Prostitution In The Early 19th Century Scotland


The establishment of the New Town at the culmination of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century subsequently resulted in the movement of Edinburgh’s wealthy elite from the overcrowded tenements of the Old Town to the wide streets and charming town houses of the New Town. Initially this indicated that ‘pauper’ classes and ‘foreign others’ remained in the cramped conditions of the Old Town and so too did prostitution. William Tate in his nineteenth century ‘inquiry into the extent, causes and consequences of prostitution in Edinburgh’ demonstrates prostitution was evident in the Old town on streets such as, the Grassmarket, and the High Street However, by the 1840s, he suggests particular areas of the New Town had become familiar to lower-middle class residents and prostitutes, occurring in the East End, St. James Square and Greenside Place. By the early twentieth century, a ‘considerable minority of prostitution was firmly established in the New Town’, as well as the lingering existence of solicitation remaining in popular areas of the Old Town. The interwar period in comparison, saw the majority of prostitution offences occur in the East End and Central New Town areas, and no longer in the Old Town.

Research on the geography of prostitution has been widely undertaken in nineteenth and twentieth-century England, specifically London. There have been limited regional studies situated outside of London, and minimal research on Scotland during the interwar period. Philip Howell’s research on nineteenth-century Liverpool and Cambridge has suggested the prostitute was controlled by removing the trade to a location separate from respectable families. Similarly, Stefan Slater work on twentieth-century London demonstrates police attempted to contain prostitution by focusing their limited resources on policing the central ‘recognised vice areas’. However, Julia Laite’s research concludes the exculpation of prosecution in London during the early twentieth century did not result in the containment of ‘immoral relations’ to a single ‘red light zone’ and instead prostitution encompassed numerous areas of the city. In Edinburgh, Roger Davidson and Gayle Davis has demonstrated that during the 1950s, police restricted the spread of prostitution by constructing an informal tolerance zone around the Leith Docks. Louise Settle provides an array of maps and graphs to portray the shifting location of the prostitute. By dividing Edinburgh into eight main districts, as well as researching specific streets, Settle analyses importuning convictions apparent in these areas. Her work proves women who solicitated on the streets used central locations to magnify their visibility and to enhance their ‘accessibility’ and ‘opportunity’. Those employed in brothels could rely on other methods. Both sources have yet to be fully scrutinised and the response to the geography of the prostitute during the interwar period has yet to be adequately analysed. However, as Settle has provided important maps showing the location and whereabouts of the prostitute in the twentieth century, this chapter will be based upon her geographic thesis.

The ‘Classless’ Prostitute

As a traveller’s account, Edwin Muir provides a glimpse into the class nature of modern Scottish life. Writing in the interwar period, he claims that Edinburgh is a city characterised by ‘extraordinary and sordid contrasts’, commenting on the various disparities of the New and Old Towns. While the Canongate and Leith Street, in particular are described as ‘mouldering and obnoxious’ ruins, distinguished by ice-cream and fish-and-chip- bars and pubs; Muir catalogues Princes Street as encompassing ‘cosy tea-rooms and luxurious hotel lounges’. A theme of a city, split physically of Old Town and New, but also socially between the poor and rich is apparent throughout his work. With a single intertwining atmosphere of ‘subdued eroticism’ and a ‘floating sexual desire’ in the streets and institutions of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the female prostitute ‘dares to walk in comfort in both’. Described as ‘members of the proletariat in the poorer districts’, Edwin Muir suggests the female prostitute bewitches a ‘classless’ and ‘genderless’ power allowing her to cross an invisible barrier into the ‘prestige and familiarity’ of her business residence, Princes Street.

Carol Smart’s work on the control of women’s sexuality in the 1950s proposes the female prostitute ‘could no longer be held as a class separate from respectable women and the monogamous family’. This suggests the ‘amateur’ prostitute in particular held proximity, both socially and spatially to the upper and middle class residents. Therefore, Muir’s statement may show the origins of Smart’s claims and further suggest that prostitution in both Edinburgh and Glasgow were not forced into the outskirts of society, but ‘remained in the very heart of the city centres’.

The Prostitute ‘Al Fresco’

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Louise Settle states the East and West End of the New Town observed eleven and five per cent respectively of all solicitation and prostitution offences in Scotland. Adhering to these claims, The Scotsman in 1903, published a series of ‘Letters to the Editor’ revealing, “The lightening of the streets in which electricity is employed leaves little to be desired, but the effect of having the principal streets only so lighted not merely intensifies the darkness in other quarters, but has been productive of very serious evils indeed, which threaten the reputation of the city itself. The vicious and immoral part of the population, driven from their former haunts by the introduction of electric light, have retired to the shady shelter, where darkness is only rendered visible by a few twinkling gas lights, afforded by the gardens in Queen Street, Heriot Row Moray Place, and the other West End squares – places, be it remembered, of an eminent residential character, and inhabited by persons who probably pay higher rather than any others in town”.

