Great Windmill Street in the 1850s, London’s entertainment district
Prostitution is a perennial issue for society and one which shows no signs of going away. Often described as ‘the oldest profession’ prostitution itself. of course, is not (and has never been) an offence by itself. As the Police Code for 1889 notes:
‘Prostitutes cannot legally be taken into custody simply because they areprostitutes; to justify their apprehension they must commit some distinct act which is an offence against the law’.
Police Code, (1889) p.143
They could however, be arrested under the Vagrancy Act (1824) , the Town Police Causes Act (1848) and the Metropolitan Police Act (1839) if they were causing a nuisance on the streets and this is often where police encountered them.
Police powers to deal with brothels were only really effectual from 1885 and the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (which also raised the age of consent to 16 and made homosexual acts easier to prosecute). Yet well before then police divisions recognized prostitution as a public order nuisance and saw the women employed in the sex trade as part and parcel of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London.
Thus, like so many policing agents before and since, the police in the Victorian capital engaged in periodic cleaning up operations to clear the trade from the streets, pubs and theatres.
Or at least they tried.
The problem they had was vast however and it didn’t help when the powers that supposedly operated the justice system did little to help the rank and file officers who were attempting to close down ‘houses of ill-repute’ or taverns and clubs that masqueraded as legitimate entertainment venues.
In some cases, one imagines, this was because the owners of these premises were paying for protection from prosecution; in others it may well be that the clientele were of a similar class to those before whom any miscreants would be brought. The establishment has a long track record of looking after their own.
In January 1850 Inspector Lestor and Sergeant Burney of C Division conducted a series of raids on West End hostelries. Acting on information police raided the saloon (on Piccadilly), the Waterford Arms on the Haymarket, and the Saxe-Coburg on Windmill Street, Soho. At two in the morning the Piccadilly Saloon was still busy and the police found no less than sixty single women in the building, some in the saloon, others in upstairs rooms. There were about forty males there, all described as ‘gentlemen’.
According to the superintendent of C Division, giving evidence at Marlborough Street Police court:
‘Thirty at least of the women he knew to be common prostitutes, and he believed the remainder were of the same loose character’.
The evidence was the same for all three of the venues the police had entered. In each drinking was taking place and ‘immoral’ women could be found alongside ‘respectable’ men. It seemed a cut-and-dried piece of police work but Superintendent Beresford was to be thwarted by the clever arguments of lawyers hired by the defense and by the collusion of the police magistrate Mr. Bingham.
Thomas Beale ran the Picadilly Saloon and was represented by Mr Clarkson. He asked the police witness if there had been any evidence of ‘drunkenness or disorderly behaviour’ in his client’s property. The police had to admit that no, there was none. Mr Parry (for Mary Ann Smith at the Waterford Arms and Harriett Ottley at the Saxe-Coburg) asked similarly and the same answer was given.
Mr Bingham now delivered the knockout punch: he said the summons against the trio had been brought under section 44 of the Police Code which made it an offence to ‘knowingly permit of suffer prostitutes to meet and assemble in houses of private report’. Not only was there no ‘disorderly behaviour, there was no proof that the venues’ owner had played any role in bringing or allowing immoral women on their premises.
Indeed ‘for aught known the contrary’, he declared, ‘the women present were respectable characters’. He dismissed the summons and the three defendants were released. The West End’s reputation as a haven for rich men to drink, gamble and buy sex was preserved, for a few more decades at least.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 22, 1850]