Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the 'Great Social Evil'

by Fraser Joyce, Department of History, Oxford Brookes University [1]



During the nineteenth century prostitution became labeled as "The Great Social Evil" by contemporaries. This article attempts to unravel some of the complexities in the circumstances surrounding this labeling by Victorians through the investigation of some of the problems and controversies which prostitution raised in society. In studying the trade in terms of its social, medical and moral implications on Victorian life though contemporary writings, it can be demonstrated that the prostitute's failure to meet middle-class social and gender ideals, the threat she posed to the nation's health, and the moral implications of sin and vice meant that the prostitute had the potential to make an impact on every level of society, and thus attracted much public and state interest towards herself and her trade.

Keywords: Prostitution, Great Social Evil, urbanisation, criminality, gender ideals, venereal disease, social purity, philanthropic organisations.



‘Under the name of the Great Social Evil our newspapers for years have alluded to an awful vice, too evidently of wide prevalence,’ wrote Francis Newman in 1869 (Newman, 1869: 3). The concept of the Great Social Evil envisaged a sin of daunting proportions spreading throughout the social order leaving chaos in its wake; in the nineteenth century no greater social problem was perceived by society than that of prostitution. This article will explore why Victorian Britain was preoccupied with the prostitute and her trade, and why this above all other vices was branded ‘the Great Social Evil’ of the nineteenth century. This study of the social, medical and moral structures of Victorian life will demonstrate that the prostitute’s place in the community in terms of social class and gender, her role in the spread and reduction of venereal disease, and the threat she posed to the nation’s moral wellbeing, meant she was the centre of attention for a broad spectrum of Victorian society.

There is a wealth of both primary and historiographical material available to the historian on this topic: contemporary pamphlet literature in general is particularly abundant, as are the works of religious figures, social anthropologists, and medical men; secondary literature abounds with texts on crime, popular politics, empire, gender and sexuality. However, primary material on this subject can be misleading and on occasion unreliable. Nineteenth-century writers were characteristically melodramatic and encapsulated the concept of a perpetual battle between good and evil, order and anarchy (Weiner, 1990: 21). Thus it is common to find in practical writings that the author’s personal morals are clearly visible, though their impact on the overall text is often harder to judge. This serves to reinforce the argument that for Victorians, the moral aspects of life were inherently bound with the physical.

Prostitution became a field of academic study around the 1970s and due to its potentially sensitive nature, Mazo Karras writes that the historian must ‘steer clear between the dangers of portraying prostitutes as victims by concentrating too much on how others saw them and the danger of decontextualising them by concentrating too much on their agency’ (Houlbrook, 2006: 209). Gilfoyle argues that around the 1980s there was a re-evaluation in the way the topic was approached: before, prostitution was studied in terms of its sensationalism, focusing on the very highest or lowest forms; references were ‘buried’ in works on public health, crime, and deviance. However, post-1980s histories display a change in emphasis, focusing on the prostitutes themselves, and their role within wider society (Gilfoyle, 1999: 117-20). This may be in part due to Walkowitz’s influential work Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980) which analysed the role of women, both those who were prostitutes and those who were not, in the passage and repeal campaigns of the Contagious Diseases Acts, in doing so exploring the place of the prostitute in wider Victorian society.

A vast literature has been produced on almost every aspect of the prostitute, her trade, and how both integrated into and reflected wider social beliefs and practices. The reputation the Victorians earned in terms of their sexual prudery means that unbiased contemporary accounts are rare; consequently, historians may have insufficient sources to discuss Victorian sex and sexuality, prompting Phillips and Phillips to note that ‘more nonsense is probably talked about “The Victorians and Sex” than any other aspect of Victorianism’ (Phillips and Phillips, 1978: 99). Thus caution needs to be exercised when studying this topic.

This article, structured around Dr William Acton’s criteria of social, medical and moral aspects of prostitution, attempts to unravel the complexities surrounding the prostitute and her trade, and to provide an overview of how the Victorian era perceived the Great Social Evil through their writings on its causes and cures. This thematic approach is preferable to a chronological one given the intricacy of the relationships between aspects of Victorian life; in addition many sources reveal a striking continuity (and in some cases unabashed repetition) of popular and professional opinion. The emphasis throughout has been on primary material in order to allow a greater flexibility in unravelling the multi-faceted nature of the topic.


