Today’s popular assumptions about late-Victorian and early-Edwardian streetwalkers are often rooted in the responses to prostitution during our chosen era. This includes the belief many streetwalkers were innocents forced into selling their bodies by uncaring madams or pimps. Others were thought to have been girls and women deserted by lovers or husbands and subsequently disowned by their families. With no support available, these ‘unfortunates’ were to be pitied and assisted. Meanwhile, prostitutes addicted to alcohol, or who had willingly chosen prostitution instead of regular work, engendered far less sympathy. This division of prostitutes into victims or perpetrators is neat but impractical, something most late-Victorians and early-Edwardians were aware of.
Fortunately for us, there is a broad historiography available with regards to streetwalkers and Judith Walkowitz’s work is of particular importance for us. She rejects the stereotype of prostitutes as perpetual victims, while also making a careful study of a sizeable late late-Victorian questionnaire of 16,000 prostitutes who went through London’s Millbank Penitentiary in the late 1880s. White uses the same questionnaire, which gives a greater statistical understanding of low-income prostitutes. For example, the data reveals that nine-in-ten prostitutes were daughters of unskilled or semi-skilled working men. Half of the women had been servants, while the rest ‘had worked in equally dead-end jobs, such as laundering, charring and street selling’.73
Many of the prostitutes questioned had lost one or both parents early in their lives74 and most entered prostitution around the age of 16.75 According to Walkowitz’s analysis, a prostitute’s ‘career’ was usually short,76 while child prostitution not common in the way William Thomas Stead, the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, claimed at the start of our chosen era.* Walkowitz writes: ‘[The prostitute was] not the innocent victim of middle-class seduction and betrayal; nor was she the mere child drugged and entrapped into prostitution by white slavers’.77 She adds: ‘metropolitan and provincial police reported the virtual absence of known prostitutes under sixteen.’78 Pearsall and White disagree, arguing child prostitution – while certainly not on the scale Stead envisaged – was certainly an issue during our chosen era. For example, Pearsall cites a number of extremely unsettling cases and incidents in Birmingham during the 1890s.79
*Stead famously ‘purchased’ a young girl and then wrote a series of articles in 1885 under the banner The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Rather than letting the facts get in the way of a good story,80 Stead reflected societal fears concerning the vile abuse of children back to his readership. While it is useful to be aware of this topic, the sensationalist approach tells us very little about the actualities of Twilight City prostitution.
Walkowitz also argues the ‘entry into prostitution seems to have been voluntary and gradual.’81 So if prostitutes were not cajoled, why was streetwalking preferable to a regular job? The desire to leave grim working-class districts behind and secure wealthier lifestyles is often cited. For example, White notes: ‘Prostitution could provide pretty girls with the quickest possible exit from slums like Seven Dials throughout the century.’82 Others aimed higher, wanting to enter the heart of the Bright Light City and enjoy the best things in life. Prostitution made this possible if the woman involved had the necessary beauty and business acumen. Those who became courtesans and lovers to the wealthiest men had lives of luxury undreamt of in most working-class districts and, in some rare cases, even formed relationships with members of society’s highest echelons, including royalty.
