Nineteenth Century Prostitution

Nineteenth century prostitution

The Italian pioneer criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) wrote L’uomo deliquente, or criminal man in 1876. Although his ideas were not universally accepted, they were very influential. Lombroso drew upon Darwinian thinking to argue that there was a criminal type. He anticipated more recent genetic theories, in that he saw criminals as deficient from birth; they were, he said, atavistic, what might today be termed (in popular discussion) genetic throwbacks.

There were many contradictions in his thinking including women: if the offender was a born criminal, why were there far fewer female than male offenders? Lombroso’s solution was to argue that criminality manifested itself in different ways in women. In La donna delinquente (1893) he asserted that prostitution was a type of criminal behaviour in women. He argued that prostitutes used their female cunning and were less likely to swept up by the criminal justice system, so that they were much less likely to be counted in the official criminal statistics.

It was a simplistic argument that could not hold water in any empirical test, but it did fit in with the popular prejudices of the nineteenth century. Many expressed their concerns about prostitution, including the great and the good, such as Charles Dickens and William Gladstone, but no one seemed to have a solution to this intractable problem.

Every year, police forces were required to return the number of known prostitutes in their district. These statistics are interesting, and remind us once again of the shortcomings of such data. The table below shows the reported numbers of prostitutes in some English towns in 1863.

The figures show amazing disparities: the city of Durham, according to the returns, had six times more prostitutes than the port of Gateshead. Manchester had ten times more than Salford, yet the two cities were and are coterminous. Any one active in the market for sex could walk easily from one city to the other. Can we believe that the Salford police were so much more efficient at policing prostitution that the business moved to Manchester? Or should we assume that the Salford force significantly under-reported the number of prostitutes in order to improve the image of their borough? Neither seems very satisfactory as an explanation for the disparity. It is safer to conclude that the reported numbers of prostitutes were simply fabrications that give no practical guide to the numbers of prostitutes working in those towns.

The small town of Kendal serves well as a means of testing what was happening. The number of prostitutes recorded in the returns for the town were simply the number of prostitutes brought to court for offences that year: most prostitutes were arrested for being drunk and disorderly.  The number of women working in prostitution would have been higher. In other towns, police returns were simply an estimate of the number and the disparities in the list are explained by the vagaries in the forces’ estimates.

 

Borough

Number of prostitutes

Population

Prostitutes

per 1000 pop

Durham

74

14088

5.25

Newcastle

381

109108

3.49

Rochdale

125

38184

3.27

Manchester

1067

357979

2.98

Sunderland

175

85797

2.04

Tynemouth

60

34021

1.76

Salford

100

102449

0.98

Stockport

51

54681

0.93

Oldham

76

94344

0.81

South Shields

23

35239

0.65

Gateshead

12

33587

0.36

Kendal

4

12029

0.33

Ashton U/L

3

33917

0.09

 

2 thoughts on “Nineteenth Century Prostitution

  1. Pingback: Shopgirls and My Secret Life | Victorian Policing

  2. Policing is a fascinating topic. I’ve picked up on some similar problems of the police figures relating to prostitution, drunkenness etc, in my forthcoming book on The Victorians and Vice (Bloomsbury Press). You have some good material on the website, which reads well and people will be interested to read.

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