Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Victorian prostitution and the fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts

'Found', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Delaware Art Museum
Public domain

The Acts

Victorian prostitutes mainly served working-class men in squalid conditions, and their typical clients were soldiers and sailors, who tended to be single because of their conditions of service. Their middle-class clients were mainly young single men (rather than married men). At Oxford in the 1840s the proctors’ records suggest a figure of between 300 and 400 prostitutes in a city of 25,000 people of whom 1,500 were students.  

Prostitution was a widely-recognised social problem that occupied many philanthropists, such as the wealthy heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who founded a home for young women, Urania Cottage. See here for Dickens's involvement with the scheme. There are interesting discussions here and here.

The three euphemistically titled Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, 1869) were an attempt by the British government to regulate prostitution in the manner of other European countries such as France in order to reduce the sexually transmitted diseases that plagued the British army and navy. The acts applied to specifically named ports and garrison towns, although the ultimate intention was to include all of Britain.   

The first Act stipulated that within a radius of eleven army camps and naval ports, a woman suspected of prostitution had to register with the police and receive a compulsory medical examination. If the examination revealed disease, she would be confined to a ‘lock’ hospital for a period of up to three months.

The Act of 1864 was replaced by a new Act in 1866, which added Chatham and Windsor to the number of subjected towns and introduced the enforcement of fortnightly examinations of prostitutes. The third Act of 1869 extended the provisions of the second Act to cover a total of eighteen towns in the British Isles. The maximum period of detention for a diseased prostitute was extended to nine months. 

The CD Acts were administered by units of plainclothes policemen seconded from the Metropolitan Police. They were given sweeping powers to determine who was a prostitute. No warrant or probable cause was needed. The victims were not merely prostitutes but working-class women in general, many of them illiterate, who were locked up without any regard for their legal rights. If a girl signed papers agreeing to an examination, her agreement was a de facto acknowledgement of prostitution. She was then required to be re-examined regularly. If she refused to sign the papers, she could be held in prison for months. 

The examinations were often brutal. Typically, the woman's legs were clamped open and her ankles tied down. Surgical instruments - sometimes not cleaned from prior inspections - were inserted so inexpertly that some women miscarried. Others passed out from the pain or from embarrassment. Some women with harmless conditions were misdiagnosed and locked in hospitals without recourse. 

Because men were not included within the provisions, the Acts embodied the double standards of sexual morality in which prostitution was seen as an unavoidable, and perhaps necessary, evil.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Victorian values: the Angel in the House and the Fallen Woman

The ideology of domesticity

As a reaction to the rackety private lives of some of their predecessors, the queen and Prince Albert set out to create a monarchy rooted in the idea of a happy marriage and domestic values that would give an example to the rest of the country. Walter Bagehot wrote ‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life’.

Victoria and Albert's
Christmas tree
Wikimedia Commons

The ideology of domesticity was set out in the novels and paintings of the period. Home was regarded as a place of calm happiness away from the turmoil of the world of work, and the wife was the guardian of the home. Although women were denied a say in politics, they were nevertheless thought to play a vital part in the ordering of society. It is often said that the Victorian period saw a rigid ideology of separate spheres: the man’s role was public and outward-looking, the woman’s was private and domestic. Women were denied a direct political role, but because the home was a site of national importance, their domestic role was seen as politically important. If a woman went wrong, therefore, this prefigured national disaster.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Samuel Smiles and Self-Help

This post owes a great deal to the many writings of Asa Briggs on Victorian society and ideology.

Samuel Smiles
from the frontispiece of Self-Help
Public domain

1859 was a great year for important books. It saw the publication of George Eliot's Adam Bede, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and Samuel SmilesSelf-Help. Mill set out the attractions of individuality - the need to create a tolerant society (although raising the possibility of the tyranny of the majority); Darwin explained evolution in terms of struggle. These were both controversial books. The third - Self-Help- was not.

Self-Help has now been digitised and can be downloaded from a number of sites. Here is one. It's probably no coincidence that it's American.

The gospel of work

Smiles did not believe he was expounding something controversial but something old and profoundly true - a gospel not a thesis.

Many people have claimed that the Victorians invented the gospel of work - but it can be found in Hogarth’s 'Industry and Idleness' and the whole eighteenth-century ethos of inculcating ‘habits of industry’ in the poor. But the work ethic was given a new vitality by a lapsed Presbyterian, Smiles’s fellow Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle, who had praised the nobility and dignity of work - and he was one of Smiles’s heroes. 

Thomas Carlyle
Public domain

The life of Smiles

Smiles was born in Haddington near Edinburgh in 1812.  Although brought up in an extreme Calvinist sect, he described his youth as ‘frolicsome’ and ‘prodigal’. He admitted in Self-Help that it was more ‘natural’ to be prodigal than thrifty, more easy to be dependent than independent.

