Monday, November 13, 2017

Henry Mayhew and the London Poor: The Streetwalker's Tale

by Mark Patton

In earlier blog-posts on this site, I explored the arrival of strangers in Nineteenth Century London, and the interviews conducted by the campaigning journalist, Henry Mayhew, with some of those new arrivals who found themselves precariously self-employed, as street sellers, whether of ham sandwiches, combs or apples, in the City or the West End. These men and women, many of them disabled, were rarely more than a few days of sickness away from destitution, and were frequently subject to abuse, but there were even worse positions to be in. Young women, in particular, were often lured or tricked into prostitution, and, in many cases, found themselves in a position of effective slavery.

An encounter between prostitutes and a potential client (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Haymarket, Midnight" (image is in the Public Domain).

Mayhew's collaborator, the lawyer, Bracebridge Hemyng, spoke to a number of these women, presumably gaining access to them by posing as a client (Mayhew was too well known to attempt this himself). One of these had recently arrived from Lyme Regis, in Dorset, and had been lodging with an aunt, whilst seeking a "position." She was groomed by a "gentleman," and persuaded to accompany him to a house: from the description she gave, this was clearly a brothel, but the naive country girl did not recognise it as such when first taken there.

"We found the door half open when we arrived. 'How careless,' said my friend, 'to leave the street-door open, anyone might get in.' We entered without knocking, and seeing a door in the passage standing ajar we went in. My friend shook hands with an old lady who was talking to several girls dispersed across the room, who, she said, were her daughters. At this announcement some of them laughed, when she got very angry and ordered them out of the room. Somehow I didn't like the place, and not feeling alright asked to be put in a cab and sent home."

Kate Hamilton's "Night House" (image is in the Public Domain).

Her "friend" agreed to this, and offered her a drink whilst she waited for the cab. She refused wine, but accepted a coffee, which, predictably enough (to us), was drugged. As she slept, the man raped her. He subsequently kept her as his mistress for a few months, but then abandoned her, leaving her with no alternative to prostitution. She would have had no protection from violent clients. Pregnancies were more or less inevitable, and would have forced her into painful and dangerous back-street abortions. Ultimately, a sexually transmitted disease was likely to end both her career and her life.

"Mornington Crescent Nude," by Walter Sickert, 1907 (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Iron Bed," by Walter Sickert, 1905 (image is in the Public Domain).

Certain streets in the West End became known for prostitution (the City authorities did not tolerate it within the "Square Mile"). John Gay wrote, in 1721:

"O! May thy virtue guard thee through the roads Of Drury's mazy courts, and dark abodes!The harlot's guileful paths, who nightly stand Where Catherine Street descends into the Strand!"

The Cock and Magpie, Drury Lane, at the heart of Victorian London's sex trade (image is in the Public Domain).

Feathers Court, Drury Lane - the figure in the arch is probably a prostitute (image is in the Public Domain).

One hundred and eighty years after John Gay penned his comments, the late Victorian social reformer, Charles Booth (whose research, in a sense, picks up where Henry Mayhew's earlier work had left off), noted that prostitution was continuing in the same streets and alleys.

Charles Booth's (1889-1903) "Poverty Map," showing Feathers Court, Catherine Street, and the Strand (image is in the Public Domain).

The colour-coding of Booth's "Poverty Maps" - prostitutes would have lived in the "very poor" or "lowest class" dwellings, their clients in the "fairly comfortable" or "middle class housing (image is in the Public Domain).

"I don't leave off this sort of life," Hemyng's informant from Dorset explained, "because I'm in a manner used to it, and what could I do if I did? I've no character; I've never been used to do anything, and I don't see what employment I stand a chance of getting ... I get enough money to keep me in victuals and drink, and it's the drink, mainly, that keeps me going. You've no idea how I look forward to my drop of gin ... I don't suppose I'll live much longer, and that's another thing that pleases me. I don't want to live and yet I don't care enough about dying to make away with myself. I arn't got that amount of feeling that some has, and that's where it is I'm kinder 'fraid of it." 

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at He is a published author of historical fiction and nonfiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Are you aware that several studies by reputable detectives have identified the painter of your illustrations, Walter Sickert, as Jack the Ripper?


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