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 Soldiers Women. After an extensive analysis of he incidence of venereal disease in the different services we get to meet the Dollymops, the Happy Prostitute and the Sensitive, Sentimental, Weak-Minded, Impulsive, Affectionate Girl.
PROSTITUTION IN LONDONSoldiers’ Women
Part 1The evil effects of the want of some system to regulate prostitution in England, is perhaps more shown amongst the army than any other class. Syphilis is very prevalent among soldiers, although the disease is not so virulent as it was formerly. That is, we do not see examples of the loss of the palate or part of the cranium, as specimens extant in our museums show us was formerly the case. The women who are patronized by soldiers are, as a matter of course, very badly paid; for how can a soldier out of his very scanty allowance, generally little exceeding a shilling a day, afford to supply a woman with means adequate for her existence? It follows from this state of things, that a woman may, or more correctly must, be intimate with several men in one evening, and supposing her to be tainted with disease, as many men as she may chance to pick up during the course of her peregrinations, will be incapacitated from serving her Majesty for several weeks.The following quotation from Mr. Acton’s book will suffice to show what I mean. He is speaking of a particular regiment.”In 1851, Dr. Gordon, surgeon to the 57th, read a paper before the Surgical Society of Ireland, in which he states, (see ‘Dublin Medical Press,’ February 26th, 1851,) that during the year ending 31st March, 1850, the following number, out of an average strength of 408 men, were treated for venereal diseases in the head-quarters hospital-Number admitted: 113
Number of days in hospital: 2519
Amount of soldiers’ pay: £136.10s.9dAt the first blush, the economist would be apt to imagine that a very large sum of money is lost to the state annually by the inroads of syphilis. It is but fair to state that this is not the case, as tenpence a day is stopped from each man’s pay while he is in hospital, so that about five-sixths of his wages are recovered. The actual loss to the country is his time, which, however during peace, is non-productive.From the statistical reports on the sickness, mortality, and invaliding among the troops in the United Kingdom, the Mediterranean, and British America, presented to Parliament some years ago (1839), it would appear that syphilis is a fatal enemy to the British soldier.Total cases during seven and a quarter years: 8,072
Total aggregate strength for the same period: 44,611
Annual mean strength for ditto: 6,153
Thus 181 per 1000, or about one man in five appear to have been attacked.Let us compare this with the following statistics extracted from a report on army diseases from 1837 to 1847.Aggregate strength:Cavalry :54,374Foot guards :40,120Infantry :160,103Total :254,597Extent of venereal disease:Cavalry :11,205Foot guards :10,043Infantry :44,435Total :65,683No. per 1000 admitted over 10 years:Cavalry: 206Foot guards: 250Infantry: 277Deaths17This report was drawn up by Dr. Balfour and Sir Alexander Tulloch, and the reason that a distinction is made between the line and the foot-guards, is that the line contains a large number of recruits and men returning from foreign service, whereas in the foot-guards, there is usually a much greater proportion of soldiers who have arrived at maturity, on the one hand, and who, on the other, have not served in foreign climates. As these circumstances were likely to have affected the amount of sickness and mortality, the returns of the two classes were kept distinct and separate in preparing the tables.Few infected soldiers escape notice, as health inspections are made once a week, which is the general rule in the service. If a soldier is found at inspection to be labouring under disease, he is reported for having concealed it to his superior officer, who orders him punishment drill on his discharge from hospital. In order to induce him to apply early for relief, the soldier is told that if he do so, he may probably be only a few days instead of several weeks under treatment.It is contrary to the rules of the service, to treat men out of hospital; even were it otherwise, the habits of the soldier, and the accommodation in barracks, would not favour celerity of cure.”In the brigade of Guards, though the average of syphilis primitiva is heavy, as above stated, only 11 per cent. of the cases are followed by secondary symptoms, which, however, follow 33 per cent. of the cases in the line. Dr. Balfour says a mild mercurial system is usually pursued in the army; and indeed mercury by many surgeons is held absolutely necessary for hard, or Hunterian chancres.A woman was pointed out to me in a Music Hall in Knightsbridge, who my informant told me he was positively assured had only yesterday had two buboes lanced; and yet she was present at that scene of apparent festivity, contaminating the very air, like a deadly upas tree, and poisoning the blood of the nation, with the most audacious recklessness. It is useless to say that such things should not be. They exist, and they will exist. The woman was nothing better than a paid murderess, committing crime with impunity. She was so well known that she had obtained the soubriquet of the “hospital” as she was so frequently an inmate of one, and as she so often sent others to a similar involuntary confinement.Those women who, for the sake of distinguishing them from the professionals, I must call amateurs, are generally spoken of as “Dollymops.” Now many servant-maids, nurse-maids who go with children into the Parks, shop girls and milliners who may be met with at the various “dancing academies,” so called, are “Dollymops.” We must separate these latter again from the “Demoiselle de Comptoir,” who is just as much in point of fact a “Dollymop,” because she prostitutes herself for her own pleasure, a few trifling presents or a little money now and then, and not altogether to maintain herself. But she will not go to casinos, or any similar places to pick up men; she makes their acquaintance in a clandestine manner: either she is accosted in the street early in the evening as she is returning from her place of business to her lodgings, or she carries on a flirtation behind the counter, which, as a matter of course, ends in an assignation.Soldiers are notorious for hunting up these women, especially nurse-maids and those that in the execution of their duty walk in the Parks, when they may easily be accosted. Nurse-maids feel flattered by the attention that is lavished upon them, and are always ready to succumb to the “scarlet fever.” A red coat is all powerful with this class, who prefer a soldier to a servant, or any other description of man they come in contact with.This also answers the soldier’s purpose equally well. He cannot afford to employ professional women to gratify his passions, and if he were to do so, he must make the acquaintance of a very low set of women, who in all probability will communicate some infectious disease to him. He feels he is never safe, and he is only too glad to seize the opportunity of forming an intimacy with a woman who will appreciate him for his own sake, cost him nothing but the trouble of taking her about occasionally, and who, whatever else she may do, will never by any chance infect. I heard that some of the privates in the Blues and the brigade of Guards often formed very reprehensible connections with women of property, tradesmen’s wives, and even ladies, who supplied them with money, and behaved with the greatest generosity to them, only stipulating for the preservation of secrecy in their intrigues. Of course numbers of women throng the localities which contain the Knightsbridge, Albany Street, St. George’s, Portman, and Wellington Barracks in Birdcage Walk. They may have come up from the provinces; some women have been known to follow a particular regiment from place to place, all over the country, and have only left it when it has been under orders for foreign service. A woman whom I met with near the Knightsbridge barracks, in one of the beer houses there, told me she had been a soldiers’ woman all her life.When I was sixteen,” she said, “I went wrong. I’m up’ards of thirty now. I’ve been fourteen or fifteen years at it. It’s one of those things you can’t well leave off when you’ve once took to it. I was born in Chatham. We had a small baker’s shop there, and I served the customers and minded the shop. There’s lots of soldiers at Chatham, as you know, and they used to look in at the window in passing, and nod and laugh whenever they could catch my eye. I liked to be noticed by the soldiers.
At last one young fellow, a recruit, who had not long joined I think, for he told me he hadn’t been long at the depot, came in and talked to me. Well, this went on, and things fell out as they always do with girls who go about with men, more especially soldiers, and when the regiment went to Ireland, he gave me a little money that helped me to follow it; and I went about from place to place, time after time, always sticking to the same regiment.
My first man got tired of me in a year or two, but that didn’t matter. I took up with a sergeant then, which was a cut above a private, and helped me on wonderful. When we were at Dover, there was a militia permanently embodied artillery regiment quartered with us on the western heights, and I got talking to some of the officers, who liked me a bit. I was a damn sight prettier then than I am now, you may take your dying oath, and they noticed me uncommon; and although I didn’t altogether cut my old friends, I carried on with these fellows all the time we were there, and made a lot of money, and bought better dresses and some jewellery, that altered me wonderful.
One officer offered to keep me if I liked to come and live with him. He said he would take a house for me in the town, and keep a pony carriage if I would consent; but although I saw it would make me rise in the world, I refused. I was fond of my old associates, and did not like the society of gentlemen; so, when the regiment left Dover, I went with them, and I remained with them till I was five and twenty.
We were then stationed in London, and I one day saw a private in the Blues with one of my friends, and for the first time in my life I fell in love. He spoke to me, and I immediately accepted his proposals, left my old friends, and went to live in a new locality, among strangers; and I’ve been amongst the Blues ever since, going from one to the other, never keeping to one long, and not particler as long as I get the needful.