John Stuart Mill and On Liberty

John Stuart Mill, c. 1870
London Stereoscopic Company
Public domain

This is only a brief account of Mill's life up to the publication of On Liberty. As a philosopher, colonial administrator, and politician, he was one of the dominating figures of the Victorian age and other aspects of his life and thought are discussed in further blogs. The best modern biography is Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (Atlantic Books, 2007)

John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806, the son of James Mill, a Scottish philosopher and economist. He was named after his father’s friend, Sir John Stuart. His mother, Harriet Burrow, seems to have had remarkably little influence on him – she does not merit a single mention in his autobiography. His father a follower of Utilitarianism and the prevailing economic doctrine of political economy.

The young John Stuart Mill had a precocious education, beginning with Greek at the age of three. At about the age of twenty he suffered a sort of mental breakdown and was only rescued by his discovery of poetry. This opened up a wider world of the emotions and moved him on from his father’s severe rationalism.

Because he would not subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, he was unable to matriculate at Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, he became an administrator in the East India Company.

In 1830 he met at a dinner party Harriet Taylor, the wife of a pharmacist, John Taylor. She became the great love of his life and a profound intellectual influence, and he controversially dedicated his Principles of Political Economy (1848) to her. (It was considered very improper to dedicate a book to another man's wife!) He lived in an uneasy threesome with her and her husband. Two years after  Taylor’s death in 1849 she married Mill.  After seven years of marriage, she died in Avignon in 1858. In the following year, Mill published On Liberty, still regarded as the key text on liberalism.

Here are some quotations to convey some idea of his argument:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. [Chapter 1]

 If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. … Truth gains even more by the errors of one, who with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. [Ch.2]

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty or that of progress or improvement. [Ch 3] 


  1. Mill was the supreme exemplar of mid-Victorian liberalism and he is still frequently quoted during debates on freedom.
  2. He believed humans should be left free to make their own mistakes as long as these did not harm others.
  3. He believed in an open market of ideas. Humans would never progress towards the truth if they were denied the freedom to express their opinions or allowed to hear only one side of an argument.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Great Exhibition

Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition
at Hyde Park
Public domain

There is a great deal of interesting material online about the Great Exhibition. See here, and here for good discussions. You can also listen to Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' discussion here.

There are also two good videos on YouTube.

Among the books I've consulted are Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (Batsford, 1998) and Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (HarperPerennial, 2007), especially chapter 1.

Is the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ on 1 May 1851 the great symbolic Victorian event? Certainly this is how the queen seemed to see it in her letter to King Leopold. Palmerston:
‘a glorious day for England’.
The prayers uttered by the archbishop of Canterbury at the opening were the prayers of a successful people, whose God had multiplied blessings on them. His prayer was appropriately followed by the Hallelujah Chorus.

The Exhibition came at a useful time for the government of Lord John Russell, as it was in crisis over ecclesiastical policy and would have fallen if the Conservative Protectionists had been able to present a convincing alternative government. Disraeli saw the Exhibition as
‘a godsend to the Government ... diverting public attention from their blunders’.
But the very idea of the Exhibition was controversial. There was no national funding and Prince Albert had to seek private sponsorship. The Hyde Park site was fiercely attacked and there were complaints that Paxton’s structure was not only not high enough to enclose vast elm trees in full summer leaf but that it obstructed the riders in Rotten Row. Protectionists attacked its free trade ideology. The Ultra Tory MP Colonel Charles Sibthorp described it as
‘an industrial exhibition in the heart of fashionable Belgravia to enable foreigners to rob us of our honour’.
Many prophesied public indifference and financial failure.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Palmerston: Foreign Secretary, Liberal imperialist

Lord Palmerston engraving
Public domain

If the 1840s was Peel's decade, the following decade belonged to  Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s Whig government and later Prime Minister.

Early career

Palmerston was the eldest of five children of the 3nd viscount. He inherited his peerage in 1802 at the age of seventeen, and as it was an Irish peerage, he always sat in the Commons. The family owned East Sheen in London, Broadlands in Hampshire and 10,000 acres in County Sligo. The name of the title was taken from the village of Palmerston on the family estates outside Dublin. 

Although he is always seen as a Victorian politician, intellectually and culturally he was a product of the Georgian age. He was educated first at Edinburgh University and then at St John’s College Cambridge, where he identified himself as a supporter of Pitt the Younger. In the general election of 1807 he contested Pitt's old seat, Cambridge University. He lost, but on the following day he was returned for Newport, a pocket borough on the Isle of Wight. However, he sat for the university from 1811 to 1831.

