‘Mother Needham in the dock’ : sex and exploitation in mid Victorian London

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If you are familiar with William Hogarth’s engravings for the Harlot’s Progress (1732) then you might remember the story of Mary ‘Moll’ Hackabout. Moll arrives in London on the coach (see Hogarth’s image above) in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker or a servant in a quality household. Instead she meets Mother Needham, a notorious procuress, who tricks young women like Moll into prostitution.

While this is very much an eighteenth-century trope there is little doubt that procuresses continued to operate in the Victorian age. Indeed, there is very little difference between the actions of Mother Needham in the 1730s and the people traffickers and grooming gangs of our century. Where there is money to be made by the exploitation of girls and young women for sex you will find people prepared to take advantage.

In 1855 Anne Alice Hudson was placed in the dock at Westminster Police court and charged with assault. In reality assault was the least of Hudson’s crimes for she was a nineteenth-century procuress. Her victim was Ann Prior, a 20 year-old woman who possessed ‘considerable personal attractions’. As we can see the Morning Post’s reporter was not above objectifying the poor girl in the witness stand that morning.

Ann explained that a few years earlier she had come to London from Nottingham with the intention of finding work as a servant. She had met Hudson back in Nottingham, by chance house said, and the older woman had promised her work if she came south. However, once she arrived in the capital it quickly became apparent that she would working in a much less respectable industry than she had planned. Hudson installed her in a brothel and sent her out to walk the streets as a prostitute. Her pay was limited and Hudson extracted her rent, food and the cost of her clothes from any small amount she did earn. As a result Ann Prior was almost constantly in debt to the other woman.

This was deliberate of course; by taking control of her earnings and providing everything for her Hudson had trapped Ann in a cycle of dependency that required her to sell herself to keep up her payments. When she decided she couldn’t cope any longer and ran away, Hudson came after her. It was this that provoked the assault charge.

In July 1855 Hudson tracked Ann down to her digs at 40 Walton Street, near Knightsbridge*. The old woman demanded the immediate repayment of the debt she claimed Ann owed and when this was refused she became violent, hitting her and scratching the younger woman’s neck. In court Hudson claimed Ann had robbed her of some silver plate but could bring no evidence to prove this.

Her own defense lawyer tried to undermine Ann’s testimony but the magistrate was clearly on the side of the young girl. ‘She was anxious to reclaim herself’, he said admiringly, and abandon the wretched life she had been leading for two years’. Hudson had no right to any money as far as he could see and certainly no right to go to Prior’s lodgings and demand it with menaces.

He fined Hudson £5 and said if she failed to pay up he would send her to prison for months instead. Regardless he ordered her to find two sureties to the value of £20 each to keep the peace towards the complainant for a year. It was hefty sentence and reflected Mr Arnold’s clear contempt for the ‘wretched-looking old hag’ in the dock before him.

Did this prosecution allow Ann Prior to ‘reclaim her life’ and find respectability after two years of prostituting herself? The odds are against it of course, but with luck and if she had escaped disease or pregnancy, then maybe she might have found a pathway out of it. Let’s hope so at least.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 11, 1855]

* in 1975 the IRA bombed Walton’s Restaurant on this street, killing two people and injuring several others. The IRA unit were nicknamed the Balcombe Street Gang.

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

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