Prostitution in nineteenth century Britain

Lesley HulonceLesley Hulonce is historian and lecturer of health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. Her research interests include the histories of children, disability, poverty, gender and prostitution via state and voluntary action. She is co-director of the Research Group for Health, History and Culture and founder of Academics for a Publishing Revolution.  She blogs at Workhouse Tales and Prostitution and Women’s Work. She tweets at @LesleyHulonce and @HistHealthCult.

Women defined as prostitutes in nineteenth-century Britain were feared and loathed for their publicness, their inappropriate dress and their subversion of the rules of femininity and class. Conversely, these women could also be objects of fascination as well as revulsion, and much of the criticism and ill feeling shown them was because of the autonomous nature of their work and their freedom from class and gender constrictions. While pity played a key role in ‘rescuing’ women defined as prostitutes, this tended to be extended only to young, reclaimable women, and not to women seen as unrepentant whores.

The voices of these women are faint, while the words of rescuers, politicians and journalists have carried resonance and authority. While women who were ‘rescued’ from their evil trade supposedly wrote letters of thanks, there are few which survive, even if penned by the women themselves. Similarly, extracts in newspapers and court records relay the alleged words of some of these women, but again we cannot be sure it is the women’s voices we are hearing as they in all likelihood forwarded the aims of the writer.

Using diverse sources, this essay imagines the words and feelings of women defined as prostitutes and creates a dialogue with their past. While these pieces are creative, they are based on reports from many different accounts from historians and the historical record. It seeks to provide a glimpse into the lives of women defined as prostitutes from their own perspective. These passages (in italics) are contextualised throughout by informed historical narrative and analysis to enable a deeper understanding of the women’s words and the wider historical stage.


‘An incitement to discourse’.[1]

We are conduits of vice and filth. we are pollutants of poor innocent men; we suck them of virtue and health and all hope for the future race. You make us submit to instrumental rape to cure us of your disease, you lock us in prisons of purity to become your servants, and you continue to use us for your seminal lusts. You, who sit on the bench passing judgment on us; you, who wipe our secretions from your souls, you use us and pass us on for others to use.

The prevailing discussions about prostitution in the nineteenth century saw language couched in a miasma of melodrama about the sexual dangers wrought by women.  This pseudo-scientific  argument generated a melange of science and sensationalism and presented the prostitute as either an exploited and forgivable victim, or as the totemic representation of a dangerous and mutant sexuality who infected and polluted society.[2]

Prostitution, euphemistically referred to as the ‘Great Social Evil’, was seen as a cancer eating the energy of the nation. Suggestions for the checking of this cancer also reflected the various attempts of the regulation, reform and suppression of prostitutes that created and informed notions of sexuality in the late nineteenth century. Debates such as these included an imagined cult of domesticity such as the ‘angel in the house’, and separated ‘pure’ women from their distorted reflection of dangerous whores on the street.  Within gendered language, the sexuality of women was normalised, regulated, privatised and interned strictly within the bounds of matrimony in order to contrast with the visible and dangerous prostitute.  By the mid nineteenth century across Britain, sex had indeed become a police matter.[3]

Dangerous diseases

I lie here on this cold bed of hate, my legs restrained and open for all the world to see my sex. He leans over me and remarks to the nurse that I have no feelings of shame. He pushes the steel penis up my body until I can bear it no more and cry out. He is surprised; I should not feel pain as real women do. I am lifted from the slab and another victim is strapped down. In two weeks time I will go through it again until they say I am cured. I feel shame, I feel hurt; I am a woman who has been used by men and am still being used by men. I am a danger to men they say, I am danger to no one but the men who use me for their pleasure and experiments.

To counter these ‘dangerous’ women and their impact, in 1864 Parliament passed, ‘An Act for the Prevention of Contagious Diseases at Certain Naval and Military Stations’, followed in 1866 by ‘An Act for the Better Prevention of Contagious Diseases at Certain Naval and Military Stations’.[4] These statutes and an 1869 amendment were known as the Contagious Diseases Act (Women), [CD acts]. The acts were introduced as an allegedly emergency measure to combat the growing prevalence of venereal disease among enlisted men in the army and navy.  Since the 1820s and particularly following the highly publicised health disasters of the Crimean war, pressure had grown to introduce sanitary measures to curb both the diseases and the presupposed ingrained sexual laxity of enlisted men.  Incidence of venereal disease in the services had certainly increased:  By 1864 one in three sicknesses was venereal in the army and one in eleven in the navy, while syphilis and gonorrhoea accounted for 290.7 hospital admissions per 1000 troops in the army and 125 per 1000 troops in the navy.[5]

William Acton, a venereologist and enthusiastic proponent for regulation, estimated an average serviceman who had contracted VD would be unable to report for duty for between 4 to 6 weeks, therefore resulting in a huge loss of man hours and considerable public expense in medical treatment.[6]  Statistics gleaned from civilian hospitals also reported the rising incidence of venereal disease, although as Acton pointed out, many cases were not new as the ‘patient suffering from it is constantly coming to the out-patient department’, which also reflects the dubious value of treatments offered.[7]  The Report of the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases in 1868-69 had also concluded that syphilis affected no less than 10% of the civilian population, a figure that corresponded with other European cities.[8]