Social Aspects I: Class

Social structure had much to do with the popular perception of prostitution, as the majority of contemporary work published on the topic was written by the middle classes about the lower social orders, which came about primarily from nineteenth-century urbanisation. From 1812 to 1851 Britain’s population doubled, and, by 1900, had done so again (Steadman Jones, 1971: 160). As middle-class protocol dictated a man could not marry until he could support a family, Clement argues that high levels of urban unemployment caused an increase in unmarried people of both sexes, and unfulfilled male sexual desire encouraged prostitution (Clement, 2006: 212-13). However, Victorian writers did not often see the socio-economic factors, preferring moral arguments; the urban environment became a place of vice, depravity and sexual danger. Using a supply-and-demand model, Acton argued that the growth of towns increased the proximity of wealthy idle men mixed with the poor, thus creating ideal conditions for prostitution to flourish (Acton, 1870: 176-7). Walsh wrote of the dangers in the crowded city:

The concentrations of vice and their rotaries… the sanction lent by example; the concealment offered by numbers to every sort of sin; the facilities provided by commerce for multiplying the means of enjoyment; the inducements held up by the love of gain to sacrifice integrity to advancement; the very refinement which attaches itself to vice when it has so many elegant appliances (Walsh, 1858: 3).

All these factors were said to encourage prostitution, and demonstrate how cities were transformed from places of opportunity to ones of danger. In the mid 1880s W.T. Stead in his ‘Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon’ compared London to the Minotaur’s labyrinth, awash with women sacrificed to the monster of modern society (Pall Mall Gazette, July 6, 1888: 2). Though the majority of British literature focused on London, problems were found in urban centres across the country.

Studies into the underclass in newly-urbanised cities from the 1830s onwards discovered prostitutes as an abundant part; vice-ridden, criminal and poor. Poverty was perceived to be linked to prostitution, but not always in an economic sense. Greg wrote that poverty brought boredom; sex provided an interesting distraction to the poor unaffected by morals (Greg, 1831: 26). Mearns asked ‘who can wonder that young girls wander off into a life of immorality, which promises release from such conditions’, viewing the desperation to escape the circumstances rather than moral corruption as a cause of prostitution (Mearns, 1883: 11).

However, in practice, poor working wages for women formed by far the strongest link between poverty and prostitution. Martineau wrote that ‘there is the strongest temptation to prefer luxury with infamy to hardship with unrecognised honour’ in the face of unemployment (Martineau, 1870: 178). Petty theft was more profitable than petty manufacturing and in turn prostitution was more profitable than either. The juvenile thief Ellen Reese answered Chadwick’s questionnaire into criminality at her trial by stating that ‘she did not become a regular prostitute till shoplifting failed – was miserable both ways, but going on the Streets was more profitable’ (Tobias, 1972: 62).

Thus prostitution became associated primarily with the troublesome poor. Taylor argues that ‘public condemnation and police prosecution’ directly follow each other (Taylor, 1998: 43-4); behaviour in the working- and under-class seen as immoral by the middle class tended to be repressed by the law, as Ryan argued in 1839:

The common people of all nations, the ignorant and the vulgar, who are uneducated, are extremely vicious… [and may be revolutionarily violent] did not legislation… control and punish them (Ryan, 1839: 16).

It is arguable that the interest in prostitution in Victorian Britain stemmed from the need to cull immoral behaviour through tougher policing. Gatrell writes that in the Victorian age there was much increase in

the policing of the nation’s drunks, vagrants, paupers, prostitutes, homosexuals and aliens; the policing of those who might service allegedly deviant cultures… or the policing of those practices subverted on increasingly rigid ideal of urban order (Weiner, 1990: 261-2).The 1839 Vagrancy Act in London was directed at prostitutes specifically, and outlawed ‘loitering for the purposes of prostitution or solicitation, to the annoyance of passengers or inhabitants’, thereby clearing the urban environment of those unsavoury to the general public (Pearsall, 2003: 267). Some contemporaries had strong views: Talbot advocated an increase in police powers and the summary conviction of prostitutes (Talbot, 1844: 62-3). Publicus Mentor highlighted the importance of both moral and legislative reasons for controlling the poor:

Let the “Social Evil” be a punishable offence, whether it be in its rather less sinful, or its more aggravated, form of “Adultery”: the latter being forbidden by God’s Holy Commandments as much as murder, theft, or any other offence which our laws admit to the criminal, and the former by God’s Holy Word (Publicus Mentor, 1875: 4).

