Saturday, May 28, 2011

the mayhew files: prostitutes (part I)

Since there hasn't been a post about Mayhew's London for nearly one month, I thought it was about time I added one. This week's information is about the prostitutes of London.  Yes, Mayhew did extensive research into this class of lower class workers to divulge the details of their lives to the average reader.

Read on the find out more.

image source: Stephanie Abbott's Blog
According to Mayhew there were three classes of prostitutes, with the third class being divided into two subclasses.

The first class was the high class kept women.  These women were usually put up in very respectable accommodations and could expect as much as 30 quid (30 pounds) a week from their paramours.  Often they would only be attached to one man at a time. While known in society for what they were they did attend society functions and had boxes at the opera and so forth, although they were shunned. These women danced with the upper crust of society and only the wealthiest of men could afford their affection. They were not necessarily well educated, but could be.  Mayhew says these women started out in the middle classes and, for whatever reason, fell into this lifestyle.  

While these women were generally found moving around in higher circles they occasionally would visit the Haymarket and were treated like royalty there (Note: During the mid-19th century the Haymarket was considered a seedy part of London, frequented by gamblers, drunks, ruffians, blackguards, and prostitutes and those looking for their services.)

The second class was a higher level type of street walker.  They usually had either their own apartment or shared an apartment with another prostitute of their level.  They frequented the Haymarket but were less transient than the lower class prostitutes.  While their fees were higher, the customer were less likely to be robbed of his belongings while “visiting” with them.  It seems that many of their Johns were repeat customers who visited at least weekly. When in this position they were well known in their area, making any dodgy dealing unprofitable at best.

These women were often from the lower classes and were often “either well-educated or genteel.”  Mayhew alleges that these girls often had jobs at one point but were seduced by men, fought with their families or just turned to a life of debauchery.

Generally well dressed when working, they seemed to live a life of feast or famine, often having to pawn their clothing to get the money that was not coming in from their customers.  They occasionally met men on their perambulation through the Haymarket and like areas, but were more inclined to meet them at high end coffee and tea shops.  While they had apartments they were more likely to take their customers to mid-end lodging houses. 

The third class of prostitute was the lowest of the three larger classes and encompassed all of the basic streetwalkers.  Not all of these women were full-time professionals and often were wives or waitresses who were trying to make some extra money for themselves or their families, often with the gleeful consent or even encouragement of their husbands.  There were two subgroups of this category, mostly divided by age.  There were the younger prostitutes trying to make extra cash, and the old, worn-out prostitutes trying to survive.

Sometimes the professionals had a pimp, or bully, who engaged in all manner of scams with them.  While the prostitute was doing the deed with a customer the bully would often rifle through the customer's clothing and steal anything valuable.  Another trick was to demand more money than the general half-guinea or guinea and, when refused, to call for the bully to toss the customer out without either service or funds.                                

The professionals were women of the street and had their fair share of extracurricular experience as well.  Many of them were accomplished pickpockets or teamed with 14-18 year-old boys who were pickpockets themselves. 

Often when these women were rooming in a place they would dodge out on the rent.  Known as “bunters” some of these women had spent years fleeing from one residence to another just before rent was due.  Consequently the owners of these lodging houses have jacked up the cost of rent in these places to almost extortionate levels to compensate for the income lost to the bunters.

While not dressed so nicely as some of the higher class hookers, some of these "ladybirds" were quite attractive.  They start out young, often as young as 13.  While some escaped the racket others wound up as the 2nd subclass in this category, the old, worn-out women of the life. 

These women moved to the dirty cesspools of the dirty cesspool that is the Haymarket area.  Largely destitute, they did what they could to get by.  They serviced, often for only a couple of pennies, young boys and others too poor to pay for the more highly demanded women.  They were often thieves as well.  One trick they used was to hang around other prostitutes who would pay them to leave so that their generally disagreeable appearance didn’t frighten away other customers. 

The worst of them apparently removed themselves to parks and other dark places where their appearance was not as much a hindrance to business.  These women would perform any sort of degraded act for money.  The parks, after dark, became a haven for all manner of pervert and perverted acts, although what these acts were is not mentioned by Mayhew.     

After dividing the prostitutes into three categories Mayhew then introduces a fourth.  This new group consisted of the women who work at brothels.  These women probably fit more into a "sex slave" description, as they were essentially kept as prisoners in these dens of debauchery.  The customers came to the house, which moved from time to time, and paid the mistress for the services of her girls.  The harlots themselves received little of the money they earned.  They were not allowed to leave the brothel except to go on short walks.  They were always watched on these walks as it was assumed by their keepers that they were always on the lookout for any chance to run away. 

Another category of prostitute in the ever-increasingly inaccurately labeled "three classes of prostitutes" involves those women who followed military personnel around.  These are the sailors' wives and soldiers' girls.

The sailors' "wives" were women who took up with sailors while they were in port.  The sailors typically gave them all of their money.  The woman would usually stay loyal to the sailor while he was in port, doling out his money to him so that he did not spend it all at one time.  She probably helped herself to some of the cash as well.  These women would often have many sailors attached to them in this state.  Since sailors could be away from a port for years at a time, while the sailors were away the women would, more often than not, take on another man.  The women were not all of a bad sort and typically were quite attentive to their men’s needs.  They were almost exactly like wives, only swapping up husbands.

Many of them did it for the companionship as much as for the money.  The money was not great but could be very steady at times.  There was a danger of these women becoming destitute if conditions interrupted the flow of sailors into port.  Not all of these sailors were military personnel-- many were merchant ship crew.  When the economy was bad and products were not flowing out of the ports these women would fall upon hard times.

The soldiers' girls were a different story all together.  These would become attached to a unit in the military, initially by becoming intimate with one of the soldiers and then being “swapped” around the barracks as the soldiers became tired of her.  These women seemed to be more into the lifestyle because they liked soldiers than for the money as soldiers very rarely had any money.  One personal account in Mayhew's London talks about one of the women being offered to be taken out of the lifestyle by an officer who took a fancy to her.  He was turned down by the lady, however, because she “liked her sodgers.”

These women would often make more money doing laundry for the other soldiers and other menial tasks around the barracks. Often they would follow one regiment around for years while it was stationed at home.  If the women were still young and attractive enough when their regiment was sent away from home, they would attach themselves to another regiment and continue the lifestyle.

Other women were prostitutes for the soldiers only when they were in town.  These women were often essentially walking syphilis vectors as the soldiers could spend so little money the women, to make a decent wage, would have to take on three or more of them in a single night. Mayhew seems to think they are of more danger to the welfare of Her Majesty's soldiers than the combined guns of all Her Majesty's enemies. The author essentially paints them each as patient zero for the worst VD scourge to hit the Army since the Conquest.

(Note:  This post is getting too long for the average blog reader.  Not that I doubt any of my readers' abilities to read long blog posts.  As a journalist, however, I do know the dangers of boring readers with long articles.  Tomorrow I'll continue Scott's notes on Victorian prostitutes, which with include those who benefit from the trade other than the ladies-of-the-night, and some interesting anecdotes of 19th century sexcapades.)

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