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Victorian Perception of Fallen Women – Dissertation Sample

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    Victorian Perception of Fallen Women Influence the Justice System’s Response to Prostitution

    The Victorian Era represents a unique watershed not just in English but also in European and world history. As the first recipients of the capitalist fruits of the Industrial Revolution, in addition to the longevity of the monarchical parliamentary system in Britain, the Victorians were the first truly modern society that was able to turn its attention away from absolute necessities such as food, water and shelter towards contemporary cultural and sexual mores.

    The Victorian Era saw the paradigm of the state evolve from a minimalist, laissez faire concept into a paternalist, nanny regime – where the public and private spheres were blurred with the result that no British citizen was considered free from official scrutiny and social policy. The Victorian criminal justice system was much more interested in cultural perceptions of Britain than any preceding administrative structure in the world. As decency and taste were dictated by the ruling classes, the lower classes, inevitably, paid the price for the justice system’s sudden interest in real life on working class streets. Prostitutes, vagrants, and ‘the poor’ generally were seen as a blight on British society, the establishment of the Workhouses and the subsequent abolition of outdoor welfare relief in 1834 via the Poor Law Amendment Act ought to be seen in hindsight as the first serious indication of the extent of the new vision of the role of the state.

    For the purposes of this study it will be necessary to look at the broader social policy of various Victorian governments as well as investigating reasons as to the disproportionately high number of young women working in prostitution in nineteenth century Britain, charting chronologically the Victorian solution to the problem of the poor and prostitution as the 1800’s ebbed away. The second part of the essay will analyse the criminal justice system’s response to the upsurge in the sex trade in the UK, paying particular attention to the passing of the controversial Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864, 1866 and 1869 respectively. A conclusion will be sought as to how the Victorian perception of ‘fallen women’ influenced domestic law, incorporating the inherent implications for social policy that remain pertinent today at the dawn of the twenty first century.

    To best understand the swift change of impetus of the British State during the nineteenth century, the historian need only look to the role of the narrowly elected government one hundred years previously. With a microcosm of society’s potential electorate in power, the eighteenth century British state was unconcerned with the plight of the poor and the burgeoning working classes mushrooming in newly industrialised towns such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Although the state had been relatively secure ever since the Glorious Revolution in the 1680’s, the threat of foreign warfare continued to dominate both domestic policy making and the treasury, the Napoleonic Wars testimony to the fragility of peace in mainland Europe and the protracted nature of early industrial warfare.

    It was at this time that Thomas Malthus famously penned his critique on the status of the new working classes. His Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 constituting the first instance of the upper classes taking an active interest in the lives of the working poor, although even this is seen by many, including Gertrude Himmelfarb (1986:77), as “a classic of laissez faire.” Essentially, Malthus and the early Victorians who were greatly influenced by him saw the solution to the problem of increasing inner city squalor as a need for introducing stricter programmes of social re education.

    The broader issue of the newly industrialised masses again reached the echelons of power with the 1819 Peterloo Massacre though questions such as working class marriages, births and deaths were not considered areas in which the state should become embroiled at that point. By the mid nineteenth century, however, the wider implications of a society marked out along lines of a majority of laboured and working classes became prevalent with writers such as Engels and Marx beginning to predict a time when these people might rule the country.

    Moreover, with the mass emigration and mortality rate inflicted via the 1840’s Irish Potato Famine, there resulted an exodus of immigrants to English cities, many of them young women whose husbands had died or who were too poor to fend for their own families. Added to the melting pot of many different sub cultures already in existence within English urban areas, the option of the sex trade was therefore increasingly one that was open to all women, a secretive social phenomenon that had largely accepted and understood since the Elizabethan Era. As Leonore Davidoff (1990:92 93) explains, the notion of transient prostitution was a vital financial coping mechanism for many women in mid nineteenth century Britain.

    “Many younger women drifted to towns and engaged in short term relationships or prostitution for a time before settling down into more permanent unions.”

    The Peel Government constitutes the first discernibly paternalistic Victorian regime in terms of the attention it paid to social policy, though the persistent hints at policy change in England had been noticeable since the 1830’s at least. One man in particular altered forever the notion of state intervention: Edwin Chadwick. According to David Englander (1998:9), Chadwick was a, “bureaucrat rather than a democrat who preferred government by experts and professionals with public action based on empirical enquiry and large scale administrative reform.”

    His reports on the condition of the working classes began a series of official policies aimed at changing the way the poor thought about themselves, culminating in the 1846 Public Health Act, which targeted children, sanitation and the wider consequences of industrial enlargement. Moreover, the introduction of mandatory vaccination for children via legislation in 1853 was a milestone in terms of government intervention for it was in effect nothing less than the criminalisation of disease; whereby henceforth nothing appeared beyond the bounds of state intervention or the newly formed ‘medical police’, which would have serious ramifications for the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act.

