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Prostitution during the 18th and 19th century Essay

Prostitution became a significant of London’s history during the 18th and 19th century. At the time, prostitution was a chronic problem of the public order. It became so big in London that it attracted the attention of many groups such as, “the church, the state, the medical profession, philanthropists, feminists and others.” (Bartley, 1) All of these groups worked together in order to resolve the problem, even though at the time prostitution was not illegal. However, it was an activity that many felt was socially unacceptable. Prostitution began because Britain was experiencing political and social ferment during the Industrial Revolution. The industrial revolution brought up new social groups, which had struggled to exert themselves politically and culturally. (Fisher, 29) During the 18th & 19th centuries London had many deficiencies in their legal system, which can explain the openness of prostitution.

A major factor of this problem lays in the fact that almost none of the laws under which prostitutes were most usually arrested in the 18th century referred to their offence by name. Instead, prostitutes were charged for violating laws. At the time, laws of night walking were put into the system. The main objective was to enforce a dawn-to-dusk curfew, so the police could keep the towns under close watch. London decided that it was time for to get involve and find a solution before the city went out of control. First of all, police officers started by taking more action on the streets. Also, they started policing Disorderly houses. In addition groups such as the Reformers, Commentators, Church and others, used their own methods of resolving this problem. Finally, how did the people of London feel towards prostitution and prostitutes?

The streets were becoming an unsafe environment for the citizens of London. Prostitutes started occupying the streets of London more frequently. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the policing of London’s streetwalkers were the responsibility of the constables, beadles, patrol, and watchman. Their duties were to enforce and maintain public order. There was a general police force consisting of upper and under Marshals, marshalmen, day and night patrols and even special forces for certain towns or areas such as the Smithfield area. Each city had twenty-six Wards, which in turn produced their own forces such as constables, beadles, and watchmen. All of these men were able to enforce the laws in the proximity of the Ward.

Figure 1 & 2.

“The police force was to be responsible for containing street disorder and averting the danger from the uncontrolled and un-socialized classes, the constable role was to act as a domestic missionary, translating and mediating bourgeois values in working-class communities.” (Mahood, 120)

In 1784, day patrol was introduced in Westminster, Nevertheless, “before 1828 no parish anywhere in London had considered it either necessary or desirable to provide… intensive daylight patrols.” (Henderson (1), 191) During that time all the resources devoted their time to nightly watch, as they believed it was more of a crucial period of the day for prostitution.

Watchmen were the most intrusive in doing their work, and also reduced the importance of constables. A constable was usually in company with a beadle, whose duties consisted of patrolling the streets of the parish as frequently as possible throughout the night. (Henderson (1),192) However, while on duty, they would instead spend most of their time in a safer area around the watch house. Furthermore, they would not even show up sometimes for duty. Moreover, the Watchman was always expected to be on the streets from dawn till dusk.

It was very important for the police to clear up the streets. Solicitors and prostitutes crowded the busy narrow streets of London. It was inevitable either group would come into conflicts with other citizens. The public streets were areas where one could enjoy the view and sights of the beautiful city, in addition to being the main passageways, for vehicles and pedestrians. However, “to the prostitutes the streets, and squares of London were a workplace.”(Henderson (1), 198)

Mr. William Logan was given the duty in 1843 to research and find solutions of prostitution. He was an observer of many streets and brothel houses, and he stated several solutions towards prostitution. One of the solutions was the policing of the streets. He suggests, “from eight to ten o’clock at night, to bear in mind those who are employed to conduct the evening correspondence and carry it safely.” (Logan,40) Therefore, that crime should, be traced to its source as accurate as possible, and a system of prevention must be introduced. (Asylums1817, 10) Police forces had many problems in assembling together and during the late 1840’s a quarter of the Edinburgh police force was dismissed annually for misconduct and 63 percent were recorded as drunk on duty. (Mahood, 120)

Policing Disorderly house was another solution London brought about to eliminate prostitution. Disorderly and Bawdy houses were controlled, like streetwalking, because of their threat to the well being of the society.