Ultimately, prostitution was regulated in part by the Contagious Diseases Acts (see below), but it was never directly rendered illegal. A vice that accompanied prostitution was habitual drinking, both as cause and accompaniment. ‘A woman who drinks will do anything,’ lamented Miller, when explaining why prostitutes were able to ply their trade (Miller, 1859: 9). A profound difference separated prostitution from other vices; Landels wrote that drunks, vagrants, bankrupts and immoral men could all regain their respectability, but not prostitutes, thus placing prostitution above others as the most disgraceful vice (Landels, 1858: 37).

When parading so openly in public and associated with other vices, the prostitute became the symbol of degradation and sin in urban society. Prostitution, as a significant vice in the nineteenth century, was associated with the problematic poorer elements of society; their immorality was closely associated with the criminal nature of the lower social orders. The urbanisation of the nineteenth century forced the wealthy and poor closer together and the associated vices of the latter, frowned upon by the former, became a visible and thus undeniable problem.


Social Aspects II: Gender

Nineteenth-century male society held an ideal of womanhood to which women were encouraged and forced to adhere: selfless and compassionate; the ideal woman’s criminal counterpart was ruthlessly obstinate. Studies into prostitution emphasised the class divide in sexual morals: Cominos wrote that women were viewed as either ‘sexless ministering angels or sensuously oversexed temptresses of the devil’, with no middle ground (Himmelfarb, 1995: 74). Butler argued men had created this divide and spoke of the exploitation of both respectable women and prostitutes, the two described thus:

The protected and refined ladies who are not only to be good, but who are, if possible, to know nothing except what is good; and those poor outcast daughters of the people whom they purchase with money, with whom they think they may consort in evil whenever it pleases them to do so, before returning to their own separated and protected homes (Butler, 1879: 9-10).This reveals the male exploitation of a lower class to uphold the ideals of a more respectable rank of women, who were equally repressed.

Offering an interpretation of why men imposed these feminine ideals upon women, Tait wrote that ‘men are, in general, possessed of greater mental power and activity than females; but that is why they ought to extend towards the latter that sympathy and protection to which they are entitled in virtue of their weak and unprotected condition’ (Tait, 1840: 152). Despite male power, it was thought that women were ‘morally superior’, controlling their sensibilities and regulating their sexual desires in a way which was supposedly beyond male capability. The Westminster Review in 1850 noted that men merely exploit this ‘strange and sublime unselfishness’ by making them servile (Miller, 1859: 6).

This supposed ability to control their sexual desires made prostitutes another female anomaly. It was argued that Victorian females’ sexual appetite was negligible and unnatural: women did not have sex for pleasure, but to procreate. Graham believed that God made intercourse pleasurable so that man could carry out His wishes to procreate with the satisfaction of continuing the natural order of things (Graham, 1854: 11). Women who lost their virginity outside marriage were frowned upon as illegitimacy was sinful: as they showed desire they must be slaves to greed and lust (Burstyn, 1890: 111). Within marriage, chastity was supposedly upheld even more rigorously. Sexual excitement was seen as dangerous to the heart and nervous system; sex within marriage was perceived as safer due to its scarcity and the familiarity with partners’ bodies: ‘Between the husband and the wife, where there is a proper degree of chastity, all these causes [excitement and over-stimulation] either entirely lose, or are exceedingly diminished in its effect’ (Graham, 1854: 12). Thus ‘Married women, mothers, are, we believe, on the whole healthier than the unmarried. It is not Nature that is to be blamed, but unnatural excess’; an excess found through the use of prostitutes (Newman, 1889: 6). The wife also had an emotional moral advantage over the prostitute since she could gratify the whole being (mind, body, and spirit), whereas the prostitute could only please the body, and then only for money (Acton, 1870: 162-3).

Another controversial aspect of Victorian prostitution was its apparent freedom from male interference (until the 1860s). The working prostitute did not fit her gender role as a mother or ‘angel of the house’, instead choosing to work in public. Fielding noted that prostitutes were ‘getting bolder’, appearing more often in public; female independence posed a threat to patriarchal society, and displayed a stark warning against crime and unregulated sexuality. By appearing in public managing independent economy, much attention and concern was directed towards her (Tobias, 1967: 137).

