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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Southampton

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Two prostitutes
© Mary Evans Picture Library
"The oldest trade in the world"

In the mid-Victorian period, the bustling commercial port of Southampton boasted another thriving, but less image-friendly “trade” – prostitution. A common feature of urban life generally, prostitution was particularly prevalent in ports and seaside resorts, where soldiers and sailors on leave provided a ready clientele. Local police from dock towns often reported large increases in the number of prostitutes on the streets after the arrival of a new ship in port.

Streetwalkers and sailors’ women

A Southampton street, 1882
Prostitution was the darker side to life in a dock town
© Southampton City Council
Before the Contagious Diseases Acts, prostitutes in Southampton tended to be in their early twenties. Many of them were migrants from the surrounding countryside, and the research of Judith Walkowitz has shown that a large number came from disrupted families, or were orphans. The absence of a strong parental figure may have made these women less submissive than their peers, who grew up under pressure to become “angels of the hearth” - the Victorian ideal of womanhood. Certainly many locals commented on the wilful independence and impulsive character of streetwalkers.

Southampton prostitutes lived in a narrowly defined neighbourhood, mainly concentrated in Simnel and Cross Streets – both “low” streets, notorious for being unsanitary, and repeatedly denounced in the local press as full of brothels, (when in reality, the inhabitants of these streets would have been much more diverse). Prostitutes often lived together in groups of three or four, and contemporaries noted the support and aid they gave one another in times of need and distress.

Other women formed more permanent relationships with sailors, living with them when they were in port, and drawing their half pay when they were at sea. These women provided social as well as sexual services to sailors in port, argues Walkowitz - they housed them, held their money, and prevented them from being exploited by unprincipled lodging-house keepers in their absence.

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