William Booth highlighted prostitution as a means to make money and escape poverty. ‘Terrible as the fact is,’ he wrote, ‘there is no doubt it is a fact that there is no industrial career in which for a short time a beautiful girl can make as much money with as little trouble as the professional courtesan.’83 There were health considerations too: many manufacturing jobs in our chosen era led to early and miserable deaths, particularly for those working in factories that used toxic materials or heavy metals.84 Other prostitutes were older women who supplemented their meagre incomes with irregular acts of streetwalking. According to Chesney, they were ‘whores of the last resort, and ready to escape back to another life as soon as they could.’85
The more professional and streetwise prostitutes, Walkowitz asserts, created support networks among themselves. They frequently worked in pairs, she writes, ‘to protect themselves from abusive men and to overpower and rob tipsy customers.’86 White concurs, noting: ‘Some prostitutes lured their clients in to be robbed by their bully [pimp or boyfriend, or both]. Often this could occur in a hotel room after the man had fallen asleep. On the streets, a prostitute could take the client into a dark alley where her bully would mug him or, if he put up a fight, beat him to a pulp and then steal any valuables.’87
Chesney rejects this argument, noting robbery by prostitutes and their bullies was a rare occurrence. To become known as a thief damaged a prostitute’s standing, he argued, adding that a good reputation was vital for success. ‘Her whole manner of working, the way she frequented places where her reputation became known, and also her relations with the police, made it against her interests to rob or attack her customers,’ he wrote. ‘It was almost always the desperate or incompetent whore who looked to theft.’88
Walkowitz’s model comprises other possible blind spots. First and foremost, she argues streetwalkers experienced levels of independence unavailable to most other working-class women. ‘Seasoned prostitutes,’ she writes, ‘were capable of independent and assertive behaviour rarely found among women of their own social class.’89 This rather rose-tinted view obviates the wealth of information detailing hard lives and the struggle to survive, as we shall see below. Secondly, the streetwalkers within Walkowitz’s model appear defined almost solely by transactions for sex or male efforts to control and coerce to them. She overlooks the close and important platonic ties with male friends who also offered support. Chesney touches on this: ‘It was not just sexual desire that made it enjoyable to share the society of attractive women with whom one could lounge and smoke and joke without constraint.’90 In addition, many prostitutes were able to build meaningful relationships with long-term partners and, with these men, strive to improve their lives together.
Behind bright lights
Most streetwalkers plied their trade on the major thoroughfares, outside shops and public houses. The sexual act itself was usually undertaken in darkened streets, for the purpose of privacy and to avoid detection. Only the most savvy and beautiful streetwalkers could secure regular custom in the centre of the Bright Light City. Having found a client, a higher-end prostitute might even go back to a ‘hotel’, which was usually a thinly-disguised brothel. Other women – those near the pinnacle of the sex industry – were able to attend theatres, music halls and night clubs, seeking out prospective trade or meeting favoured clients. And many would supplement their income with the expectation of expensive gifts, such as jewellery.
Those navigating the side-lines of the Bright Light City mostly sought the custom of men leaving theatres or music halls. Hope Constaple recalled one streetwalker’s predicament around the time the theatres were emptying. Walking along the Strand, he spotted a woman being led away by two policemen. She was ‘one of those beautiful parasites.’91 He then noted: ‘Two or three “swells” with large shirt fronts, opera cloaks, and gleaming silk hats, pass heartless remarks on the woman’s awful condition.’92 Overall, the scene was ‘enough to make a man weep his heart out’.93
Others were less empathetic towards these so-called ‘beautiful parasites’. The novel A Dark Deed is written in the vein of literary realism, albeit with moments of hyperbole. Its protagonist arrives in Piccadilly on the path to hunt down his fallen sister’s seducer. Here he witnesses ‘a number of women, there could not have been less than thirty, [attempt to seize] every man who passed along that quarter, and made overtures that sickened him to hear. A torrent of abuse was showered at any man who expressed feelings of detestation at their abominable solicitations.’94
With an eye for detail, Machray offers a more mundane account of the prostitutes in Piccadilly Circus, calling them ‘pavement ladies’ and ‘daughters of the Circus.’ He notes how policemen were familiar with many of the women and were almost friendly towards them. According to Machray, a policeman was more likely to view West End streetwalker as a sad interloper from the Twilight City rather than a degenerate harpy. ‘The London police are not bad men, and in their hearts is a good deal of pity and sympathy too for these poor creatures of the Half-World,’ he wrote.95 By comparison, Jack London bawdily observed ‘[Piccadilly Circus’] pavements were brightened by well-dressed women without escort, and there was more life and action there than elsewhere, due to the process of finding an escort. But by three o’clock the last of them vanished, and it was then very lonely indeed’.96
