Monday, 23 January 2017

Prostitution in Victorian Times – The Plight of the Working Girl

Medway Slums, from Murders and Crime, Medway, with permission
In Victorian times, there was a vigorous upsurge in prostitution, in particular from Star Hill, Rochester to Sun Pier in Chatham. Trade around the River Medway and its dockyard brought many young soldiers and sailors as well as military and engineering workers. All were far from home and looking for sex and excitement. There were many slum areas, many transients employed on river work, and terrible poverty. At the height of its bawdiness in the mid-1800s, Chatham was a riot of soldiers, sailors and prostitutes high on booze and sex. The police, at this time, were inadequate to control the situation.

Pubs and brothels, seedy street bars and the backs of shops and alleyways provided venues for every kind of adventure. Apart from the regular prostitutes, there were poor, working-class women, eager and desperate enough to provide what men wanted. They had little choice. There were few jobs available for them in an area dominated by masculine pursuits of ship-building, engineering and other fields pertaining to Medway's military presence. They must work - or starve.

If anyone was arrested in the 1880s, it set off a chain reaction. "All it took to spark off a riot was for the police to arrest a drunk and take him up to New Road, where the police station was, and they would be followed by a stone-throwing mob, who would try to climb over the station walls," says Brian Joyce in The Chatham Scandal.

Government crackdown on brothels
The Tudor Rose pub at Upnor was once a brothel, serving soldiers from nearby Upnor Castle. The Castle, dates from 1559, and the pub is almost as old. It was formerly known as the King's Head. It's easy to imagine how pretty little Upnor village became a den of vice during Tudor and Victorian times with its close proximity to the Castle.

Eventually, the Government cracked down in an attempt to halt the spread of VD among servicemen. In 1869, the Contagious Diseases Act permitted the police to register working prostitutes, ensuring they had regular medical examinations. Those tested positive were detained in hospital for nine months. (It is reported that in 1864, Supt. Radley attempted to shut down several pubs, the Lord Nelson, the Bear and Staff, the Five Bells, the Flushing, the Homeward Bound, the Duke of Gloucester and the Maidstone Arms. The Magistrate disagreed, perhaps fearing a street riot.)

There were nine brothels in Chatham and around three hundred prostitutes in 1870, but eleven years later, the number had halved to 150 due to the Government crackdown.

A refuge for prostitutes
Eliza Hook was a trial to her mother, Frances. Shortly before Christmas in 1889, she abandoned her position as a maid and ran away. Later, she lived in Greenwich, and learned the laundry trade. During this time, she had a sexual relationship with a man who falsely offered to marry her. She ended up in a refuge for prostitutes in Chatham. Her mother always denied Eliza's profession, but poverty made prostitutes of many unfortunate, working-class women.

While at the Chatham House of Refuge, Frances visited Eliza only once, claiming her daughter seemed happy. The refuge, run by local clergy and businessmen, kept the girls and young women virtual prisoners. In principle, the women could discharge themselves at any time, but they had nowhere else to go. They had to attend church regularly and learn the laundry trade.

Poor Eliza paid dearly for her spirited unruliness with her own death. Before she died she put her mother right about the terrible treatment she had received at the hands of the matrons.
  • given only dry bread to eat.
  • shut up at weekends.
  • dipped in a cold water tub and made to work in a wet chemise.
  • held down in a tub for so long she thought she would drown.
  • threatened with beating if she complained to her mother or anyone else.
  • made to stand twelve hours a day in steaming heat, elbows deep in washing.
  • made to work barefoot.
  • beaten if she was too weak to do her work.
  • nicknamed "the long lamp post" by the other girls because of her scragginess.
The doctor who attended Eliza at the infirmary was shocked at her condition, caused by starvation and torture. One horrific manifestation of her neglect was a dead bone, sticking out from one of her toes and giving off a terrible stench. There were ulcers on her ankle and a painful swelling on her hip. Her hair was rife with vermin and she weighed just 5 stones, less than most eight-year-old children of the time.

The postmortem reported death from pneumonia. The matron, Jane Davey, denied all charges, saying the other girls never complained. Her assistant, Eliza Brown, denied ducking and almost drowning.
The jury decided the matrons had been careless, but this carelessness was not sufficient to embark on criminal proceedings. The matrons escaped with a caution. The people of Chatham were furious and mobbed the women's coach as they left court, throwing stones and rubbish. These two matrons needed police protection from the crowds, even when they were back inside the refuge.

Murder & Crime, Medway, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008.
The Chatham Scandal, Brian Joyce, 2009.

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