Prostitution in Victorian England – Presentation Page

Prostitution in Victorian England was a part of everyday life for people from every class, ethnicity, and gender.

Prostitution became a major concern and a focal point for social reformers in the 19th century.  Concerns were seen everywhere including the literature of people like Charles Dickens.  He created characters (some of which may have had real life versions) like Nancy in Oliver Twist, and Martha Endell in David Copperfield

No one knows for certain, but there were somewhere between 8,000 and 80,000 prostitutes in London during the Victorian Age. It is generally accepted that most of these women found themselves in prostitution due to economic necessity. 

There were three attitudes towards prostitution – condemnation, regulation, and reformation.  Dickens adopted the last and was intimately involved in a house of reform called Urania Cottage.  My interest was piqued when I researched Urania Cottage and read some of the stories of the women there.  There are tons of articles about why prostitution became such a problem for society, but my interest lay in how a woman became a prostitute.  I mean I know “how.”  What I was interested in were the steps that led women to that decision. 


They Whys and Wherefores of Victorian Prostitution 

Population (New World Encyclopedia)

  • The population of England doubled in the last 50 years of the 19thc.  It jumped from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 in 1901.
  • 1851 Census showed 4% more women than men
  • 18 million people – 75,000 women too many – referred to as “superfluous” or “redundant” women

Economy – times were tough

  • Industrial Revolutioncreated opportunity but population increases meant a surplus of labor – more people fewer jobs – labor prices (wages) went down.
    • Social constructs said that a young man should not marry until he could afford to support a family.  In the 19th C., people who had families couldn’t afford to feed them – No one in his right mind would decide to start one.  The result was a larger number of unmarried men and women in urban employment situations.  The larger numbers of unattached men and women led to an increase in extramarital sexual contact.  Unfortunately, once ruined, a young woman was thrown out of her home and out of whatever society she knew.
    • This increase in population and the growth of London combined with the struggles of the poor placed wealthy idle men in close proximity to the poor – creating an ideal situation for the flourishing of prostitution.

Sexual ideas of the time – Church views on sex for procreation only – helped to create the idea of the angel of the house

  • The “Angel of the House” was not expected to perform acts that were sexually gratifying for herself or her partner.  She was expected to be a sexless ministering angel and to know nothing except what was good.  Sex, according to Victorian clergymen, was only for procreation; and therefore, they condemned any type of extramarital or non-procreative sex.  A Victorian female’s sexual appetite should have been negligible and unnatural.  Women did not have sex for pleasure, but to procreate.  Sexual excitement was viewed as dangerous to the heart and nervous system; however, sex within marriage was less dangerous due to its infrequency and familiarity.   This “angel of the house” mentality did not really extend to the lower classes; therefore, upper class gentlemen of means often sought out prostitutes for sexual gratification they could not expect from their “angels” at home. 
  • Lower class women needed a way to supplement their incomes; upper class gentlemen had expendable income – simple economics tells us that a barter system is bound to appear.

Who Was the Average Victorian Age Prostitute?

  • She was an average age of 18-22, but many started much earlier at the age of 12 or earlier.
    • Virgins were much prized for several reasons – not the least of which was hygiene – Venereal disease was rampant and a virgin was thought to be untainted
    • However, their first sexual experiences were not out of the ordinary – usually serial monogamy within their own class.
  • Most were from poor families and as many as half were orphans.
  • Their general health (outside the threat of venereal diseases) was usually better than other women of their class due to shorter hours and a higher standard of living.
  • Most either had had or still had low wage jobs; some supported illegitimate children.
  • Typically rouged and powdered, and dressed to enhance their “assets” – some women would have lived “double lives” working in a factory for little pay during the day and working the streets at night trying to make ends meet.


The Paths to Prostitution


For every prostitute, there was an individual path she took, but most women found themselves in “the trade” due to economic circumstances

  • Genteel Poverty saw some enter the trade
  • Supplementing income from other labor
  •  Some were kidnapped and forced into prostitution
  • Some had an illegitimate child, which meant she was “unhireable” for any other job
  • Very few consciously chose to enter the sex trade, but there were some…

Just as everything else in Victorian England, even poverty could be broken down into class.  There were the low class poor, living in slums, fifteen in a room, etc… Then there was Genteel Poverty. It only accounts for a small percentage of the steps to prostitution, but it an element there none the same.