“They were the causes of endless mischief, and tended directly to the overthrow of Men’s bodies, to the wasting of their Livelihoods, and to the endangering of their souls.” (Henderson (1), 253)

The general society saw these houses as a place without morals or religious principles, and rather a place of corruption. They were also concerned that the people that worked in the houses were being funded through fraud and robbery. Figure 3. Select Police Committee members in 1816 and 1817 showed great concern of the spread of these cheap licensed houses. They were catered only for thieves and prostitutes. The Committee introduced a license for selling alcoholic drinks, where if the house did not practice the laws, their alcohol license would be removed. The Justices of the Peace had the primary responsibility, to grant these licenses. This procedure began in 1729 and it still in effect today. Before 1729, it was possible to get a license from the Stamp Office, which was a practice that helped keep open the Disorderly Houses.

In 1743, the Gin Act was introduced, and in 1751 confirmed and, “forbade any but tavern, victualling house, inn, coffee house, or alehouse keepers to hold a license to sell spirituous liquors.” (Henderson (1), 257) When it came time to renew licenses, the constable of each Ward or parish was to present to the magistrates a list of those houses requiring a renewal of their license. After that, each Constable would be placed under oath and questioned about the conduct of the house in his district, as well as if any neighbors had made any complaints. (Henderson (1), 258) Even though the Constable had spoken well of the house or not, any person that was present was able to state their objections towards the issue. Representatives of the parish or ward raised most of the objections, and in some cases there would be the presence of the neighbors.

In 1752, London passed the Disorderly House Act. This act encouraged people to turn in the houses and owners into the police. If the information led to a charge, the witness would receive £20. The houses where divided into three different classes: First, Second, and Third. Figure 4. Wealthy merchants, military officers, and those in the higher circle of society usually visited the First class houses. The Second class houses were mostly intended for businessmen, and blue-collar people. Finally, the Third class houses were for the not so wealthy citizens. As a result of the close monitoring of these houses and liquor licenses, the amount of Disorderly houses dropped, by the end of the 19th century.

Other major groups besides the police wanted to get involved to put a stop to prostitution. These groups consisted of Parish committees, Reformers, and Philanthropist. They all contributed in different ways. The Church helped out the police by hiring watchmen, for the area that surrounds them. In 1796, St. James parish in Westminster was employing sixty-four watchmen, six beadles and two inspectors as well as its body of constables. (Henderson (1), 192) Even the smaller parishes helped out and had larger numbers of people working. This was all possible because in Westminster from 1753, on, a series of Watch Acts where introduced.

These acts gave individual parishes, or to the City and Liberty as a whole, the right and duty to establish a parochial watch, under the general supervision of the Middlesex Watch Justices of the Peace. (Henderson (1), 190) Also the churches forbade women that were working as prostitutes of any religious rights. If they were still doing the trade until they died, they would not receive proper burial rights. The Church also made its own court and was responsible for maintaining acceptable standards of Christian behavior. (Henderson (2),81)

Reformers believed that prostitutes were victims of upper class men who seduced them. However, they also believed that prostitution was the outcome of personal moral weakness, and therefore blamed women for prostitution. (Bartley, 5) “Moral reformers demanded that the police be granted the authority to curb soliciting and brothel keeping.” (Mahood, 121) The Reformers believed the only way to eliminate prostitution was to get rid of prostitutes. In turn, they started and founded a variety of institutions, such as large penitentiaries, asylums, and even small homes. These centers were used as places of rehabilitation. Figure 5. These institution centers were located within most large cities and towns. In 1758, in Whitechapel, London the Reform opened up The Magdalen Hospital.

It was a great success and thus led to the opening of more institutions. The Church tried not to connect all institutions with a religious aspect, like Lock Hospitals with lock wards. This kind of institution dealt more with unmarried females and tried to treat them for venereal diseases. Figure 5. By the end of the 19th century, a special group was formed, National Union of Women’s Worker (NUWW), whose members met once a year to discuss strategies and to compare practices. (Bartley, 26) Each institution had its own managerial system; the upper and middle class managed most of them.