Further down the hierarchy were prostitutes who frequented public houses. According to Walkowitz, these streetwalkers ‘had regular customers at pubs’.97 But Mark Girouard opposes this, noting publicans were wary of the police and the threat of legal action if prostitutes were caught soliciting on their premises. ‘The law was fairly strictly enforced and tarts were not encouraged by the publicans,’ he wrote.98 Metropolitan Police files add weight to this argument; for example, Mepo 2/384 outlines the successful prosecution of the Wayland Tavern/Wayland Hotel’s publican in 1895 for allowing prostitutes on his premises. He was fined £10 and ordered to pay £5 5s in costs. More importantly, his licence to sell intoxicating spirits was revoked when it came up for renewal in 1896.99
Responding to vice
Despite sympathy for streetwalkers in many quarters, most mainstream late-Victorian and early-Edwardian commentators vehemently opposed the act of prostitution. For many, it represented the Twilight City at its worst, with some commentators associating streetwalkers with disease, contagion, filth and degeneracy. However, some of the most strident condemnation came from those with little knowledge of prostitution, or those who had ulterior motives, particularly journalists writing salacious copy and/or tapping into societal fears about streetwalkers. For example, only a few weeks before the savage butchery of Mary Jane Kelly, a Daily News correspondent told his readers that Whitechapel prostitutes were ‘bloated by drink and distorted by passion’.100
Jack London framed prostitution as another example of unfettered capitalism’s degenerative effect on the urban working classes and he divided prostitutes into two camps. On one side were young women plummeting to the bottom of the ‘Abyss’, on the other was the ‘finished product’, depicted by him as alcohol-abusing, disease-ridden hags. Walking through Whitechapel, many women ‘begged me for pennies, and worse. They held carouse in every boozing den, slatternly, unkempt, bleary-eyed, and tousled, leering and gibbering, overspilling with foulness and corruption’.101 They were, he adds, ‘blasted by disease and drink till their shame brought not tuppence in the open mart’.102 There were also ‘young girls, of eighteen and twenty, with trim bodies and faces yet untouched with twist and bloat’.103
Setting aside Jack London’s socialist agenda, alcoholism did indeed wreck the lives and health of many streetwalkers. For example, the victims of the Whitechapel murders all suffered problems stemming from alcohol abuse, albeit to varying degrees. Less burdened by emotive language, feigned outrage or journalistic licence are Metropolitan Police reports concerned with prostitution. Of particular interest for our purposes is a file relating to police surveillance of prostitution in and around the Euston and St. Pancras areas of London during our chosen era. It contains joint letters of complaint about streetwalkers to the police by Mr. Stocken, a dentist at 21 Endersleigh Gardens, and Mr. Elton, a chemist at 28 Endersleigh Gardens.
Elton’s first letter to the police was dated 22 February 1892. ‘It is a very common occurrence for my doorstep to be used by these women for disgusting purposes, and the language used by them is simply disgusting,’ he wrote.104 Mr. Stocken’s letter, also dated 22 February 1892, states the hours between 10 pm and 12 am were favoured by streetwalkers and their clients. ‘It is not fit for a respectable female to walk about and any young man cannot do so without molestation,’ he wrote. ‘The language is filthy [and] door steps are made urinals of.’105 The police interviewed Elton four days later and he went into greater detail, outlining many of the grim actualities of sex for sale, something many historians often fail to highlight. For example, the police noted: ‘Men can often be seen having sexual intercourse with them against the railings of the gardens opposite to his house.’106
Police officers concluded much of the trouble at Endersleigh Gardens stemmed from new electric lighting in and around St. Pancras. The brighter glare made streetwalkers uncomfortable, so they shifted their attention to finding clients on Gower Street up to the Euston Road and including Endersleigh Gardens. The police also noted the local vestry had compounded matters by ‘extinguishing certain public [street] lamps’.107. The police asked the vestry to reinstate the lighting and officers returned to interview Mr. Elton in early April 1892. He informed them the situation had changed dramatically after the installation of a new lamp directly opposite his shop, the police noting it ‘has been a great assistance in putting a stop to this nuisance’.108
Strength in adversity
As we have already seen, London’s parks were a contested space between the mainstream and vagrants. There was also opposition to the presence of streetwalkers in parks. Letters of complaint often stung the police into reappraising their efforts at surveillance and interdiction, although it was noted few streetwalkers were ever charged with soliciting or indecency. For example, a report dated 18 July 1892 noted: ‘A number of prostitutes have been charged with various offences such as drunkenness, disorderly conduct and obscene language, but none have been charged with soliciting prostitution.’109
