Fri, 01st Jul 2011 | Reynard | 12,017 Views, 9 Nods.

Torquay's Prostitutes

At a time when benefit cuts for the unemployed are being implemented, it's worth noting that the final resort of desperate women remains the selling of themselves.

While Torquay has always had its prostitutes, the social makeup of the town may also have increased the number of women (and men) in the profession . In the 19th century the town was described as the wealthiest in England for its size, and the affluent needed a large servile class. By 1901 18.5 per cent of the population were employed as domestic servants.

This saw women far outnumbering men: in 1871 there were 12,772 females to 8,885 males in Torquay.

So, how many prostitutes did Torquay have? Estimates of the number of prostitutes in Victorian England differ depending on who was doing the estimating. In London, the Police claimed there were 7,000, while the Society for the Suppression of Vice said 80,000. A 19th-century city commonly had 1 prostitute per 36 inhabitants, or 1 per 12 adult males, which means 55,000 prostitutes for London, often called 'the whoreshop of the world'.

Certainly, Victorian Torquay can't really be compared with London. However, if we take the above ratios, this would give us over 700 Torquay prostitutes. Even at half this number, prostitutes would have made up a significant part of the working class of our town. There's also evidence (through looking at the unusually high number of bachelors living alone, with elderly relatives, or as 'artists') that Victorian and Edwardian Torquay had a significant gay population, which would presumably generate demand for male prostitutes.

Victorian prostitutes were mainly young, single and aged between 18 and 22. Most had previously held low-wage jobs, often as domestic maids, and some supported illegitimate children. Many worked for short periods and would eventually settle down, many marrying former clients.

For those not able to secure employment, there were few alternatives, and prostitutes could be found at night frequenting harbour pubs and Cary Green - the area in front of The Pavilion.

Generally, the activities of Torquay's underclass were ignored and rarely commented on unless they attracted the attention of the authorities or reached the courts. Accordingly, we need to 'read between the lines'.

In 1853 Chief Constable Charles Kilby complained of the unbecoming manner that young women of the town wander around the thoroughfares without bonnets and shawls''.

The Victorian reliance on euphemisms in an effort not to offend can also disguise what was really happening.In 1899 the landlord of the Abbey Inn on Abbey Road was charged with allowing his pub to be used as a habitual resort of women of ill-fame''.

A Detective Thomas watched the Abbey Inn on the night of March 12 between the hours of 8 and 11. He saw women of loose character enter. They stayed for a considerable time - between 10 and 25 minutes. They entered and returned several times on the same evening, sometimes alone and sometimes in company with men Entering the inn, he saw three loose women in one of the rooms.''

Unaccompanied women of good character were unlikely to visit an inn and so evidence of impropriety included a notice instructing females not to remain in the house for more than a quarter of an hour.

On one occasion the detective heard the landlord shout: Time, Ladies!'' indicating that women were not being escorted by a man.

While being cross-examined, Thomas said: There is nothing to distinguish them from others except their bad language. The house was a quiet one and perhaps was not likely to attract women of the town in pursuit of their vocation.''

In a statement that reminds us of a modern Torquay club owner defending 'drink all you can' offers, the defendant protested on his arrest: What can I do with so much rates and taxes to pay. They bring me my living.''

Nevertheless, he was fined £5 with £1 costs and the brewery took away his tenancy.

Poverty also inevitably leads to the exploitation of the young. From the Torquay Directory of 1870: Charlotte Winser has long been notorious as keeper of a house in the town of the most profligate character recruiting even her own daughters for her unholy gain. Their mother has for years made a profit by pandering to the worst vices of others.''

Winser, who had a cottage at Lawes Bridge, was also a 'baby farmer' who killed unwanted infants for a fee. She was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to Life. Local entrepreneurs were never one to miss a trick: It will hardly be credited that men in this town organised excursions offering to take persons to Exeter to witness (Winser's) execution then back to Newton Races for four shillings.''

Late into the 1950s women were still to be found loitering around Cary Green waiting to take their customers to the darker recesses of Rock Walk.

Of course, prostitution is still part of Torquay life, as it is in all urban areas. It remains a considered lifestyle choice for some men and women, though addiction, poverty and exploitation make it a near necessity for others.


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Tue, 24th Jan 2012
I just came across the memoirs of a trainee airman who in 1940 was being billeted in the Grand Hotel in Torquay. He remembers one lecture about the dangers he was likely to meet in the town:

"The really ancient aircraftman spoke, or rather muttered endlessly, and we could not make out the subject until he said, "There are lots of ladies down here from London who hand out bags of confectionery". The young recruits then realised that its subject was venereal disease."

Incidentally, reports are coming in that we are starting to see street prostitution in Torquay again after an absence of almost a century.
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Sat, 02nd Jul 2011
Very interesting again Reynard. Wonder haw the girls would look in bonnets and shawls around the Strand area at night now?
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Sat, 02nd Jul 2011
Hi, I'm pleased folks are finding this interesting. There's a list of Torquay's pubs in 1850 at: http://www.peoplesrepublicofsouthdevon.co.uk/2010/08/11/torquay%e2%80%99s-pubs-in-the-19th-century/ There's quite a bit of evidence about the attitude of the authorities to local 'loose women'. In January 1893 the landlord of the Marine Tavern on the Harbourside was accused of assaulting a policeman and for being drunk and disorderly. However, the defence argued that he was sober and that he had only taken offence when a passing policeman had accused his wife of being a woman of loose character''. According to the landlord, he had been waiting at the fish quay for the arrival of the ferry which brought in a good deal of custom, leaving his wife unaccompanied. A policeman had approached his wife and that's where reports differ. The police said the landlord went berserk and had to be restrained by a number of officers, both at the Harbourside and later in the...[more]
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Fri, 01st Jul 2011
The Abbey Inn is still in existance at number 80 Belgrave Road. It maybe going the way a lot of local pubs have gone soon! i.e Closed and boarded up. Nice little pub. Featured a few months ago on BBC's Crimewatch. When the publican and a relative were attacked by a few nasty customers and badly hurt. Luckily the CCTV was running and the culprits were identified thanks to Crimewatch viewers. If you are local you must drive past it frequently. Hope this Helps
Nod+ (1)
Fri, 01st Jul 2011
Fascinating stuff as always Raynard.
Out of interest, do you know which building was the Abbey Inn ?
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