The White Slave Trade and the Policing of the Late Victorian/Edwardian West End

A bit of a mouthful, the title of this post – but bear with me; its contents may well surprise you and come courtesy of a riveting Funzing lecture that I attended, given by the historian Sarah Wise.

As we travelled back in time to the 19th century Sarah explained that, contrary to what’s often stated, there existed many organisations of differing ideologies fighting to defeat the white slave trade: feminists, magistrates and left-leaning progressives among them.

The term “white slavery” itself is problematic. Sarah described it as the “melodramatic and inaccurate” name given to the trafficking of women, arising from the Caucasian description of white people living in enforced slavery: the idea that it was “doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked virgins” being trafficked.

In reality, of course, women of every race fell prey to traffickers, particularly economic migrants, who were frequently intercepted at ports. Prostitution in those years was “truly global”. Few border controls or immigration policies existed – and those that did were rarely implemented. Women were a commodity to be traded, then discarded.

Let’s turn our attention to 1880, and to Brussels – where continental ‘maisons de tolérance’ were being investigated by the British government, in case British women were detained there. This grim reality was reported in the UK on a daily basis – at a strange time for British society. Over the previous decades, wave after wave of legislation had nibbled away at Victorian male prestige, starting with the 1857 Divorce Act: the beginning of legislation that changed the status quo. 1870 saw the passing of the first of several Married Women’s Property Acts, following years of campaigning by feminists. And in 1886, the Contagious Diseases Act was repealed.

It wasn’t all good news, though: 1885’s Criminal Law Amendment illegalised homosexuality and, shockingly, wasn’t repealed until 1967.

The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, WT Stead, knew that trafficking was rife, even while many of his contemporaries pretended it wasn’t happening. In an infamous exposé in 1885, Stead “bought” Eliza Armstrong, of Lisson Grove, from her mother for £5 – and promptly published ‘The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon’ – an article which remains a harrowing read.

The scale of prostitution in the West End in the 1850s/60s was “horrendous”, involving very young men and women – and children. Although circumstances had improved slightly by the 1880s, there were still 8-10,000 prostitutes walking the streets – those same streets that London’s 16,500 police officers believed they had “cleaned up”. The police, however, had been allowed too much leeway by previous Acts of Parliament, as had magistrates, who exercised unhealthy levels of control over the conviction rate.

The tale of Miss Elizabeth Cass is a most cautionary one. Hailing from County Durham, this young dressmaker came to live in London in 1887. One Friday evening, she journeyed to Regent Street to make a purchase from Jay’s Mourning Warehouse. It was June, and a very hot night: London was packed with Golden Jubilee crowds. All of a sudden, Elizabeth found herself seized by police officers and charged with ‘soliciting as a common prostitute’, the arresting officer vowing that he had encountered her several times before. However, Elizabeth’s employer stood up for her and the magistrate gave her the benefit of the doubt “this time” – which grudging forgiveness left a deep stain on that poor woman’s character.

A huge media furore ensued around the subject of ‘innocent versus guilty’: the magistrate had effectively argued that women had fewer rights to walk around London than men. The furore led to the Liberal MP William Caine speaking out in the House of Commons about women being falsely accused of crimes by West End police officers. There was also, Caine stated, wide-spread extortion on the part of the police: certain officers charged prostitutes a monthly “fee” to practice their trade.

Shopkeepers also spoke out. They wanted – needed – women to go shopping in the West End and could not understand the police’s attitude. New innovations included lavatories, roof gardens and cafés, designed to capture women’s spending power. Glass plate windows, improved suburban trains and the Underground had made the West End more appealing: shopkeepers wanted women to stroll – and to shop.

And yet, the nation of “unchaperoned” women in the West End remained controversial, particularly for upper class women.

No one understood this better than the owner of Piccadilly-based store Swan & Edgar. He told a 1908 government enquiry that one of the West End’s biggest problems was male “pests” constantly harassing and soliciting female shoppers, from whom he had received numerous complaints – including the daughter of a Swan & Edgar director.

Yet, complicit as the police may have been, they had few powers to charge the perpetrators, even with Swan & Edgar prepared to act as a witness. A “massive” double standard for women and men was in operation. Probably inevitably, the trial of the police officer in the Elizabeth Cass case collapsed; that poor woman’s name was blackened all over again. The ramifications of the case, however, did have a massive effect on policing in the West End.

Many more such instances are on record. On 20 March 1906, Mrs Teresa Norris changed omnibus on the way home to her husband in south London. Having dropped her umbrella, a gentleman picked it up and handed it to her; she thanked him – and was promptly marched to the local police station. Here, she was remanded overnight, PC Cole having told his superiors that he frequently saw Mrs Norris ‘plying her trade’. Spending the night in a police cell was a most educational experience for that lady who, whilst chatting to actual prostitutes, learned that they had to give Cole money nightly, otherwise they were arrested.

Disappointingly, the 1908 Report of the Royal Commission upon the Duties of the Metropolitan Police downplayed the concerns of the press and the public: three officers were sacked and one prosecuted for perjury – otherwise, little changed and the Report was widely lambasted as a “whitewash”.

On a more positive note, a number of voluntary vigilante groups were set up, determined to protect women and who prowled the UK’s railway stations and ports – among them the National Vigilance Society, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants and the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls & Women.

It was at this point that the lecture concluded, leaving me keen to find out more, especially how policing in London evolved during the 20th century. That investigation will have to wait for another day – but I hope I’ve managed to convey some of Sarah Wise’s knowledge and passion for her subject; I found her talk illuminating.

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