    It is an important to recognise: the essential bureaucracy of Victorian notions of social reform. Chadwick and the other policy makers that came after him all followed along the same premise, namely an aloof yet pragmatic approach to the question of the lifestyles of the urban poor, underwritten with a burgeoning police apparatus that constituted the tentacles of the regime. Chadwick’s health reforms were significant because they introduced the notion of checks and balances into politics in England. In the past, where reforms had been passed, the population, specifically the richer part of the population, often paid little more than lip service to the passing of domestic legislation.

    The 1832 Great Reform Act, for instance, was not universally obeyed at grass roots level with examples of a continuation of the ills of the rotten borough system cited well into the nineteenth century. Social reform after the 1840’s, on the other hand, was overseen by investigators and officials with the power to ensure enforcement after the Act of Parliament had been passed. It was a key evolutionary step in British politics, and one that would have significant consequences for the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860’s, part of the same phenomenon of Victorian ‘correction’ of the lower, under classes.

    At this point in the study it makes sense to underline the missionary, paternalistic nature of mid and late Victorian Britain so as to understand how the dominant culture of the day came to influence the criminal justice system’s response to the sharp rise in prostitution. Victorian Britain is best viewed as part of a broader national psyche that was founded upon imperialism and a burgeoning consumer society. Heroes of the day were men such as Cecil Rhodes and other explorers – Christian philanthropists whose duty it was to educate the people of Africa on the values of society, religion and moral order. In addition, Darwin’s theory of evolution revolutionised philosophy and intellectual thought on a number of key matters, the most important being the central notion that humanity, like the animal kingdom, is based upon a simple principle of ‘survival of the fittest.’

    Yet whereas, previously, the guardians of the state were content to see themselves as the fortunate, well bred survivors of the pre determined human ecosystem, the mid-Victorian incarnation of political power were keener to instil their values on the wretched lower classes rather than to permit them simply to live within their own pitiful means and realms of understanding. Victorian manifestations of modernity were thus measured out in manners with a staunch belief that the lower classes could be bettered by a concentric government policy. And where they felt as if the lower classes could not be bettered, the view was adopted that their immoral behaviour must be curtailed so as not to affect the lives of the richer members of society.

    In the specific context of the discussion of prostitutes in Victorian Britain, it is important to note that women were not seen in the same light as men; economically, politically or socially. Indeed, women were still half a century away from suffrage, although certain female members of the aristocracy did retain enormous influence behind the scenes, increasingly significant as the Industrial Revolution bequeathed ever growing numbers of nouveau riche citizens. Furthermore, Queen Victoria was, of course, a woman yet to see her as a champion of female power would be incorrect.

    After the death of her husband, Victoria took a back seat in terms of actual power, her influence being purely symbolic and used by jingoistic politicians such as Disraeli to curry favour with the imperialistic masses, as when she was awarded the fictitious title of Empress of India in 1867. It therefore follows that, when the Victorians inevitably did turn their attention towards urban lifestyles, those elements deemed distasteful in women were dealt with in a stricter and more arbitrary fashion than the case would be if the alleged criminals had been working class men. Women were meant to be delicate and demur; fragile and feminine and wholly dependent on men. Prostitutes destroyed this upper class Victorian fantasy of female sexuality and the power of symbolism should not be overlooked when analysing the harsh nature of the legislation enacted against the so called ‘fallen women’.

    In terms of the contemporary criminal justice system, the Victorians were a notoriously unforgiving people, marrying religion and retribution to the concept of crime while at the same time showing revulsion for the execution methods of nations such as France. The Victorians embraced a tough criminal justice regime that was however quite liberal in contrast to mainland Europe, at least in terms of the crime and punishment of the state. Without wishing to become involved in a broader debate on the seemingly cruel nature of the nineteenth century criminal system, the point should be made that the Victorians were no different from their European and North American counterparts in light of the death penalty and harsh prison terms. ‘Fallen’ women were considered to be a scar against society in Europe as well as America, a point which must be kept in mind when judging their heavy handed response.

    The preferred method of incarceration for women was the state penitentiary, the first women’s only jail being the London Female Penitentiary, established in London in 1807. The minimum stay at this institution was two years, incorporating a Draconian routine that forbade outside correspondence and even contact between inmates with the aim that penitence could be achieved through solitude, contemplation and regimental routine. Male guards supervised the internal mechanism of the penitentiary and clerics endeavoured to instil a sturdier moral sense of responsibility in the inmates, many of whom were ‘fallen women’.

