Fallen Women – Victorian Prostitution and Reform

Fallen Women

In the Victorian Era (1837-1901), women from genteel families were expected to marry well and remain within the family home afterwards to ensure the home was a place of comfort to her husband. Sex was for procreation only and women were not expected to enjoy the act, only to be passive vessels for their husbands.

The ‘Angel in the house’ model was also followed by upper and upper-middle class families whose aim was to follow in the footsteps of their betters. Women were not educated, except in those subjects deemed to be acceptable, being able to sing, speak a little Italian or French and most importantly of all how to run a household and ensuring her children were well brought up.

For women from poorer classes, their lives were harder, they were often exploited as domestic servants, factory workers, seamstresses and other lowly paid occupations. They too were expected to marry and procreate, but in their cases they were also expected to contribute to the family income in order to stave off starvation and the workhouse.

Prostitution is, as the saying goes, the oldest profession in the world; and in Victorian England in London alone there were estimated to be between 80,000 and 800,000 prostitutes working in the city alone. Prostitution was not illegal, though many women found themselves incarcerated in prison due to drinking and public disorder.

Women from all walks of live found themselves becoming prostitutes over the course of the 19th century; from those who found themselves in genteel poverty to the poorest of the poor who were left with no alternative. Women from the upper classes could suddenly find themselves plunged into poverty if they were left with no support after their husbands or male relatives died. Options were few, becoming governesses, teachers, boarding house owners were some open to them, but these possibilities were fraught with their own problems.

Women and young girls who were in domestic service could find themselves out of a position for any one of a number of reasons from refusing the advances of the son of the house or from any perceived ‘wrong’ they may have committed. Similarly factory girls could be exploited by older male workers as well as owners and could find themselves in a precarious situation.

Many of these women became known as “fallen women” as the only way they were able to support themselves in any kind of way was by resorting to prostitution; from the genteel courtesan who became mistress of Dukes and Kings to the lower classes who found themselves working the streets or working in a brothel and following the Madam’s orders.

There were several institutions and organizations set up to help “fallen women”, including the notorious Magdalene Houses were women were set a hard regime of domestic work and prayer in the hopes of reforming them.

However, it was with the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 that Victorian prostitution became the focus of reform. The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduces in response to one thing, the spread of venereal disease throughout the armed forces. The British Army did not allow enlisted men to marry and many of them therefore turned to prostitutes. Instead of examining the soldiers and sailors (as this was supposedly demoralised the men), prostitutes were instead examined for signs of venereal disease and if any were found they were placed in a locked hospital until cured.

The police were able to detain and inspect any woman whom they considered to be infected which led to humiliating experiences for the women, including some innocent women who were detained purely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Opposition of the Contagious Diseases Acts came from Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme who formed the Ladies Association against the Contagious Diseases Act and who spoke at public meetings (scandalising some of their contemporaries) and working tirelessly to have these Acts repealed. Parliament finally repealed the Acts in 1886.

Carol Kerry-Green is a professional genealogist researching throughout the UK from Hull in East Yorkshire. She is also a writer of social history articles and has been published in Your Family History and Who do You Think You Are magazines. She has given talks on the History of Council Housing and the History & Architecture of Almshouses; as well as Maps & Genealogy for AGRA’s study day.

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