I don’t get much, very little, hardly enough to live upon. I’ve done a little needlework in the day-time. I don’t now, although I do some washing and mangling now and then to help it out. I don’t pay much for my bed-room, only six bob a week, and dear at that. It ain’t much of a place. Some of the girls about here live in houses. I don’t; I never could abear it. You ain’t your own master, and I always liked my freedom. I’m not comfortable exactly; it’s a brutal sort of life this. It isn’t the sin of it, though, that worries me. I don’t dare think of that much, but I do think how happy I might have been if I’d always lived at Chatham, and married as other women do, and had a nice home and children; that’s what I want, and when I think of all that, I do cut up. It’s enough to drive a woman wild to think that she’s given up all chance of it.
I feel I’m not respected either. If I have a row with any fellow, he’s always the first to taunt me with being what he and his friends have made me. I don’t feel it so much now. I used to at first. One dovetails into all that sort of thing in time, and the edge of your feelings, as I may say, wears off by degrees. That’s what it is. And then the drink is very pleasant to us, and keeps up our spirits; for what could a woman in my position do without spirits, without being able to talk and blackguard and give every fellow she meets as good as he brings?It is easy to understand, the state of mind of this woman, who had a craving after what she knew she never could possess, but which the maternal instinct planted within her forced her to wish for. This is one of the melancholy aspects of prostitution. It leads to nothing – marriage of course excepted; the prostitute has no future. Her life, saving the excitement of the moment, is a blank. Her hopes are all blighted, and if she has a vestige of religion left in her, which is generally the case, she must shudder occasionally at what she has merited by her easy compliance when the voice of the tempter sounded so sweetly.The Happy Prostituteand there is such a thing, is either the thoroughly hardened, clever infidel, who knows how to command men and use them for her own purposes; who is in the best set both of men and women; who frequents the night-houses in London, and who in the end seldom fails to marry well; or the quiet woman who is kept by the man she loves, and who she feels is fond of her; who has had a provision made for her to guard her against want, and the caprice of her paramour.The Sensitive, Sentimental, Weak-Minded, Impulsive, Affectionate Girlwill go from bad to worse, and die on a dunghill or in a workhouse. A woman who was well known to cohabit with soldiers, of a masculine appearance but good features, and having a good-natured expression, was pointed out to me as the most violent woman in the neighbourhood. When she was in a passion she would demolish everything that came in her way, regardless of the mischief she was doing. She was standing in the bar of a public-house close to the barracks talking to some soldiers, when I had an opportunity of speaking to her. I did not allow it to pass without taking advantage of it. I told her I had heard she was very passionate and violent.Passionate!” she replied; “I believe yer. I knocked my father down and wellnigh killed him with a flat-iron before I wor twelve year old. I was a beauty then, an I aint improved much since I’ve been on my own hook. I’ve had lots of rows with these ‘ere sodgers, and they’d have slaughter’d me long afore now if I had not pretty near cooked their goose. It’s a good bit of it self-defence with me now-a-days, I can tell yer. Why, look here; look at my arm where I was run through with a bayonet once three or four years ago.She bared her arm and exhibited the scar of what appeared to have once been a serious wound.”You wants to know if them rowses is common. Well, they is, and it’s no good one saying they aint, and the sodgers is such damn cowards they think nothing of sticking a woman when they’se riled and drunk, or they’ll wop us with their belts. I was hurt awful onst by a blow from a belt; it hit me on the back part of the head, and I was laid up weeks in St. George’s Hospital with a bad fever. The sodger who done it was quodded, but only for a drag, [meaning that he was imprisoned for three months.) and he swore to God as how he’d do for me the next time as he comed across me. We had words sure enough, but I split his skull with a pewter, and that shut him up for a time. You see this public; well, I’ve smashed up this place before now; I’ve jumped over the bar, because they wouldn’t serve me without paying for it when I was hard up, and I’ve smashed all the tumblers and glass, and set the cocks agoing, and fought like a brick when they tried to turn me out, and it took two peelers to do it; and then I lamed one of the bobbies for life by hitting him on the shin with a bit of iron – a crow or summet, I forget what it was. How did I come to live this sort of life? Get along with your questions. If you give me any of your cheek, I’ll —- soon serve you the same.”It may easily be supposed I was glad to leave this termagant, who was popular with the soldiers, although they were afraid of her when she was in a passion. There is not much to be said about soldiers’ women. They are simply low and cheap, often diseased, and as a class do infinite harm to the health of the service.