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When sex cost little more than a penny-

So how much did a prostitute cost in Victorian London, in the age of Jack the Ripper?

"The oldest profession" - if the saying isn't true, its not far from it. Researching prostitution in Victorian England, you find a surprising amount in common with what exists today. While little is new, to a large extent its only the extent that varies - prostitution was far more common - the hypocrisy (not surprising from what we know about the Victorians) was far worse, and the cost of a little female company was far less (though the story changes factoring in inflation). Men buying in at the bottom end of the market were at least as likely to get conned or robbed, and those at the top could pay at least as much as today (again taking into account inflation).

With feminism in its absolute infancy, women unable to vote and with little right to own property, the law and society overwhelmingly favored men. Until a change in the law part way through the Victorian era, if a man divorced his wife, he would take from the marriage any property that had been hers at the time the marriage was entered into. Times were much harder, there was no welfare state, and although things were a little less harsh for men, they too could often be forced into a life of crime. For those women who found their income on the street, crime was also frequently part of the package.

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The typical prostitute was 18 - 22 years old (though some would work till much older). She would be single and formerly from a low paid job, such as a domestic. A few were supporting illegitimate children. Many were forced into this work as they arrived penniless from the countryside. Prostitutes visited pubs, which other women would not. Most only worked the trade for a few years, many escaping to a (possibly) better life by marrying one of their customers.

Prostitution was not illegal. But laws existed that meant the girls were treated as criminals. For instance, a severe problem existed because a large proportion of soldiers and sailors were infected with venereal diseases (one third). Enlisted men were not allowed to marry. Many resorted to homosexuality, something the armed forces have always found hard to accept; sodomy carried the death penalty until 1861. During the reign of Victoria, male homosexuality was made illegal, not just for those in the armed forces. So typically of British hypocritical prudishness, the softest, least able part of society to fight back was made the scapegoat. Instead of finding ways for servicemen to find sexual release safely (use of condoms, licensed brothels), police were given the power to arrest any woman (she did not necessarily have to be a prostitute) where it was suspected she was infected and take her to be tested for venereal disease. She would then be confined in a secure hospital until cured. Men could not be arrested- because it was felt reasonable for a man to be tempted into using a prostitute, whereas the prostitutes themselves were fallen women, the lowest of the low. These laws were named The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869.

A modern parallel is that currently in England and Wales, prostitution is not illegal. However, many of the ways prostitutes could advertise themselves or make themselves safe are. A woman who directly offers her services commits the offense of "soliciting." Girls have to offer themselves for massage or as escorts, and legally can only quote prices for their time, with any services being something that may happen between consenting adults. Once both parties are on private property, sexual services can be agreed without breaking the law. Where just one girl works in a premises (which means she has little protection), this is legal. Two working together constitutes a brothel, which is illegal. A man working on the premises, who might give a girl protection, becomes a pimp.

One advantage of The Contagious Diseases Acts was that they actually assisted the feminist cause as they were so ridiculous they provided an even stronger argument for the feminists. They were repealed in 1886, as many at the time (including leading figures such as Florence Nightingale) pointed out that any women the police felt were of lower class could be arrested, as the police had no obligation to show they even suspected the woman in question was a prostitute.

The reasons why Victorian society might class a woman as a prostitute, or fallen, were much less than today. Girls who had affairs, especially "lower" class girls such as seamstresses or servants, for love or because they enjoyed sex would be considered as prostitutes, even if they did not do it for money. Meanwhile, the men in these same relationships were regarded by society as having done nothing wrong. Society believed that prostitutes suffered a life sinking further and further into prostitution leading to a lonely death. In fact, even those who actually were prostitutes, often did it very occasionally in shear desperation.

As mentioned earlier, many of the lower class prostitutes were also criminals, or were much more likely to cheat their customers. Of course, this still happens, but as can be expected with a much lower standard of living and lack of welfare state, this aspect was more prevalent.

In 1862, Henry Mayhew published a report into prostitution in London, following detailed research he'd carried out (some may think he was just looking for an excuse to find working girls!). It gives us some fascinating insights.

