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Prostitution in maritime London

The 17th century
The 18th century
Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies
19th-century responses to prostitution
The Contagious Diseases Act
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19th-century responses to prostitution

Changing views

Houndsditch (1872).
View full size imageHoundsditch (1872). © NMM

By the end of the 18th century, the view of prostitutes as members of a rough, but essentially humourous London subculture had changed. They were now seen by artists and commentators as either a danger to 'respectable' society, or as unfortunate victims who needed help and sympathy.

The caricatures of bawdy taverns and cheerful brothels pictured by Rowlandson and others were thus replaced by visions of sinister slums containing seedy dance halls and down-market brothels.

William Acton

They were inhabited by what the surgeon and social reformer William Acton called a 'horde of human tigresses who swarm the pestilent dens by the riverside at Ratcliffe and Shadwell'.

In 1857, Acton published Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects. This was based on information derived from Acton’s own observations and from police figures.

Waterside labour.
View full size imageWaterside labour.© NMM

Acton concluded there were 2825 brothels within the Metropolitan Police District and some 8,600 prostitutes. These were only the women that were known to the police. The true figure was much higher as many worked as prostitutes on a part-time basis or remained hidden.

Rotherhithe Street.
View full size imageRotherhithe Street. © NMM

The Society for the Suppression of Vice estimated that there were 80,000 prostitutes. The maritime districts had the greatest concentration of prostitutes. This reflected the large numbers of visiting sailors:

  • Houndsditch-Whitechapel-Ratcliffe area: 1803 prostitutes
  • Mile End-Shadwell-Blackwall: 963
  • Southwark-Bermondsey-Rotherhithe: 667
  • Deptford-Greenwich area: 401.

China Emma

Ratcliff wharves.
View full size imageThe Ratcliffe waterfront. © NMM

The statistics were given human faces by commentators like Bracebridge Hemyng. He contributed a chapter on women in the port to Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851).

Among the women that Hemyng met was China Emma, who lived off Ratcliffe Highway. Emma had acquired her nickname because she lived with a Chinese sailor. Her mother died when she was 12 and her father took to drink.

Within three years he was also dead and Emma went to stay with her sister. The sister soon moved in with a man, leaving Emma to fend for herself. Eventually, Emma met a sailor and moved in with him, living as man and wife for six years. Unfortunately, he caught yellow fever in the West Indies and died, leaving Emma alone once more. She was force to become a prostitute in order to survive.

Breaking bulk on board a tea ship.
View full size imageChinese sailors on board a tea ship. © NMM

Not long after, she met a Chinese sailor called Apoo and moved in with him. He sent her money when he was abroad, but by this time Emma had become a drunkard.

Apoo had no patience with her drinking and often used to tie her arms and legs together and take her outside into the street.

'He’d throw me into the gutter, and then he’d throw buckets of water over me till I was wet through; but that didn’t cure; I don’t belive anything would; I’d die for a drink; I must have it, and I don’t care what I does to get it.'

Emma tried to kill herself several times by jumping into the Thames, but her attempts always failed. Once, she leapt out of the first-floor window of a waterfront house in Jamaica Place, but a passing boatman fished her out with a boathook.

Opium dens

Opium smokers
View full size imageOpium smokers. © NMM

In one Limehouse slum, Hemyng entered a room where a Lascar was living with a prostitute. The sailor had been smoking opium and was lying on a straw mattress on the floor covered by two tattered blankets. He was stupefied by the opium and the room was filled with its sickly smell.

Chinese Gamblers in an Opium Den.
View full size imageChinese gamblers in an opium den. © NMM
The woman who crouched by his bedside looked like an animated bundle of rags. Her face was grimy and unwashed 'and her hands so black and filthy that mustard-and-cress might have been sown successfully upon them'.

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