Girls of the Spinning House: a social study of young Cambridge streetwalkers, 1823-1894

Oswald, Janet (2008). Girls of the Spinning House: a social study of young Cambridge streetwalkers, 1823-1894. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis examines the exceptional circumstances of prostitution in Cambridge in the nineteenth century - a topic that interconnected with many other issues that were central to Victorian society, notably religion, morality, class perspectives and the status of women. It shows how the university authorities used their power to reinforce existing patterns of class and gender through the control of sexuality. The research focuses on the streetwalkers of Cambridge, suspected prostitutes who were arrested by the university proctors and sentenced to imprisonment by the Vice-Chancellor without a fair trial. It highlights the relationship between two distinct communities, the academic and the local, and demonstrates how the university's obduracy and its rigid regulation of sexuality delayed civic reform in the town.

During the nineteenth century, challenges to the university's archaic and authoritarian practices, both in the courts and in local and national newspapers, weakened its dominance until eventually it was forced to abandon its control of the streets and close its prison. This investigation of prostitution in Cambridge has revealed how the special powers held by the university and the external pressures that brought about the demise of the regulation of streetwalking made the town distinctive. The records of 1550 young women and over 6300 arrests have been entered onto a computer database and analysed. They show how the experiences of suspected prostitutes in Cambridge differed from those in other towns.

The research findings are significant because they offer new insights into the connected histories of two diverse sets of people - young working-class women and the unmarried proctors, ordained university dons, who apprehended them. Regulation in Cambridge illustrates how national themes were played out in a local community at a time when the passing and repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts were matters of widespread concern, and thus this thesis contributes to the knowledge and understanding of prostitution in Britain in the nineteenth century.

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