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Prostitution was rampant in Dickens’s London. According to Bracebridge Hemyng, who wrote the prostitution section of Henry Mayhew’s four-volume, mid-19th century classic, London Labour and the London Poor,* prostitutes were arranged in a hierarchy. At the top were kept women, mistresses of wealthy men, who had their own homes and lived like respectable members of society.

One rung down were prima donnas, fashionable women of beauty and charm, who depended on more than one well-to-do “protector.” These women often resorted to night-houses to replenish their supply.

In these night-houses, what we’d call after-hours clubs, fashionable men and women could drink, gamble, relax, and meet one another. Kate’s, the classiest night-house in London, was the prima donnas’ favorite, since, as Hemyng says, “Kate is careful as to who she admits into her rooms–men who are able to spend, and come with the avowed intention of spending, five or six pounds, or perhaps more if necessary.” About the amount a young maidservant could earn in a year.

Below the level of the kept women and the prima donnas were women who resided, one or two together, in their own apartments.Their landlords knew what they were but didn’t object, just jacked up the rent. Most such lodging houses were near the Haymarket, a section of London not far from Picadilly. These women trolled for business in nearby cafes and clubs, or , as here, on the streets.

On the lowest level were women who lived in brothels and turned over all or most of their earnings to brothel keepers in exchange for board, lodging, and clothes. Like the woman Martha rescues Little Em’ly from in David Copperfield, these brothel keepers, usually women, had a reputation for luring innocent young women just up from the country into their brothels under false pretences.

Although some brothels existed in the fashionable West End, most were located in the poorer districts of the East End or south of the Thames, in neighborhoods such as Lambeth, as shown here. Notice that these young ladies are exposing their ankles, something no respectable woman would do.

* Also see Dover Publication’s The London Underworld in the Victorian Period, an easily accessible reprint of Volume 4 of London Labour and the London Poor.