Prostitution in Victorian England
Many writers have presented images of the poor and working classes of Victorian England, particularly the teeming slums of London which Charles Dickens described in Oliver Twist and other works. London’ slums are usually presented as being well-populated with streetwalkers and the image is reportedly an accurate one. The literature of the day was often directed to address what was then the public perception of prostitution in the city, and in other British cities. But the perception is not entirely accurate. Not every woman who entered into prostitution was doomed to a spiral into disease and ignominy.
Many women who worked in London’s West End and the more affluent suburbs of the city entered into the trade as a means out of poverty rather than a path to it. These women often practiced prostitution for a few years while saving their money to follow other pursuits, including marriage. According to one such former London prostitute she, “…wanted to see life and be independent & so she had become a prostitute. She…enjoyed it very much, thought it might raise her & perhaps be profitable.” After three years of working as a prostitute the woman opened a coffee house and became a respected merchant.
Reformers in Victorian London and other cities across Great Britain referred to prostitution as “the social evil” and those women who practiced it were called “fallen women”. Beginning in the 1830s houses for fallen women were opening in several British cities, intended to provide shelter and the ability to learn a trade or develop skills for those who wished to leave the sex trade. Recruiting to fill the houses was active, advertisements appeared for them in the leading British newspapers and on posters and bills throughout the city. Church groups solicited prostitutes for the purpose of recruiting them to enter the houses of the fallen, rather than for their regular services.
If a woman was seen in a place of entertainment unescorted she was considered to be disreputable, and approachable for sexual services. Theatres were the domain of men, and actresses were likewise considered to be less than respectable. In Victorian London a series of booklets were published under the title The Swell’s Night Guide. Among other tips on how to get around London’s seamier side, the Night Guide’s listed the various theatres in the city and the best way to get backstage to meet with the actresses and other performers. It also contained advice on how best to approach the actresses once presented to them.
The Swell’s Night Guide warned against offering the actresses money and exhorted its readers to instead request the performance of private recitals or theatrical performances. The Guides also described the amenities available in some theatres, such as boxes equipped with couches and doors which could be locked, and how to approach the usher in order to obtain one. Other information in the Guides included the locations of brothels, the services provided in them, and what they cost. A rating system was applied to the various houses. The Swell’s Night Guides were published for about a decade, printed in an area of London well known for its pornography.