50,000 prostitutes in London

March 5, 2017

women44

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.

Prostitution
Judith Flanders

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