We have seen how far, and with what success, sexual charities tried to reaffirm traditional Christian principles of personal responsibility for sin and redemption. The public philanthropy of the later eighteenth century also helped to develop new ideas. In particular, it undermined the idea that all acts of unchastity were inherently and equally culp­able, and promoted the opposite assumption: that sexual behaviour was essentially determined by sex and class, and that poor women were much more likely to become whores.

The rise of the word ‘prostitute’ itself epitomized this development. Before 1700 it was not a term often used, or differentiated from

general notions such as ‘whore’ or ‘harlot’. In the course of eighteenth century it took on a much sharper definition. As the focus of public policy narrowed from whoredom in general to the problem of the unchaste poor in particular, ‘prostitutes’ and ‘prostitution’ became pre-eminent categories in the classification of immorality. The older, generic archetype of the whore was still generally invoked. Its corol­lary, that a single fall inevitably led down the slippery slope to disease, destitution, and death, remained a cornerstone of philanthropic argu­ment. Yet, even in religious thinking, the traditional idea that vice and virtue were essentially the product of free personal choice was grad­ually eroded. In its place there now emerged, out of the desire to understand prostitution in social and scientific terms, a much more perniciously deterministic view. Superficially, this proclaimed the innocence of women trapped by forces beyond their control. In prac­tice, however, it made much more categorical the belief that virtue and morality were neither innate human qualities nor solely the prod­uct of individual choice, but attributes closely connected to social status.

This notion of the essential moral depravity of the working class was to reach its fullest expression in the nineteenth century. ‘The chas­tity of marriage,’ wrote Peter Gaskell in 1833, ‘is but little known or exercised amongst them: husband and wife sin equally, and an habit­ual indifference to sexual vice is generated.’ This was the period in which rough and ready statistics first became a widely used tool of social observation, allowing guesswork and prejudice about the mor­als of the lower classes to be presented as scientific fact. ‘It would be no strain on his conscience,’ deposed one witness before the Factory Commission, also in 1833, ‘to say that three-quarters of the girls between fourteen and twenty years of age were unchaste.’ Even Friedrich Engels, surveying the condition of the working class in England in 1844, deplored the supposedly ‘unbridled sexual inter­course’ of industrial workers.1

Such casual bigotry masquerading as sociology was to become a particular feature of the study of prostitution. As early as 1800, the magistrate and political arithmetician Patrick Colquhoun estimated that there were 50,000 prostitutes in London: a figure he arrived at by simply ‘including the multitudes of low females, who cohabit with labourers and others without matrimony’.* Similar assumptions underpinned the analysis of the great Victorian authority on the sub­ject, William Acton. In the first edition of his monumental study Prostitution (1857), he concluded merely from their appearance that ‘a third at least’ of the girls he observed at a popular London dance – hall must be whores. By the second edition, in 1870, there was even less doubt in his mind: they were ‘of course all prostitutes’.2

The foundations for such views had been laid in the previous cen­tury, in the attempts of philanthropists and political arithmeticians to understand prostitution as a social phenomenon rather than a per­sonal failing. The main question that preoccupied them was where prostitutes came from.

The simplest answer was that they were poor women, driven by hardship. ‘It is notorious,’ declared Joseph Massie, ‘that necessity is the general cause of common prostitution,’ and he went on to list the circumstances that rendered large numbers of women in London vul­nerable to seduction: lack of friends, failure to find work, inability to claim settlement or poor relief. Others agreed on the symptoms but preferred to blame the increasing idleness and immorality of the labouring classes. Amongst ‘women in higher life, whose parents have been careful of them’, observed Hanway, a sense of honour and reli­gion protected against unchastity, but among the common people there was no such defence. In the case of poor girls left altogether orphaned or deserted, prostitution was almost guaranteed. ‘In such hopeless circumstances,’ reflected a preacher in 1760, it was ‘a moral certainty that the infant breast must be corrupted, must practise debauchery, even before it feels desire.’3

Even in normal working-class families, it was increasingly argued, education and religious principles were neglected; idleness was encour­aged; parents failed their children. ‘The common people,’ lamented the influential economist Josiah Tucker, ‘are given up to drunkenness and debauchery. The women walk the streets and spread the infection [i. e. venereal disease] till they are rotten. . . the men are as bad as can be described: both sexes never working, while they have anything to spend

