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Prostitution in Belfast: the poisoned, twisted relationship between sexuality, poverty and morality

‘This is a very bad place. I did not go into any of the houses but stood without; asked some of the wretched women who were standing about whether they approved of the life they were leading. Some asked me what I would have them do. Some asked me for money. Some talked the language of their profession.' Reverend Anthony McIntyre 1854

Belfast is a comparatively young city, roughly 2,500 years younger than Rome. Like all cities though Belfast has had a complicated relationship with what Kipling erroneously called ‘the most ancient profession’, prostitution. It is a story of hypocrisy, fear, class but mostly poverty and the attempts of society and churches to reform women they saw as ‘fallen’.

Traditionally, social history has been a secondary pursuit in the study of Irish history, with political machinations being seen as the most important element of life, and all other parts of society relegated to ephemeral mentions in biographies of great men. In the last ten years however, the pioneering work of Maria Luddy in her work Prostitution and Irish Society 1800-1940 brought into the spotlight the complex relationship between Irish society and prostitution. This work has been complimented by Leanne McCormick’s groundbreaking work, Regulating Sexuality: Women in Twentieth Century Northern Ireland which focuses tightly on attitudes to female sexuality in NI from 1900 onwards.

In both these books, the role of the prostitute as a weather vane of the moral landscape of the times is laid bare. Irish society vacillates between looking the other way when it comes to the selling of sex and developing punitive approaches to either punishment or reform. Women are either ‘fallen’ victims to be saved and reformed, or dangers to society that corrupt men and spread disease.

There remains little useful sources about prostitution in the city at that point, save from a diary entry from United Irishman Thomas Russell who ended a night of revelry throughout the town by ‘ at Drew’s. Sit till 2, then go to all the whores in town’. Traditionally it was thought that the main area of prostitution was around the then undeveloped Donegall Pass, which was on the edge of the 18th century town. The type of society it was though can be pointed to from Mrs McTier who described her town as ‘so much changed … this trading town [that] you might frequently suppose yourself in the midnight revels of the nobility’.

Our knowledge of prostitution from around 1800 onwards improves as the city’s population exploded and the ‘Bulkies’ or Belfast Borough Police were formed to keep order. (The nickname was English slang for police and better than that of the Londonderry Borough force who were named by the locals as the ‘Horney Dicks’.) With statutory police forces developed throughout the first 50 years of the century come records and archives of the relationship between the state and individual women who worked as or were labelled as prostitutes.

The 1845 Belfast Improvement Act provided that ‘Every common prostitute or night walker loitering...shall be liable to a penalty of 40 shillings or to one month's imprisonment’ and the police, who were later subsumed into the Ireland wide Royal Irish Constabulary, prosecuted brothel keepers and individual women for solicitation in Belfast with gusto. Under a series of legislative acts across the next 100 years, the state attempted to put an end to prostitution by enforcing punitive measures of imprisonment or fines. The numbers of prosecutions usually coincided with a moral panic, such as that surrounding the venereal disease epidemics of the 19th century which was combated by the Contagious Disease Act of 1864.

Essentially the Act legalised prostitution, adopting a system similar to the French approach. From the very beginning of the act’s life it was opposed, with the early suffragette movement having its roots in the campaign. For example, Isabella Tod, one of Belfast’s foremost campaigners for the vote for women was a member of the campaign to repeal the act. The act was eventually repealed in 1886. The opposition of the act were chiefly that it laid the blame for VD and other disease on women and not men, ‘branded a woman a prostitute for life’, that medical examination could be forced on women, and that provision for treatment of VD in what were called ‘lock hospitals’ was inadequate and drove women into the workhouse, the worst fate that could befall anyone in the 19th century.

After the repeal of the CDA, conditions for prostitutes didn’t improve markedly. In Belfast the majority of prostitution was linked to poverty and in all records the areas pointed to were those which were most commonly linked to slum life. Areas such as Millfield and Smithfield, Abbey Street and Winetavern Street and the docks area stretching from Nelson Street across to the Short Strand, what the historian Emrys Jones has called ‘the zone of decay’. Court and police records are full of women being arrested for fighting, being drunk and disorderly or for managing brothels. It can be hard for the 21st century mind to imagine the conditions that men and women lived in before the coming of public housing in the 1920s and the welfare state in the 1940s. Their individual lives are lost to us, but we can realise the relationships between poverty and prostitution in Belfast through the memoirs of the reformers of the time such as the Reverend Anthony McIntyre quoted above.

It should be noted however that the sex trade ranged across all echelons of society. An Elizabeth Smith was prosecuted by a ‘fast young gentlemen of family and fortune’ in 1851 for robbing him of 50 guineas. Elizabeth who professed to come from Ballynahinch but spoke with a notable English accent was charged with running a brothel on Queen Street which catered to the well-to-do of Belfast at the time. The prosecution had difficulty finding witnesses due to the social standing of the brothel’s patrons. Maria Luddy notes that Smith had been able to run this upmarket brothel for a year without being disturbed, pointing to the attitudes towards prostitution at this time.

Outside the police, the main response to prostitution was through the reform movement. These were church or non-denominational asylums where women who were deemed to be ‘fallen’ either through poverty, prostitution, behaviour or pregnancy outside marriage. The first of these was the Ulster Magdalen Asylum on Donegall Pass run by the Church of Ireland from 1842,‘for the benefit of women who could be reclaimed from the course of prostitution and who were willing to work’. Others included The Magdalen Asylum of the Good Shepard opened in 1867, The Belfast Midnight Mission on Malone Place, the Ulster Female Penitentiary on Brunswick Street, and the House of Refuge in Castlereagh.

Since 1993 and the discovery of a mass grave at a reform convent in Dublin, concerted attempts to deliver from the dustbin of history the stories of women who were condemned to the oppressive work regimes and social stigma of the reform houses have been attempted. Films, plays and books have been made, inquiries have been launched and compensation suggested. The fact that the Magdalen Asylums continued into the 1990s is shocking, but also indicative of the poisoned and twisted relationship between sexuality, poverty and morality that has characterised Ireland throughout the last two centuries, with Belfast no different.

Attempts to reclaim these harrowing stories from the past are ongoing and research is slowly developing showing the callous nature of ‘reform’, often hiding nakedly commercial needs of those who ran the reform houses. With the passing of the ‘Human Trafficking Act’ Northern Ireland have put the criminal onus on those who pay for sex as opposed to those who offer it. Very controversial at the time, although supported by a wide range of political parties, including Sinn Fein and DUP, the Act was ground-breaking but raises the spectre of seeing women as victims and not agents of their own lives. The arguments featured language that cast prostitution as something morally repugnant, and not a fact of life in society with the Attorney General referring to those involved as ‘hardly the flowers of humanity’. The compunction to reform ‘fallen women’ seems to have remained strong over 200 years.

Further Reading:

Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800–1940 by Maria Luddy (2007)

Regulating sexuality: Women in twentieth-century Northern Ireland by Leanne McCormick (2010)

The Bulkies: Police and Crime in Belfast, 1800-1865 by Brian Griffin (1998)

Surviving the industrial city: the female poor and the workhouse in late nineteenth-century Belfast by Olwen Purdue (2017)

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