Victorian Prostitutes: Part 1

Punch mocks the idea that any woman standing in a doorway MUST be a prostitute.  The respectably-dressed woman on the left is waiting outside an Opera house.  Her shocked friend, having read all the breathless pamphlets, exclaims, “How long have you been GAY?”  Which in the Victorian context means a loose woman. 

Between 7,000 and … 80,000?

At one point, London’s Metropolitan Police, still a rather new and daring operation only a few years old, estimated there were 7,000 “fallen women” working the streets of London.  This included all types.  The perfurmed courtesans like Skittles, riding down Rotten Row in high style; the brothel girls who knew a little French, as well as the basic social niceties, and might retire young by marrying a client; and the “low women” without even a room, forced to ply their trade in alleys or doorways.  (One such “shilling whore” was the prey of Jack the Ripper, as anyone who’s ever turned on a television or left the house in the last fifty years can no doubt tell you.)  But in the days of Victorian overcrowding, 7,000 sounded like a mighty low number to the charitable organizations, who estimated more like 25,000, and to the Society for the Prevention of Vice, who estimated around 80,000.

An 18th-century (pre-Victorian) guide to Convent Garden Ladies

When London Had a Thriving “Red-Light” District

Covent Gardens was originally just a wide swath of land belonging to Westminster Abbey — the garden of the Abbey and Convent, to be specific.  In the mid-1600s it became an open-air market for fruit and vegetables, and then came the coffee-houses and the taverns, and finally the brothels.  By the late 1700s the area, now known without the “n” as Covent Gardens, was the place for an Englishman to buy companionship.  Above is the frontspiece of a well-known guide to the area.

Enter the Victorians

The mood and public morals of the country was beginning to shift.  Cosmetics like rouge became unacceptable for women.  The Regency style of dress, worn so tight as to outline the natural female form precisely, became obscene.  The Victorians would become, by the 1860s, a society in which no well-bred woman would appear in the street without a “mantle” (a long hooded cloak) to cover herself.  So to allow prostitution to go on openly in Covent Gardens was unthinkable.  There was even am Act of Parliment drafted to deal with it.  Not to outlaw it — oh, no.  To cloak the area with a respectable roof and walls, contained and easier to police.  A “mantle,” if you will, to cover what still went on beneath.

Next: How to Become a Victorian Prostitute

In the meantime, here’s a pop-culture (and fairly accurate) comparision between the freedom of Regency females (think Jane Austen) compared to Victorian females (think Charles Dickens) when it came to fashion.

Around 1818 or so and looking happy…

Four women who’d be much happier in steampunk leathers… the guy just needs goggles and a prosthetic arm

3 thoughts on “Victorian Prostitutes: Part 1

  1. It is insane to outlaw prostitution, or even to put a mantle on it. In a repressed society like Victorian England, or contemporary America, women (and men) of pleasure are a necessary release valve. Would that we could just be more open and reasonable.

  2. @Jenx Byron: Well, you know I will always say that grownup people should be able to make whatever arrangements they wish between themselves, as long as no one's free will is subverted. The Victorian picture of prostitution is multifaceted, but I have the suspicion one reason it was needed is because lower class women had few other ways to earn a living. I'll talk about that tomorrow, some of it is difficult for modern minds to believe (or even conceive.)

  3. Like marijuana, I think prostitution should be legalized. Just think of all the taxes that could be collected? Just think of all the axillary jobs that would be needed. OH MY…why does the government not do this????

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