The prostitute was also far from the ideal mother figure: Acton saw the two major sins of motherhood, infanticide and bastardy (and from the 1860s, baby-farming) to be associated with prostitution in the nineteenth century (Acton, 1870: x). Bullen opposed prostitution ‘in the sacred rights of the family’, arguing that the prostitute was an unfit mother who could only ruin her family (Social Purity Association, hereafter SPA, 1883: 14). Immoral women corrupted their children and husbands; juvenile delinquency was a particular fear, as children embodied innocence ideally incorruptible. As for the husband, she could ruin him by being unfaithful; the ‘fallen woman’. Augustus Egg’s Past and Present was a horrific warning to Victorians of the potential ruin to a family caused by the unfaithfulness of the wife (Roberts, 1980: 73).

On the subject of motherhood, Acton is frequently cited by historians as arguing that prostitutes could reintegrate with society after a life of prostitution and become a good wife and mother. What many do not acknowledge is that he was condemning the ‘double standard’ of sexual morality (Acton, 1870: 49). It was acceptable for men to sin, but women, kept in the pure ideal, could not. ‘A woman falls but once’, writes Miller, ‘and society turns upon her as soon as the offence is known. A man falls many times, habitually, confessed by; yet society changes her countenance on him but little, if at all’ (Miller, 1859: 26). There was also the clear display of hypocrisy with men loving one class of women (their wives) but using prostitutes for sex, all the while preaching purity for their wives (Greg, 1831: 37).

Thus the prostitute did not conform to the role prescribed to her by patriarchal Victorian society. In an age with two extreme romanticised images of women, she posed a stark contrast to the middle-class ideal of the woman as a mother, an obedient wife and above all financially and socially dependant on her husband. Branding prostitution as the Great Social Evil helped to reinforce this patriarchal social structure.


Medical Aspects

Prostitution was closely associated with venereal disease, and occasionally likened to a disease to be cured on the body politic:

[Is prostitution] the sore to be neatly and comfortably dressed as it may be, from day to day, with mollifying and deodorising appliances, and suffered to run on? or are the means to be taken to heal and dry it up? (Miller, 1859: 11).

Thus the prostitute’s body itself became a pollutant of the city, which needed to be regulated or removed to preserve the health of the populace. She became caught up in the Public Health movement, introduced for the physical and moral wellbeing of the population (again the two were seen to be inherently linked). The extended Contagious Diseases Acts were pushed through by those concerned with this movement, thus attempting public health on a social level by combating a disease which stemmed from an individual’s actions (Fisher, 1996: 33).


Sexual health can be split into two areas: venereal disease; and the perceived danger of physical overexertion through intercourse (see above), or loss of essential bodily fluids. The latter danger was perceived exclusively as a male risk; indeed, neither area generally focused on women’s health, and gynaecological knowledge as a whole in the Victorian age was questionable. Ryan’s Prostitution in London contained a series of anatomic etchings, but none concerned female ailments; the entire work was male-orientated on this subject (Ryan, 1839: 435-47). Acton advocated control over sexual expenditure: 1oz of semen was thought to contain the life-power of 40oz of blood, and therefore intercourse not used for procreation would waste this precious force in men (Marcus, 1970: 23). This is essential to bear in mind when studying the medical texts; doctors, supposedly writing solely from a physiological (and later psychological) standpoint, often revealed their moral beliefs. When studying the effects of venereal disease on the public, doctors who perceived prostitutes as the cause of illness rarely viewed them in a sympathetic light.

As with the numbers of prostitutes themselves, the spread of venereal disease was more speculated than calculated. Prostitutes could spread disease quickly; Acton quoted two doctors, Duchâtelet and Barr, claiming that prostitutes could have 15-20, and 20-23 clients a day respectively (Acton, 1870: 38, 6). All might become infected; if the woman herself was healthy, it was likely that one of her clients would not be. An anonymous doctor calculated the yearly spread of venereal disease: a total of 1,652,500 people infected per year from just 500 initially infected women; with each of the 500 infecting 3,304 men. Mrs Pankhurst believed that 75% of all men had a venereal disease; medical officials calculated that 7% of all those hospitalised under the Poor Law were infected (Pearsall, 2003: 277), and Hemyng noted that syphilis was found in around a fifth of sailors’ women (Hemyng, 1862: 233-4).