One incident he recalls tells us of a tour of the streets he conducted with sergeant Bircher of the Metropolitan Police. He tells us of one street walker they spotted who was recently known to him. Sergeant Bircher's story goes on like this, "I first discovered them in Holborn three nights ago, when I was on duty in plain clothes. I don't exactly yet know rightly what their little game is; but it's either dog-stealing or 'picking up.' This is how they do it. The woman looks out for a 'mug,' that is a drunken fellow, or a stupid, foolish sort of fellow. She then stops him in the street, talks to him, and pays particular attention to his jewelry, watch, and every thing of that sort, of which she attempts to rob him. If he offers any resistance, or makes a noise, one of her bullies comes up, and either knocks him down by a blow under the ear, or exclaims: 'What are you talking to my wife for?' and that's how the thing's done, sir, that's exactly how these chaps do the trick."

This is one of the few sources we get as to prices. Sergeant Bircher continues, referring to a poor area, "They would go home with a man for a shilling, and think themselves well paid, while sixpence was rather an exorbitant amount for the temporary accommodation their vagrant amour would require."

Interestingly, sixpence (2.5 pence in modern decimal coinage, 5 cents), allowing for inflation translates to something in the region of £25 ($50) now, which at the bottom end of the street walking market now is comparable (based on research and hearsay, of course!).

Of course there was also a quality end of the market, just like now. Here, rich men could enjoy girls in safety, but at a much higher price. The girls also seemed to be regarded with more respect, which makes you think the main crime of the poor street walkers was being poor. Mayhew mentions a long established house in Exeter Street, Strand, although he does not give us the name. He says it was always honestly and orderly conducted. Rich tradesmen would pay upward of 10 shillings (a week's wages for a mill worker, so about £500 now, $1000) for the room for the night, then would have to pay additionally to their girl. In return, he could go with a lot of money in his pocket, and be assured of waking up not having been robbed. It is interesting to note that well- off married women would also take their lovers to such establishments.

In slightly cheaper, but less reputable establishments, a man might pay five shillings for the room, but be "bilked" by their girl- she would take her money, then simply leave. Obviously the man had no redress against the establishment which had simply provided the room. Many of the owners of these houses were former prostitutes who through age had lost their looks.

Men taking under age girls was even more of a problem then than now. The cause was probably poverty, where mothers (who were working the streets themselves) would put their daughters out as soon as possible to earn some money. There was no shortage of demand, as for those men willing to abuse young girls in this way, there was little legal recourse to stop them. Britain has always been noted for its street markets. In Victorian days, there were a lot more, with individual isolated market stools and so called "costermongers" selling their wares on foot.

As part of this culture, young "flower-girls," often as young as five or six, would sell flowers to passersby's. Many would progress from this legitimate trade on the street to selling themselves on the street. The age of consent in the 1850's was 13, and their was little chance of detection anyway, a pedophile took little risk of being caught. Only in 1885 was the age of consent raised to 16, unchanged since then.

Some of the many men infected with venereal disease still believed that taking a virgin would cure them (this belief persisted into the early part of the twentieth century). This increased the demand to the extent where a virgin would cost between £5 and £25 (now about £5000 to £25000, or $10,000 to $50,000).

The extent of prostitution in Victorian London comes into focus when you start looking at some figures. When Mayhew carried out his survey, the police knew of about 8000 prostitutes in London. The Society for the Suppression of Vice put the figure at 80,000. In fact the average proportion of the female population engaged in the trade in the 19th century was a massive one in 36 of the total population, meaning there was a girl in the trade for every 12 adult males. Yet what we have seen about the prices shows it was not exactly cheap for people on very low wages. This shows there was plenty of demand even for such a large availability of girls. Its no wonder that London was called the "Whoreshop of the world."

Please note that the price comparisons are based on a source quoting that in 1835 the Redhill Street Mill in Manchester paid its workers 11 shillings (55p, $1-10) for a 69 hour week. If working days that long were allowed now, wages would be about £550 per week, i.e. 1000 times as much. As some prices quoted relate to the later Victorian period, the values will be somewhat high due to inflation. Whilst figures given in dollars were calculated recently (2008), the volatility of the modern pound affects the reliability of this conversion. Please apply the current exchange rate when you read this article for a reliable conversion.

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© Peter Smith 2008