Saturday 27 February 2010

The Ways of Sin

Just been looking at a great piece of religious prostitution-reform literature, as you do, entitled rather marvellously "THE LONDON BY MOONLIGHT MISSION: Being an account of midnight cruises on the streets of London" (1869), describing a charity's efforts, under the leadership of one Lieutenant Blackmore, to get prostitutes off the streets. Unfortunately, not as racy as it sounds ... here's a sample of the dialogue:

    After asking the Divine blessing - in company with three Christian friends, I sallied forth down Gray's-inn-lane, about ten in the evening, each of us supplied with suitable tracts for distribution; which, in addition to religious instruction, had my address printed upon them, with an appeal to females, if they wished to quit the ways of sin, to call upon me. These were enclosed in envelopes, thus presenting the appearance of a letter, a form in which they are more readily accepted.
    The route proposed for the evening was Holborn-hill, Fleet-street, the Strand, Regent-street, Oxford-street and Tottenham-court-road. Each side of the street was to be occupied by two of our party, the whole meeting again at points agreed upon.
    The tracts and notes were well received in Gray's-inn-lane. I could not help pitying those whom, by their dress and manner, I knew to be fallen ones; and I earnestly asked my Heavenly Father that he would make us the honoured instruments in his hands to rescue some. On arriving in Holborn, I was accosted by many young women; one of them, with the affected gaiety of her unhappy class, asked me, as I gave her one of the notes, whether it was a love letter. I replied: "Yes: keep it and read it tomorrow."
    When we came to the bottom of Holborn-hill, I was accosted by an interesting your girl, dressed in a superior style. I gave her a note.
    "What is this for?" she said.
    "To invite you to a happy home, until you can get into a situation suited to your ability."
    On enquiry, I found that she had no father nor mother, nor any friend in London. Turning round to the gentleman who accompanied me, she asked "Is he come for the same purpose as yourself?"
    "Yes, and I am expecting two friends directly. We mean what we say. Our wish is to do you good."
    She was struck with astonishment. "Four gentlemen come to seek after poor friendless girls! It is very good of you: I will call, with thanks."
    Degraded as she was, I shook hands with her, and we parted.

The book is available on Google. In large part, it contains first person stories about 'seduction' (ie. being lured into having sex by a man, losing one's job or standing as a result, and being driven to prostitution). These seem rather clichéd but clichés are often true. One wonders, however, if every girl was quite the innocent victim of male lust as portrayed, or whether this was the moral framework in which girls had to present themselves if they wanted to be 'saved'. There is also an episode in which the author separates a dress-lodger from her chaperon by disguising her as a young man:

    "Come away from this degradation!" I said. "I will take you to a comfortable home this very night; where you can reflect quietly on the future, and I will see what can be done."
    "I cannot!" she replied. "Look at that woman there! I dare not come away; but I thank you very much."
    "I suppose they will bring a long bill against you if I ask for your release."
She only sighed. After reflecting a few moments, a thought suddenly occurred to me.
    "Would you mind adopting a disguise?" I said.
    "I will gladly do anything to effect my escape from that loathsome woman."
    "Well, then, I think I can manage it; I will go to a clothier's shop I know in Oxford-street, and purchase a suit, as if for myself. You are about my height. We will then go to the housa ; you shall put them on, and come away with me in disguise."
    Her faced seemed radiant with delight at the prospect of escape, which gave me courage. We then walked up to her "keeper."
    "It's getting late," I said. "Let's take a cab. But first of all I'll just go in to Oxford-street, to see if some clothes are ready for me ; and then we'll all go home together."
    In a few minutes we arrived at the shop. Leaving them in the cab, I went in and bought what I required, and returned. We then drove off to the house; on arriving at which I was ushered into the drawing-room, where I waited till the young lady had changed her attire. On her return the disguise proved excellent. I happened to have my Turkish cap in my pocket; this I placed on her head—the long tassel of which partly concealed her face; a cloak, with the collar turned up, completed the metamorphosis. The difficulty that now remained was to pass the street door without being detected. It was arranged, in case of necessity, that I should speak for both. But the Turkish cap and cloak gave her so much the appearance of a young foreigner, that the mother tongue could scarcely be expected of him. She took my arm; and we quickly descended the stairs, at the foot of which, however, we encountered the "keeper. My companion now trembled so much, that I was fearful lest she should faint.
    The critical moment had arrived, when discovery would have been fatal to the whole project. I was able, however, to preserve my self-possession; and knowing the cupidity of the inmates of these houses of iniquity, I gave the woman a considerable sum of money, explaining that the foreigner on my arm was a young friend I had just met with. The money, as I anticipated, blinded the eyes of the "keeper," who nodded in assent of what I said. As she turned up stairs, where discovery awaited her, we hurried along the hall, and reached the street without further obstruction. A few moments more, and we were in the cab I had ordered to be in waiting for us.
    "Drive to Portman-square with all your might! "
This smacks of a cheap novel. Perhaps I am being too skeptical, but I can't help but wonder if the Lieutenant sexed-up (ahem) his activities for an eager readership - he did, after all, need their money to continue his charity work. Unequivocally, however, it should be noted that widespread street-prostitution was a fact in mid-Victorian London, and that - despite the quaint language ("ways of sin" etc) - any attempt to bring girls to homes and 'reform' them (however you describe it) was something of a progressive step.

I am, to my shame, also reminded of a certain (not very) classic film. Michael Palin has a lot to answer for.


  1. 'The Missionary', indeed.

    Obviously, you must be right about that latter story being somewhat 'tarted up', or else the 'keeper' was not a very good one, if she believed the man went up with a prostitute and came down with a 'young friend' he had bumped into.

  2. I recall finding in the library once a slim volume published to guide those involved in such 'rescue work'. It advocated inviting the fallen women to tea in the church hall, and most importantly, having jam in three different colours to tempt them with, and not putting out the best teaspoons.

  3. Excellent advice! There were quite a few charities doing this sort of thing ... see, for example,
    ... the 'St Marylebone Female Protection Society'.