Thus dangerously diseased, prostitutes were seen as directly responsible for debilitating the health of the male population. Hemyng wrote that her disease

contaminates the very air, like a deadly upas tree, and poisoning the blood of the nation, with most audacious recklessness… The woman was nothing better than a paid murderess, committing crime with impunity, (Hemyng, 1862: 235)

and therefore implying she felt no guilt for her actions and furthering the opinion that she was a pestilence upon humanity. In his study of prostitution in Paris, Duchâtelet wrote that venereal disease attacked the young clientele, the ‘strength and wealth of nations’ in their prime, leaving them unfit for civil or military use (Wardlaw, 1843: 41). Duchâtelet’s point was particularly poignant for the English experience; with the collapse of a generation the country and the British Empire would fall with it. The Viceroy of India wrote on syphilis: ‘the strength of the British Army in India, as a fighting machine, has been impaired by the disease’, and damage limitation was sought to ensure this did not lead to disaster (Levine, 1994: 583).

The resulting 1864 Contagious Diseases Act subjected women suspected of being ‘common prostitutes’ to fortnightly internal examination; subsequent Acts in 1864, 1866, 1868 and 1869 extended the legislation. They were controversial: the Social Purity Alliance branded them as ‘scientific sanction for immorality’, by regulating and not repressing the trade (SPA, 1883: 7). The Acts were thought to encourage the double standard further, as they were directed against women, not the men who used and funded the trade (Garrett, 1870: 3).

Two sources from 1870 argued that regardless of their medical effects (which were debatable), the Contagious Diseases Acts thrust venereal disease and prostitution, which until then could theoretically be ignored, into the public sphere. Acton wrote that between 1858 and 1870 ‘the mind and conscience of the nation are awakened’ by the Acts (Acton, 1870: v). With suggestions that the Acts be extended to the whole of the civil population (which in practice was too daunting a prospect) the Contagious Diseases Acts became a public issue. Garrett writes:

The proposal to extend gradually to the civil population the principle embodied with Contagious Diseases Acts of 1866 has been… so predominantly brought before the general public that it can no longer be regarded as a matter for professional opinions only (Garrett, 1870: 3).

As the first proactive attempt by the British government to solve the problem of prostitution which previously had only been of real concern to the medical community and a moral problem for middle-class society at large, the Contagious Diseases Acts helped to emphasise the figure of the prostitute and the problems she embodied at a public level.


Moral Aspects

Tait wrote ‘the habits of prostitutes… destroy every moral and religious impression which may have been produced… at childhood’ (Tait, 1840: 31); and in an age when purity was vital, the prostitute became an obvious target of moralists. From the early nineteenth century onward religious sentiment was heavily involved in debates on prostitution. Although moral attitudes were a source of sympathy for prostitutes (in particular religion), they also explain why many Victorians saw prostitutes as moral vermin and not just a problem to be solved. Prostitution (as unchecked fornication) was forbidden by the Bible, and those involved in the religious revival of the nineteenth century were an abundant source of literature on the Great Social Evil. Other than the biblical story of Eve (used for centuries as an example of female sin), a commonly-cited passage was Corinthians I, Ch. 6, vv. 9-10, which reads:

Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor coveters, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Tait, citing this, argues that prostitution was caused by spreading ‘revolutionary and infidel principles’ and was thus a sin against God (Tait, 1840: 203). Wardlaw urged religious groups to restrain disgust and to retain sympathy for the unfortunate women. ‘Hatred of their sins must on no account be allowed to degenerate into hatred of their persons,’ he wrote. ‘To hate their sins, we leave to God, but to hate their persons, we can learn only from the devil’ (Wardlaw, 1843: 121). This was not always successful: ‘How [do] these sinners dare enter into the house after God, and into the immediate presence of their Maker… with this sin upon their conscience[?]’ wrote Publicus Mentor, perceiving scant chance for redemption (Publicus Mentor, 1875: 7).

