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Thursday, 14 April 2011

“They Find it Very Convenient to Come Down Here and Drop Into The Water” Or: A Helping Hand for Victorian Prostitutes:

Prostitution was rife in Victorian England, particularly in the big cities. As far as earning money went, it was a relatively easy living for women of almost all ages, which, I expect, is why so many philanthropists and the church, despite their efforts at trying to ‘save’ the women from their lifestyle, have never managed to eradicate what is commonly known as the oldest occupation in the world.

There were many social reformists and societies established in the nineteenth century to try and put a stop to this immoral practice, and countless pieces of journalism or literature by reporters, writers and the clergy which seek to bring the problems of the ‘fallen women’ to the attention of both the government and, perhaps more importantly, the public. Even Charles Dickens opened ‘Urania Cottage’ a house for ‘fallen women’ in the late 1840’s in Shepherd’s Bush with the help of wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, but could not put a stop the trade.

Some of these establishments, however, it seems got through to the odd girl or two and encouraged them to turn their lives around. Whilst reading through some other works of Charles Maurice Davies, whose article on an evening with a spirit medium appears in the previous post, I came across another of his works, this time from 1873, named ‘Orthodox London.’
In this chapter he writes of his attendance at a midnight meeting in the east end. At these midnight meetings, prostitutes were given food, spoken to, mildly educated, entertained and given advice and, if possible, help. 
It is interesting to note in the piece that one of the workers tells Davies that he refers to the Dock Bridge – which was constantly attended by a police officer due to its popularity with suicidal fallen women – as the ‘Bridge of Sighs.’ This is almost certainly in reference to the poem of the same name written in 1844 by Thomas Hood, though the bridge in the poem is Waterloo Bridge.
I have included the poem, ‘Bridge of Sighs’ beneath Davies’ article.

An East End Midnight Meeting
That man essays a difficult task who would write of London's ugliest vice without calling up a blush to the cheek of virtue and innocence who would let decent English maids and matrons read the story of their "erring sisters' shame" without pandering to a depraved curiosity or a vulgar appetite for horrors. 
Let none who seek such prurient details be at the pains to run their eye down these pages; nor, at the same time; let those who dread to hear of the special sin of great cities veil them from the sight even of the purest and most blessedly ignorant in the household. Let each be well assured that, while a plain, unvarnished statement of things heard and seen is given, much must of necessity be suppressed. The whole of the stern, sad truth cannot be told, but from what is told, let those who read guess what might .be revealed were no such wholesome restraint enforced.
Neither, again, is it of West-end vice painted, enamelled, almost refined that we would now speak. No Lais or Aspasia is the model at present. No Formosa lures us to scenes of gilded vice. It is vice with the paint off, or so clumsily patched as to heighten its deformity, that we are to see. 

Here is the programme: Midnight Meeting Movement. Admit to St Matthew's Schoolroom, Princes Square, St George's Street, E., at eleven o'clock; whilst a written addendum states that ‘This meeting is among the sailors' girls of Ratcliff Highway, a distinct class of the fallen.' Fallen, and in Ratcliff Highway! That announcement, coupled with the assurance that every unpleasing detail shall be delicately veiled, will surely be enough to scare all but genuine good Samaritans from the too true story. 

On leaving the silent city behind to go eastward at night, I have a feeling as though I had passed beyond the haunts of civilization into some desert. Nor is the idea quite hyperbolical; for that district lying along the Thames east of London Bridge is a country in itself, and towards midnight it has many of the unattractive aspects of a wilderness. Along Thames Street, so busy by day-time, you hear the echo of your own footsteps. Pass the postern gate of the Tower, and you are in the sailors' quarter; on into Ratcliff Highway, euphemistically termed St George's Street where, amid frequent public-houses and dancing-rooms, low vice keeps perpetual saturnalia. Leaving for a moment this noisy thoroughfare, I find myself in one of those queer, quiet nooks so numerous in London, Princes Square, with the little Swedish church in the centre, looking picturesque in the moonlight. Among other buildings is St Matthew's Schoolroom. I enter, and find the clergyman and a couple of the society's officials. The company have not yet arrived, though ample preparations are being made for a large number in the shape of a comfortable tea. 

It is proposed that we should pass the time before the hour of assembling in visiting the public-houses of Ratcliff Highway; and, in charge of a gentleman who has the entree, I sally forth. If you look narrowly into each low gin-shop, you will find that it has a long room at the back, with tables running round, the centre being left open for dancing, and the end occupied by a small stage. In the first we enter a man is singing a comic song to a small audience; or rather the audience and he are singing it together, and the young ladies of the company, in a sort of ballet attire, with a tendency to scarlet boots, are mingling freely with the audience. A word with the smart barmaid as to whether she has read the last book he left, and my guide marshals me into the dancing-room, the manager of which, attired as a clown, is lounging in the doorway. 

The wonderful thing is the excellent footing on which my friend, who is a City Missionary, stands with the publicans, diametrically opposed as their callings seem. He shakes hands with all the girls, calls them 'lassies' and scatters his invitations broadcast among them. They are largely accepted too. There is an utter difference, he tells me, between these sailors' girls and the soldiers' girls of contiguous quarters. They hold no communication with one another. These girls have a distinctive attire. They go bareheaded, greatly leaning to ornaments in their hair; they wear low dresses and a shawl cast about them to look like an opera cloak. On many a breast I saw strange to say a large cross! 

