Tony Henderson. Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830. London and New York: Longman, 1999. x + 226 pp. $29.20 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-26421-2; $106.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-582-26395-6.
Reviewed by Kristen Robinson (Department of History, University of Kentucky)
Published on H-Women (April, 2000)
Prostitutes in Eighteenth-Century London
Tony Henderson's Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London seeks to fill a void in the historiography of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prostitution. Most studies that have appeared thus far have concentrated on either the trade of prostitution, such as L. Basserman's The Oldest Profession (1967) and F. Henriques' Prostitution and Society (1962-8); or of reform movements dealing with prostitution, such as V. Bullough's "Prostitution and Reform in Eighteenth-Century England" in R. P. Maccubbin's Unauthorized Sexual Behavior During the Enlightenment (1985) and L. Mahood's The Magdalenes (1990); or legal histories dealing with prostitution, such as S. J. Rogal's "The Selling of Sex" in Eighteenth-Century Life (1976). Henderson, however, has attempted to produce a history of prostitutes, explaining where they came from, why they turned to prostitution, the conditions of their lives, and contemporary attitudes toward them. His exquisitely organized, well-researched book succeeds in many ways.
Prostitutes, Henderson asserts, reflected the general makeup of London's poor. Prostitutes were usually born into poverty, often orphaned or abandoned, and attained little education or marketable job skills. A sizable minority (approximately forty percent) of prostitutes came from London; the remaining sixty percent immigrated from the countryside or Ireland. These figures are not all that different from an analysis of the birthplaces of all of London's urban poor. Prostitutes tended to be in their late teens or early twenties; very few young girls entered into prostitution. Most of London's prostitutes entered into prostitution on a full- or part-time basis because of economic need and their lack of other marketable skills.
Most of London's prostitutes were independent streetwalkers. For self protection they tended to work in pairs or small groups. Very few streetwalkers had pimps or madams; most worked independently and kept the majority of their wages for themselves. Very few brothels existed in London; the sexual act was usually performed in a secluded public area, a cheap lodging house or the prostitute's own room. The biggest danger the prostitutes faced was venereal disease, since few of the prostitutes or their clients used condoms to protect themselves. Prostitutes were somewhat accepted in their communities; they lived with the rest of the urban poor, and while some of their neighbors were hostile to them, many were tolerant or even supportive.
Prostitutes were scattered throughout London, but were found in greater concentrations in a few areas. They tended to gather in areas with looser police control; when the police became stricter in the City of London in the eighteenth century, the prostitutes gravitated toward the west and east ends of the city; when police control loosened in the early nineteenth century, they returned to the City. Prostitutes also tended to congregate in areas with cheap lodging houses and lots of men. St. Giles and St. James, home to many cheap boardinghouses, were popular with prostitutes in Westminster; the Docks, where many sailors disembarked, was popular on the east side of the city.
The laws governing prostitution were confused and often contradictory. Legal analysts could point to both the harshness and the leniency of ancient laws governing prostitution. Many of these ancient laws did not deal with prostitution as a separate crime from fornication or lewdness. Legal theorists recognized the need to differentiate prostitution from women's premarital or extramarital sex in the eighteenth century, but they differed on how best to do so. Many legal scholars also feared transforming London's manageable prostitution problem into an unmanageable one by cracking down too hard on the prostitutes, whose services were in demand, and forcing them underground. The police and judicial systems faced the practical problems created by the inability of the legal system to draw conclusions about prostitution. The police and streetwalkers constantly compromised and accommodated each other; while prostitution was clearly illegal, the victimless nature of the crime and the clear public desire for their services gave prostitutes some influence over the police. If arrested and charged, charges prostitutes faced magistrates who had an equal degree of flexibility in dealing with them. Brothels and brothel keepers experienced the same flexibility in dealing with the law. Prostitutes and brothel owners, while clearly disadvantaged under the law, were able to manipulate the system in many instances, taking advantage of the public's tacit acceptance of them and the lack of a clear legal system to deal with them.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, attitudes about prostitutes changed. Before the mid-eighteenth century, most prostitutes were seen as harlots who sought sex for pleasure. In the eighteenth century, however, prostitution was redefined as a condition stemming from economic need. These two images of prostitutes existed side by side in a confused and contradictory pattern. Reformers often wanted to stress prostitutes' victimization, so they emphasized the ways that prostitutes were exploited in London's economy. They disregarded and attempted to hide the prostitutes' agency in their own lives. Prostitutes were held up as objects of pity, yet were still condemned by many in the public as immoral. Institutions set up to help prostitutes were often ineffective. They were inconsistently used prostitutes, and often to temporarily supplement, rather than replacement, their income from prostitution. As prostitutes' agency was dismissed, they came to be defined as outsiders among London's poor. They were seen as different from other women, to the detriment of both prostitutes and non-prostitutes. Henderson asserts that the shift from defining prostitution as a temporary condition to seeing it as a permanent part of a woman's identity tightened the social rules governing the behavior of both prostitutes and non-prostitutes, leaving both groups with less control over their own lives.
Henderson draws his information from a wide variety of sources. The bulk of his material comes from London's watch and legal records. He also draws information from the reports of various government committees set up to study prostitution and other social problems. He includes a fair amount of anecdotal evidence from newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books and personal papers. His book is very well organized; while his chapters overlap somewhat by necessity, each is focused and direct.
Disorderly Women is an excellent study of eighteenth-century prostitution. It is clear, well-written and well-organized. It would be exceptionally useful for students beginning to study this topic because of its brevity, focus, and organization. Although Henderson is a little too focused at times. He paints a very detailed picture of London's prostitutes, but has difficulty placing them in a wider context. While he is careful to try to put the prostitutes he studies among London's poor, but he often does so merely by assertion. Some research or more detailed references on non-prostitutes, to whom he often refers, would be useful. Such examples are readily available from other sources, but should appear more frequently. On the whole, however, Tony Henderson's Disorderly Women is exceptional.
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Kristen Robinson. Review of Henderson, Tony, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830.
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