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18 June 2014
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Work
Two prostitutes
© Mary Evans Picture Library
"The oldest trade in the world"

Prostitution is an unfortunate aspect of life in many urban areas, and in the 19th Century nowhere was it more visible than in bustling port towns like Southampton, where a transient male population provided a ready clientele for the prostitutes’ services. For much of the 19th Century, working as a prostitute was a temporary stage in the lives of many poor women, who walked the streets for several years before settling down permanently with one man.

However, attempts to regulate prostitution through the Contagious Diseases Acts passed in the 1860s and ‘70s, stimulated a change in the way that both prostitutes and their working-class contemporaries viewed the trade. Streetwalkers were increasingly stigmatised, finding it harder to move back into more “respectable” work, and as a result became more isolated from their neighbours: the Acts marked the start of a transition to a more professional, streamlined and rationalised “work force”. More...

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