* On the same basis he later computed that in the kingdom as a whole there were at least 100,000 ‘lewd and immoral women, who live wholly or partly by prostitution’: P. Colquhoun, A Treatise on Indigence (1806), 40.

upon their vices.’ The fathers, said John Fielding, commonly died of drunkenness; the mothers sometimes sold their own daughters into prostitution. It was small wonder that the girls ‘often become prosti­tutes from necessity, even before their passions can have any share in their guilt’. The young girls who entered the Lambeth Asylum were told bluntly that their removal from such corrupting surroundings was ‘the means of better instruction in religion, in honesty, in sobriety, in chas­tity, in industry, in temperance, than you could possibly have received under the protection of your natural parents’. On similar grounds the charity decided in 1761, after the governors had experienced ‘great inconveniences’ from allowing girls to be visited by their surviving par­ents, that henceforth only orphans would be admitted. The following year all contact between the girls and visiting relatives was severely curtailed. In 1764, finally, it was ‘resolved that the children’s friends be not admitted to see them on any pretence whatever’. The implication was that only complete separation from their unwholesome origins could give impoverished girls a decent chance of escaping immorality and degradation (see plate 10). By the end of the century, Malthus thought it incontrovertible that poverty and the ‘moral degradation of character’ were inseparable: ‘squalid poverty, particularly when joined with idleness, is a state the most unfavourable to chastity that can well be conceived’. It would be ‘an absolute miracle’ for any girl brought up in such circumstances not to succumb to unchastity.4

Such was the prevalence and variety of sexual trade, however, that it was not hard to advance alternative explanations. ‘It seems to me a mistake to assert, that the bawdy-houses and streets are furnished with prostitutes from the children of the laborious poor,’ countered Saunders Welch, whose own parents had been paupers. It was rather ‘the children of those in the next sphere of life’ who, educated above their station or corrupted by pretensions acquired in service, were laid wide open to ruin. It was certainly necessity that drove women to prostitute themselves, agreed William Dodd, but too often this arose ‘from a mistaken neglect of their parents in their education; several of whom, while they absurdly expend much on boarding-schools, think it beneath them to have their daughters taught a trade’.5

The same concern with middle-class impoverishment was ubiqui­tous in literature. By the mid eighteenth century most fictional prostitutes tended to be drawn from the politer ranks. In Henry Field­ing’s farce Rape upon Rape (1730), Hilaret, pretending to be a whore, says she and her fifteen sisters in the same profession are all the daugh­ters of a country vicar. Hogarth, too, thought this a ‘common opinion’. By the following decade it had become a rhetorical commonplace ‘that the greatest part of the London prostitutes are the daughters of parsons’. In The Histories of Some of the Penitents in the Magdalen House (1760), the first inmate to arrive is ‘Emily’, the orphan of an impoverished West Country clergyman, whose first seduction had occurred whilst in service to the gentry. The heroine of another widely read account ‘was the daughter of a gentleman in the army, had a gen­teel and liberal education, but was reduced by various distresses to great poverty and want’. According to the Magdalen House’s own propaganda, its archetypal inmate was ‘the favourite daughter of her father, a person of decent and respectable character in life’. By the end of the eighteenth century, discussions of prostitution hence tended to define it as the behaviour forced upon two general classes of seduced women: girls from the ranks of the labouring poor, and the genteel ‘daughters of poor tradesmen, or of clergymen of poor livings in the country’.6

In consequence it was presumed there should be at least two classes of inmates within any penitential hospital: ‘those who had been of inferior families and low extraction’, and ‘those of a genteeler educa­tion’. More sophisticated planners like Joseph Massie stressed the need for greater subdivision. Each class was to be housed separately, in its own building; with different labour, clothing, diet, and future prospects, according to rank:

1. Women or girls who had been virtuously or genteelly educated, of which there were evident proofs in their conversation and visible traces in their demeanour.

2. Women or girls who appeared and behaved as if they had been servants in reputable families, or were evidently a degree above the meanest sort of people.

