What was the place of prostitution in 19th-century society? Judith Flanders looks at documents and publications that provide an insight into attitudes towards the profession.

Any discussion of prostitution in the 19th century must begin by saying we have no idea of the numbers involved. In 1791, a police magistrate estimated (and he used the words ‘estimate’ and ‘conjecture’) that there were 50,000 prostitutes in London. Yet the word ‘prostitute’ was not used entirely the way we would use it today, i.e. to refer only to women sold their bodies for sex. In the 19th century, many people used it more widely, to refer to women who were living with men outside marriage, or women who had had illegitimate children, or women who perhaps had relations with men, but for pleasure rather than money. Certainly at least half this figure of 50,000 women consisted of unmarried women living with a partner, while only 20,000 referred to what we would today call prostitutes. Even so, that 20,000-plus is still a much higher figure than the police and court reports of the period indicate, yet by 1817, a figure of 80,000 was being used, which appears to be the 50,000 women (even though half weren’t prostitutes at all), extrapolated for the rise in population.

William Acton, a surgeon, said he had ‘counted 185 [prostitutes] in the course of a walk home’. His likely route would have taken him past several areas known for streetwalkers, so he may have passed many working women. But short of accosting each one, it seems likely he based his judgements on appearance: women who dressed or behaved in ways men considered inappropriate were deemed to be whores.

From the little information we have, we know that most women who earned their living from selling sex were working class, the majority taking up with men from their own socio-economic background before going out on the streets. The more fortunate, usually in the West End and the prosperous suburbs, worked as prostitutes for a few years, while saving up to get married. One woman said as much: ‘she had got tired of service, wanted to see life and be independent; & so she had become a prostitute … She … enjoyed it very much, thought it might raise her & perhaps be profitable’.[1] After three years, she had saved up enough to become the landlady of a coffee-house.

Most, however, spent long hours in the wet and the cold. Some worked in the red-light districts, others in their own neighbourhoods. The dockyards had a large population of prostitutes, and Granby Street, beside Waterloo Station was notorious, for women ‘half naked’ in the windows. Nancy, in Oliver Twist, is fairly typical in that she works not far from where she lives, in Clerkenwell, a notorious slum-district in London, while her long-term partner, Bill Sikes, has much the same background as her own. Yet, given the constraints of what could be written at the time, we don’t know that Nancy is what today we would think of as a prostitute. Her only partner may well be Sikes, and if that is so, she is defined merely through their lack of marriage, like half the women counted by the police-magistrate in the first paragraph. Certainly we never learn that she has clients, or that she walks the streets, or is supported by other men. Whatever the case, Dickens portrays her sympathetically – after all, she dies to save Oliver – which disturbed many of his middle-class readers. Queen Victoria recorded Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, as saying: ‘I don’t like those things … in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented’. (She, by contrast, thought the book as a whole was ‘excessively interesting’.)

Colour illustrations from 1911 edition of Oliver Twist

Illustration by George Cruikshank depicting Nancy meeting with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie, from a 1911 edition of Oliver Twist.

View images from this item  (24)

Usage terms Public Domain

The Favourite Poems of Thomas Hood, with illustrations by Doré

The Favourite Poems of Thomas Hood, with illustrations by Doré [page: p. 4 and facing]

Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ is a stereotypical 19th century dramatisation of prostitution: the ‘fallen woman’ is fated to die. Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1872.

View images from this item  (8)

Usage terms Public Domain

Dress played a great part in recognizing street-walkers, for otherwise it was hard to tell. ‘Walter’, the pseudonymous author of an 11-volume erotic memoir, wrote of a women holding up their skirts, ‘the common habit of even respectable women’. The only difference was prostitutes ‘hold them up just a little higher’. But how high was ‘a little higher’? To be sure, Walter had to approach, asking ‘Will you come with me?’ Only when she agreed, could he be certain.