Genteel Poverty

Genteel Poverty saw some enter a form of “the trade” when their entire fortunes were inherited by a distant male relative who cared nothing for them.

  • Inheritance laws stated that woman could only inherit the money that went to her marriage with her from her father – most times that was scarcely enough to live on, let alone keep up the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.
  • Some women discovered that their entire lives were lies when their husbands died and creditors began to knock on their doors.
  • These women found themselves with little money and no skills.  Many became mistresses and courtesans.
  • Since most of these women had been married, sex was not a new thing for them.  It became a way to make sure that they were cared for and could continue their lifestyles.
  • Many became the mistresses of men they had known in society when they were married.  It was all treated very discreetly, of course. But just like everywhere else, there were no secrets.

Genteel Poverty was also responsible for another step on the path to prostitution.  Many women who found themselves without means to continue their middle or upper class lives turned to skilled domestic labor jobs to survive.

Skilled Domestic Labor included jobs like bookkeepers, teachers, and governesses.

  • These required education which most lower class women didn’t receive, but the jobs were fraught with pitfalls and dangers.  The pay was abysmal for most of these positions, but governesses were particularly underpaid. Sometimes there would be no salary at all, only living expenses would be covered.
  • They held very precarious social positions.  They lived with the family, but make no mistake – they were not considered part of the family.  On the other hand, they were superior to the unskilled domestic workers of the house.  They were sort of in a no man’s land in society.  Because of this precarious social position, these women were often the scapegoats for everyone in the house from the children to the master, from the kitchen maid to the butler.  She was easy to blame because she was in essence on her own socially.
  • Her proximity to the family, including the adolescent and even adult children, meant that she would have been easy prey for the master and the sons of the house.   Because of the very high expectation of morality, this was a problem.  If any improper behavior was revealed or even suspected, the governess would be fired immediately with no reference.

Even though there were some upper class women who entered prostitution, the vast majority were of the poorer classes, and most of these started working somewhere else.  These jobs are some of the common factors in the paths of many prostitutes… The 1851 census estimated that 30% of the entire workforce was women, but the jobs they held were some of the worst of the worst.  Some of those jobs would have been breeding grounds for future prostitutes.  Henry Mayhew saw the greatest cause of prostitution as “the low rate of wages that the female classes receive, in return for the most arduous and wearisome of labour.”


Factory Work

  • Obvious troubles were the long hours and low pay – typically worked 6 days a week and over 10 hours a day for very little pay.
    • o   Henry Mayhew tells of one poor mother: “I earn clear just about 3 shillings. At times I was so badly off, me and my boy, that I was forced to resort to prostitution to keep us from starving. I do the best I can with what little money I earn and the rest I am obligated to go to the streets for. I can’t get a rag to wear without flying to prostitution for it. My wages will hardly find me in food. Indeed, I eat more than I earn.”
    • The New Poor Law of 1834declared women to be “able-bodied” workers and that they could work alongside men   – this created all sorts of troubles.
      • Sexual harassment – sleep with me or I’ll fire you – because of the labor shortage that was a real threat – workers were easily replaced.
      • Sexual encounters – temptation and gossip – Factories were huge, but just like everywhere else – good gossip travels fast.
      • Rape was also a problem – no one paid any attention to anyone else – mind your business, keep your job
      • While factory work was bad, there were other careers that may have been worse.  The British Quarterly said of factory work that “compared with the drudgery of dressmakers’ apprentices it is mere play” (Logan).

Seamstress – considered a “natural” profession for a woman – Victorians believed that every woman was born with what she needed to sew.

