Flora Tristan wrote a great deal about the plight of women and children in the sex trade in London, and much as her words are uncomfortably tinged with her often insulting language around class and high ideals of femininity, they offer insight into a subject left alone by many another author. The topic of gin palace and brothel were rare in Victorian writing, even among reformers. Tristan at least focuses on the larger economics and politics of gender, even as she crams in every detail she can manage in a flowery language of ideals. She writes:
I have never been able to look at a prostitute without being moved by a feeling of compassion for her place in our societies and without experiencing scorn and hatred for the rulers who, totally immune to shame, to respect for humanity, and to love for their equals, reduce God’s creatures to the lowest degree of abjection!–to be valued below brute beasts!
She describes Waterloo–this area that we as women are now allowed to walk without fear at all times of day was once somewhere no woman could go alone without fear of men, whether or not she was in the trade:
Accompanied by two friends armed with canes, I went as an observer between seven and eight o’clock in the evening to visit the new quarter next to Waterloo Bridge, an area crossed by the long, wide Waterloo Road. This quarter is almost entirely peopled by prostitutes and agents of prostitution. It would be impossible to go there alone in the evening without risking imminent danger. It was a warm summer evening. The girls were at the windows or were seated before their doorways, laughing and joking with their pimps. Half-dressed, several bare to the waist, they were shocking and disgusting, but the cynicism and crime on the faces of the pimps was frightening.
In general the pimps were handsome men–young, tall, and strong; but their vulgar, gross manner reminded one of animals whose only instincts are their appetites.
Several of them accosted us, asking if we wanted a room. As we responded negatively, one bolder than the others said menacingly, “Then why have you come to this quarter if you do not want a room to take your lady to!” I confess that I would not have wanted to find myself alone with this man.
In that way we crossed all the streets adjacent to Waterloo Road and went to sit on the bridge to observe another spectacle. There we watched the girls of Waterloo Road district go by; in the evening between eight and nine o’clock, they go in bands into the West End of the city, where they practice their profession during the night and go home at eight or nine o’clock in the morning.
The girls stroll through the streets where the crowds are, those that terminate at the Stock Exchange, at the times when people go there, and along the approaches to theaters and other public attractions. At the hour of the half-price they invade all the shows and take possession of the lounges, which they make their reception rooms. After the performance, the girls go to the “finishes.” These are disgraceful cabarets or else vast, sumptuous taverns where one goes to finish out the night.
These sound more like the kind of girls to be found in some of the boarding houses written about by Mary Higgs, but there follows a fascinating description of a gin palace with a rather different dynamic. Much as I dislike some of her language, I do not know that I would have painted much of a different picture in her position. These scenes show the uses to which the wealth of the Empire were put to use, and the degradation of poor women that they demanded. These are not the things you will read in walking through the door of a revived gin palace, now becoming part of the hip London scene.
It was a sight to see, one that makes the moral condition of England better understood than anything one might say. These splendid taverns have a very special character. It seems that their frequenters are dedicated to the night; they go to bed when the sun begins to light up the horizon, and they get up after it has gone down. On the outside these carefully shut-up palace-taverns (gin-palaces) betoken only sleep and silence; but the porter has hardly opened the little door where the initiates enter than one is dazzled by the lively, brilliant lights escaping from a thousand gas jets. On the second floor there is an immense salon divided into two parts lengthwise. In one part is a row of tables separated by wooden partitions, as in all the English restaurants. On two sides of the tables are sofa-benches. Opposite, on the other side of the room, is a stage where richly costumed prostitutes are on display. They provoke the men with glances and words. When someone responds to their advances, they take the gallant gentlemen to one of the tables, all of which are loaded with cold meats, ham, poultry, cakes, and every kind of wine and liqueur.
The finishes are the temples that English materialism erects to its gods! The acolytes are richly dressed servants. The industrialist owners of the establishment humbly greet the male guests who come to exchange their gold for debauchery.
Toward midnight the habitués begin to arrive. Several of these taverns are meeting places for high society where the elite of the aristocracy assembles. At first the young lords recline on the sofa-benches, smoking and joking with the girls, then after several drinks, the fumes of champagne and the alcohol of Madeira rise to their heads, and the illustrious scions of the English nobility, and Their Honors of the Parliament, take off their coats, unknot their ties, and remove their vests and suspenders. They set up their own boudoirs in a public cabaret. Why should they restrain themselves? Are they not paying very dearly for the right to display their scorn? And as for the one they incite–they make fun of her. The orgy is steadily rising to a crescendo; between four and five o’clock in the morning, it reaches its peak.