In 1809 he became secretary at war (a non cabinet post) in Spencer Perceval's Tory government. He continued to serve as secretary for war in the administrations of subsequent prime ministers, George Canning, Viscount Goderich and the duke of Wellington. But he resigned from Wellington’s government in May 1828 over its refusal to allow even moderate parliamentary reform. After twenty years of being continuously in government, he now found himself on the opposition benches. From being a Tory he became a Whig.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Sir Robert Peel: turncoat or statesman? (1)

'Sir Robert Peel', by 
William Pickersgill
Public domain

The age of Peel

The Reform Act of 1832 had given the vote to more middle-class people and enfranchised great industrial cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. In the long term this was  a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. The working classes were still disenfranchised, and the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role which only ended with the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Most nineteenth-century prime ministers sat in the Lords. There were, however, some notable exceptions.

The dominant politician of the 1830s and 1840s was Sir Robert Peel and some historians have described the period as 'the age of Peel'.  Unlike most Victorian politicians he came from a manufacturing background. In his lifetime he became hugely controversial. His most significant achievement was to modernise the Tory party in the wake of its stunning defeat in 1832, but having built up his party, he proceeded to destroy it when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. 

Early career

Peel was the son of the calico printer, Sir Robert Peel, who had been made a baronet and become a member of Parliament. Peel the younger entered Parliament in 1809 as member for the Irish seat of Cashel and at a time when party divisions were hardening, he identified with the Tories. In 1812 he became Chief Secretary for Ireland and in the election of that year he acquired a new seat, Chippenham, Wiltshire. (Note: nineteenth-century politicians chopped and changed their seats with a frequency that would be unthinkable today!)

Sir Robert Peel: turncoat or statesman? (2)

Sir Robert Peel,
saviour and destroyer of his party

Peel's triumph? 

The 1840s should have been a triumphant decade for Peel. He had reformed his party after its defeat of 1832 and won the election of 1841.

There was however, a lurking problem.

  1. The Conservative vote was overwhelmingly agricultural and deeply committed to agricultural protection.
  2. Peel himself was increasingly in favour of free trade and his government's budgets saw a steady reduction in duties. Would the Corn Laws be next?

The Irish famine

It is usually believed that it was the Irish famine that converted Peel to free trade, but it is now clear that this simply provided him with an excuse. 

There are posts on this distressing and still controversial subject here and here
Scene at Skibereen, Cork, 1847

By the autumn of 1845 Ireland  was facing a great social and humanitarian catastrophe. On 15 October, Peel wrote to the Lord Lieutenant that the only practical remedy was 
‘the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food - that is the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence’.
But this was not the real issue. Cheaper bread was not the answer to the immediate problem. The Irish could not afford to buy any bread. The only thing that could save them was food relief on a massive scale. The Corn Laws were therefore an irrelevancy.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Queen Victoria's Hindustani diary

Osborne House has a fascinating display focusing on Queen Victoria's relationship with Abdul Karim, the munshi, who tutored her in Hindustani. You can view it here.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in 1859
by Winterhalter
Public domain

Why Victoria?

Victoria would never have existed but for the death in childbirth of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, in November 1817. Her totally unexpected death created a succession crisis. One by one the Prince Regent's brothers discarded their mistresses and looked for wives in an effort to provide a legitimate heir.

In 1817 Edward duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, abandoned his long-standing mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and began to pay court to Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoire was the thirty-year-old widowed elder sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Princess Charlotte's widower. She already had two children, Carl, Prince of Leningen, born 1804 and Fedora, born 1807.

When Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819, her birth went virtually unnoticed. It was by no means certain that she would inherit the throne, as her father had three elder brothers and her parents’ next child might be a son. She was baptised Alexandrina Victoria after her godfather, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and her mother, and in her early childhood was known as ‘Drina’. For a while both names were thought unacceptably foreign.

When she came to the throne with the death of William IC in May 1837, Britain had its first female sovereign since the death of Queen Anne in 1714. One immediate and significant result was the severing of the link with Hanover, which did not allow female succession.

Albert: uncrowned king?

In February 1840 Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The engagement had brought into the open the problems of defining the status of the consort of a reigning queen. The precedents were not happy: Philip of Spain, the husband of Mary I, had been deeply unpopular, and George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, had been a nonentity. The queen reluctantly accepted the advice of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, that Albert should not receive the title of King Consort.
It was not until 1857 that he was given the title of Prince Consort.

Victoria and Albert in 1854

Faced with the discouraging precedents, Albert had to carve out a role for himself. He proved a highly interventionist consort. Victoria's nine pregnancies gave him the opportunity to take on many of her duties, and the two of them worked together at their despatches at adjoining desks. When Sir Robert Peel was struggling for his political life in January 1846, Albert went to the Commons to lend him moral support – retrospectively, a very partisan gesture. He was never popular, and even his key role in the Great Exhibition was controversial.

Had he lived, his political role might have created problems for the monarchy.