The two major religious sects of this era were Nonconformism and Evangelicalism, and these doctrines had an influence on many aspects of Victorians’ lives. Nonconformism sought to provide an alternative to Catholicism and Anglicanism and has been described as ‘the religion of the industrial age’. The congregation was middle-class, and their moral principles opposed threats to their domain such as prostitution, gambling, drinking and suchlike (Kent, 1993: 326). Evangelicalism dominated the religious arena as a branch of Christianity for which the work against prostitution was, according to one anonymous Christian Lady, ‘a holy war’ (Pall Mall Gazzete, July 9 1885, p. 5). Its devout work against sin was also vital to social purity campaigns. Nonconformism and Evangelicalism are seen throughout Victorian discussions on prostitution.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, social purity campaigns became increasingly opposed to ‘deviant’ sexual practices, including homosexuality, resulting in a ‘veil of silence’ over sexual topics. Many dedicated organisations were set up directly to end prostitution, in particular the Social Purity Alliance. The Operations of the Alliance read: ‘In seeking to arrest the predominant cause of this evil… the Alliance strives to effect a permanent social reform’ (SPA, 1883: 7), thereby placing onus for change onto the individual, as opposed to the state (which by this point in time was falling out of favour with the public over the Contagious Diseases Acts).

Thus philanthropic organisations can be useful in estimating the popularity of a particular cause, including the case of the Great Social Evil. In the days following the shocking ‘Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon’, Stead’s 1888 practical journalistic study into the horrors of juvenile prostitution, the classified pages of the Pall Mall Gazette were filled with advertisements for charity organisations addressing the issues raised in the study. Society membership figures are useful in judging how popular a cause was, and attempts of charity organisations in creating support were not always successful. The Social Purity Alliance suffered continuous problems with low membership. In 1888 Professor Stuart MP lamented:

We have been in existence for something like fifteen years, and I must say it is with a sense of regret that I learn… our Society contains only 3,523 members [most of whom had not paid the membership fee], and that of the eight Branches which are affiliated with it only four can be said to be in a thoroughly healthy and sound condition (SPA, 1888: 17).

As charities’ success depended on the same public interest and generosity, it is easy to speculate how charities and social purity organisations could share problems. In addition to membership difficulties, sometimes charities received scorn from onlookers: Whithorne openly criticised charity action as expensive and ineffective (Whithorne, 1858: 13). The heroine at the end of the moral tale The Crushed Daisy praised charitable figures as ‘the dauntless few // Who scoffs, and sneers, and insults brave… // and fearless, seek the lost to save!’, suggesting that charities frequently received derisive criticism (Logan, 1998: 13).

Contrary to expectations, these problems suggest the majority of the public was not as preoccupied with the Great Social Evil as some literature might suggest. The numbers of pamphlets and organisations point towards a significant interest, but membership numbers indicate otherwise: organisations were made up of a dedicated group supporting the cause, but with low membership figures, the general public appeared uninterested. This could provide the basis of an argument that the Great Social Evil was such only to a small section of the population. Interestingly, moral campaigns were unusual in that women were allowed by men to ‘find it in their power to contribute’ to a larger extent than anywhere else in Victorian life (M.R., 1868: 15). Walkowitz also argues this point in her study of the role of women in opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts (Walkowitz, 1980).

Though the aspirations of these individuals may have been over-optimistic and somewhat isolated from mass public support, moral campaigns are useful in studying prostitution in that they are primarily concerned with the causes and cures. They place blame and the hope of a solution on the individual rather than society at large, an area about which government legislation could do nothing.



In 1870 Acton, summarising public interest on the subject, wrote that the prostitute was found in ‘the obscurest corners behind the scenes of civilised society’ (Acton, 1870: 32). However as this paper has argued, this is far from the truth: she was a highly visible aspect of Victorian life, and was perceived as the Great Social Evil of her time. By examining the prostitute through her social, sanitary and moral standing portrayed in Victorian writings, much can be discovered about nineteenth-century attitudes towards prostitution, and we begin to understand why both the woman and her trade were branded the Great Social Evil.

The newly urbanised community in which clients were abundant meant the prostitute was provided with ample economic incentive. Urbanisation brought with it poverty, overcrowding, disease, and proximity between the poor and the wealthy which the latter found uncomfortable. Unemployment meant that economic opportunity became economic necessity as more women were forced into the trade. Social studies in periodicals such as The Morning Chronicle brought the figures of prostitutes and other members of the underclass into middle-class homes. The prostitute was associated with these undesirable criminal characters. In addition, by soliciting in public the prostitute became a highly visible character in urban society. This publicity was also exaggerated by her failure to live up to middle-class feminine principles. Victorian women were to follow two ideals; chastity and submissiveness. Chastity was to be upheld in middle-class women, so the sight of prostitutes openly trading their most sacred asset would inevitably cause anger amongst those who upheld these ideals. They did not have intercourse for procreation; but for money and pleasure. Nor did they adhere to the ideals of the perfect mother. By working outside the home, the prostitute defied male authority. Thus prostitutes were far from the ideals of womanhood, and visibly so.

