Sunday, May 29, 2011

the mayhew files: prostitutes (part II)

Continuing from yesterday's post about prostitutes, we will now take a look at the establishments and people associated with Victorian prostitutes.
The first three types are similar in that they all ran businesses that profited from bringing men in to pay for rooms to use with prostitutes.

First up are the "bawds."  They were usually women, but were sometimes men, who ran brothels.  Bawds were a bad lot who controlled the prostitutes through a mix of intimidation, black mail, and brute force.  They seduced women into their service, either by drugging innocents that happened to fall into their hands or sending out men to find young women and encouraging them to come back to the house.  Some women were foreigners who were essentially tricked into traveling to England, or from England to elsewhere.  These were kidnapped, drugged, and raped while unconscious, and then given to a brothel, where the language barrier and their "fallen" status convinces many of these women that they do not have any way out of this lifestyle.  

The brothel was more of a prison for these women than an opportunity to ply their trade.  They were typically not allowed out of the house and, on the occasions that they were given a brief leave, were usually tailed by a "minder" of some sort.  Usually these minders were worn out old prostitutes who, for their bed and board, do menial work around the house and watched their young charges when they went out.

In other words, few came to the brothel of their own choosing.  Fewer left by it.

The "bawdry houses," or brothels, often functioned both as brothels proper and as houses of accommodation.  In other words, a man could either bring his own prostitute with him and only pay for the use of a room or simply go there and have his choice of the house’s women.

Another common trick of the time was to lend out nice dresses to prostitutes for some return on their wages.  These "dress-lodgers," as the prostitutes were called, lived in a house much like those in brothels.  The owner of the house would provide them with finer clothes than they themselves could afford.  The women would then go out, pick up men, and bring them back to the house where the men would pay for the use of the room.  Essentially the house took a cut of both the prostitutes' pay and money for the let of the room.  The prostitute benefited by being able to attract a higher quality of customer than she might have been able to if she were to work with her own clothes, which may have been of lower quality and not as likely to attract a man of means.

To make sure that the dress-lodger was not dodging out on some of the profit for the house by going to another house there was a dress-lodger follower.  Similar to the minders, those poor wretches who followed brothel-whores on their walks, this degraded person followed the dress-lodger to make sure she came back to the house and was actively engaged in her trade that night.  Presumably penalties followed for those that wore the clothes without bringing in the customers, or did not bring the customer back to the house.

Most of the followers, as well as the prostitutes themselves, were heavily addicted to alcohol.  According to Mayhew they spent any money they did have on gin and attempted to spend as much of their time as possible obliviously drunk.  In any case the followers had to keep a close eye on the girls lest they escaped and sold their clothing for market value or simply disappeared to earn a living for themselves.

The dress-lodgers were only slightly more free than the bawdry house prostitutes, being kept under close watch most of the time as well.  There were cases of the mistress of the house doing such things to them as shearing the hair from some of the girls and selling it.

The last form of this type of business was the accommodation house- a house that offerred short term (i.e. hourly) room rates.  In other words, your 19th century version of a sleazy motel.  While the official definition does not imply any hold over the working girls who frequented these places, the differences between these was probably more of a continuum than it was quantized.  (Note: No, I have no idea what Scott meant with that last sentence either).  In their purest form these houses made less money than the other establishments, but its costs were also lower as they did not have to feed and house any of the girls who brought men there.  Still profits could be enormous, some reporting that they made between 2 and 10 quid (pounds) a night- a large sum for the time period.  Rooms varied in price depending on size, level and so forth, but seemed to be as cheap as 18 pence for a short period to 3s 6d for the whole night.

Typically rooms on the first floor would be a couple of bob more than the upper level ones, the price decreasing as you went up.  (Note: Why?  Scott and I can't figure that one out).

After that subcategory of, more or less, brothel runners we have pimps, procuresses and panders.

Pimps, at least male ones, were apparently a very rare thing back in the Victorian period.  More often a procuress was used.  The way the procuress operated started with a wealthy customer.  The rich man would go to a “House of Inquiry” and, after some small talk with the procuress would get down to business and describe the type of woman he was looking for.  For a fee the procuress sent out a messenger to fetch the prostitute who most resembled the request.  These business were very lucrative and may or may not have been combined with an accommodation house. Often they were not as the women they could get were usually perceived as being of a higher class than other prostitutes. While waiting the man was treated to bottles of champagne that he paid for- another way the business made money.

The prostitutes hired out by procuresses usually had a better lifestyle than the brothel-owned slaves who were imprisoned in the other places.  For a half cut of their profit they worked with wealthy men who could afford higher rates and sometimes would even take the women “away from all of this,”  marrying her despite her torrid past.  Mayhew points out that such a decision was often to the man's regret, as the affliction of alcoholism didn’t just affect the lower class prostitutes.  One story in Mayhew's London relates the tale of one such man who, after one week of marriage, regretted his decision so much so that he placed an ad in a newspaper saying that he would not be responsible for any new debts incurred by his not-so-blushing new bride.

The women who ran these "escort" establishments were often ex-prostitutes who had somehow made enough money to open their own place.  They kept the establishment up and dressed well themselves, as appearances were everything to their higher-end clientele.

But keeping the house attractive to customers, however, could be a tricky business.  It seems that these places, much like clubs and bars in our current era, had a “coolness” life span.  One particularly attractive or impressive young lady contracted with a house may have been all that was needed to put one house on the top of the list.  But if she left, fell out of favour, or simply lost her looks that house could lose its reputation and fall further down the list.