    Joanna Trollope (1994:32) claims that, “Victorian moralists believed that drudgery would redeem the soul of the whore,” though the success rates of these institutions is notoriously difficult to gauge in an age when people could quite literally disappear off the face of the earth the moment they left the jail. Trollope’s analysis masks the more significant point that the Victorians had fundamentally misunderstood the real reasons as to why women became involved in prostitution.

    Imprisonment only exacerbated the sense of isolation prostitutes, who were often compared to the Biblical outcasts Sodom and Gomorrah, must have felt in nineteenth century Britain. As ever concerning the Victorians, the spectre of religion was never very far from the impetus behind social reform and the contemporary criminal justice system. It should be noted that the bounds between crime and capacity was severely blurred during the Victorian Era. Although today we retain a sense of ambiguity concerning whether or not a defendant is mentally capable of standing trial for his or her crime, the Victorians often assumed that criminals were insane even when all the evidence to the contrary pointed to a wholly different truth.

    One of the key areas of uncertainty within this system was the guilt level of ‘fallen women’, many of whom were sent to the asylums as unfit for penitence and official retribution. It is difficult to quantify the reasoning behind this phenomenon (whether or not the justice system simply saw asylums as a reasonable way of keeping the more persistent offenders off the streets for good) but the point should not be lost that the threat of arrest, incarceration and prolonged punishment was already deep rooted in early Victorian society, even before official legislation was passed in the 1860’s.

    With this socio political and moral context in place it should be noted that the first seeds of change with regards to official action pertaining to prostitution came via the effects of casual sex afflicting a revered part of traditional British Society. The impetus for the Contagious Diseases Acts came first from the cases of venereal diseases that afflicted British troops in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Crimean War (1854 6) was cited at the time as evidence of the corruption of the ‘fallen women’ who had infected the unknowing British soldiers though it should be borne in mind that the Crimean campaign was a disaster on many levels and was heavily criticised by the foreign press, influenced by Tennyson’s epic, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

    The war with Russia was more important because it re awakened the fear in Westminster that the UK was not free from further foreign war. Although Napoleon Bonaparte was fast fading into the memory the widespread revolutions of 1848 all over mainland Europe reminded the English hierarchy that a fit army was essential in terms of keeping the peace both at home and abroad.

    Various historical narratives point to the fact that the British Armed Forces suffered greatly from venereal disease during the 1850’s and 1860’s. Paula Bartley (1996:85) quotes the figure that one in three complaints of sickness during this time came from a soldier or sailor who had contracted a venereal disease. Furthermore, in an age where scurvy, flux and fever had largely been contained, the issue of venereal disease was an embarrassment as well as a financial and logistical disaster for the Armed Forces.

    Therefore the catalyst for the acceleration of the criminal system’s solution to the question of prostitutes was the military; nanny state reform masquerading as an issue of national importance. Behind the official façade, however, the reasoning behind the legislation pertaining to prostitution was located within the sensibilities of the ruling elite of England, who were appalled by the sheer numbers of prostitutes that had mushroomed in the nation since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Davidoff (1990:111 112) traces the evolution of a wholly new, post industrial idea of the sex trade whereby prostitution was no longer necessarily a strategy for only intermittently financially famished women; rather, for some, it was becoming a permanent way of life.

    “The concept of the ‘prostitute’ was hardening into a fixed category rather than a life cycle stage of variously short and long term liaisons… a full time occupation catering to groups of mobile men such as sailors.”

    Therefore prostitution in the second half of the nineteenth century should be seen in tandem with the progress (and ills) that were the legacy of the maturing of the Industrial Revolution. As Paul Mantoux (1961:477) succinctly put it: “The industrial revolution is precisely the expansion of undeveloped forces, the sudden growth and blossoming of seeds which had for years lain hidden or asleep.”

    Thus, just as the government passed a Factory Act in 1833 to deal with the issue of underage workers and limiting the hours worked per week, so the state saw the need, by the 1860’s, to cure another by product of the revolution, namely prostitution, the breakdown of domestic marriages and the psychological stresses of industrial life. The numbers of prostitutes working the streets after 1850 reflects the change in demographic in English towns and cities at the time. Liverpool, for example, was seventh in the list of European capital cities by 1850 with Manchester ninth; both at the start of the century appearing as little more than rural towns. Hence, the astonishing figure of 25 000 prostitutes working the streets of London alone in the year 1860.