There was another difficulty. Unlike vagrants, who were easier to spot, the police found it hard to distinguish respectable women from streetwalkers. A report dated 27 August 1894 commented: ‘A number of females are to be seen nightly patrolling about Hyde Park. Some are prostitutes, but many are of a respectable class, servants etc.’110 One way of stopping the problem was to clamp down on the clients, particularly soldiers, and the police requested help from army officers to stop their men from seeking out streetwalkers in the parks. The colonel of the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards informed police on 28 August 1903 that he was willing to help ‘as much as possible in suppressing cases of unnatural indecency.’111
We should note there were numerous occasions when the proverbial shoe was on the other foot – when those associated with the Twilight City, including streetwalkers, thwarted mainstream incursions into urban spaces they believed to be theirs. For example, Pick-me-up on 17 August 1889 noticed two Salvation Army girls had ventured into the streets ‘where “fast” men and women do congregate.’ They had been sent ‘with guitars to rescue victims of Circe. They were told to go home; Circe’s lady disciples and “worshippers of Venus” called them fools, and a mob followed them about and jeered at them.’112
The Salvation Army often worked closely with streetwalkers and William Booth cites a number of interesting case studies that, while only reflective of a few prostitutes, offer a useful counterpoint to the raw statistics of a questionnaire. P S was a 20-year-old woman, born illegitimate, who had seen a doctor who ‘took advantage of his patient’. He gave her £4 in ‘compensation’ but the subsequent damage to her reputation and lack of parental support forced her into prostitution. E A, 17, had been adopted by her godparents and then abused by her godfather at the age of 10. This event had apparently set her on the course of prostitution. Meanwhile, E had been married to a soldier and had a child by him. However, her husband was a bigamist and he promptly left her of being found out. E was forced to take shelter in the workhouse, her quality of life worsening until she was left on the verge of starvation. She became a prostitute as a result.113
Of course, Booth was unlikely to highlight women who had become streetwalkers to secure an easier life – few of his readers would have thought them deserving of charity and fewer would have sent donations to the Salvation Army as a result. However, we should not reject these case studies out of hand because of Booth’s motives; they clearly show abuse and gross neglect was a pathway to downfall and many became prostitutes because of this.
Three of many
Another important resource concerning the lives of streetwalkers – but one often set aside by historians – are the lives of the Whitechapel murder victims, all of whom engaged in prostitution to varying degrees. Due to the nature of their deaths, the judiciary, the police and the press carefully noted and recorded their backgrounds, as well as the opinions of relatives or those who knew the women. This offers us a unique window into the world of the streetwalker early in our period. However, it is beyond the remit of this dissertation to analyse the grisly details of the murders, or to dwell on the press and public’s reaction to them. In addition, space restricts us from looking at the lives of all the victims, so we will explore the backgrounds of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly. We will consider the extent their experiences tally with models of prostitution constructed by Walkowitz and other historians.
The first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was also known as Polly. She was at her lodging house of 18 Thrawl Street in the early hours of 31 August 1888. It was located on in the notorious Flower and Dean Street rookery, one of London’s most miserable spots. Asked by the deputy house keeper if she had 4d owing for her lodgings that night, Nichols confidently declared: ‘I’ll soon get my doss money.’ She then proudly pointed to a recently-purchased but second-hand ‘jolly bonnet’ as evidence of her ability to earn good money.114 Nichols ventured into the Twilight City to ply her trade as she had done countless times. But she found it hard to save her earnings when craving alcohol; Nichols was last seen alive at 2.30 am ‘in a state of drunkenness’ walking towards Buck’s Row where she met her grisly end. 115
Aged 44 when murdered, Nichols’ slide into streetwalking and poverty was due to several factors. The daughter of a locksmith, she married a printer named William Nichols in January 1864. The couple had five children but the marriage was unsuccessful and marked by a number of separations over the years. The final parting came in 1880. Begg writes: ‘William Nichols claimed their separation had been caused by Mary Ann’s heavy drinking, but her father, whilst acknowledging that she drunk heavily, alleged that William Nichols had taken up with a women who had nursed Mary Ann [when she was pregnant in 1876].’116 William countered she had been the one to leave him.
