Scandal in fashionable Chelsea as three brothels are exposed

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In 1885 Parliament passed a Criminal Law Amendment Act. Its subheading explained its purpose: ‘An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. It raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and followed a campaign by Josephine Butler and others to change the law. The bill had become deadlocked in parliament as it was opposed by powerful elite interest who felt that they and their sons had a natural right to the bodies of young working class girls.

The act was finally passed after the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette William T Stead orchestrated a sensational news story involving the sale of a 13 years old girl into prostitution. Stead and his accomplices, Elizabeth Jarrett  and Bramwell Booth, were prosecuted and Stead and Jarrett went to gaol, but his goal was achieved and the act passed.

One of the terms of the act was to allow the use of summary proceedings for the prosecution of brothel owners. In December 1885 Ellen Randall (alias Johnson) a 34 year-old landlady was charged at Westminster Police court with renting two houses in Chelsea (at 5 and 7 Elm Park Road) ‘with the knowledge that they were used for immoral purposes’. She was fined £20.

On the same day Edwin Summerfield (59) and Ellen Dewhurst (alias Summerfield) were charged with keeping a disorderly house at number 12 Elm Park Road. Both cases drew ‘considerable interest’ from the public gallery as these addresses were not in the poorer districts (often associated with immorality and crime) but slap bang in the middle of ‘one of the best parts’. Mr Partridge fined Mr Summerfield £20.

The 1885 act was wide ranging and multi purposed. While it undoubtedly helped protect some vulnerable women and young girls it also criminalized homosexuality. Section 11 (known as Labouchere’s amendment) was vague and allowed for the prosecution of any men who engaged in any form of homosexual act. In 1895 it was used against Oscar Wilde who was accused and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sent to prison. It virtually destroyed Wilde, ruining his reputation and crippling him financially. The amendment wasn’t repealed until 1967.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 12, 1885]

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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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]

 

A sadly typical story of an ‘unfortunate’ girl in Victorian London

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The Victorians condemned prostitution. They saw it as a vice, a personal failure of character, and a step on the slippery slope to damnation. Yet prostitutes also occupied a special place in contemporary debates being both victims deserving of pity and agents of corruption at the same time.

In the nineteenth century the idea that there was a class of society that existed on the proceeds of crime (‘those that will not work’ as Henry Mayhew described them) gained credence. The so-called ‘criminal class’ identified by Mayhew and others conveniently allowed all the ills of the society to be lumped onto a section of the working class, and prostitutes were part of this ‘class’.

In the 1860s in the wake of the Crimean War (when more British soldiers succumbed to disease than to wounds inflicted by the enemy) there was a moral panic about the prevalence of sexually transmitted infection. This led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts which attempted to regulate prostitution and halt the spread of syphilis  and gonorrhoea. Working-class women were dragged off the street and forcibly examined for signs of disease, and then effectively imprisoned in ‘lock’ hospitals until they were ‘clean’. Men were not subjected to the same treatment but were encouraged to seek medical help. It was a classic Victorian ‘double standard’.

But the CDAs also provoked resistance by women and a campaign, led by Josephine Butler, eventually led to their repeal. Butler sought to understand the women that felt it was necessary to sell their bodies to survive and she brought some of them into her own home to ‘rescue’ them. These women were ‘unfortunate’ contemporary rhetoric said, they could be helped, and reclaimed from the awful class they had ‘fallen’ into.

Which brings me to the Police Courts and the magistrates that presided there. The capital’s police court magistracy probably saw more ‘unfortunates’ than anyone else (with the exception of the police). I’m not impugning their reputation, but one of the most common (if not the most common) charge heard in these summary courts was ‘drunk and disorderly’, and when this was applied to a woman it was likely she was a prostitute picked up on the street the night before by a beat constable.

Mary Anne Griffin was just such a girl. She probably attracted the attention of the papers because of her age – she was just 17 – and because she had a ‘genteel appearance’. Mary Anne had been found staggering along the Fulham Road by PC Stevens (266B) in a state of complete intoxication. As she approached the road the policeman saw her trip and fall down in a ‘fit’. He revived her with salt water and she promised to go home.

Half an hour later though he encountered her again and when he cautioned her for not doing as she was told she attacked him. Mary Ann ‘flew at him’, he explained to Mr Arnold at Westminster Police Court:

‘She made use of very disgusting language, and said she would tear his eyes out. She threw herself down on the ground, and  endeavoured to kick him, and in doing so, necessarily much exposed herself’.

PC Stevens got her back to the police station but it took three constables to bring her under control  and get her confined in a cell.

Mr Arnold turned to the girl and asked her what she had to say for herself.

‘I am very sorry’, she answered (with ‘her head down and […] in a very meek voice’) ‘I was so drunk I did not know what I did’.

The court gaoler said he had seen her before and that when she had been in the cells she was a quiet and ‘well conducted girl’. She was not like the ‘hardened girls of her class’ that usually came before him Mr Arnold agreed, and perhaps this was an opportunity for intervention (as a modern social worker or probation officer might term it). Sadly no. Mr Arnold completely misunderstood the reason why Mary Ann was drunk in the first place, which was to inure herself to the awful situation she found herself in. Alcohol acted as a sort of anaesthetic to the degradation she was subjected to on a daily basis.

What Mr Arnold should have done was to help Mary Ann find a path out of poverty and prostitution because, at 17 she was (as he noted) very far from being the  hardened criminal she would most likely become. If, that is, she lived that long. Many working girls died young, killed by disease, the brutality of men, or at their own hands.

What Mr Arnold did do of course, was to send her to the house of correction for 14 days; not for being a prostitute (that was not a crime) but for being drunk and resisting the policeman’s well-meant instruction to go home quietly. She probably didn’t have a ‘home’ as such, merely a bed in cheap lodgings which she may well not have had the money to pay for. That’s why she stayed out and ignored him in the first place.

[from The Standard , Monday, August 13, 1860]