Our female ancestors did not have particularly easy lives, they were effectively second class citizens, answerable to their fathers and then their husbands, with little freedom to make their own way in life.
Most women worked hard too. Unless they belonged to the upper class with lots of servants at their beck and call then they would be kept busy taking care of their children and home without the benefit of modern conveniences. Many women had employment too; in the towns many worked in millinery, teaching and in retail.
One occupation which gave women a bit of independence, although at a high price, was prostitution. As prostitutes women had more choice, they could to some extent choose when and where to work, they control over their income and a freedom from the social restrictions which governed other women. It was not always an employment option that the women wanted to take but often one they were left with little choice but to take.
It is not easy to identify prostitutes in the census but concentrating on the 1881 census I was able to identify a few with links to Sussex.
Margaret Robinson was resident in Ypres Castle Prison in Rye in 1881, she was 26 years old and had lived in Rye all her life. Her occupation was recorded as prostitute but this had been crossed out and replaced with ‘no occupation’.
Fanny Smith was living in Derby Place in Brighton where she worked as a prostitute. She was born around 1848 in Sussex and is recorded as being married although there is no husband living with her.
Kate Coombs and Frederica Grigson probably never knew each other but in 1881 their lives had brought them to a similar outcome. Both were born in Brighton in around 1862 and in 1881 both were in prison for prostitution, Kate in Dorchester and Frederica in Westminster.
Two Sussex women were suffering the unpleasant consequences of their occupation; Ann Leggett was born in Petworth in about 1859 whilst Annie Petersfield was born in Brighton in about 1847 but by 1881 both were resident in lock hospitals. Lock hospitals were hospitals which specialised in venereal disease. Annie was in an Aldershot lock hospital whilst Ann was in one in Paddington.
Sarah Pipman, born in Brighton in around 1859, was living in London in 1881 where she lodged with the Painter family whilst she worked as a prostitute.
Most women did not want to be labelled as prostitutes in the census. Most of the women above were in circumstances which did not give them control over how they were presented in the census. Often women would record their occupation as anything but prostitute, seamstress is a common alternative occupation and in many cases the women may have had two jobs, working a regular job and earning a bit extra on the side.
Sometimes it is possible to identify women who probably worked as prostitutes even though they are not listed as doing so in the census. Carrie Wood says she was born in Brighton in 1831 but by 1881 she is living in Mint Street in Southwark, an area noted by Charles Booth for its prostitutes. None of the women lodging along with Carrie are listed as prostitutes but of the 23 residents only one is a man and one is a child of 23 days. The ages of the women vary from 18 years to 64 years and their occupations vary from ironers to seamstresses to laundresses and a variety of other low income jobs. Carrie and another women are listed as ‘unfortunate’. The likelihood is that this is either a brothel or a lodging house where the majority of the residents earn their income from prostitution. It is also likely that few of them gave their real names as there are 2 Browns, 2 Smiths and 6 Jones within the group.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it is hard to locate these women in other censuses. Margaret Robinson and Ann Leggett can be located in earlier censuses but I have yet to find the other women in the earlier censuses and have found none of them in later censuses nor can I identify any obvious marriages or burials.