Regulating prostitution in nineteenth-century Kent: beyond the Contagious Diseases Acts

Lee, Catherine Theresa (2008). Regulating prostitution in nineteenth-century Kent: beyond the Contagious Diseases Acts. PhD thesis The Open University.



This local study of the regulation of prostitution in Kent in the third quarter of the nineteenth-century positions itself at the centre of a vigorous and long-standing academic debate about the significance of the three Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869. This debate has until now been dominated by scholarship based on the circumstances pertaining in the south coast ports of Devonport and Southampton as revealed by Judith Walkowitz, which has come to represent the history of prostitution and of its regulation in the period. The ten subjected districts of Kent by contrast have received little scholarly attention yet the evidence relating to these, as uncovered by this study, poses a considerable challenge to the received view.

The impact of the CD Acts on the street prostitutes of the Kentish ports, garrisons and dockyards is here examined at ground level in the wider context of the material conditions amidst which the women lived and worked exclusive of the legislation. Particular attention is paid to the extent and scope of the regulation of prostitution outside of the CD Acts, which has been largely ignored in the historical literature. The Kentish evidence reveals that the broad framework of regulatory measures imposed on street prostitutes as part of the wider drive to impose higher standards of public order and respectability often posed a more frequent and punitive hazard than the policing regime carried out under the provisions of the CD legislation. A novel local case study of one subjected district, namely Gravesend, allows an exploration of the geography of prostitution and the spatial relationships between streetwalkers and the communities in which they lived.

The evidence presented leads to the conclusion that for many of the women who practised prostitution in the Kentish dockyards, ports and garrisons the CD Acts represented less an exceptional trauma than an occupational hazard and one further obstacle to be negotiated in the struggle to eke out a living at the margins of society.

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