I’ve a chance to. Appoo used to tie my legs and arms and take me into the street. He’d throw me into the gutter, and then he’d throw buckets of water over me till I was wet through; but that didn’t cure; I don’t believe anything would; I’d die for the drink; I must have it, and I don’t care what I does to get it. I’ve tried to kill myself more nor once. I have fits at times – melancholy fits – and I don’t know what to do with myself. I wish I was dead, and I run to the water and throw myself in; but I’ve no luck; I never had since I was a child – oh! ever so little. I’s always picked out. Once I jumped out of a first-floor window in Jamaica Place into the river, but a boatman coming by hooked me up, and the magistrate give me a month. The missus here (naming the woman who kept the place) wants me to go to a refuge or home, or something of that. P’raps I shall.The Irishwoman here broke in, exclaiming-And so she shall. I’ve got three or four poor gals into the refuge, and I’ll get Chaney Emm, as shure as the Almighty God’s sitting on his throne.” (This was a favourite exclamation of hers.) “I keeps her very quiet here; she never sees no one, nor tastes a drop of gin, which she shouldn’t have to save her blessed life, if it were to be saved by nothink else; leastways, it should be but a taste. It’s ruined her has drink. When she got the money Appoo sent her the other day or two back, I took it all, and laid it out for her, but never a drop of the crater passed down Chaney Emm’s lips.This declaration of the avaricious old woman was easily credible, except the laying out the money for her victim’s advantage. The gin, in all probability, if any had been bought, had been monopolized in another quarter, where it was equally acceptable. As to the woman’s seeing no one, the idea was preposterous. The old woman’s charity, as is commonly the case, began at home, and went very little further. If she were excluded from men’s society she must have been much diseased.I find the women who cohabit with sailors are not, as a body, disorderly, although there may be individuals who habitually give themselves up to insubordination. I take them to be the reverse of careful, for they are at times well off, but at others, through their improvidence and the slackness of the shipping, immersed in poverty. The supply of women is fully equal to the demand; but as the demand fluctuates so much I do not think the market can be said to be overstocked. They are unintelligent and below the average of intellectuality among prostitutes, though perhaps on a par with the men with whom they cohabit.