Life in a Victorian Brothel

In a time when prostitution was punishable by law, life in a Victorian brothel was scandalous, sexy and sometimes even scary.

Life in a Victorian Brothel

Christmas 1878 was a day of snow and rain, the landscape of Victorian south London darkened by heavy skies. Adeline Tanner, an attractive eighteen-year-old, left the house in Dulwich where she worked as a maid, and walked to Tulse Hill station on her way to visit her sister. The walk to the station was enough to soak her "waterproof" but fortunately Victorian railway waiting rooms had coal fires even on Christmas Day. As Adeline stood in the warmth, drying her cloak, a well-dressed man approached her and told her that the back of her waterproof was scorching. She thanked him, and they chatted politely until her train drew in.

Too Good to Pass Up

Too Good to Pass Up

In February, Adeline left Dulwich and went into service in Clapham, only to be given notice in October. One evening, in the week of her dismissal, she was walking up Tottenham Court Road (near the city centre), distinguished then by public houses like the Horse Shoe with exterior gas lanterns on ornate brackets but also by cigar shops and dingy taverns whose drab walls were almost obliterated by posters for Nestlé's Baby Food or Bovril, and for the Prince's Theatre or the Alhambra. By a coincidence, Adeline came face to face with the well-dressed man she had met in the waiting-room at Tulse Hill. His name was Sullie, and he listened sympathetically to the story of her dismissal. Sullie suggested that they might take a glass of wine in a convenient tavern and then go for a stroll. The girl agreed. He asked her if she would like to work in Paris, and Adeline replied that she might. They went to a Soho lodging-house and met another well dressed man, known as Roger.

After an evening spent drinking wine and gin, Sullie confided to Adeline that Roger had taken such a fancy to her that if she cared to go to Paris, where Roger had a beautiful house and carriage, he was certain to marry her. The girl was persuaded to spend that night with Sullie and his "wife" at a house off Victoria Street. The next morning she was taken back to Roger, having been given nothing but gin for breakfast, and Sullie left her with Roger, a second man called Rennie, and Rennie's "wife". They gave her coffee with brandy but no solid food. At midday "an old man with grey whiskers" arrived. Adeline was spread eagled on a travelling trunk, and then "examined" by the elderly man, who probed her vagina with a speculum, an instrument used for insertion and widening.

Once the others were satisfied of the commercial value of Adeline's virginity, she was taken in a cab to Victoria Station in company with two other girls and escorted by Roger and by Rennie's wife. Stupefied by drink, she was made to learn the contents of a paper describing her as "Ellen Cordon". Continental brothels were licensed to employ only girls over 21, so when English dealers supplied a girl under age they equipped her with the birth certificate of some other girl over 21. For the dealer, this had the advantage of making it nearly impossible to trace the real girl who had been abducted.

Nightmare in Brussel

Nightmare in Brussel

By 6 o'clock that evening, Adeline was in Brussels, not Paris, and Roger had her registered the next day as an adult prostitute under the name of "Ellen Cordon". For the first few weeks she was kept at his house, a licensed brothel designed to prevent all escape. When she was examined again it was found that minor surgery would be needed to enable her to have normal sexual intercourse and to be made "capable of prostitution". For the time being, however, she was reserved for certain privileged customers, including "one ruffian, who bore a title". According to her own account, her treatment during these weeks was "worse than that of a slave". She endured "indescribable torture" and suffered whatever the "unnatural lust" of her visitors stimulated them to do to her. Eventually she was taken to the St. Pierre Hospital for the necessary operation to be performed, and her sufferings would hardly have been out of place in De Sade's Justine, if Adeline's own story is to be believed. Held down by students and denied the comfort of anaesthetic, she was operated on no less than seven times, while her screams were heard over the entire building. "The principal seemed to hate me, and take a pleasure in prolonging my torments. He would delay the operation, and stop to explain to the surrounding students what was being done, and took no heed of my cries for mercy."