Thus the prostitute perverted the idealised social norm. In a society where knowing one’s place in the social order was important, the prostitute was the dregs both in terms of social class and gender, and posed a morbid fascination for Victorians.

Medical texts were frequently concerned with the dangers of consorting with prostitutes. Venereal disease passed from the prostitute (seen as the source of this disease) to the man had devastating health effects, not just for the client, but for his wife and children (however, most arguments ended there and did not consider the man as the bearer of disease). Besides venereal disease, the dangers of an increased heart-rate and excessive emission of semen were also linked to prostitutes. Medical concerns were clearly aimed towards men, who were unquestionably the primary producers and audience of literature on prostitution. The Contagious Diseases Acts made the Great Social Evil a civil concern for the first time, emphasising the prostitutes’ role in the debilitation of the health of the populace.

Moralist texts, both religious and those involved with charity or social purity, affected opinion on the subject and raised the profile of the prostitute in society and of the dangers she posed. Religion provided much of the incentive to combat the sin in this respect; illicit sex was outlawed in the Bible, and the example of Eve provided the biblical basis of the female temptress who would destroy paradise. Philanthropic and social purity organisations also served to increase the profile of the prostitute, which helped to get more of the public involved. These organisations contained a wide array of figures from all walks of life, and published their writings. However, though the prostitute became visible through pamphlet literature, popular support was not guaranteed, indicating that perhaps not everybody viewed prostitution as a problem

Thus doctors, lawyers, government officials, religious figures, philanthropists, and laymen, men and women were united, for many different reasons, to combat the Great Social Evil. One of the most astonishing attributes of the Great Social Evil is that it brought together many areas of nineteenth-century life. Tait wrote that everyone had been affected by prostitution, whether through friends, family or work. The prostitute stood out as a target for people’s upright morals because she did not adhere to gender roles; she flourished in the newly urbanised centres; she was a source of disease. Prostitution had spread its influence over Victorian society, and there was ‘no bound to its extent’ (Tait, 1840: 154).




[1] Fraser Joyce is now undertaking an MA in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University and plans to begin a PhD in the History of Medicine entitled 'The Medico-legal Aspects of Identifying the Body: Forensic Medicine and British Society, 1726-1936' in October 2008.



Acton, W. (1870), Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns with Proposals for the Control and Prevention of its Attendant Evils (2nd ed), London: John Churchill and Sons

Barker, J. (1888), A Secret Book for Men; Containing Necessary Personal and Confidential Light, Instruction, Information, Counsel, and Advice for the Physical, Mental, Moral & Spiritual Weal of boys, youths and men; being an Exposure of the Vice of Boyhood, the Blight of Youth, and the Curse of Men, the Wreck of Manhood, and the Bane of Posterity, Brighton: publisher unknown

Burstyn, J. N. (1980), Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood, London: Croom Helm

Butler, J. E. (1879), Social Purity: An Address, London: Morgan and Scott

Clement, E. (2006), ‘Prostitution’ in Cocks, H. G. and M. Houlbrook (eds), The Modern History of Sexuality, Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp. 206-230

Fisher, T. (1996), ‘Josephine Butler: Feminism’s Neglected Pioneer’, History Today, 46 (6), 32-38

Garrett, E. (1870), An Enquiry into the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1866-1869, London: (reprint from the Pall Mall Gazette)

Gilfoyle, T. J. (1999), ‘Prostitutes in History: From Parables of Pornography to Metaphors of Modernity’, American Historical Review, 104 (1), 117-41

Graham, S. (1854), A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity: Intended also for the Consideration of Parents and Guardians, London: Horshell and Shirrefs

Greg, W. R. (1831), An Enquiry into the State of the Manufacturing Population and the Causes and Cures of the Evils Therein Existing, London: James Ridgeway

Hemyng, B. (1862), ‘Prostitution in London’ in Mayhew, H., London Labour and the London Poor: Volume IV- Those Who Will Not Work; Comprising Prostitutes, Thieves, Swindlers and Beggars, New York: Dover Publications

Himmelfarb, G. (1995), The De-Moralisation of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, London: Institute of Economic Affairs