3. Women or girls who were very ignorant, rude, intractable, or audacious.

4. Women or girls whose principles of health and strength were so far viti­ated or impaired as not to be restorable.7

When the London Magdalen House opened, it was organized along precisely such lines, with ‘a superiority or preference of wards, according to the education or behaviour of the person admitted’, and ‘inferior per­sons’ in the lower classes. Within each ward, one woman was appointed a ‘superior’ or ‘presider’ and the others arranged in strict hierarchy below her, according to their character and conduct. When in 1772 the hospital moved to its purpose-built premises in Blackfriars, the three ‘Classes’ of ‘Objects’ were kept incommunicado at all times, in separate buildings ‘so formed that the front of each look to the back of the other’.8

Yet underneath this concern with social differentiation the deeper conclusion remained that poor women were bound to be less chaste. Whores of higher rank were not only better educated but inherently more ‘delicate’ and virtuous; and many of them, it was hoped, might be rescued whilst still high up on the slippery slope. ‘The generality of the common people,’ by contrast, had ‘worn off a sense of shame’.


19. The new buildings of the Magdalen Hospital, with separate wings for each class of inmate.

‘Delicacy’ had never been inculcated in them. Their parents never protected them, so even their ‘native modesty’ was worn off in their youth. Their sexual morals were lax, so they fell far more easily into prostitution of the lowest kind.9 Such condescension did not go uncon­tested: by the early nineteenth century it had begun to provoke a notable feminist critique. Nor was it entirely new. Nevertheless, it was henceforth expressed more blatantly, with greater pretension to empirical precision, and in terms of more exactly conceived ‘classes’ than ever before.[36]

Its impact on philanthropic practice was profound. In the short term, philanthropists came to favour higher-born, better-educated women as more amenable to reform. The governors of the Dublin Asy­lum keenly noted the rank and education of prospective penitents, and seem to have discriminated against ‘the refuse of the people’. Though all souls were equal, exactly thirty-two of the past sixty-one inmates had been ‘at least of the middle rank’, the Bishop of Dromore observed proudly in 1773. In the following decade the governors of the London Magdalen shifted its purpose away from actual prostitutes, giving preference instead to young women seduced under promise of mar­riage, who had ‘never been publicly upon the town’. The institution’s success rate shot up accordingly.10 Soon after the Magdalen House had opened, Jonas Hanway had commissioned an engraving that showed its transformative power. In the background looms the charity’s chapel. Slumped on the ground we see a horrible, tattered whore, barefoot and bereft. In front of her there stands, proud yet demure, the redeemed Magdalen, dressed in her clean new clothes, hat, gloves, and shoes, her prayer-book open before her, glowing with health and promise (illus­tration 20). By the time the governors of the charity came to reuse this image for their propaganda in the 1770s, the ragged harlot had become an embarrassment, and was erased from the plate. A faint shadow behind the Magdalen was all that remained of her.


20. A proud, uniformed Magdalen inmate, contrasted with
the pitiful whore behind her (1761).


Even as the movement to rescue fallen women expanded there was, in fact, growing pessimism about the ever-growing scale of the prob­lem, and the possibility of truly rehabilitating common whores. In the longer term, this was to be the more enduring development. From the outset, there had been doubts about the efficacy of philanthropy, and some of the enthusiasm for it had been motivated simply by the desire to suppress open prostitution. By the early nineteenth century, amidst mounting political concern over the indiscipline and disorder of the urban poor, this utilitarian approach was increasingly to the fore. It was a commonplace that ninety-nine per cent of all criminality derived ‘from illicit associations with profligate women’. From this point of view, though the complete eradication of prostitution was usually thought to be impossible and undesirable, the saving of penitents and the tougher punishment of ‘abandoned women’ went hand in hand: the overriding concern was simply to get them off the streets.11

Instead of rehabilitation, asylums were therefore increasingly focused on the ‘containment and quarantine’ of fallen women, as much to protect society as for their own benefit. Even the London Magdalen Hospital abandoned its attempt to teach vocational skills, preferring to employ the penitents mainly as washer-women. This was to become the norm. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Magdalen asylums across England and Ireland operated as large-scale commercial laundries, sustained by the heavy labour of their inmates. In this respect, as in others, their economic and social bias grew ever more explicit after 1800. ‘In the present day’, noted the chaplain of the Magdalen Hospital in 1917, ‘girls of good social antecedents are sent elsewhere’ – public asylums were places for the re-education of women ‘from average working-class homes’. Though it started as an alterna­tive to punishment, institutional philanthropy thus increasingly evolved into another means of disciplining lower-class sexuality.12