By a remarkable irony, Adeline Tanner escaped from the horrors of white slavery through being prosecuted and imprisoned by the Belgian authorities, who discovered that she had given a false name when registering as a prostitute. Meanwhile, she had also been traced by Alfred Dyer, a dedicated fighter against this trade in English girls, who arranged her repatriation. It was through his campaign against white slavery that Adeline's story became known. The history of Adeline Tanner was one of those presented to the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the law relating to the protection of young girls in 1881-2.

Yet, pathetic though it seemed, not all who heard it were convinced. To some hearers it appeared incredible that a girl who wrote her account so fluently and so intelligently should have been naive enough to comply with all the suggestions of the dapper Sullie. Above all, it was extraordinary that she should have agreed to go to Paris after the "examination" to which she was subjected in Soho by Roger and Rennie, Could she have been unaware of the fate intended for her? Was this not, perhaps, a case of a girl who had been willing enough to prostitute herself but had got worse than she bargained for? Uncharitable people suggested that the story had not been written by Adeline but by Mrs. Dyer – or at least that Mrs. Dyer had "improved" it.

From Right to Wrong, Truth to Fiction 

From Right to Wrong, Truth to Fiction 

There seemed to be a clear contradiction between Adeline's story and the evidence of T. E. Jeffes, Her Majesty's Acting Vice-Consul in Brussels. Jeffes told the House of Lords Select Committee that he had visited the girl in the St. Pierre Hospital, where she claimed to have suffered such tortures. According to Jeffes, she was "not at all anxious to get home". When he tried to persuade her to return to her sister in England, Adeline announced: "Oh, that sort of thing won't suit me. She is a poor woman and has a small house. I have been living in a very different style, so that I do not want to go back, and in fact I shall not go." Jeffes went on to suggest that Alfred Dyer himself was prepared to subordinate truth to his desire to stamp out all forms of prostitution.

In the absence of systematically collected evidence, it is impossible to establish the precise truth of allegations a century after the events in question. Yet it can now be seen that stories of the trade in very young girls are not supported specifically by the Select Committee evidence, where three girls of 15 and one of 14 are the youngest. Of course, it was shocking to find girls in a brothel even at that age, though perhaps no more shocking than the knowledge that in England any one of them would have been legally competent to consent to her own seduction, since the age of consent remained at 13. It had been raised from 12 in 1875.

Institutionalized vice with its brothels, from which escape was impossible, its histories of kidnapping and beating of girls into submission, and its sophisticated provision for every form of fetishism or perversion, became more characteristic of prostitution in the comparatively affluent periods of the Victorian age. Before the 1860s and the legal registration of prostitutes under the Contagious Diseases Acts, the whores of central London, from Waterloo to Langham Place, had shown the same spirit of individual free enterprise as their sisters in the great Victorian seaports and garrison towns.

No seaport had a greater share of poverty and vice than early Victorian Liverpool. Three young prostitutes of the city, Ellen Reece, Jane Doyle, and Mary Kay, gave vivid accounts of their lives, which remain unpublished to this day. Both Ellen and Jane ran away from home to live in a cellar with other girls, under the care of "Old Granny" and an elderly man. From shoplifting and robbing drunks they graduated to prostitution, fighting a constant battle of wits with a police force whose constables were sometimes corrupt enough to be bought off with a glass of gin. If arrested, even a girl with no money was sure of a lawyer, since there was an understanding with the attorneys that they should defend the girl without charge and in return she should afterwards spend the night with them.

Robbing clients was an essential part of the trade of the freelance prostitute but it was important that the stolen money should not be found on her if she was arrested. Ellen Reece described the way in which girls learnt to hide gold sovereigns in their vaginas. From experience, she knew that she herself could carry 30 sovereigns inside her in this manner. The police matrons who searched the girls were usually fooled but a girl who tried to conceal money from her protectors in this manner would be less successful. If her protectors suspected that she was hiding coins from them in this way, they would make her stand on a bed and jump off, again and again, until any concealed coins were shaken out. Some girls hid sovereigns by swallowing them before they were searched, and then regained them by relieving themselves on the floor of the lock-up. If the coins had not reappeared after a day or two, the girls would complain of being constipated and ask for "opening medicine". According to Ellen Reece, she had never known any girl come to harm through swallowing sovereigns, even though a few girls well known to the police were obliged to swallow their takings almost every night.

