William Acton was the first person to compile an extensively researched and pragmatic report on the state of prostitution in Victorian England. Published as Prostitution considered in its moral, social, and sanitary aspects, in London and other large cities in 1857, this was a landmark work.

Acton’s approach to prostitution

In his main profession, Acton was as a surgeon specialising in genito-urinary disorders and venereal diseases. Increasingly, his interest extended to the social problems behind these illnesses: why and how did they occur, and what was their impact on communities? These questions were inevitably linked to the issue of unprotected, typically extramarital, sex, and prostitution as an unregulated trade.

In Prostitution, Acton identifies the medical and social issues surrounding the women and men involved in the trade, before making recommendations for ways to introduce regulations. At a time when prostitution was often misunderstood, sensationalised, or demonised, Acton’s work largely comes across as measured and compassionate. In the introduction (pp. 4-5), he challenges negative stereotypes and calls for an end to classing women as ‘outlaws’ (although he later supported the Contagious Diseases Act, which effectively criminalised all women either known or suspected to be working as prostitutes). He rejected the popularly held opinion that women chose prostitution because they were innately sinful and possessed an unnatural ‘sensuality’. Instead, Acton highlighted the range of social conditions that led women to the trade, including ‘distress, [and] hunger’.

Estimating the numbers of prostitutes in London

Also shown here is a table containing estimates of the numbers of women working as prostitutes within London in 1857. The table is divided by borough. Although these figures provide a fair impression of the profession, they should not be treated as completely accurate; other estimates from the 19th century vary.