Whatever the cause for their final break up, William Nichols paid his estranged wife a small stipend of 5s a month.117 He cancelled these payments in 1882 after discovering she was living with another man, while she had a blazing row with her father in 1883 as he opposed her lifestyle. The years of near-destitution and frequent visits to various workhouses had begun for Polly, although her luck seemed to have finally turned a few years later after securing a job as a domestic servant in Wandsworth. Indeed, she was excited enough to write to her father about the job, noting she was often left in charge when the couple she worked for were away. Unfortunately, Nichols could not resist the temptation to steal and, two months after her letter, took clothing worth £3 10s and fled back into the Twilight City.118 She ended up in the East End, streetwalking for drink, food and a space in the lodging houses.
At first glance, Nichols’ life after her failed marriage and until her murder appears to be one of drunkenness, vagrancy, petty theft and opportunities wasted. Jack London might have placed her at the bottom of the Abyss. Charles Booth might have recorded her as another statistic. But despite her numerous foibles and miseries, it became apparent at the hearings after her murder that Nichols was popular with friends and family. Horsler writes: ‘Nichols was a flawed woman… but she could still inspire fondness in her father and make friends among those in a similar situation.’119 In short, Nichols may have lived in and been shaped by the Twilight City but this did not make her any less of an individual – an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses.
The next murder victim was Annie Chapman. Born in 1841, Annie married John Chapman, a coachman, in 1869 at the age of 28. According to a statement given by Annie’s friend, Mrs. Pearcer, John had managed to secure a good job with a ‘nobleman’ who lived in Bond Street. Unfortunately, he was forced to leave the position due to his wife’s ‘dishonesty’. The couple was living in Windsor by 1881 and had three children: two girls and one boy. One of the girls died from meningitis aged 12, while their son was severely disabled and eventually sent to a home.
Their marriage was falling apart by the early 1880s and both John and Annie became heavy drinkers, the latter arrested several times in Windsor for drunk and disorderly conduct.120 Separating by mutual consent in 1884 or 1885, Annie moved to the East End, with John paying his wife a weekly allowance of about 10s until his death from cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy on Christmas Day 1886.121 Although Chapman was living with a sieve maker at this time, the news of her estranged husband’s death caused her immense grief. Adding to her misery, the sieve maker left soon afterwards, suggesting he had been sponging off her.
Another friend, Amelia Palmer, stated Chapman was deeply despondent and ‘seemed to have given away all together’ after the death of her husband.122 Beyond the emotional loss, there were financial reasons to be depressed: without her stipend, Annie was forced to become a regular streetwalker to make ends meet. She entered into a relationship with a bricklayer’s mate towards the end of her life and possibly found happiness there. Had she avoided the Ripper, Annie would have died shortly afterwards anyway: her autopsy revealed a terminal illness, although she was probably unaware of the disease’s severity and spread.
On the last night of her life, the deputy of the lodging house, Timothy Donovan, remembered she was in a relatively happy mood. However, she had also been drinking. Donovan recalled: ‘She was very sociable in the kitchen; I said to her: “You can find money for your beer and you can’t find money for your bed”.’123 Chapman told Donovan to keep her regular bed and then walked out into the Twilight City’s streets looking for a ‘customer’ and money to pay for a roof over her head. She found Jack the Ripper instead…
The last victim we shall examine is Mary Jane Kelly. She was 25 at the time of her murder on the night of 8/9 November 1888. The man who had lived with her for a year and eight months before her murder, Joseph Barnett, testified he ended their relationship in October because Kelly had allowed other prostitutes to stay in their lodgings. According to Barnett: ‘She was good hearted and did not like to refuse them shelter on bitter and cold nights.’124 Her behaviour appears to bolster Walkowitz’s argument that prostitutes looked out for each other. But it is far more likely that Barnett was attempting to portray his girlfriend in a better light, while also trying to preserve his own reputation. He was an out-of-work fish porter and sometime fruit hawker, and had become reliant on her wages. He was often seen skulking around the Twilight City or sitting in pubs as Mary Kelly and other prostitutes used their lodgings to earn money. It was not a situation one would want to air at a public inquest.