It was common for Victorian freelance prostitutes to work in pairs and for a man to hire them both simultaneously. Jane Doyle explained how she had worked with Jane Shaw. On the first occasion, a prosperous-looking man of about 50 had wanted them both. They had gone to a room with him, where Jane Doyle had watched Jane Shaw lose her virginity, for which the man paid 10 shillings. This trade was loosely organized, the Liverpool girls simply renting rooms in such notorious houses as the Cheshire Cheese in Newton Lane, sometimes at a shilling for 10 or 15 minutes. The girls and their customers were guaranteed very little privacy in such places. Ellen Reece reported that there were as many as 6 or 7 beds in a room with men and women in them.

Legalized Prostitution 

Legalized Prostitution 

In 1864 and 1866, in an attempt to reduce the rate of venereal disease in the British army, the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed. They remained in force 20 years. The effect of the Acts was to permit the police to list licensed prostitutes who, in return for being licensed, were compelled to submit to regular medical examination. The police were empowered to arrest any woman whom they suspected of being a prostitute, in order to add her name to the list. There was instant opposition from campaigners like Josephine Butler, who saw this as a system of legalized prostitution. Stories spread of innocent girls seized by the police and carried off to be held down while goatish doctors thrust obscene instruments into their unoffending vaginas. Whatever its iniquities, the system of registration certainly revealed new dimensions of prostitution outside London. In his first two days in Devonport (population 50,000). Inspector Anniss discovered 86 brothels and 440 prostitutes. He was later to find out that this was still less than half the total number in the town.

If the Contagious Diseases Acts helped to institutionalize vice, so, paradoxically, did the growing humanity and social improvement of the Victorian period. Certain perversions which had enjoyed a precarious respectability in the 1840s or 1850s could only be safely practised in a brothel by the 1880s. There is no better illustration of this than the case of James Miles and his taste for that most Victorian aberration, the sexual flagellation of girls.

In 1841, Miles, who was the master of the Hoo Workhouse, near Rochester, showed such enthusiasm for birching and flogging the girls in his care that the Rochester magistrates were persuaded to hold an inquiry. This was widely reported, and its details might have been the inspiration for a pornographic novel. The girls who gave evidence, including Sarah Barnes and Eliza Screese, admitted that Miles was for the most part a kindly man – and probably a far better workhouse master than many of his contemporaries.

However, there was a fairly regular procession of girls to a certain room which he had carefully equipped. Miles had two preferences. The first of these was for whipping a girl who was fastened upright, stripped to the waist with her breasts displayed. The second preference was for a girl in shoes, stockings, and petticoats. As in the case of Sarah or Eliza, she was told to lie face-down over a table. Two other girls or older women held her, while Miles lifted up her petticoats and used a birch across her bare bottom. There was an ironing board as well as a table, so that on special occasions Miles could whip two girls side by side, a fate suffered by Sarah Barnes and Charlotte Burton.

Thirty or 40 years later it would have cost Miles a small fortune to do in a brothel what Her Majesty's Government paid him to do in the Hoo Workhouse. However, the Rochester magistrates listened to the evidence amid a good deal of genial banter between the chairman and the defending attorney. There was, according to the official report, plenty of laughter in court with many of those in the vast crowd joining in. 

Miles's attorney complained that after all the fuss no prosecutor had dared to challenge his client. "Don't be afraid of that," said the chairman of the magistrates waggishly, "the constable is behind you!" And the hearing ended in an uproar of merriment. To many of these early Victorians, Miles was a worthy public servant who just happened to take a particular pleasure in certain aspects of his work.