As we passed one dismal lane leading out of the main thoroughfare, my guide asked me to come down. 'This is Gravel Lane,' he said; 'at the bottom is the Dock bridge, where so many of these poor girls throw themselves over. It has been found necessary in consequence to keep a policeman there from seven in the evening all night. I call it the "Bridge of Sighs"' he added. We went down; and, sure enough, there was the policeman at his gloomy vigil. It was a quiet nook, with the bows of two big ships looming over the moonlit water. 'They find it very convenient,' said the Missionary, with a touch of grim humour, 'to come down here and drop into the water.' 

'The Bridge of Sighs' by John Everett Millais
But it was time to get back to the schoolroom. When we did so, we found somewhere about eighty girls assembled, sitting on the school forms, and taking tea with evident gusto. There was some little noise of course - where did ever fourscore females of any class gather without noise over the cup that cheers? - But still all was orderly and decorous, so far. From the brazen-face harridan who had been 'out' for long years (such is the technical term), to the girl of fifteen, whose 'outing' numbered only weeks there they were, human wrecks, body and soul, stranded on the cruel shoals of society, and only beginning to be recognized as material for the social reformer to work upon. Some half-dozen gentlemen connected with the Midnight Meeting Society, and two or three Bible-women were waiting on these strange guests; and the clergyman, a youngish man, with quite white hair and a silvery voice, was going up and down the ranks, making cheery remarks, and ministering to appetites that were by no means delicate. I ingratiated myself by taking round that highly popular condiment, the plumcake; and whilst I did so, not one indecent or even discourteous word was spoken, no indelicate act or look met my eye amongst those fourscore of the very offscouring of Ratcliff Highway. 'It is astonishing what relics of humanity one finds here,' said the clergyman. 

With instinctive horror naturally experienced for what is new or strange, I felt myself shrinking from these poor girls in the dancing- room, whilst my merry Missionary shook each one by the hand and greeted her with his 'Well, lassie! ' But when brought face to face with them, I was utterly ashamed of such a feeling, and wondered why people should shake them off roughly or give them hard speeches, instead of imitating the good Missionary's efforts to say a word that shall save them. 

One of the first girls to whom I spoke had just made the 'great experiment' of a leap from the Bridge of Sighs. She had been rescued from the water and taken to prison, where she was kept for seven days; and when I saw her she had only that morning come out of gaol. She had evidently been drinking during the day; and there was a fierce light in her eyes, as she kept saying, in answer to protests against her attempted suicide, and advice that she should try to right herself, 'No, no; I am fallen too low, too low. I shall try London Bridge tonight.' 'Do you think she will?' I asked of one of the officials.' 'Likely enough,' was the business-like reply. In a quarter of an hour I came round to her again, and she was roaring with laughter and 'taking a sight' at a friend on a neighbouring bench. 

When tea was over a hymn was sung, and considerable giggling was caused by its being pitched so high that the key had to be changed. That was the great interruption in fact, the only interruption of the evening, the irrepressible proneness of the girls to giggle; but I fancy I have observed this proneness elsewhere than in the purlieus of Ratcliff Highway. For instance, to show how a casual word will lead these impetuous people astray the clergyman read a portion of Scripture to them, and related the parable of the Ten Virgins. The title was received with a regular guffaw. His address, which was perhaps a little too scholarly, described the marriage ceremonies of the East, and the 'ornament of grace' worn by the bride, at which the girls giggled again, and quite lost the point of that allegory. They sang lustily, and many of them had melodious voices. A few could sing the hymns without book - relic of a decent childhood, not yet lost!
One old stager, who prided herself on her vocal powers, managed to get an arm-chair all to herself, and sang really an excellent alto with the air of an Alboni. Another gentleman followed the clergyman, and took the invitation ticket above quoted as his text, repeating, over and over again, the question, 'Have you got tickets for Heaven?' and receiving pointed, but sotto voce replies. Strangely enough, the noisiest and most troublesome section were not the sailors' girls, but some work-girls sack-sewers who kept to themselves, and did their best to disturb proceedings, leaving noisily so soon as they had disposed of a very heavy tea, and had a brief 'lark' during the preliminary proceedings. 

There were several more hymns, and a brief address was given by the secretary of the society, who urged the girls to leave the bad life at once behind. They could, if they chose, go away from that room, and be taken in cabs to homes where they would be qualified to lead decent lives for the future, and eventually, out of a total of eighty-eight, four girls did so remain, and a good many others promised to come to the office in the morning. One fresh-looking country lass wanted to be sent home to attend her mother's funeral. Her father, who had been a farmer, was in independent circumstances; but the daughter was an outcast, though only six weeks 'out' in Ratcliff Highway, and as comely and well-spoken a girl as one could wish to see. Decidedly the noisiest and most giggling of the whole fourscore was, to my surprise, one of the four who remained; but I was informed that those who thus remained are often disappointing cases. Either they act on impulse, which cools down Before the morning ; or they will sometimes go to the Home because it is late, and they may be locked out of their lodgings; or even they will go simply for the 'lark' of having a ride in a cab. The ordeal of having to walk up from Ratcliff to the office in Red Lion Square in the morning is, as one can well understand, a much better test of sincerity. 