“There were three main methods of managing a reform institution: some were managed by men who employed female workers as matrons and laundry workers; some where managed jointly by men and women; some were managed by women only.” (Bartley, 27)

Reform Institutions had great success. Which resulted in a decline in prostitution. Furthermore, a mixture of clergy and laymen and women ran institutions that were set up by the Church of England. Philanthropists saw prostitution as a problem because of its negative effect on the population. They too implemented institution and ran them similar to the Reform.

The majority of the people in London did not agree with prostitution, nor did they understand it. People of London felt that prostitution was affecting the Modernity of London. “Prostitutes disordered the state and threatened the empire.” (Ogborn, 47) People felt that kids that are surrounded by prostitutes, especially boys would not grow up to be healthy, and productive men because prostitutes were only spreading ruin, disease, and death. Prostitution was an interference of social relations and the geographies that surrounded them, which created new relationships and new spaces. It also was responsible for subverting the relations of the public sphere; even the hierarchies and equalities of the public sphere were being affected. They also felt that prostitution caused the ruin of families.

Prostitutes were looked upon as evil people, and were treated as though they were infected with the plague. They were “public nuisances” as one shopkeeper describes. “The activities of prostitutes and their bullies along Fleet street and Ludgate Hill adversely affected their business.” (Henderson (1), 195) It also became hard for all the women in the town, for they were also treated like prostitutes. For example if a woman were walking on the streets just after dusk, she would be harassed and insulted. On the other hand, people believed that men who engaged with prostitutes were not at fault because of the temptation the women give off the male passer-bys.

In 1864, the Contagious Disease Act (CD Acts) was passed. It was meant to make paid sex safer for people, especially those in the armed forces. This act was passed because, at the time in the Army and Navy, many men had contracted venereal diseases. So, the government enforced that all women that were practicing prostitution must be inspected. Police were given the authority to arrest any woman that was suspected of practicing prostitution, and make her undergo an internal examination at a Certified Hospital. If a disease were found she would be detained until the disease was cured. Reformers felt that it was fair to say that Prostitution helped spaced out the wealth of men, because there would be different sections in the community. In one area you would have men that were well off and in another area men that were not well off. William Logan describes the girls that he observed were poor and innocent children that were constantly being abused by their supporters. (Logan, 26)

It is clear that prostitutes played a very important role during the 18th and 19th centuries, which were modernity times of London. Consequently, it was not a good role. Prostitution affected the development and growth of the city. As a result, the city had to put a stop to the acts and began by policing the streets. They tried to control the narrow overcrowded streets to make them a safer place for other individuals. Secondly, they tried to control Disorderly houses. They achieved this by hiring inspectors and constables to watch the houses, and even enforced Liquor Licenses. Moreover, groups such as the Church and Reformers had their own techniques to stop prostitution.

Both groups built a series of institutions that were treated as rehab centers. Ultimately, citizens of London had their own view and understanding of prostitution. Most felt that it was the ruin of London, and it was affecting the modernization of the city, especially concerning the social relations and the geographies that went along with them. Others felt sorrow for these young girls; they believed they were victims of upper-class men. Although prostitution still exists today, its evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries will be a significant part of London’s history forever.

Work Cited

Bartley, Puala. Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England. London: Routledge, 2000.

Fisher, Trevor. Prostitution and the Victorians. New York: Sutton, 1997.

(1) Henderson, Anthony. Female Prostitution in London 1730-1830. London: University of London, 1992.

(2) Henderson, Tony. Disorderly Women in the 18th Century London. New York: Longman, 1999.

Logan, William. Female Prostitution in London, Leeds, and Rochdale. London: Personal Observation, 1843.

Mahood, Linda. The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the 19th Century. London: Routledge, 1990.

Ogborn, Miles. Spaces of Modernity. New York: Guilford Press, 1998.

Report of the Committee of the Guardian Society for the preservation of public morals, providing temporary Asylums for Prostitutes. Dec. 1815.

Report of the Committee of the Guardian Society for the preservation of public morals, providing temporary Asylums for Prostitutes. Oct. 1817.

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