Corruption in the 1800s

Corruption in the 1800s

In a number of other respects what had been acceptable in everyday life in 1840, even the everyday life of a prostitute, was the speciality of the brothel by the later Victorian period. Child prostitution had hardly been distinguishable from general prostitution while the age of consent remained at 12. In cities like Manchester in the 1830s and 1840s it was parents themselves who had sent their children out as prostitutes, though these children often disobeyed their parents by finding work in the mills instead. After 1875, younger girls were increasingly kept in the brothels, where they seem to have been mainly in demand by middle-aged or elderly men. Superintendent Joseph Dunlap, of Metropolitan Police "C" Division, described how he had entered a typical West End brothel in 1880 and found an elderly man in bed with two girls of 14 or 15. Since it was on private premises and the girls were above the age of consent, there was nothing that the law enabled him to do about it. The basic tariff of this brothel was six shillings for each girl and six shillings for the room but it seems certain that the customer must have paid more than that before the night was over.

By the 1880s it was a comparatively expensive matter for a client to enjoy himself with two girls at once. It was in any case, the kind of sophisticated depravity associated with the security and privacy of a brothel. Yet those earlier Victorian street girls, like Jane Doyle and Jane Shaw, who worked in pairs, had both gone to the same room with a man as a matter of prudence. There was even a certain amount of rivalry in the manner in which they would both offer themselves, knowing that the girl who was chosen could expect to be paid more.

The heyday of the Victorian brothels ended in a storm of publicity during the 1880s. Such houses were stigmatized as dens of perversion, the playgrounds of defloration maniacs, and the haunts of sadists. There were elements of truth in most of the accusations but the reformers sometimes spoilt their very strong case by an overdeveloped sense of melodrama. From the accounts of those who were the reformers' enemies, the patrons of the brothels, it seems probable that most acts of sadism in these houses were performed on the customers themselves, at their own request. Even such exhibitions as were put on tended to be of the non-violent kind, since the rapacious brothel-owner was the very last person to wish to see valuable "property" damaged and perhaps out of employment for some time. The usual exhibition was of a kind gratefully recalled by one client who had watched two girls, Giulia on top of Elise, in a bedroom scene.

"Elise began to show signs of pleasure which she hadn't done before. Both now wriggled. I looked over the back of the bed in the wardrobe glass and saw them badly reflected, it was better to see them close. After a violent rubbing and wriggling, both sighed, and shivered, stretched out their limbs and were quiet. Then they recommenced, neither of them speaking a word, now gently wriggling, now stroking, then violently fucking. Elise with eyes shut, the other's head buried on Elise's shoulder, both with sighs and murmurs moved rapidly. Elise brought her heels up to Giulia's fat backside, and heaved up her arse, the bed creaked and groaned. Both gave a long sighing murmur of pleasure, down flopped Elise's legs again. Giulia's thighs opened then closed, and she lay exhausted with pleasure on the top."

Apart from such live performances much of the more horrifying equipment found in Victorian brothels of this time was, literally, part of an illusion. Pornographic photographs had existed since the 1860s but there was no better place for setting their scenes than a brothel. "As to subject matter," wrote wan Bloch in 1902, "there is no sexual aberration, no perverse act, however frightful, that is not photographically represented today. Masturbation is shown as practised by men and women... Fetishistic lusts are served by pictures of women in sophisticated semi-nudity, wearing nothing but a corset, or hat, or chemise; naked women on the trapeze, on the bicycle, or in a frame; persons in the act of defecation or urination. The Sadist and the masochist can revel in flagellation scenes with all possible variations, in crucifixions of naked women, in lust murders and tortures." It was all, in one sense, an extension of amateur theatricals.

In the best class of West End brothel, photography served more general purposes. When the Victorian gentleman arrived, he was shown into a room rather like a photographer's studio, except that the framed photographs on the walls showed the attractions of the girls who were available, so that the customer might more easily compare them and make his choice.