Touch for Touch: satirical print depicting a prostitute

Touch for Touch: satirical print depicting a prostitute

Satirical illustration by Thomas Rowlandson depicting a woman whom the artist identifies as a prostitute by her clothing: a low bust line, shortened dress and displayed ankles, 19th century.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

If prostitutes were only recognisable when they were approached, it meant a lot of respectable women were importuned in the streets, as could be seen from a series of letters in The Times in 1862.[2] A man complained that his daughters had been followed down Oxford Street by ‘scoundrels’ making lewd suggestions; one reader replied saying she was never accosted, and perhaps the girls’ dress or behaviour had encouraged these men? Others joined in, until a magazine suggested that the answer was for women to dress in ugly clothes and keep their heads down.[3]

The English Spy

The English Spy [page: vol. II facing p. 310]

Illustration by Robert Cruikshank from The English Spy by Charles Molloy Westmacott, 1825-26. Cruikshank and Westmacott use clothing and coded language to imply that these women are prostitutes.

View images from this item  (19)

Usage terms Public Domain

More than anything, a woman’s lack of respectability was signalled by her presence in a place of public entertainment. In the late 1830s or early 1840s, a series of small books, The Swell’s Night Guides were published, listing the advantages and drawbacks of various theatres for men of pleasure. At one, men were allowed backstage if they tipped the usher, another theatre had boxes furnished with couches, the boxes of a third had doors that locked, to prevent unexpected visitors.

The Swell’s Night Guide also gave advice on how to approach actresses. It warned men not to offer them money, but to say they wanted to hire them for private theatricals. This throws a startling light on how Dickens’s friends might have perceived his relationship with Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan, for whom Dickens, aged 45, had left his wife: he had hired the 18-year-old actress to perform in private theatricals.

The New Swell's Night Guide

The New Swell's Night Guide [page: fold-out frontispiece and title page]

The Swell's Night Guides listed the establishments (the 'introducing houses', 'West-End walks', 'chanting slums' and 'dossing kens') at which men could find prostitutes.

View images from this item  (7)

Usage terms Public Domain

This was the world of heterosexual commercial sex. That there was a homosexual commercial world is certain, but most information we have comes from court cases, due to the fact that homosexuality was illegal at this time. A few dozen report the closures of gay brothels, or pubs, but the most popular locations were the parks and the streets, particularly those near barracks.

'Closing scene at the Old Bailey': newspaper coverage of the Oscar Wilde trial

'Closing scene at the Old Bailey': newspaper coverage of the Oscar Wilde trial

Newspaper coverage of the trial of Oscar Wilde for 'acts of gross indecency' with another man, from the Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

A diary tells on one such meeting, its author an Englishman living in Venice, but visiting London in the late 1840s. He cruised regularly: ‘Fine. Tried my luck once more. I sat in the Park; but so shy that I cd make [illegible] nothing.’ ‘Fun & Folly … Saw J.B. We went up to Albany St.’ Later he filled in the scanty details of his meeting with ‘J.B.’, a trooper named Jack Brand: ‘I saw you in all your beauty, smiling as your gallant charger reared & pranced … And then in the [sentry] Box I spoke to you, & after Parade we met for five minutes, & you told me your name’ That evening, ‘at the Arch at Hyde Park Corner met my poor Boy’, where they rented a room.[4] The story continued, a casual commercial pick-up transforming into a relationship. But after only a few months Brand died of cholera, leaving his grieving lover behind.


[1] Derek Hudson, Munby, Man of Two Worlds: the life and diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828-1910 (London: J. Murray, 1972), p. 40.

[2] The Times, 7 January 1862. Note that responses were printed on subsequent days.

[3] ‘Rape of the Glances, Saturday Review, 1 February 1862, pp. 124–5.

[4] Edward Leeves, Leaves from a Victorian Diary (London: Alison, 1985) , pp. 31, 32, 108, 118.

© Judith Flanders

  • Judith Flanders
  • Judith Flanders is a historian and author who focussed on the Victorian period. Her most recent book The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London was published in 2012.