  • Some suggested that fashion was the downfall of women because they were dressing above their stations in a wish to be desired by the opposite sex; however, Harriet Martineau suggested that exploitation was the true link between vanity and prostitution.
  • EW Thomas noted that “the great majority of professional unfortunates were, previous to their degradation, domestic servants or needlewomen.” (Logan)
  • A tremendous demand for high fashion drove an industry which paid women little, but worked them nearly to death.
    • Harriet Martineau (who supported herself as a seamstress during her literary apprenticeship) observed that “prostitution is fed by constant accession from starved or overwearied dressmakers.” (Logan)
    • There were two types of seamstress  – individuals and dressmaker’s employees
      • One worked in solitude on individual jobs.  She took odd pieces in for repair, worked to make working class people’s clothing – nothing that really brought in much income, and it certainly wasn’t steady enough to be depended upon.
      • The other, and more common, worked in a dressmaker’s shop with other women.  These women worked in sweat shop conditions – little light, less food, long hours, and low pay.  The work was seasonal. The Victorians had a season for their balls and parties – no one ordered their dresses before the “season” got started.  They waited until the last possible minute so they would be in the first state of fashion and then demanded them to be completed immediately, forcing seamstresses to work tirelessly for interminable time periods to produce the garments.  This also produced periods of downtime after the “season” during with seamstresses had no work or income.
      • Neither form of seamstress would have earned enough on a regular basis to feed her family.  Most couldn’t feed themselves, let alone their children.

There were two classes of domestic servants –Skilled and unskilled

Unskilled Domestic Servant included jobs like cooks, lady’s maid, housekeeper, etc…

  • Back-breaking work – ridiculously long hours (12 hour days, 7 days a week) – Very low pay (as little as 10 pounds a year – By today’s standards, that’s about 77 pounds a year or $130.00 a year – The Butler earned about 45 pounds a year in today’s money about $450/year and he was the highest paid of the domestic servants.)
  • Long hours meant walking to and from work dangerous – walked to work and home in the dark through low end neighborhoods (robbery, rape, and assault were always possibilities.)
  • Sexual harassment – threats and molestation with no recourse for the servant and no consequences to the offender – the master, the sons, higher ranking servants.  She could also incur the jealousy of the mistress – not a good thing.
  • Blackmail – If one of these women refused the advances of just about anyone, they were subject to blackmail on top of rape.
    • An accusation of improper behavior would have a maid fired in a heartbeat, whether there was any truth to the accusation or not.
    • Many times these women would engage in these affairs to try and secure their jobs, but by doing so, they allow themselves to be further subjugated to those above them.
    • If the transgression were discovered or even suggested at a timely opportunity, a maid would be dismissed from her position with no references and no prospects for future employment.
    • She could be fired for just about any reason.
      • No fraternizing with other servants – would get you fired
      • Jealous mistress of the house –could get you fired
      • Broken dishes – could get you fired
      • Missing spoon – could get you fired
      • Unfortunately for these women, once they were “ruined,” their most precious economic commodity, their virginity, was no more.  They became unsuitable for marriage and without references they were unable to find employment. There were no job possibilities except to take to the streets.

Kissing Cousins

  • Housing Situations- Because of the tremendous increase in population, housing was scarce and inadequate.
    • Entire families (including extended family members) lived not only under one roof, but often slept in a single room together, multiple bodies in each bed due to lack of space or sometimes just the pragmatic reason of warmth.
    • This meant siblings and even cousins of all age ranges often slept in close proximity to one another.  There was zero privacy; they watched one another change clothes, bath, each house had its own outhouse in the backyard.
    • Most of the poor kept whatever gardens or animals they had room for and life on a farm leaves no mysteries as to the birds and the bees.
    • Escapism– Some of these young women gave in to the temptations offered in their own homes as a way of escapism.
      • Poverty was a tedious and terrible life and physical pleasure may have offered a moment of freedom or peace, and the risk was well worth it.
      • This suggests desperation to escape circumstances rather than moral corruption (Joyce).
    • Differing Social Customs
      • There wasn’t really the “angel of the house” mentality in the poorest levels of society.  Sex was not viewed with the same distaste as in upper class households.  It was seen more as a part of life.
      • Carnal relations which marked a couple’s engagement were an important commitment and remained so for the working class.  The legitimization of these acts by marriage was expected; and if unfulfilled, reflected as poorly on a man for abandoning an unmarried, pregnant girl as the girl’s promiscuity reflected on her.
      • Unfortunately, many women learned too late that the traditions and expectations lower classes held one another to did not extend to their upper class contemporaries.  Working class women learned that higher class seducers did not always follow through with their promises of marriage or even promised luxuries.
    • Feminization of Poverty
      • Unfortunately, The 1834 Poor Reform Law removed all legal means for unwed mothers.  “Bastardy Clauses” denied legal or material aid for these women.  This law took away all recourse for broken engagements after consummation, rapists, extortion, etc… This law granted men more sexual license than ever before and removed from them all burden of responsibility (social and economic) for illegitimate children (Logan).
      • The resulting feminization of poverty helped set into motion “the greatest of our social evils” and prostitution and infanticide became the defining “sins” of the age.