In 1880, while Adeline Tanner was either suffering the horrors of enforced prostitution or refusing to be parted from the rewards of vice (according to one's view of the matter), W. T. Stead became assistant editor of the Pass Mass Gazette, succeeding John Morley as editor in 1883. He was determined to make the Gazette a powerful weapon of opinion and it was soon instrumental in persuading the government to send General Gordon to Khartoum and to lay down a new line of ships for the Royal Navy. By 1885, the vice trade was as much a journalistic preoccupation as these other topics.

Justice Prevails 

Justice Prevails 

In May, Mary Jeffries was prosecuted. She enjoyed an international reputation for her string of London brothels and the variety of sexual tastes for which her girls catered. Her clients included visiting crowned heads, though she denied the rumor that the Prince of Wales had visited her. She enjoyed the custom of the best regiments, once remarking sadly: "Business is very bad. I have been very slack since the Guards went to Egypt". She was convicted at her trial but she paid the fine in cash before leaving the court, while a titled gentleman stood surety for her.

That summer, Parliament debated a Criminal Law Amendment Bill to raise the age of consent to 16, suppress brothels and houses for the export of English girls, and give new rights of police search on premises where girls might be detained for immoral purposes. Stead intervened, on the principle that a man who could force Mr. Gladstone to send Gordon to Khartoum could also make M.P.s support a Bill which echoed the collective voice of the great humanitarian middle class. Armed with stories of girls deflowered in brothels, he published the celebrated "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" series in the Pass Mass Gazette during July.

Stead and his supporters gave the impression that brothels were populated by kidnapped girls who were held or strapped down while elderly customers raped them. Stead's opponents insisted that the girls were voluntary and contented "victims." The truth, as usual, seems to have been somewhere between the two extremes of opinion. Most sensational of all was the revelation that Stead himself had bought a child, Eliza Armstrong, from her parents and had had her smuggled to a brothel and then abroad to show how this was done. Eliza was of course unharmed and Stead acted with the best motives and with the assistance of Bramwell Booth and the Salvation Army. But it is no defense in law for a man of noble intentions to act illegally in order to show what may be done by men of less noble motives than his own.

Stead was tried at the Old Bailey in October 1885 for illegally taking away Eliza Armstrong from her parents. The Armstrongs themselves now joined in the hue and cry against him. Mr. Justice Lopes, the trial judge, ruled that Stead might not call the Archbishop of Canterbury and other witnesses to vindicate the purity of his intentions. The question is whether in your intention to do good you have overstepped the law." The jury reluctantly decided that Stead had overstepped the law and he was sent to prison for three months.

The scandal of the "Maiden Tribute" articles left M.P.s no alternative but to pass into law the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Of course, no one believed that an Act of Parliament could suppress the vice trade, but impoverished street-walkers and well endowed brothels began to wither in the face of middle-class conscience searching over "The Great Social Evil". No One doubted that the trade had survived, even if it became less obtrusive. In 1913, the year after Stead was drowned in the Titanic disaster, came the notorious "White Slaves in a Piccadilly Flat" case, when Queenie Gerald was prosecuted. It woke significant echoes of the "Maiden Tribute" with stories of girls provided for titled perverts in rooms festooned, according to Keir Hardie, with whips and lashes.

In fact, the English trade of the 19th century was as uniquely Victorian as the starvation of the 1840s or the "surplus population" of London in the 1870s and 1880s. It took only an increase of food above starvation level to reduce that army of girls like Jane Doyle or Ellen Reece, who worked singly or in pairs in the damp, diseased streets behind the grand civic buildings of Victorian cities and seaports. After 1885 it needed little more than the offer of reasonable alternative employment to keep most girls out of brothels.

For all that the moral reformers had done, the measure of the problem was that in a case like Adeline Tanner's, both she and the Acting Vice-Consul may have spoken the truth. She may indeed have suffered all that she claimed in Brussels: yet she may still have felt, as Jeffes reported, that she was better off in a Belgian brothel than facing the life of a Victorian domestic servant.

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