Under the acts, a special policeman was charged to identify a ‘common prostitute’ and compel her to submit to a registration scheme, if she did not consent she was brought before a magistrate to prove she was both not a prostitute or was not engaged in ‘immoral’ sex with men.  Once registered, she underwent a fortnightly internal examination and if found to have syphilis or gonorrhoea was admitted to a venereal lock hospital for up to nine months. The penalty for any infringement of the acts was two months imprisonment, which meant in theory if a woman continuously refused to submit to registration, she could be incarcerated indefinitely.[9]

It was however only the dangerous female body and sexuality that was to be controlled: the demand that propagated the prostitute’s supply, her male customers, were not to be examined as it was thought it would cause a loss of morale and possible mutiny to inspect enlisted men.  This, of course negated any sanitary advantage gleaned from the acts, as a newly cleansed prostitute could be reinfected as soon as she resumed her career. No measures were put in place to prevent men infecting their wives and many doctors colluded to mask the symptoms of gonorrhoea in a man to enable him to ‘seek his nuptial couch’ on his wedding night.[10]

Rescue and reform.

I did not want to come, you women dragged me from my home and put me to work in this prison. Mending, cleaning, sewing, scrubbing and listening to sermons and hymns and telling me how my body has endangered the race. I am a woman who could not pay my rent nor feed my children; what should I do? Men are always there to pay for my body, they come in the night to rooms and alleys in towns, take us and leave us pennies. I feel the anger in them, the letting off of their life’s disappointments and betrayals in me. Bold men, old men and young; rich, poor and all spilling into me, me the dump. You say I am a danger to society. I say society is a danger to me.

Prior to the eighteenth century, prostitution was not distinguished from other forms of punishable, wayward sexuality such as adultery and fornication.  Strategies for the prosecution and regulation of sexual deviancy shifted during the eighteenth century to a gradual decriminalisation of these behaviours, accompanied by initiatives to combat was what seen to be the growing and visible ‘problem’ of commercial sex.[11]  The rise of a ‘cult of seduction’ associated with the dangers of the prostitute was commensurate with repositioning of male and female sexuality.  Over the course of the eighteenth century, readings of female sexuality brimming with barely controlled lust were displaced by passivity and lack of sexual appetite.  The image of the prostitute as a powerless, and therefore forgivable character justified interventions of reform and encouraged the establishment in 1758 of the first rescue home, the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes in London.[12]

The rescue and rehabilitation of so called friendless and fallen women, and protection to those thought in danger was a popular cause for middle-class philanthropy in nineteenth-century Britain.   The success of rescue homes depended upon their potential clientele manifesting a duality of active recognition of their ‘wrongdoing’ and a passive compliance to their rehabilitation.  Many large rescue institutions across Britain adopted punitive and humiliating regimes, some in the early nineteenth century even shaved off their inmates’ hair to discourage escape or disobedience.[13] Linda Mahood argues that rescue homes favoured admitting young women, generally under 24, without police records or a tendency to inebriation.[14]  Some institutions such as the Salvation Army followed a more open policy of admittance and the Mayfair Union would admit any girl ‘who is anything like sober’.[15]


Look at me. I am still here; you have not sluiced me from your clean life.

There are many myths surrounding the Victorian’s attitude to sex.  Those, such as the alleged ‘skirting’ of piano legs, and young ladies being discouraged to sit on chairs still warm from a man’s bottom say more about us than about Victorian prudery. Women defined as prostitutes were perceived as a very dangerous and visible social evil. This strategy was echoed by the placement of women in the private and therefore ‘invisible’ employment sector of domestic service, where they would continue to be monitored by middle-class expectations. While women defined as prostitutes in nineteenth-century Britain would not recognise much of our world today, the interpretations still incited by their ‘dangerous’ lifestyles would be very familiar indeed.



[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction.  Translated by Robert Hurley. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 17.

[2] See Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities (London: Routledge, 2000).

[3] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 24. A ‘police matter’ inasmuch as sex and sexuality became central political issues within societal agendas of management and direction of individuals and populations.

[4] Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, Women, Class and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 1-2.  See also, Walkowitz, ‘Male Vice and Female Virtue: Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, History Workshop Journal, 13 (1982), 84.

[5] Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities, 187.

[6] William Acton, Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (London: Frank Cass, 1972, originally published 1870), 68.

[7] As above., 55.

[8] Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, 270.

[9] As above, 1-2.

[10] As above, 55-56.

[11]Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830 (London: Longman, 1999), 17.

[12] Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London: MacMillan Press, 1997), 105; Other early penitentiaries and refuges opened included: London Lock Asylum, 1787; London Female Penitentiary, 1807; Maritime Penitent Refuge, 1829; London Society for the Protection of Young Females and Prevention of Juvenile Prostitution, 1835, see also, William Tait, Magdalenism: An Enquiry into the Extent, Causes and Consequences of Prostitution in Edinburgh (Edunburgh: P. Richards & Co., 1840), 242-243.

[13] Mahood, The Magdalenes, 80.  Head shaving was particularly common in the London Magdalene Hospital and the Dublin Lock Hospital. Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum reported that head shaving was a means of detaining girls until their hair had grown and thus become ‘habituated to her situation’.  The practice was reported to have failed in only two out of fifty cases.

[14] Mahood, The Magdalenes, 75-79.

[15] Paula Bartley, Prostitution, Prevention and Reform in England 1860-1914 (London: Routledge, 2000), 36, 44.