Moreover, by the interwar period there had been a significant change in the location of prostitution offences. Edinburgh had the worst record for cases of prostitution in the Official Scottish Crime Statistics of 1926 and further into the period in 1936. In Glasgow, the early twentieth century foresaw a shift in the location of offences towards the more ‘respectable’ wealthier areas commonly occurring on central and commercial streets. Mr Alexander Andrews, formerly superintendent of Police of the Western District states he could ‘point out more prostitutes in Sauchiehall Street in one night than in the district of Broomielaw in one week, or even a fortnight’. Interestingly, the movement of prostitution in the previously popular area of Broomielaw, to perhaps one of the most prominent streets in the centre of Glasgow suggests prostitutes a substantial number of prostitutes may have held backgrounds that did not to identify with the perception of ‘working-class prostitute’ known in nineteenth century Scotland. However, this is not to say that prostitution did not take place indoors.

With the emergence of a variety of new types of entertainment venues in the 1920s, Martin Pugh’s analysis of liberal sexuality found in dance halls suggests prostitutes or women characterised by a lack of morals used these institutions as a ‘pick up’ spot for importuning and soliciting men who embarked on a night of entertainment. Moreover, a majority of contemporary court records and witness testimonies prove a number of prostitutes were likely to have committed offences previous to a conviction of being a ‘common’ prostitute. Namely, the court records of Mary Mullaney show a series of offences mainly involving ‘alcohol, disorderly behaviour and theft’, of which her prostitution conviction did not occur a number of years following a diverse record of minor crimes. Another example of significance is that of Jane Darroch; convicted of disorderly behaviour as well as being drunk in charge of a child before being found guilty of prostitution offences on sixteen different occasions between the years of 1913 and 1920. Although it is uncertain whether Miss Darroch was employed in other occupations, the disruption of frequent convictions and prison sentences for drunkenness and disorderly would have certainly put her on a ‘path’ to prostitution. In terms of the location of prostitutions, one may suggest that the trade heavily relied on solicitation either inside or outside bars and pubs. Clearly, the addresses of entertainment and other commercial business influence the whereabouts of the female prostitute, as Elaine McKewon’s study of the historical geography of prostitution in Perth, West Australia concludes ‘prostitution finds locational stability in night-life districts… despite its relatively high visibility, because these are areas where “dissident” activities are widely known to thrive… and traditional social norms are relatively broken down’.

Women of ‘Depravity’

In the nineteenth century, it was allegedly discovered over sixty-percent of incidence of VD among members of the armed forces ‘resulted from intercourse with women who were not prostitutes in the ordinary sense of the word’. As a result, the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed in 1886 with the aim of reducing the military and naval venereal disease problem by favouring an initiative to supply a healthy prostitution population in designated districts of Edinburgh. However, it is apparent that the stigma surrounding the ‘diseased’ prostitute remained throughout the interwar period as numerous social workers commented on the ‘depravity’ of women who ‘parade Princes Street after night, making open advances to soldiers’. It was also remarked that coffee stalls in popular and central districts of Edinburgh and Glasgow were well-known as key sites for the importuning and solicitation of clients during the interwar period, these areas included places such as the Mound and Cannonmills. Solicitating in busy areas of the New Town’s central and east end areas meant that these women had a much higher chance of successfully importuning. In addition to these coffee stalls and bars, Edinburgh’s main railway station lay in close proximity. According to Louise Settle, railway stations have historically been acknowledged as major zones where prostitution took place due to the sizable transit of people exiting and entering the city centre. It would appear therefore, that the opportunities of successful importuning were ‘sufficiently attractive to risk potential arrest’. In connection to the First World War, it was not unusual for soldiers to use the train as a form of transport, therefore, the continuing use of the railway station as a principal location for solicitation adheres to governmental and military fear of the spread of venereal diseases through the prostitute, many years after this national crisis ended. Court records, as well as witness testimonies from the period are in coherence to this theory as a substantial majority of the men whom the women solicited were described as ‘soldiers’, ‘navel seamen’ or other members of the armed forces.


The movement away from Old Town and working-class areas to the central districts and streets of Scotland, made the prostitute a particular target to arrests and fines by police officers. The areas holding established businesses and venues for entertainment, were more likely to usher solicitation and prostitution. Places such as Princes Street in Edinburgh or Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow saw a rise in convictions as Leith Street and other largely important regions of solicitation began to improve in condition as the twentieth century proceeded. However, this is not to say that older forms of prostitution such as ‘street-walking’ and the importuning of men on the streets did not continue to exist into the interwar period.

10 October 2020
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