Seduction – Harriet Martineau said in 1870, “There is the strongest temptation to prefer luxury with infamy to hardship with unrecognized honour.”  Many women simply made the decision to make this lifestyle their chosen occupation. Sex sells – and that isn’t an invention of the 21st century.

  • Better pay – better hours – Easier work
  • Some had suffered sexual abuse as children, and Promiscuity is often a result of sexual abuse, so this was an easy choice for some of them to make.
  • Social Freedom
    • Prostitutes often lived in groups and created their own social networks. When one from the group got arrested, the others would collect enough money to bail her out.
    • They cared for one another when no one else did.
    • Prostitutes could enter places like pubs, taverns, and bars without the social stigma that a “lady” would carry.
    • Some became mistresses and courtesans
      • They were very sought after because they were more natural, less repressed, and less boring than the well-bred girls who came to London for the marriage Season
      • Catherine Walters – aka Skittles (a nickname she earned when she worked in a bowling alley).   She was the most famous and fashionable courtesan of the 19th century.  Highly intelligent and ever discreet, she had a list of benefactors which is rumored to have included Napoleon III and the Prince of Wales (Later King Edward VII).   She always lived a comfortable life and died fairly wealthy.

      • However, Catherine Walters’ story is the exception to the rule for the fates of prostitutes, celebrity or otherwise.

The Fate of the Prostitute

  • Reform
    • Magdalene Asylums began with the mission to rehabilitate women back into society, but as the 19th century progressed, they became ever more punitive and prison-like.  Women were required to weak the severest of clothing, participate in hard physical labor, devote themselves to long periods of prayer, and live in enforced silence.  The appearance and behavior of the “reformed” women labeled them as prostitutes just as their appearance and behavior on the streets labeled them as prostitutes.  Interestingly, the last of these closed in 1996.

    • Lock Hospitals were designed to treat venereal diseases (one of the side-effects of widespread prostitution). They later developed into rehabilitation homes for the discharged patients.  Unfortunately, the conditions in the “rescue home” weren’t much better than the Magdalene Asylums. 
    • Reform Houses – There were reform houses who broke away from the punitive practices of the Magdalene Asylums and Lock Hospitals – one of the most known was Dickens’ own Urania Cottage. Urania Cottage focused on reform with a goal of emigration to the colonies – South Africa or Australia.  There were several successes here – see Revisiting Dickens for additional info.
    •  Marriage to former clients was not unheard of.  Many would save their money in order to change occupations and settle down at some point.  This was tolerated in their communities because it was a common story.
    • Emigration to the colonies was another hope for prostitutes.  If she were single and able to save a little money – there was passage to be bought to one of the colonies. What better place to get a fresh start?
    • Addiction
      • Women in these awful circumstances would often turn to opium as a mean of escape.  Unfortunately, this often led to addition, placing another burden on their economic circumstance.  They needed the opium because they went to the streets – then they went to the streets because they needed the opium. 
    • Disease & Death
      • Syphilis and other diseases ran rampant through the population of prostitutes and in turn through their customers. It became such a problem that England’s armed forces were being weakened by these venereal diseases.  Some of these women ended up in the Lock Hospitals, but most died miserably and alone.
    • Murder
      • Jack the Ripper was the most famous murderer of the 19th century, and of course, prostitutes were his chosen victims; however, there were hundreds more murders that went unreported and uninvestigated.  The Ripper gained notoriety due to his press coverage, but for the hundreds of nameless, faceless victims who came before and after, there was no justice.
      • The Ripper murders did bring attention to the deplorable living conditions many of the poor survived in East End.  In the twenty years following the Ripper murders, many of the worst slums were demolished.
    • Suicide
      • Bodies were frequently found in the Thames (frequently enough that Dickens created a character like our Gaffer).  Sometimes the bodies were identified, but more often, a prostitute would remain nameless. Prostitution was a transient business so no one would really miss her is she disappeared.  If she remained unclaimed, her body might have been turned over for medical study and further violated even in death.  No one would have known or cared whether the woman had jumped or been pushed, but either way, her pitiful existence had come to an end, and no one really paid any attention to the death of another prostitute.