There are all sorts of amusements in the finishes. One of the favorites is to make a girl dead drunk and then make her swallow some vinegar mixed with mustard and pepper; this drink almost always gives her horrible convulsions, and the jerkings and contortions of the unfortunate thing provoke laughter and infinitely amuse the honorable society. Another divertissement greatly appreciated in these fashionable assemblies is to throw glasses of anything at all on the girls who lie dead drunk on the floor. I have seen satin dresses that no longer had any color; they were a confusing mixture of stains; wine, brandy, beer, tea, coffee, cream, etc., made a thousand fantastic designs on them–a variegated testimony of the orgy; human beings cannot descend lower!
This may not, perhaps, have described every gin palace. Dickens provides a remarkably healthy version of a gin palace in Sketches by Boz, but he does note that
Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles’s, Covent-garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London. There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city.
There are more quotes to be found on the Victorian London site, all of them seem to describe the scene at a gin palace in the early evening, people popping in and out and nothing at all out of the ordinary and definitely nothing sexual at all, oh no. But all agree they abound in the neighbourhoods of greatest poverty.
This desperate and terrifying poverty Tristan herself describes at length with such ring of truth shows more than enough reason why women would chose this kind of route, any fucking route, to a different kind of life. Or perhaps just to forgetting. But there was more than enough evidence of women and children forced into prostitution, often lured from the countryside and from Europe with the promise of one kind of work only to find themselves forced into another. In 1838 the committee of the Society for Juvenile Prostitution filed charges against brothel owner Marie Aubrey, for the following, which Tristan quotes at length:
The house in question was situated In Seymour Place, Bryanston Square. It was an establishment of great notoriety, visited by some of the most distinguished foreigners and others and carried on in a style little short of that observed in the richest and noblest families. The house consisted of twelve or fourteen rooms, besides those appropriated to domestic uses, each of which was genteelly and fashionably furnished. The saloon, a very large room, was elegantly fitted up: a profusion of valuable and splendid paintings decorated its walls, and its furniture was of a costly description… a service of solid silver plate was ordinarily in use when the visitors required it, which was the property of Marie Aubrey. At the time the prosecution was instituted, there were about twelve or fourteen young females in the house, mostly from France and Italy. There was a medical practitioner In the neighbourhood who was employed as agent. It was his duty to attend the establishment. He was frequently sent either to France, Italy or the villages near London, to procure females … Marie Aubrey had lived in the house a number of years, and had amassed a fortune. Shortly after she left, the inmates were sent away and the house is now shut up and the furniture disposed of. Upon receiving a fresh importation of females, it was the practice of this woman to send a circular, stating the circumstance to the parties who were In the habit of visiting the establishment.
At the present time there are in the metropolis a great number of young females from France and Italy, and other parts of the continent, a large proportion of whom have been decoyed from their homes, and introduced into the paths of iniquity by Marie Aubrey, or her infamous agents. There are a number of houses of this description at the West End now under the cognizance of the Society, and whose circulars are in its possession, who adopt this plan, and, by means of the Court Guide and twopenny post, are forwarding notices of their establishments indiscriminately to all.
Your Committee desire to lay before this meeting the means adopted by the agents of these houses. As soon as they arrive on the continent they obtain information respecting those families who have daughters, and who are desirous of placing them in respectable situations; they then introduce themselves, and by fair promise induce the parents to allow their children to accompany the stranger to London, with the understanding that they are to be engaged as tambour workers, or in some other genteel occupation. A sum of money is left with the parents, as a guarantee for the due performance of the contract, with an agreement that a certain amount shall be forwarded quarterly. While they remain in the house they were first taken to, the money is duly forwarded, and their parents are thus unconsciously receiving the means of support from the prostitution of their own children; if they remove, Ietters are sent to the parents to apprize them that their daughters have left the employ of their former mistress, and the money is accordingly stopped: they fail not to inform the parents that they have obtained other respectable situations, and are doing
She devotes some space to the terrifying numbers of boys and girls abducted, raped, forced into service as the playthings of the wealthy. This section broke my heart, and is full of references to the groups and societies documenting these abuses, and trying to put a stop to them.
This is all that comes of poverty, vast inequality, the impunity and power of empire. We have won so much, but I am sometimes afraid of what our economic future holds in store, and I know that for many men, women and children around the world, too much has stayed exactly the same.
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