Houlbrook, M. (2006), ‘Cities' in Cocks, H. G. and M. Houlbrook (eds), The Modern History of Sexuality, Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp. 133-156

Kent, J. H. S. (1993), ‘The Role of Religion in the Cultural Structure of the Later Victorian City’ in Morris, R.J. and R. Rodger (eds), The Victorian City: A Reader in British Urban History, London: Longman, pp. 322-342

Landels, W. (1858), Lessons of the Street: A Lecture, London: publisher unknown

Levine, P. (1994), ‘Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British India’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 4 (4), 597-602

Logan, D. (1998), ‘An “Outstretched Hand to the Fallen”: The Magdalen’s Friend and the Social Reclamation Movement- Part II: “Go, and Sin no More”’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 31 (2), 368-387

Marcus, S. (1970), The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, London: Book Club Association

Martineau, H. (1870), How to Observe: Morals and Manners, London: Charles Knight & Co

Mearns, A. (1883), The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Conditions of the Abject Poor, London: James Clarke & Co

Miller, J. (1859), Prostitution Considered in Relation to its Cause and Cure, Edinburgh: Sutherland and Knox

M. R. (1868), The Contagious Diseases’ Act: A Letter to The Editor of The Times (Feb 6th, 1868), location and publisher unknown

Newman, F. W. (1869), The Cure of the Great Social Evil, With Special Reference to Recent Laws Delusively Called the Contagious Diseases’ Acts, London: Trübner & Co.

Newman, F. W. (1899), The Corruption Now Called Neo-Malthusianism, London: The Moral Reform Union

Pearsall, D. (2003), The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality, Stroud: Sutton

Phillips, J. and P. Phillips (1978), Victorians at Home and Away, London: Croom Helm

Publicus Mentor (1875), The “Social Evil!” Is There No Remedy?, Dublin: William Ridgeway

Roberts, H. E. (1972), ‘Marriage, Redundancy or Sin: The Painter’s View of Women in the First Twenty-Five Years of Victoria’s Reign’ in Vicinus, M. (ed), Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, London: Methuen & Co., pp. 45-76

Ryan, M. (1839), Prostitution in London, with a Comparative View of that of Paris and New York, as Illustrative of the Capitals and Large Towns of all Countries; and Proving Moral Depravation to be the most Fertile Source of Crime, and of Personal and Social Misery; with an Account of the Nature and Treatment of the Various Diseases, caused by the Abuses of the Reproductive Function, London: H. Bailliere

Sigsworth, E. M. and T. J. Wyke (1980), ‘A Study of Victorian Prostitution and Venereal Disease’ in Vicinus, M. (ed), Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, London: Methuen & Co., pp. 77-99

Social Purity Alliance (1883), Laws of Operations and Address, Croydon: Social Purity Alliance

Social Purity Alliance (1888), Annual Report from April 30th, 1887, to April 30th, 1888, and Report of the Annual General Meeting, Croydon: Social Purity Alliance

Social Purity Alliance (1889), Annual Report from April 30th, 1889, to April 30th, 1890, and Report of the Annual General Meeting, Croydon: Social Purity Alliance

Steadman Jones, G. (1971), Outcast London, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Tait, W. (1840), Magdalenism: An Inquiry into its Extent, Causes and Consequences of Prostitution in Edinburgh, Edinburgh: P. Richard

Talbot, J. B. (1844), The Miseries of Prostitution, London: James Madden and Co.

Taylor, D. (1998), Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1750-1914, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Tobias, J. J. (1972), Nineteenth-Century Crime: Prevention and Punishment, Newton Abbot: David & Charles

Walkowitz, J. (1980) Prostitution and Victorian Society: Woman, Class and the State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Walsh, W. P. (1858), The Temptations and Trials Peculiar to Young Men: A Lecture Delivered to the Young Men’s Christian Association, Dublin: George Herbert

Wardlaw, R. (1843), Lectures on Female Prostitution: Its Nature, Extent, Effects, Guilt, Causes, and Remedy, Edinburgh: James Maclehose

Whithorne, J. C. (1858), The Social Evil Practically Considered, London: Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt

Wiener, M. J. (1990), Constructing the Criminal: Culture, Law and Policy in England, 1830-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


To cite this paper please use the following details: Joyce, F. (2008), ‘Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the ‘Great Social Evil’', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 1, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

© Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research (2008). Full copyright remains with the author.