The “greatest social evil” drew an unprecedented amount of attention from both society and government.  As ugly as it was, many scholars see prostitution, the acts designed to regulate it, and efforts to reform it, as feminism in its infancy.  This and other “moral campaigns” were ground breaking for women because they (even in their limited roles) were allowed an active voice, something new for the Victorian woman.  These “fallen women” laid the foundation for our voices today – there sacrifice was great, but not in vain.


Aiken, Dianne. “Victorian Prostitution.” British Literature Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2012. < Prostitution>.

Davis, Paul. Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1998.

“The Great Social Evil’: Victorian Prostitution.” Prostitution. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb 2012.roth/prostitutuion.htm>.

Jones, Kaye. “A Necessary Evil? Attitudes towards prostitution in Victorian London.” History in an Hour. History in an Hour, 09 23 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. <>.

Joyce, Fraser. “Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the ‘Great Social Evil’.” Reinvention: A Journal of Undergraduate Research. 1.1 (2008): n. page. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.iatl/ejournal/issues/volume1issue1/joyce/>.

Logan, Deborah Anna. Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing: Marry, Stitch, Die, or Do Worse. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998. eBook.

“Victorian era.” New World Encyclopedia. 23 Jun 2011, 18:26 UTC. 15 Feb 2012, 16:46            <>.

14 responses to “Prostitution in Victorian England – Presentation Page

  1. Comprehensive treatment of women and the perils they faced on so many fronts. No wonder they died young–It would have been a taxing life with a good may, but with a lousy one… Egads.

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  3. Thank you for this very detailed page! It provided valuable insight that I referred to in my author blog while describing a sacrifice that many authors are loathe to even discuss.

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  5. Katharina

    Thank you for this great webpage! I am writing my senior research paper about “Prostitution in the Victorian Age” right now and would love to use this webpage as a source. But I would need some more information about the author to make my source reliable. I will be so happy if you can help me!

  6. Hi, interesting page. Has anyone ever tried to estimate what percentage of women among the poorer classes were prostitutes( as opposed to just how many prostitutes there were without reference to wider population estimates)? Perhaps not, given the “8000-80000″ figure cited above, but I did wonder because I have some reason to suspect that a particular ancestress of mine in whom I have an interest( there are no surviving photographs, but it was said my mother, grandmother and I all had an almost unsettlingly close facial resemblance to her as well as each other, and I inherited an antique hat which was said to have been her favorite) may have been one of these women. She married a missionary and came to America but never blended in too well with the Mormon community where she ended up—her habitual language in surviving quotes would be shockingly profane even by modern standards—, yet she seems to have been remembered with fondness by those who knew her best. I know I’ll never be able to find out all the details of her life, especially since those who knew the stories had passed away before I could hear many of them, but I’d like to get as much of a picture of how her life might been as I can—something about her just calls to me.

    • The numbers of these women are impossible to guesstimate. There were thousands, but how many thousands is impossible to tell because of the nature of their vocation. We do have population statistics, so we know that there were more women than men – one of the elements that made this time period so challenging for women, particularly “the surplus women.” Good luck with your research. If you know the ship on which your ancestress traveled, you might look at the other passengers and see if any of them were “reformed” women.

  7. Nice post, well researched.

    The “Underground Seattle Tour” guides commented that the city’s 19th century prostitutes always put down their occupation as “seamstress” for the census takers. “Sewing Circle” became a joking euphemism for “brothel.” After reading this post, I wonder now if maybe many hadn’t started as seamstresses who needed to supplement their income.

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