Alana Piper

I was recently delighted to learn of the return of the period drama Harlots for a third season. The television series set in rival eighteenth-century London brothels is good viewing, even if its portrait of historical sex work is not always accurate. One thing the show does get right though is its focus on how relationships between women – familial, business, friendly, antagonistic, romantic, and exploitative – largely shaped the lives of women regularly engaged in the sex trade.

Lily Walker one of Melbourne’s most notorious pickpockets between the 1880s and 1900s. (Public Records Office Victoria, VPRS 516 P0, Volume 12, folio 190, prisoner number 6604-1.)

Scholars such as Judith Walkowitz, Ruth Rosen, Julia Laite and Rae Frances have acknowledged the importance of relationships among prostitutes. Yet, the significance of these affiliations, bonds, and networks has received little sustained attention.

The extent to which connections with other women were a constant and driving presence in the historical world of female prostitution became apparent to me through an analysis of 542 cases of women charged with stealing from the person (pickpocketing) in Melbourne between 1860 and 1920. As in many other Australian and international cities during this period, female pickpocketing in Melbourne was primarily connected to the sex trade. In 96 per cent of the 542 Melbourne cases, women’s victims were men; and in 87 per cent of all instances, women had either initially approached the men for purposes of solicitation or had been at some stage in the process of exchanging sex for money.

The significance of women’s relationships with each other is evident from the co-offending patterns in these cases alone. Although most women charged with larceny from the person were tried individually (50 per cent), the authorities prosecuted 35 per cent alongside other female co-defendants, compared to nine per cent charged alongside male co-accused, and six per cent charged alongside both male and female co-accused.

The high rate of female co-offending among prostitute-pickpockets speaks to the degree to which prostitution was a group activity among women. Depositions in larceny from the person cases reveal a culture of reciprocity in which women relied on each other during encounters with clients in semi-public places: to act as look-outs for police or to prevent or contain violence if customers proved aggressive or objected to having their pockets rifled. They show women sharing information, accommodation and even clothes. Policemen deposed that some pairs co-accused of pickpocketing were well-known as ‘continuous companions’.

Pickpocketing trials also reveal the overlap between prostitution and the burgeoning recreational culture of urban areas. More than a third of male victims in these cases worked in occupations in which access to female companionship was limited, driving them to seek more than a simple business-like sexual exchange on their visits to Victoria’s capital. Such visitors often treated not just one woman, but her associates, to drinks, meals, shopping expeditions and other outings, in addition to paying for sex.

Men were transient figures (and often dupes) of light-fingered sex workers, but women’s relationships with each other were often more enduring. One pair brought before the Melbourne courts in 1911 for robbing a man who had taken them for an oyster supper and then a drinking spree at several hotels found their partnership fruitful; they did the same thing three years later to a man who took them for a cab-ride to the seaside.

At a minimum, men seem to have been expected to ‘shout’ drinks for a woman and her friends, whether their encounter was in a brothel, hotel or on the streets. Several robbed men even suggested that they had only shouted women drinks under duress, intimidated by being confronted en masse. Other victims claimed that groups of women had acted in concert to drug their drinks before robbing them and leaving them unconscious. Alone ‘unfortunate’ women may have been vulnerable; together, they were recognised as a dangerous force.

Two women exchange sly glances and one reaches into the pocket of a sailor. (Queensland Figaro, 20 Jan 1883, 37.)

Spending the proceeds of larcenies was also often a joint activity. Poet Janet Dibben, herself imprisoned at Melbourne Gaol in 1888 for manslaughter, wrote of women celebrating successful thefts together in pubs:

One calls him lovey, and another calls him her dear,
And when they get his money it is out they do clear.
When they make a haul this is what they do –
They spend it in the hotel, and the landlord knows that too.

Such bacchanalian adventures often constituted damning evidence against accused women, with police tracing stolen bank-notes to hotels where they had been witnessed drinking shortly after thefts took place. Others followed up thefts with collective shopping sprees. Buying clothes and jewellery for themselves and their friends was perhaps a convenient way for prostitute-pickpockets to rid themselves of identifiable crime proceeds, but it doubtlessly solidified bonds between them.

These allegiances took on special importance in the courtroom. Larceny from the person had one of the lowest conviction rates for women of all offences (39 per cent compared to 50 per cent among women charged with felonies in general). At 31 per cent, women co-accused alongside other women were even less likely to be convicted. Women aided each other’s defence against pickpocketing charges in various ways: hiding stolen goods so they could not be used as evidence; providing exculpatory testimony; contributing funds for legal assistance; or simply by keeping quiet in the face of police or prosecutorial interrogations. These strategies were not always done strictly in a spirit of sisterly solidarity, and some depositions reveal women threatening their associates with violence if they did not adhere to the ‘code of silence’.

On the other hand, we might speculate that some of the close attachments between these underworld women had romantic, if not sexual, elements. (This possibility is, in fact, explored in a sub-plot of Harlots involving the character Violet Cross, who in season two is also convicted of pickpocketing.) Some depositions reveal women engaging in threesomes at the behest of clients, or else occupying the same bed at night. While the latter was a common nineteenth-century practice – especially in poorer households – scholars like Lillian Faderman point out that such situations would have also provided a convenient cover for lesbian relationships.

Irrespective of the nature of the relationships, what is clear is that the sex trade was very much a female world and that the connections and networks between women need interrogation to properly understand it.

Dr. Alana Piper is a Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney. Her current project, Criminal Characters, uses digital history to trace the lives and criminal careers of Australian offenders across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her research interests draw together the social and cultural history of crime with gender history, legal history and the digital humanities.

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