In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.
This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.
In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.
The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.
A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.
From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.
A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.
Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.
Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.
He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.
The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]