Some years ago I was wandering around the Vintage Magazine store in London’s Brewer Street, looking for inspiration for an ad campaign I was working on. I came across an old magazine that, while being no use at all for the job in hand, was absolutely amazing for loads of other reasons.
Male was probably irresistible to certain male browsers back in June 1955, just as it proved to me some 35 years later. I must have drawn some strange looks on the tube as I started reading it on the way home.
The leading article about an intrepid American hunter bravely slaughtering a Komodo dragon was appallingly exhilarating, as were the pieces entitled ‘I Alone Survived’, ‘My Legs Began To Rot’ and ‘We Flew Down Eagles’, a how-could-he story about a Texan farmer who rigged up a gun mount on his Piper Cub aircraft so that he could shoot soaring golden eagles more easily than from the ground.
I’m a sucker for old-school direct response ads, too, and the ones in Male are masters of the form. There’s the obligatory full-page ad for Charles Atlas (‘simply utilize the DORMANT muscle-power in your own God-given body!’), ads for book clubs, hunting knives and uranium detectors, ads for dodgy-looking correspondence courses (including one on mastering correspondence), a riff on the famous John Caples ‘They Laughed When I Sat Down To Play The Piano’ ad, and a few ads aimed at helping men become better men through mending things: ‘FIX ANY PART OF ANY CAR IN A JIFFY!’, ‘Learn To Fix Appliances’ and ‘I Will Train You At Home for Good Paying Jobs in Radio And Television’ (Again, he means fixing them rather than becoming the next Jack Benny).
But the article in Male that I’ve recreated here (aka laboriously typed out) is Party Girls Of Piccadilly, a searing exposé of the vice scene in post-war London. Given the passage of time and the sensationalist style of reporting that Male demanded from its contributors, it’s difficult to say how much of what follows is an accurate snapshot of 1950’s London. Alfred Kinsey’s testimony to the 1954 Woldfenden Inquiry (to which this article alludes) asserted that London was second only to Havana in the proliferation of its prostitutes, but even so, the authors of this piece seemed to bump into a hooker every few steps.
See what you think. The subheads are mine, by the way. They’re just there to break up the copy. It’s a bit of a long read.
At eleven o’clock every night the streets of London erupt in a rush hour of prostitution. The bars close; thousands of men down their last beers and hit the sidewalks for home – with girls propositioning them every step of the way. Soliciting is bold and uninhibited.
From the lowest Soho back alleys to the sidewalks outside Mayfair’s swankest lounges, London streetwalkers ply their trade with a frankness hardly equalled anywhere in the world. There are thousands of these women.
Last year 9,000 were arrested in the metropolitan section of London alone – arrested not for prostitution but because their health cards indicated they had skipped the semi-monthly medical examination.
The indifference to this form of vice surprised us. Until we saw it for ourselves, we couldn’t believe that so many women were making a living from kerbstone solicitations.
Britain’s rugged history
In quest of an explanation we visited C division of the Metropolitan Police, which has the unhappy task of overseeing most of the sidewalk activity. There we were told that the increase in commercial vice is simply a by-product of the rugged history of Britain’s most recent 15 years.
A lieutenant told us “During the war, there was the usual let-down in morality. But matters continue to deteriorate even afterwards. For the country on the winning side of, World War Two we are certainly pay a loser’s price. Post-war shortages put us on a depression economy. Rationing deprived us of a full measure of basic necessities. Dim-outs saved vital electric power, but cut down our social life.
Women turned to prostitution because they needed the money. Men turned to prostitutes because of tension and insecurity and, I suppose, because there was often nothing else to do.”
From our observations, the supply of women far exceeds the demand. In Piccadilly, the Times Square of London, we saw groups of eight and ten girls strolling around like schoolgirls on a gay visit to the big city.
The difference was that they accosted every man they saw, offering him a choice of any girl in the group – or the entire group, if he wished. London streetwalkers stand out in a crowd, like cabbages among apples. Even at high noon they make themselves obvious and prevalent.
Streetwalkers in mink and streetwalkers in rags, whether in London or Paris or New York, all use the same trademark: the slow walk, the enticing hip swing, the dangling purse, the prolonged meeting of eyes.
Because of peculiar police regulations which legitimise streetwalking and stamp out all other forms of the ancient profession, London prostitutes differ from each other mainly in price.
As might be expected, the more attractive, well-groomed and intelligent ones are able to charges as much as upper-crust courtesans in recently-exposed New York call girl rackets. The tariff sometimes runs to more than 100 pounds for an evening. (A British pound is worth $2.80.)
The majority fall into the 10 to 30-shilling ($1.40 – $4.20) range, though we were told it is possible to find some who place even less value on their work. The 10 to 30-shilling types are neither homelier nor more attractive than run-of-the-mill harlots elsewhere. Good posture and clear eyes are rare, although the blooming complexion of rural England is sometimes seen.