    Londoners, at least those who lived in the Western enclave of the city, were ashamed of the blatant nature of prostitution in the East End and, likewise, politicians and statesmen were embarrassed at the picture of industrial Britain that the illicit sex trade was painting. Therefore, while the arguments of a stronger military were given at official level, the underlying reason for the growing antipathy towards the sex trade amongst Victorian politicians was their disgust for the lifestyles of the poorest elements of British society, a point that Fuchs and Thompson (2005:69) expand upon.

    “To the middle classes, prostitutes symbolised working class women’s rampant sexuality and all that was wrong with urban women’s work. Because the middle class feared working class violence, abhorred women’s visible sexuality, and also sought to diminish the rising incidences of syphilis, politicians in most countries regulated prostitution starting in the 1840’s, either by use of the Vice Squads in France or Italy or by legislation in England.”

    Thus it should be noted that the reaction of the Victorian policy makers to the issue of prostitution was not a localised, isolated event but instead part of a pan European response to a social problem that was part of the discharge of early modern history into the modern realm. Certainly, though, the question of syphilis and sexual health was an important factor behind legislation in England and the more arbitrary round ups of the continental Vice Squads because there is no doubt that the disease was a major killer. The Queen’s own grandson contracted and died from the disease as did many other aristocratic and upper middle class members of English society. This purely medical composition of the need to reform, therefore, constitutes the only logical reason for the existence of the Contagious Diseases Act, the only non aesthetic, cultural reason for reform.

    Perversely, the same group of people who saw their call for laws to curtail the actions of prostitutes as moral, refused to apportion any responsibility to the men who paid for sex: the essential link in the chain that was keeping the industry alive. Virginia Berridge (1990:203) sees this as the greatest ideological anomaly of the legislation first passed in 1864; its premise for prosecution was always therefore inherently one sided and deeply unjust.

    “In two cases, vaccination and the control of prostitution and hence venereal disease by the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869, public hostility to state and medical power, was substantial. The Contagious Diseases Acts, with their double standard of morality (prostitutes and not their clients were to be poked and medically examined) were repealed in 1886.”

    Moreover, the Victorian reformers failed to recognise the essential link between the new capitalist culture of the UK and the rise in prostitution. On both counts, they missed the connection between increase in wages and the change in urban lifestyles. As Bartley (1996:79 80) attests, the discernibly modern aspect of prostitution was that it catered to women whose tastes and ambition existed beyond the set boundaries of their birth, nationality and class.

    “According to some historians, inadequate wages did not necessarily drive women into the streets… women who were extremely poor were generally not driven to prostitution unless they were homeless or without family or friends. It is impossible to know, but some historians believe that prostitutes chose their professions because they wanted more than their low paid work could provide. It has been argued by historians that prostitutes had a wild, impulsive nature, a restlessness and a need for independence which drive them on the streets in order to gain those commodities valued by the newly created consumer society.”

    The Acts themselves were severe and would certainly be considered inhumane in today’s society, especially so in light of the above quotation that showed that the state was a long way out of touch with the realities of life on the streets of Britain. The first Act (1864) was not even debated in Parliament and the subsequent amendments to the Bill were passed late at night when the House most mostly empty, as was often the case for the less popular aspects of Victorian social reform. The Contagious Diseases Act was primarily concerned with England’s seaports, with Portsmouth the most regulated English city. The police were able to apprehend prostitutes on sight, though, as Liza Picard (2005:255) explains, the Act had many fundamental flaws, not least the issue of definition.

    “There was no clear law defining a prostitute. The local Bobbies probably knew the women in their patch who were on the game, but they could only pull them in if they were making a nuisance of themselves. The same with brothels; it was an offence at Common Law to keep a brothel, but if the owner and the girls were discreet, many brothels probably stated out of trouble.”

    Women that were arrested under the ill defined remit of the Act were inspected by a variety of male doctors under unhygienic circumstances and often under brutal, uncompromising and unsympathetic conditions. Those women that were found to be infected with a contagious sexually transmitted disease were held for up to three months while they were treated in equally appalling conditions.

    This brutal regimen continued until it was officially repealed in 1886 but even then, repeal only came about via persistent lobbying and funding from non conformist organisations such as the Quakers, high profile campaigns like that of Josephine Butler, leader of the Ladies’ National Association (NLA) and sympathetic MP’s. Not surprisingly, these were few and far between.

    Essentially, the Contagious Diseases Acts were part of a broader pattern of control relating to gender, sexuality and class that, according to Walcowitz, permeated every feature of Victorian society. When they were repealed it was, albeit a nominal one, a sign of the changing social times; a transition from mid to high Victorian values which, though still deeply conservative, were more and more concerned with human, especially female, rights. The historian should not rule out the influence of men such as John Stuart Mill (1988:105) and others who began the long struggle for female emancipation in the UK. His dissertation, The Subjection of Women, first published in 1869, argues that the plight of women in the late nineteenth century was society as a whole’s concern and was in fact a direct consequence of male centric cultural values and mores.

