Sergeant Mendick here again. This day I am going to talk about sex. Now stop smiling all you young ‘uns, it’s a serious business, this sex thing. It can be fun, I know, but not when it’s forced, or when you have to pay for it, you know.
All right then, here we go now.
Our queen’s Britain has a reputation for sexual repression and high morals, with Victorian Values a byword for all that is upstanding and correct in society. However, the reality revealed by the scrape of a prostitute’s painted nails would curl the hair of the most respectable gentleman. Every city and probably most towns were home to a thriving population of prostitutes.
There are many types of prostitutes, from those who service gentlemen and live in comfort to those who frequent the dockside alleys and dark closes and spend their lives in squalor. Sometimes a woman can start at the top but as her looks fade she will end up pressing her back against some festering wall while a drunken seaman expends the pent up lust of a long voyage in a few panting moments. Nevertheless, most prostitutes are not full time professionals, but women with no option; prostitution is a hard necessity rather than a career choice. Most work open to women is low paid, repetitive and harsh: just ask the Missus.
Us Victorians are as concerned about prostitution and its attendant evils of disease as we are about juvenile crime and drunkenness. In June 1857 the Aberdeen Police Commissioners discussed what powers they possessed to put down brothels and prostitution. At that time there were an estimated 500 prostitutes living in Aberdeen, and working in about 100 licensed premises. There was some disagreement about the best course to take, as a few years before there was an attempt to clean up the streets by arresting any woman on the streets after a certain time, in other words subjecting women to a curfew. That attempt had failed as the many innocent women who had been swept into the Police Office had strongly objected. The police had quickly scrapped the system. With that recent memory to embarrass them, the Commissioners decided that it was the job of the Kirk to control vice, not the police.
However others were equally concerned and even heavier handed. In 1864 Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Act, which gave the police sweeping powers to arrest prostitutes and have them inspected for venereal diseases. This Act only applied to some ports and towns where there was a large military presence. Once again completely innocent women were swept into the net along with hardened street walkers, with the additional humiliation and genuine trauma of an internal examination. It was not the police’s job to prove the women’s guilt; the women had to try and prove their innocence. Those women who were found to be diseased were secured in a locked hospital until they were judged clean enough to be released to the hordes of innocent men who waited their attentions. The men were not subject to any such restrictive act. Not surprisingly, there was a hurricane of protest against this draconian act, which was repealed in 1886.
Now, any British city can have one prostitute for every 36 people. It is also believed that up to one third of the soldiers in Queen Victoria’s army carry venereal disease, but as marriage is not encouraged for private soldiers, nor for officers under a certain rank, sexual license is hardly surprising among healthy young men.
In Aberdeen, the police targeted brothels when the neighbours complained about them, and arrested women for ‘loitering’ on the streets. Women seem to run most of the city’s brothels or ‘disorderly houses’ but some were run by a partnership of a woman and a man. For example in August 1829 Elizabeth Birnie and John Hay were each sent to Bridewell for 14 days and then banished from Aberdeen for a year for keeping a brothel.
The brothels are not concentrated in any one place but are scattered all over the centre of Aberdeen. In the 1850s one of the most notorious was in Frederick Street, but they can be virtually anywhere. In August 1879, 58 year old Margaret Macdonald was charged with keeping a brothel in Flourmill Lane. Thirteen prostitutes were found in her house. Detectives Innes and Wyness said the house had been a brothel for years. When they raided the place the detectives said she was keeping thieves and prostitutes; Macdonald said she had ‘no thieves but I can’t deny harbouring prostitutes.’ Alex Badenoch, tailor, said he often passed the house especially on a Sunday and it was a notorious brothel particularly when the militia were around. He had not heard much foul language but the girls had sometimes accosted him and he had seen many young girls standing with soldiers about the place. Macdonald was fined £10 with the option of 60 days in prison.
On 12 October 1880 the Police Court heard a case against William Kirton who kept a public house at Green. He was accused of allowing women of ‘notoriously bad fame’ to assemble in his pub. The police had heard rumours and on 21 September 1880 Inspector Ewan and Detectives Wyness and Innes held a snap inspection. In one room the police found one man in the company of two women, in another two women and two men and in a third room tucked away in the back they found two women and three men. The rooms had no doors but were separated by curtains. All the seven women were known to the police as prostitutes.
Kirton claimed he had not known that the women had bad characters and anyway there was no assembling or meeting in the accepted sense of the words. He also said he was entitled to serve anybody he liked at an open bar. Detective Innes returned three days later, on 24 September and again found the place full of women of the same profession. Mrs Kirton told Innes that a businessman had assured her that she was legally permitted to serve such women. That statement proved that Kirton knew exactly in what line of business the women were in. Baillie Alexander Duffus fined Kirton twenty five shillings with expenses or fourteen days in prison.
There was another well known brothel in Shiprow in 1880 where Robert Bennison harboured five known prostitutes. In November the following year Elizabeth Christie denied she had kept prostitutes at her house at 46 Netherkirkgate. However the police brought forward evidence that the neighbours had complained that her house was used as a brothel, with numerous men and women of ‘bad character’ being frequent visitors. At least two of the women who had been acting as prostitutes were only fifteen years old and they testified that their customers paid Christie for their services. When Christie appeared at the Police Court, Bailie Walker said it was a very aggravated case as not only was the house used for immoral purposes but Christie had also used it to train up girls for immoral purposes and thereby ruining their body and soul. He imposed a fine of £10 or sixty days in jail.
In the spring and summer of 1893 Mary Reid kept a brothel in Burnett’s Close. She pleaded not guilty at the Police Court, but the police had frequent complaints from people about money being stolen from them in the house and a ship’s officer had had a gold ring stolen from him there. She was sent to prison for two months. These examples were just the tip of the iceberg as the police struggled to remove prostitution from the city. For instance in 1863 alone upwards of 20 brothels were closed down and the number of females known to be prostitutes reduced from more than 400 to just 200.
The second prong of the police assault on prostitution targeted the street walkers. These women loiter in certain places and approach men who looked as if they were lonely or perhaps too drunk to realise what was happening. The campaign against these women is relentless. For example at the police court on 9 February 1830 two street walkers, Mary Moir and Elizabeth Henry, were given 30 and 60 days in Bridewell for ‘conducting themselves in a riotous and disorderly manner’ in Broad Street.
The late 1870s and the 1880s saw the police inject more vigour into their campaign against street walking. For example in 1879, 27 year old Margaret Duthie of Flourmill Lane and 30 year old Barbara Watt were both fined 10 shillings for loitering. The same crime cost Cecilia Scorgie and Margaret Grant of Flourmill Lane 10 shillings each on 23 September 1880, while in October 1880 Elspeth Robb, Helen Mann and Ann Low were fined 21 shillings for loitering in Shiprow. There were many others.
Sometimes the same woman would appear on numerous occasions. Ann Burke of Exchequer Court, described as a ‘young woman’ was one such. On 11 September 1880 she was fined 21 shillings for loitering, only to be picked up again in Union Street 11 days later and fined another 20 shillings and again in St Nicholas Street on 18 October and fined 21 shillings again, with an alternative of a jail sentence. If she was able to pay these fines, then she must have made enough money by selling herself. It is unlikely that any factory or mill worker could have pocketed sufficient wages to avoid prison, which is a pointer to the reason so many women fell into prostitution. Rather than hit the effect, if the authorities target the cause; starvation wages for women, they may have had more success.