Panders and pimps had a business strategy similar to procuresses, but without a house.  They had a stock of prostitutes that they could go to, or at least knew of.  For a small fee a man was taken to see prostitutes that may have been to his liking. 

The next category of those profiting from the Victorian sex industry were those who made their living from working for or with prostitutes or the houses of ill-repute that prostitutes used.

The first type of those who worked with prostitutes were known as "fancy-men." They were usually able to form a connection with a prostitute or two who were, for some reason, attached enough to these men to give them part of their income.  The fancy-men usually spent this money on gambling or alcohol.  Fancy-men were often thieves or some other type of criminal.  They would often work with prostitutes to pick pockets, roll drunks or carry out any of the other questionable activities that went on in the back streets of a Victorian city.                 

These men were called fancy-men because of how they dressed- usually in the latest fashions and styles and were up on the lingo used by the upper class men.  They dressed and spoke this way because their game was to try and fleece the upper class men in games of chance, although the fleecing usually involved little more than getting a free night of drinking out of them.

The way this worked was for the target to be with a prostitute at a gambling house or some other building of questionable purpose.  The fancy man would come up and talk to the prostitute as if he were an acquaintance of hers.  Thus, his appearance and manner would cause the customer the prostitute was with to presuppose that the fancy-man must be a gentleman. With this in mind the target often will begin talking to the fancy-man.

They might flip a coin for a bottle of champagne which will inevitably be the responsibility of the target to pay for as the coin is either double sided or uses a cover to cover one side.  After a while the fancy-man will lose one of the tosses, making the target even more convinced of the fancy-man's honesty.  Eventually they will retire to a room for supper and the gambling will continue.  As the target gets more and more inebriated the fancy-man is less challenged and the fleecing becomes all the easier.  The best part is that the target is convinced that he has not been fleeced but has made a new gambling buddy.

Bullies are the last class of this sort that Mayhew separates out.  As the name implies, these men are the hired muscle who work at bawdry houses.  When men try to escape without paying, or have not paid as much as the owner thinks they should have or are capable of paying, the bully or bullies come and take care of the problem.  Only the lower-class houses deal with this sort of thug, as the upper class ones have a clientele that would not stoop to being involved in skiving on their debt.

Bullies are mostly former criminals of some sort.  Sometimes they justgrew up in the brothels and never got away from them.  They are said to die of drink or disease in the gutter, although the more industrious may occasionally rise to ownership of their own brothel.
After listing these hangers-on Mayhew goes back to listing more categories of prostitutes- the "clandestine prostitutes," or women who are loose, whether married to someone or not, and women who occasionally engage in prostitution without it being their profession. He lists four classes of these but the first two are much different from the second.  Scott considers this whole category to actually be a catch-all for amateur prostitutes and people guilty of moral offenses that Mayhew finds deplorable.

The first two are, female operatives and maid servants.  Female operatives are women who sold their bodies on occasion to pick up extra money.  Sometimes this extra money was for survival, but was actually more frequently needed to pay for a more extravagant lifestyle than their normal income would allow.  One of these women, as an example, had a fiancĂ© but enjoyed fancier clothing than either his or her salary would allow.  She presumed that her man would not be bothered by her moonlighting. Others would go into the streets with the consent of their husbands to earn extra money, especially if they had an overabundance of children.

Maid servants on the other hand were not really to be pitied as the female operatives in some cases were, at least according to Mayhew.  They started life with little education and generally whored around with the other servants in the house or any one else who came their way.  Sometimes they did it for extra money but, more often than not, did it for fun and only charged nominal sums if anything.  Mayhew uses the strongest terms to condemn maid servants, saying that they generally have little in the way of character to lose.

The second set includes “ladies of intrigue”- women who set up meetings in assignation houses with unknown men to escape from the boredom of their marriages, and women who run the assignation houses where former women go.

One tale he relates is of a woman, who while quite happy with the lifestyle her husband was able to supply her with, was not all that happy with the husband himself.  So she heard about one of these assignation houses from a friend and took it upon herself to visit one.  She was shown into a room with such low lighting that when a gentleman was brought in she could not recognize his features.  They were introduced by the hostess, neither man nor woman using their real names.  When the man started to speak, however, the woman recognized his voice as that of her husband.  With both of them caught in the same crime they actually reconciled and managed to make the most of their marriage thereafter.

The last class of prostitute is the “co-habitant prostitute" - women living with men with whom they are not married.  There is some distinction between the groups and Mayhew allows some degree of understanding.  It is somewhat surprising that these women were classed as prostitutes but the men they were with were not.  Reasons for co-habitation included the following:

  • The couple does not make enough money to pay for a marriage license
  • One or both of them does not believe in the sanctity of the ceremony
  • The couple are related in such a way that it is forbidden for them to marry each other (which apparently included the dead wife’s sister in some cases)
  • One of the persons involved would forfeit inheritance or other money by marrying (which he says is the most numerous class - what kind of weirdo wills are people writing in the 1860s?)
  • The couple just do not want to get married


  1. It's perhaps worth mentioning in this context (since steampunk comes up here) that punk originally meant "prostitute".

  2. "While the official definition does not imply any hold over the working girls who frequented these places, the differences between these was probably more of a continuum than it was quantized"

    I'm fairly sure that he's referring to the fact that it was a kind of revolving door situation for women who needed a place to do business more than a number of different women going to the place and bringing in new people from day to day.