Prostitution in Victorian England

80,000 working girls in Victorian London?

Shefali O'Hara

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Photo by Jayson Hinrichsen on Unsplash

Note: I cite the sources I used so you can look them up. Any time you see text that is underlined and bold, it is a link to a source.

The population of London grew from about 860,000 in 1801 to 3,300,000 in 1871. Among the residents were a “surplus” of women — there were about 4% more women than men among the population, for a variety of reasons, including soldiers and sailors being sent off to various parts of the British Empire.

Many women in all social classes had to support themselves, which was much harder to do for women to do in Victorian times, particularly if they had children.

In 1791, it was estimated by a police magistrate that there were 50,000 prostitutes in London, which would have meant about one in nine women who lived in the city were prostitutes. However, the word “prostitute” meant something different back then.

Women who were living with men outside of marriage were often considered prostitutes. Yet many women and men cohabitated because society made it clear that men should not marry if they could not support a family. Among the urban poor, therefore, many women who were monogamous but unmarried were categorized as prostitutes.

Also listed as prostitutes were women who simply took on lovers for pleasure without charging for it. While I imagine many of these women were given meals or small gifts by their lovers, one assumes these were voluntary gifts between friends and not commercial transactions.

Of course, women who had children out of wedlock were also classified as prostitutes.

In reality, historians believe that only about 20,000 of the 50,000 women cited were actually prostitutes the way we define the term.

In 1817, authorities thought there were up to 80,000 prostitutes in London. However, again, only about half actually were. What muddies the water, though, is that many women who had day jobs in factories, as dressmakers, or even as governesses or teachers, would sometimes moonlight, literally, by taking a turn on the streets of London.

So, should a woman be considered a prostitute if she only walked the streets once or twice a month?

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Shefali O'Hara

Cancer survivor, writer, engineer. BSEE from MIT, MSEE, and MA in history. Love nature, animals, books, art, and interesting discussions.