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Prostitution in maritime London

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The Contagious Diseases Act

Prostitutes arrested in Woolwich

The Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich
View full size imageThe Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich. © NMM
The growing number of investigations into prostitution had important effects, one of which was the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864. This legislation allowed policeman to arrest prostitutes in ports and army towns and force them to have compulsory checks for venereal disease.

A private of the Royal Marines.
View full size imageWoolwich was a Royal Marines division until 1869. © NMM

If the women were suffering from sexually transmitted diseases they were placed in a locked hospital until cured. Woolwich, home of the Royal Artillery and a Royal Marines posting, was one of the few garrison towns in London.

Prostitutes arrested there were sent to the Lock Hospitals in Soho and Kensington. It was claimed that this was the best way to protect men from infected women. Many of the women arrested were not prostitutes, but still they were forced to undergo a humiliating medical examination.

Josephine Butler

Demonstrating women
View full size imageMany women campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Act. © NMM

Many women thought that this law discriminated against women, as it did not contain any similar sanctions against men. Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme led the campaign against the law by forming the Ladies' Association Against the Contagious Diseases Act.

Butler sympathized with prostitutes whom she believed had been forced into this work by low earnings and unemployment. Butler and Wolstenholme toured the country making speeches calling for a change in the law. Many people were shocked by the idea of women speaking in public about sexual matters.

Some women did not agree with Butler over this issue. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who ran the New Hospital for Women in London, believed that the Act provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children from venereal disease. Despite the arguments, the Contagious Diseases Act was finally repealed in 1886.

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