Two other interesting 'cases' may be mentioned, each confirming the good clergyman's remark that relics of humanity exist even here. One girl lingered long and anxiously about the door; and the cause, I was told, was that she had a little child, two years old, whom she wished to have cared for. Clinging to the old, vile life herself, she still sought, like Dives in the parable, that the one to whom Nature had bound her with such strong ties might not come to that place of torment. The second case was that of a middle-aged woman, on whose face, it perhaps sounds hard to say, Nature seemed to have graven the stigma of her calling. I had noticed her as one of the few who shed tears when allusion was made to the fact that some of the girls probably had mothers who had cared for them and prayed over them, and might even now be watching them from the world beyond. 'That woman,' said my guide of the evening, 'is a veritable missionary for me. She has been 'out' eleven years; and though she won't leave her bad life, she protects me from being insulted, and gets the younger girls to listen to me.' 

As the girls passed out of the room, a card was presented to each with the following words: 'Dear Friend, If you will call at the office of the Midnight Meeting Movement, 5, Red Lion Square, Holborn, W. C., any day, from Monday to Friday, between ten and four, and Saturday, between ten and twelve, advice will be given you, and, if possible, assistance for the future.' 

Such were some of the presentable particulars of the Midnight Meeting. They may serve a good purpose if they convince the most forlorn wanderer on the wild London streets that there is still such a word as 'home' for her; that she need not say, in Hood's graphic words 

Oh, it was pitiful, 
Near a whole city full, 
Home she had none.

Christian charity is not so rare as it was. There are among us those large-hearted ones who can pity the sinner, whilst they loathe her sin. If one such Sister of Mercy in the truest sense of the words can learn from what we have now said a new mission and mode of doing good, another sphere of serving Him who did not disdain to work among the publicans and harlots, this brief record of the Midnight Meeting will not have been written in vain. 

Bridge of Sighs’ by Thomas Hood (1844)
One more unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly
Lift her with care;
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonor,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve's family--
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God's providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life's history,
Glad to death's mystery,
Swift to be hurl'd--
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

Is she plunged boldly--
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran--
Over the brink of it,
Picture it--think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro' muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix'd on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr'd by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.--
Cross her hand humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behavior,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to the Savior!

As an addendum, a few posts ago I mentioned a book by Augustus Mayhew named “Paved with Gold, Or, the Romance and Reality of the London Streets: An Unfashionable Novel” (if you missed in, you can read it here) In which he gave one of the best descriptions of Victorian London in the snow I had ever read.
Similarly, whilst reading the novel, I came across some excellent descriptions of desolate and desperate women. I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but to ‘cap off’ this post, I’ll finish with a word from him, in which he describes a homeless pregnant woman walking the streets of London on her way to end her life in similar fashion to the women at the ‘bridge of Sighs’:

As the air seemed to grow colder than ever at the fag end of the night, and the streets had long been rid of the few remaining brawlers, leaving her the only wanderer through them, she grew more wretched and desperate than ever. Driven by the policeman from door-step to door-step, and finding that she was not allowed to sit, much less sleep, in the thoroughfares, she began to think it better to end such a life as hers, and sauntered on, shuddering, towards the river.
But when there, the water was like a sheet of steel, and looked so witheringly cold as her mantle flew open in the nipping breeze, that her timid resolves took flight, and she felt she lacked the courage, even though heart-broken and half-frozen as she was, for such a death as that.


  1. I just found this blog & as a Victorian Studies MA student it makes interesting reading, especially your uses of primary sources.
    I will make sure I keep reading!

  2. Thanks for finding us Jan! With your impending qualification you'll probably soon discover that you yourself have become a primary source!

    Please feel free to correct any inaccuracies you find and thanks for commenting!

  3. Great reading as always, sadly Prostitution is still rife, my Son comes across it every day in his work, he has lots 'clients' who have fallen by the wayside, to that & to drink & drugs, he spends all his time & the home he works for trying to put these people on a better path in life, I couldn't do his job, its mostly a thankless task, but one success here & there keeps him going & he does a brilliant job & loves his work, very sad that we still need people like him in these times.(katejordan1876)

  4. Its also fantastic that we have people like him to be there for people like these.

    It would be easy for us as a society to look at how long this 'trade' has gone on for and wonder what the point of trying to intervene is, but, thankfully, many of us don't, and if just one person out of a thousand can be helped then its something.

    I often wonder what the Victorians would think if they could visit us for a day. I should imagine there would be a lot of 'Goodness me, THAT still goes on a hundred-and-fifty years later.' and 'Heavens, I thought we would have found a better way of doing things than that by now.'

    War is another thing, like prostitution, that seems to have been happening forever but the cessation of which does not appear to be on the horizon.

    Thanks for the comment, much appreciated and well done to your son!

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