Prostitution: At Home in London

Prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.
— George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Poor women and children in a London slum, 1909.

Though the words “prostitute,” “prostitution,” “madam,” and “brothel” are never specifically mentioned onstage, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is inextricably bound up in that trade. The 19th century was a time of rapid industrialization with capitalism as its powerful economic driver. In pursuit of higher profit margins, employers sought to make more with less, often at their workers’ expense. With jobs moving from rural areas into the industrialized cities, many women in need of work moved too, but found that their only outlets for “respectable” work would pay them shillings for a week’s labor. When faced with the reality of degrading work that could not support them economically, many women chose prostitution. Though statistics for the Victorian era are scant, one survey found that 50% of London prostitutes had worked as servants, while others had been factory workers, barmaids, shopgirls, and waitresses. Nearly all of the surveyed women found that they could not survive on the wages earned in these socially acceptable professions; prostitution was a way to make ends meet.

The act of prostitution was legal in 19th century London. However, the desire to control female sexuality and fears about venereal disease led to attempts at legislating the practice. Statistics for venereal diseases among members of the military are alarming: one study from the 1860s found that one out of three illnesses reported in the army were sexually transmitted. Medical statistics are harder to come by for civilians; a conservative estimate of that population infected with syphilis is 7%, but this is likely low as surgical outpatient reports show that more than half of patients were afflicted with the disease. Significantly, these surveys showed that the populations most affected by syphilis were men of the middle and upper classes.

In an effort to protect soldiers and influential men from venereal disease, the Contagious Diseases Act was first passed in 1864, permitting police officers to detain women suspected of prostitution for the purpose of enforced medical examination. If a woman was found to be suffering from venereal disease, she could be held in a lock hospital for treatment for up to six months. However, infected men found patronizing prostitutes were under no such obligation or confinement, and were treated for syphilis or gonorrhea on a voluntary basis.

Despite the legal and social ramifications, prostitution was widespread in London; hard data is sparse, and estimates for prostitutes working in London in the 19th century vary based on the source. Police estimates are low, hovering around 6,300, while reformers and medical professionals placed the number closer to 80,000, or 3% of London’s population. Some women made their living as a prostitute while others resorted to it only occasionally to survive a rough economic period or to save for other endeavors. The vast majority were between the ages of 18 and 25; by their mid-twenties, many left the profession to marry or move on to other employment. Depending on her location and clientele, she could make anywhere from a few shillings to several pounds per customer. In one example, a woman named Lizzie had three clients in one evening, earning herself 45 shillings for those few hours at a time when a seamstress might make as little as 3 shillings for a full week’s work.

Other women, like Mrs. Warren, made a lifelong career from prostitution, leveraging their savings, ambitions, and business sense into brothel ownership in an age when running a “respectable” business would be a near impossibility for women. Though brothels were technically illegal in London, many operated under cover of bribery and blackmail. In one famous case, notorious London madam Mary Jeffries arrived at her trial for “keeping a disorderly house” in 1885 in a carriage paid for by an unnamed member of the House of Lords. She claimed the Kings of Belgium among her clients, and the threat to reveal the upper-crust names on her client rosters kept her out of prison on more than one occasion.

Ad in the East London Press, July 18, 1885

It is impossible to know the percentage of men who patronized prostitutes, either independently or in brothels. Record keeping is generally murky around prostitution, but there were also significant efforts made to protect the identities of male clients. Like Mrs. Jeffries’ and Mrs. Warren’s patrons, many of them were respectable, upper or middle class men. Though their frequenting of prostitutes was taken as a matter of course, it would be improper to discuss or reveal those activities, and preserving their dignity was paramount in the eyes of the law.

Shaw knew that many of the well-to-do men in his audiences were implicated in the prevalence of prostitution, and wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession with the explicit goal of revealing the hypocrisy in a system that made the trade an economic reality, allowed men to purchase those services, then blamed women for participating. He also knew that his audience would expect a more familiar depiction of prostitution: romanticized women with hearts of gold who met tragic ends. What he presented instead was a reasoned, logical, economic argument, implicating the powerful men of means who patronized both the theater and prostitutes. The Lord Chamberlain found the Shaw’s arguments more shocking than the profession itself, and banned the play from public performance in the UK, much to Shaw’s chagrin. In his Apology, printed as a preface to later editions of the play, he notes that plays with much more provocative sexual content were regularly produced at the end of the 19th century, while his was banned for examining the economic realities driving women to prostitution without condemning them for that choice. True to his Socialist beliefs, Shaw noted that “starvation, overwork, dirt, and disease are as anti-social as prostitution — they are the vices and crimes of a nation, and not merely its misfortunes.”

The legal and social climate for prostitution in London drove some women to the more permissive European continent, including Mrs. Warren herself. To find out more about the prostitution trade in Europe, take a look at the second part of this series, Prostitution: Brussels and Europe.

Join us at Lantern Theater Company for Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Update: The show has been extended through October 16, 2016; visit our website for tickets and information.

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