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An Age of Innocence? - Prostitution in Victorian London

by David Rutherford

Perhaps the closest we come to stumbling across the oldest profession in the world, particularly those who live in London, is on those rare occasions when we have to use a public phone. Here one is confronted by a plethora of calling cards offering massage's and other services' crying out, " Busty blond 38DD ", " Asian Stunner " or simply " New girl in Town ", all with mobile numbers, writ large below. The phone companies try their best to keep the boxes clean, but as quick as they tear these cards down, another set reappears.

However, if you thought that London's hookers have never been so high profile, you would be wrong in your assumption. No, the period which could be best described as the golden years for prostitution in London, was in fact the 'mid' 1700's through to the late 1800's.

Could you imagine even in our enlightened times, the outrage that a publication would be greeted with, which listed where London's 'Ladies of the night', plied their trade. Not only that, but also one that gave quite explicit details as to the services on offer, the fees involved, a brief description of their physical attributes and their bedside manner to boot. Well in the 'mid' 1700's a publication aimed at the wealthier members of society entitled,' Harris's Guide to Covent Garden Ladies ' did precisely that.

Here follows an extract from the 1788 edition.

"Miss B. Number 18 Old Compton Street, Soho.
This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianoforte, sings, dances, and is the mistress of every manoeuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance, which ever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds".

I don't know about you, but my history books at school, must have undergone somewhat of a Stalinist style re-write, because I recall no mention of such goings on in any of the texts we were set or during any of my lectures covering this period. It's hard to believe but according to BBC 2's excellent, 'One foot in the past ' series, there were over 20,000 prostitutes plying their trade in London during the late Georgian / early Victorian period. Only the range of person providing these services, from common streetwalkers to noted actresses of the day equalled the range of services on offer. Allegedly such was the acceptance of prostitution in London at the time, that even ladies of high birth dabbled in the art, in some quarters it was even viewed as a pathway into society, no grubby flats and seedy pimps for these ladies.

Prostitution in London was no flash in the pan thing either. On Tuesday 09th May, the Channel 4 television series 'Secret History ' picked up the baton and aired, "Walter, portrait of a Victorian pornographer". In which, Walter - we will never be sure of his true identity, but suspicious fingers point in the direction of Henry Spencer Ashbee, author of ' My secret life' - documented over a thousand encounters he had with prostitutes of the time. His tales were privately printed in Amsterdam and allegedly, copies of his book even made their way into the hands of certain members of the royal family. Although his work was deemed pornographic by the high court in 1969, the British museum successfully appealed against the books destruction order and has an original copy of this now highly regarded, if somewhat depraved insight into Victorian life, available to them. Note: Steven Marcus, in his bookThe Other Victorians (New York, 1964) pretty much disproves that Ashbee wrote My Secret Life but that does not invalidate its contents in anyway - whoever wrote them reflected the times they lived in and provide a useful insight into our past sexual history.)

The reason for the book being labeled as pornographic, lies not so much in the graphic language it uses, but in its explicit detailing of the sexual acts, that he performed with children. The age of consent at the time of writing, which was around the 1860-80's, was an astonishingly low 13, however Walter on occasions liked them a lot younger. Girls as young as twelve were working in the West End brothels, indeed in some brothels all the prostitutes were children

Children, especially those from poor families were viewed as economic commodities. As we are all too well aware and it's well documented, many minors were forced to work in factories and mills out of necessity, to bring much needed income into the home. However, the general public is probably largely ignorant that sadly for many children their families effectively acted as their pimp. A 'Gentleman', and I use the word in its loosest context, would pay handsomely for a child's services.

Virgins were especially prized and a highly marketable commodity, fetching anywhere between £5.00 and £ 25.00, a large amount of money - in 1880 the average wage for a skilled worker was £62.00 per year. Deflowering, as the custom was quaintly known - perhaps a less pleasant but more accurate description of this practice, is provided by alternatives offered in my thesaurus, such as despoil, ravish, defile, rape, violate and molest - was desirous for two reasons. The first and most obvious, was to fulfill a sexual fantasy, the second reason was rather more practical, health. Catching a sexually transmitted disease was a common fear.

It's hard to believe that at the centre of the ' British Empire' and in the allegedly puritanical Victorian period, such depravity was not uncommon. What disturbed me further was my total ignorance of this piece of history. It led me on to a question that I am still working through, and the one that I will pose to you now.

What is more worrying, the fact that these events occurred and were out in the open - to such an extent that books like the ones mentioned even existed or the fact that so much of this history, our history, has been swept under the mat, for so long?

Is history in the process of once again repeating itself? The calling cards I mentioned at the beginning of this piece are now so prevalent, that apparently inner-city children swap them as eagerly as Pokemon cards. Furthermore, only last week, it was mooted that the law governing television advertising, should be relaxed to enable 'escort services' to be advertised on late night television. Now I am not a moral crusader, but it strikes me that prostitution is definitely climbing out of the shadows once again. That said, I am not in the slightest offended if Mr. X wants to avail himself of the services made available by Miss. Y, if both are consenting adults. However, by opening the door of acceptability to this 'profession', don't we also allow the more bizarre habits, to seem that bit closer to acceptability as well?

How and who is going to adjudicate, what is an acceptable adult service. The law decrees that the legal age for heterosexual sex is 16. But what if like ' Walter', you have a penchant for something a bit younger, where would you turn? Perhaps like Walter, you might turn to the brothel you frequent, to see if something a little more exotic can be arranged. If Walter were alive now, perhaps he would dial an escort service?

Update: Current Escort 'Services' in London costs
In call 1 hour £300
In call 1 hour 30 minutes£350
Out call 1 hour £350
Out call 1 hour 30 minutes £400
Dinner 8pm - 12am approx £800
Overnight 8pm - 8am £1500 see details below


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