A sadly typical story of an ‘unfortunate’ girl in Victorian London

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The Victorians condemned prostitution. They saw it as a vice, a personal failure of character, and a step on the slippery slope to damnation. Yet prostitutes also occupied a special place in contemporary debates being both victims deserving of pity and agents of corruption at the same time.

In the nineteenth century the idea that there was a class of society that existed on the proceeds of crime (‘those that will not work’ as Henry Mayhew described them) gained credence. The so-called ‘criminal class’ identified by Mayhew and others conveniently allowed all the ills of the society to be lumped onto a section of the working class, and prostitutes were part of this ‘class’.

In the 1860s in the wake of the Crimean War (when more British soldiers succumbed to disease than to wounds inflicted by the enemy) there was a moral panic about the prevalence of sexually transmitted infection. This led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts which attempted to regulate prostitution and halt the spread of syphilis  and gonorrhoea. Working-class women were dragged off the street and forcibly examined for signs of disease, and then effectively imprisoned in ‘lock’ hospitals until they were ‘clean’. Men were not subjected to the same treatment but were encouraged to seek medical help. It was a classic Victorian ‘double standard’.

But the CDAs also provoked resistance by women and a campaign, led by Josephine Butler, eventually led to their repeal. Butler sought to understand the women that felt it was necessary to sell their bodies to survive and she brought some of them into her own home to ‘rescue’ them. These women were ‘unfortunate’ contemporary rhetoric said, they could be helped, and reclaimed from the awful class they had ‘fallen’ into.

Which brings me to the Police Courts and the magistrates that presided there. The capital’s police court magistracy probably saw more ‘unfortunates’ than anyone else (with the exception of the police). I’m not impugning their reputation, but one of the most common (if not the most common) charge heard in these summary courts was ‘drunk and disorderly’, and when this was applied to a woman it was likely she was a prostitute picked up on the street the night before by a beat constable.

Mary Anne Griffin was just such a girl. She probably attracted the attention of the papers because of her age – she was just 17 – and because she had a ‘genteel appearance’. Mary Anne had been found staggering along the Fulham Road by PC Stevens (266B) in a state of complete intoxication. As she approached the road the policeman saw her trip and fall down in a ‘fit’. He revived her with salt water and she promised to go home.

Half an hour later though he encountered her again and when he cautioned her for not doing as she was told she attacked him. Mary Ann ‘flew at him’, he explained to Mr Arnold at Westminster Police Court:

‘She made use of very disgusting language, and said she would tear his eyes out. She threw herself down on the ground, and  endeavoured to kick him, and in doing so, necessarily much exposed herself’.

PC Stevens got her back to the police station but it took three constables to bring her under control  and get her confined in a cell.

Mr Arnold turned to the girl and asked her what she had to say for herself.

‘I am very sorry’, she answered (with ‘her head down and […] in a very meek voice’) ‘I was so drunk I did not know what I did’.

The court gaoler said he had seen her before and that when she had been in the cells she was a quiet and ‘well conducted girl’. She was not like the ‘hardened girls of her class’ that usually came before him Mr Arnold agreed, and perhaps this was an opportunity for intervention (as a modern social worker or probation officer might term it). Sadly no. Mr Arnold completely misunderstood the reason why Mary Ann was drunk in the first place, which was to inure herself to the awful situation she found herself in. Alcohol acted as a sort of anaesthetic to the degradation she was subjected to on a daily basis.

What Mr Arnold should have done was to help Mary Ann find a path out of poverty and prostitution because, at 17 she was (as he noted) very far from being the  hardened criminal she would most likely become. If, that is, she lived that long. Many working girls died young, killed by disease, the brutality of men, or at their own hands.

What Mr Arnold did do of course, was to send her to the house of correction for 14 days; not for being a prostitute (that was not a crime) but for being drunk and resisting the policeman’s well-meant instruction to go home quietly. She probably didn’t have a ‘home’ as such, merely a bed in cheap lodgings which she may well not have had the money to pay for. That’s why she stayed out and ignored him in the first place.

[from The Standard , Monday, August 13, 1860]

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