Lichfield, a small Cathedral City in Staffordshire may not seem the most obvious candidate for a study of prostitution. However, in its heyday, when the city was filled with a surfeit of single clerics, records of prostitution abounded. In later years Lichfield's strategic importance declined and visitors reduced, but in the latter half of the Victorian era, a new barracks for the Staffordshire Regiment was built on the outskirts of the city. This, in a time when debate was focusing heavily on the fairness - or otherwise - of the Contagious Diseases Acts, was what prompted my study. The Contagious Diseases Acts were intended to reduced incidences of VD among Her Majesty's armed forces by detaining and treating women identified as prostitutes. Just the women. Not the men. The debates turned into the first female-led campaigns, and paved the way for the later suffrage movements.
Sarah was Lichfield's most prolific offender during the period of my study. Her ‘career’ stretched the full length of the study, from age twenty-three until forty-one. It is likely that she had been arrested before then too - as early as April 1879 she was called “a shameless woman who has figured many times in court.” On her fiftieth occasion before the court, the newspapers called it her “jubilee”
Sarah was married, which research suggests is unusual for a street prostitute. It isn't impossible that she turned to prostitution to supplement her family’s income. She also had a child. She experienced periods of homelessness, which included a time where she and her husband separated – and she wasn't averse to resorting to physical violence to settle disputes with her husband.
Her periods of homelessness are perhaps a good indicator of the poverty of some women who turned to prostitution. Studies have shown that prostitutes were generally from lower paid occupations, working as domestic servants and agricultural labourers, where employment might be seasonal. Sarah's husband John was recorded as a labourer. This, too, may have been seasonal or poorly paid, and in one occasion where Sarah was reported as homeless, her husband having been sentenced to three weeks gaol for sleeping outside only days before. Sarah and her family were then recorded living at various addresses in Lichfield for the next few years, during which time she served at least eleven gaol sentences - one of four months in 1889 - and received eleven fines. In November 1889, John was living in Sarah's home with another woman and Sarah, recently released from gaol, was no longer welcome. She spent some time living with her mother, and ‘working in the fields’, and was also arrested several times for sleeping outdoors. She clearly lived a chaotic lifestyle, and her income may have fluctuated greatly over the years.
Sarah scandalised the court, and her antics were reported in some glee by the local newspaper. On one occasion she told the court to laughter that the arresting Police Constable was a 'respectable friend' of her; while on another, when sentenced to one month imprisonment with hard labour she told the magistrate, 'Thank you very much, sir, I can do that standing on me 'yed'. Again the court laughed.
Despite her entertainment value and her seemingly poor circumstances, very little was done to actually help Sarah. The Victorian focus was on keeping scandal from the streets. It really didn't matter too much what they got up to behind closed doors, including whether they starved. The ruling classes generally considered working class people to be undesirables, people who were necessary but only if they could be kept from sight, and not spoil the everyday aesthetic.
In Sarah's case, nothing they did seemed to stop her. She was arrested numerous times for vagrancy, drunkenness, fighting and public disorder (prostitution itself was never made illegal). She took 'the pledge' (to abstain from drink) many times, but always returned to the bottle. The punishments imposed on her did nothing to help her, and certainly did not control her - and her uncontrollable-ness may have actually been her biggest crime.
Isn't it interesting to think that over 100 years later, we're still debating how women and working classes should be controlled?
I don't think much of my way of life. You folks as honour, and character and feelings, and such, can't understand how that's been beaten out of people like me. I don't feel. I'm used to it. I did once, more especial when mother died. I heard on it through a friend of mine, who told me her last words were of me. I did cry and go on then every so, but Lor' where's the good of fretting? I arn't happy either. It isn't happiness, but I get enough money to keep me in victuals and drink, and it's the drink mostly that keeps my going. You've no idea how I look forward to my drop of gin. It's everything to me."
- from an interview with an aging prostitute in Bracebridge Hemyng's 'Prostitution in London'.