    “Where liberty cannot be hoped for, and power can, power becomes the grand object of human desire, those to whom others will not leave the undisturbed management of their own affairs, will compensate themselves, if they can, by meddling for their own purposes with the affairs of others. Hence also women’s passion for personal beauty, and dress and display; and all the evils that flow from it, in the way of mischievous luxury and social immorality. The love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism.”

    Throughout modern Western history, women have been equated with nature and the environment, a very deliberate connotation that serves to underscore man’s need to co opt women and nature and to appease his conscience in doing so. The repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886 therefore ought to be analysed in the same context as the debate on Irish Home Rule, which began in the 1880’s. The slow emancipation and enfranchisement of women was accompanied by a re definition of Britain’s relationship with its Empire, which would never be as large or seemingly unconquerable as it appeared at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign.


    The Victorians evolved with the nineteenth century but the essentially unsympathetic nature of the state towards the poorest elements of society was a constant feature until the introduction of the Welfare State after 1945. Prostitution and brothels have never been adequately tackled in Britain, though a discernibly more laissez faire approach was detectable after the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which constituted a complete reversal of governmental policy after the end of Victorian Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. Along with alcoholism and homelessness, prostitution in England has been largely swept under rug, which leads the historian towards two possible conclusions as to the overall effectiveness of the Victorian effort at reform of the domestic sex trade.

    The first possible deduction to consider is that the Victorian state, although overly brutal and ill defined in its pursuit of the alleged criminals as it was, at least attempted to solve the problem of excessive numbers of prostitutes and the decimating effects of venereal diseases such as syphilis. Although deeply floored in its execution, the Victorian notion of a nanny state did not shy away from what it perceived as a grave social ill.

    On the other hand, the opposite conclusion could be drawn; an equally valid point of view that recognises the essential double standard morality of the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts that has in fact been the very reason behind the lack of progress in many areas of British social reform since. So divisive, insulting and, ultimately, worthless, was the time and effort that went into the Victorian experiment with a ‘medical police’ that the issue of illicit sex in urban areas was demoted well below other issues on the government agenda. Working class women in general did not appear on the reform agenda again until the Great War, which acted as a broader catalyst for women’s accession into all parts of British society while syphilis remained a national killer for successive generations.

    Ultimately, of course, the underlying belief systems of any government will greatly influence its vision of right and wrong, its differentiation of what constitutes criminal and law abiding alike. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Victorians, as the most zealous, religious and austere of ruling classes the UK has ever seen, should have spearheaded the most anachronistic set of laws pertaining to prostitution in a bid to co opt and control women, and the vast urban environment that was fast springing up all about them. Usefull dissertation paper? Oder your own dissertation st PhDify.com


    • P. Bartley, The Changing Role of Women: 1815 1914 (Hodder & Stoughton; London, 1996)
    • P. Bartley, Prostitution, Prevention and Reform in England, 1860 1914 (Routledge; London, 2002)
    • D. Englander, Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Britain: From Chadwick to Booth, 1834 1914 (Longman; London & New York, 1998)
    • R.G. Fuchs & V.E. Thompson, Women in Nineteenth Century Europe (Palgrave Macmillan; London, 2005)
    • G. Himmelfarb, Marriage and Morals among the Victorians and Other Essays (Faber & Faber; London & Boston, 1986)
    • P. Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (Metheun; London, 1961)
    • J.S. Mill (Edtd. S.M.Okin), The Subjection of Women (Hackett; Indianapolis, 1988)
    • K. Offen et al (Edtd.), Writing Women’s History: International Perspectives (Macmillan; London, 1991)
    • L. Picard, Victorian London: the Life of a City, 1840 1870 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson; London, 2005)
    • F.M.L. Thompson (Edtd.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750 1950; Volume Two: People and their Environment (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1990)
    • F.M.L. Thompson (Edtd.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750 1950; Volume Three: Social Agencies and Institutions (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1990)
    • J. Trollope, Britannia’s Daughters: Women of the British Empire (Pimlico; London, 1994)
    • J. Walcowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1980)

    Selected Articles

    • V. Berridge, Health and Medicine, quoted in, F.M.L. Thompson (Edtd.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750 1950; Volume Three: Social Agencies and Institutions (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1990)
    • L. Davidoff, The Family in Britain, quoted in, F.M.L. Thompson (Edtd.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750 1950; Volume Two: People and their Environment (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1990)

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