Kelly told Barnett that she had been born in Limerick and moved to South Wales with her family while still young. She married a young collier who died in a pit explosion and, with no support available, went to Cardiff and eventually became a prostitute. She moved to London in 1884 and started to work the West End when a procuress appears to have stepped in, taking her to France. The relocation was not to Kelly’s liking and she returned to London soon afterwards. She probably made ‘some serious enemies’ in coming back, according to Begg,125 and this might explain why she went to the East End and not the West End to ply her trade.
Life started looking brighter for Kelly by 1887, when she met and started the relationship with Barnett. However, he was often unable to cover their rent and the pair was forced to move from house to house. Drinking added to their problems. For example, Kelly and Barnett were thrown out of lodgings at Paternoster Court due to drunken behaviour and for being behind in rent. They finally ended up in a single room, 13 Miller’s Court, the ‘back room of 26 Dorset Street’.126 Dorset Street, according to Begg, ‘was one of the most notorious and reputedly one of the most dangerous streets in the East End’.127 Barnett lost his job in early September 1888 and Kelly returned to streetwalking in order to keep money coming in. Having found a client, she would take him back to their lodgings to complete the transaction and, as we have seen, the arrangement proved too much for Barnett.
While few people like to speak ill of the dead, especially those who have suffered a gruesome fate, the formal statements about Kelly’s character and personality are almost all strikingly positive. For example, her friend and fellow prostitute, Maria Harvey, stated Mary Kelly was ‘much superior to that of most persons in her position in life’.128 However, drinking had been an irregular problem. In his statement to the authorities, Kelly’s landlord, John McCarthy, said he had ‘frequently seen the deceased worse for drink. When sober she was an exceptionally quiet woman, but when in drink she had more to say’.129
Kelly had been drinking heavily on the night of her murder. At 11.45 pm, Mary Ann Cox, another prostitute, met Kelly and later said: ‘I last saw her alive on Thursday night, at a quarter-to-twelve, very much intoxicated’.130 She noted Kelly was with a stout but shabbily-dressed man carrying a pot of ale. Cox said ‘goodnight’ to Kelly, who replied ‘Goodnight, I am going to sing’.131 Kelly had found her last client sometime after 1 am, taking him back to the supposed safety of 13 Miller’s Court…
The first two victims of Jack the Ripper were not the young and independent women of Walkowitz’s model. Firstly, they were in their early 40s and had seen their marriages collapse, with drink an important contributory factor. Secondly, their entry into prostitution was far from a temporary career choice: it was a matter of survival. The support of fellow prostitutes was present but not a particularly dominant aspect of their lives.
We should also note the third and fourth victims of the Ripper, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – both murdered on the same night, 30/31 September 1888 – were also in their early 40s and suffered from alcohol dependency as well. The ages and lifestyles of the four middle-aged women engendered little surprise among the press and the public, who considered them representative of streetwalkers to be found in the Twilight City. But little by way of the personal troubles they faced, or the regard and friendships they forged, were highlighted for public consumption. The gruesome details of the autopsy reports and panicked speculation about the killer’s identity made sure of this.
Mary Jane Kelly appears a closer match to Walkowitz’s model. A young woman who was a ‘success’ until her early 20s, she had the ill-luck to wind up on the East End’s streets. But Kelly tried to make the best of a bad situation and seems to have had good relations with fellow prostitutes. She made a concerted effort to leave the world of streetwalking behind with Barnett and it was only the loss of his income that forced her to return. She also owed 29 shillings in rent at the time of her death, so streetwalking was probably the fastest way to reduce her debts.132 Unfortunately, the decision not only doomed her relationship but, sadly and unexpectedly, led to her murder.
None of the streetwalkers of the Twilight City we have considered, from Booth’s small case studies to the extensive historical record on the lives of three Whitechapel murder victims, offer us a clear-cut template. These women may have entered the world of prostitution because they were victims cast aside, or because they dreamt of the wealth and luxury enjoyed by the most successful courtesans. Whatever the causes, streetwalking quickly became a matter of necessity, although many compounded their problems with excessive drinking. In his summation of Victorian prostitution Chesney wrote: ‘Professional whoring, in short, was a flourishing trade that could be lucrative to the tough, attractive and competitive, but a fearful trap to the feeble and unlucky.’133 But our study shows that, while many at the bottom of the heap were unlucky and had entered a fearful trap, they were emphatically not feeble. They were survivors.