A Social Evil, victims or scapegoats?

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This research was spurred by looking into Pembroke Place's past for the Galkoff's & Secret Life of Pembroke Place exhibition Today we have a guest blog from Susan Bennett, who has been researching Victorian brothels to explore the ‘little hell’ underworld in the late C19th as part of the Galkoff's and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project. This is a difficult subject, and original Victorian documents and records can be very blunt!

"Between 1837 and 1901 Liverpool expanded massively to become one of the greatest ports in the world. Every day thousands of sailors, just paid off, eager for physical outlets after hard months at sea, poured onto the streets looking for women, drink and other vicious practices such as fist fighting and gambling – the Social Evil! An east wind could carry off between 10 - 15,000 sailors a day on ships from the port and a westerly wind cast that same number ashore with full pockets and much energy, "to do what men do naturally", as a newspaper report gamely put it.

The police force, newly recreated in 1836 with 390 men rising to a peak of 1,002 in 1859, struggled desperately to keep on top of the ensuing vice, violence, and crime. In 1859 Mr JH Marshall, superintendent of Bradford town mission, came to lecture in Liverpool on Yorkshire's good work to manage their levels of prostitution:

"Too long, from a morbid sense of delicacy, have we suffered ourselves to remain in a happy but culpable innocence respecting this horrid and most colossal vice [of prostitution]... which, more than any other, fed like some infernal and insatiable canker worm on the vitals of society, sapped the foundations of our entire social fabric and destroyed unheeded and disturbed, the flower and hope of mankind."

Strong words indeed and Bradford only had 60 brothels and 177 prostitutes in 1859, as compared to Liverpool which had 700 known brothels and 2,256 prostitutes in that year. This figure was to peak in 1861 to around 1,000 known brothels and over 3,000 prostitutes. Police figures are the tip of the iceberg as many brothels were more discrete, housed 'silken' prostitutes for those with money and reputations to protect.

Conditions in parts of Liverpool were a 'Hell hole' for many young women. Widows suddenly left to fend for themselves struggled to work and care for children. Others were abandoned, such as Catherine Comerford in 1846, a servant who became pregnant after an affair with one of the family, who was thrown out and ended up giving birth in squalor in a brothel. Reported causes of the 'Social Evil' included poverty, lack of parental discipline, neglected religion, insufficient space in homes with "No room for decency...", overcrowding, the corrupting influence of the factory where "Chastity is almost unknown", singing and dancing saloons and intemperance. 

According to an article in the Liverpool Porcupine magazine in 1861 entitled 'Slatternly Wives,' it was largely the fault of women, "That thousands of working men are driven from their homes to the brothel, grog shop or beer house by reason of the inconsideration, ignorance, slovenly conduct or slatternly habits of their wives". But, of course, without men actively seeking the services of prostitutes, degrading sex-work would not exist. Victorian values do not condemn the men, but scapegoat females as "Women of loose character (who) carry on a trade of profligacy and plunder". Many articles in the Liverpool newspapers talk about young men being powerless to escape the "blandishments and good looks" of the women of the town, failing to realise this says more about their weakness than the wickedness of women.

Victorian reformers therefore failed spectacularly to address the 'demand' side of the 'supply' problem. Instead, Victorian solutions involved making the supply of personal services difficult using both legal and moral means – which did nothing to reduce demand. Persecuting females by clamping down on the presence of prostitutes in beer houses, the Zoological Gardens, the Amphitheatre and notorious dancing saloons by prosecuting owners for harbouring prostitutes quickly ran into legal issues as it was not a crime for any woman to have a drink, be entertained and dance just like everyone else. Active soliciting such as to create a nuisance was a crime, so most sex-workers were found guilty of catch-all 'Disorder', but the men who willing went with them were left alone. For every prostitute arrested recorded as arrested not one single man is prosecuted for paying for them!

Into this rabid purgatory came a whole plethora of righteously indignant almost vigilante organisations led by men that operated in Victorian Liverpool with great zeal, claiming prominent headlines in local papers and the responsibility for cleaning up many parts of the town. They included 'The Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality', 'The Association for the Prevention of Immorality and Vice' and 'The Society for the Suppression of Vicious Practices'. Another, 'The Society for Reclaiming Unfortunate Females', proclaimed: "An aggression into the religion of Satan [is] in order to rescue perishing souls from his dominion". The thunderous language is typical of all such societies which aimed to save the souls of unfortunates or penitent suppliers of sin.

Efforts to reduce sex-work in Victorian Liverpool were not carried-out in sustainable ways. For example, in the 1870s the clearance of brothels by the police in some areas like Hotham Street merely moved them to West Derby; and those from Gloucester Street relocated to Pembroke Place. As a strategy this merely shifted the locus of supply. The sad truth is, no woman chose to be a prostitute, the majority bewailed their wretched fate, wished their lives over.

Prostitution in the 'Little Hell' area of Oakes Street and Anson Place, and the area, is primarily recorded historically when women are arrested, die, or are murdered. Working in prostitution led to other unhealthy lifestyles to help people cope: Mary McNeil, a prostitute, died in 1863 died from excessive drinking. People could not rely on the police to protect them. In 1853 Sarah Gill of Glover Street claimed she had been assaulted in her home by two constables. 40% of all victims of alleged police assaults reported by the Liverpool press of the time were female. It was a horrifically cruel Victorian world for those women without means in Liverpool."