Eight harlots per minute
The girls in the middle price brackets, and even some who ask a lot more, mingle with each other on the same street corners and cruise the same blocks. On an afternoon walk from Piccadilly along Coventry Street, down the Haymarket to Trafalgar Square, we counted 40 at work. That night, taking the same 25-minute stroll, we spotted almost 200.
Subsequent excursions along the same route enlightened us to the fact that the girls work favourite ‘beats’. We always saw the same girls, just as we later saw familiar faces operating in specific sections elsewhere in the city.
Usually, the girls are as friendly to each other as neighbors who meet in a supermarket on the Saturday shopping expedition. We saw them stop and chat and trade cigarettes. One night we heard a man ask for a particular girl, and her colleagues happily pointed her out in the shadows of a shop entrance.
But on slow evenings and at late hours, friendship goes down the drain. Late on chilly night in Shepherd Market we saw three young girls fighting over an American sailor.
In an alley off Trafalgar Square we saw two older women almost rip a man in half as they tried to pull him in opposite directions.
And outside a crummy bar in Glass House Street, where many prostitutes live, we saw women battling for position in a line formed outside the door. As each man made his exit from the pub, the girls would shriek at him, often plucking at his sleeve to get his undivided attention and, hopefully, his trade.
If the man is willing, he walks with the woman of his choice to her ‘digs’, usually an ill-lighted, shabbily furnished room which may service for living quarters also. Only the most successful can afford to pay double rent. Some take their customers to one of the lesser hotels, though this risky for everybody.
Despite their moderate fees, even the 10 and 15-shilling prostitutes claim to average 20 pounds a week – about $50. In view of the low tab, this indicates considerable activity. We talked to two sorry-looking sisters, 19 and 21 years old, who said they had managed to save $2,500 in six months of flesh peddling.
They told us they were from Ireland, which brought to light the fact that many of the middle class girls are imports. With many Irish girls the pattern is common: husbands and jobs are hard to find at home, so they leave their impoverished families to work in London as hotel maids or waitresses.
Girls come to London from all over the Empire. Many merely want to escape the drabness of economically unstable homes in remote colonies. Others seek movie or stage careers or just ‘any old job’.
Many know in advance that they are going into prostitution and arrive in London with the idea that they are invading the world’s best market. Whatever the cause of their choosing prostitution as a career, the girls land on the streets.
The pickings are apparently easiest for those who charge the highest fees. Although they are technically streetwalkers, these elite tarts seldom fate forth more than once a night and often work only once or twice a week. Some of them are actresses, models or showgirls who are either temporarily out of work or have become used to extra income.
£25,000 a week!
These are the girls who most closely resemble American call girls in that, after they have established themselves, they do not have to prowl the streets. The customers often become regular clients who make appointments by phone. One woman told us she earned £980 – $2,744 – in one week. (Me: that’s about £25,000 in 2017 prices!)
Unlike the quickie artists of Soho (London’s run-down equivalent of Greenwich Village), the ritzy prostitutes expect dinner and a few drinks from their clients, even if the transaction originates on a sidewalk.
Later, the woman takes John Customer to her elegant apartment, usually in the Mayfair or Sloane Square regions. The man knows he is expected to spend the night, stay for breakfast and deposit the girl’s ‘gift’ with the maid as he leaves.
Payments vary from $50 to $350. Men who can afford it visit the same girls regularly, thus assuring her of a decent income and keeping her available.
Because of their aristocratic appearance, some of the more luxurious women are permitted to sit in the lounges of good hotels and sip drinks while waiting for a pickup. However, an overt gesture of solicitation by even the most elegant prostitute would be enough to put her out on the curb. All the top-notch pros try to work London’s best night spots, but an alert management is generally able to keep them out.
Strangely enough, the girls also follow social custom and have divided themselves into sharply demarcated social classes. We didn’t meet one who aspired to higher prices or resented the plush lives of her more successful sisters. A ten-shilling girl told us “I know my place. I know the kind of men I can get, and I know the kind who wouldn’t touch me. I do all right.”
For this sort of girl, ‘doing all right’ means earning a mere living and enjoying no luxuries. She lives in a small flat, sometimes alone, but surprisingly often with another prostitute who is her intimate friend.
Britain’s growing problem
We were astonished at the number of these women who not only display the prostitute’s traditional dislike for men, but are able to generate romantic feelings only for other women. As scientists have stressed in recent years, homosexuality is a growing problem in Britain.
Another rather unfamiliar aspect of London prostitution is the absence of the male scrounger, or procurer. Streetwalkers do not saddle themselves with ghastly boyfriends who can be found lurking around American tarts.
The British woman does her own soliciting and, if she has a lover, he is seldom associated with her business. Possibly the only men who make money from London prostitutes are the comparative handful who are paid to protect women who are in violent competitive feuds with others.
Also, in some of the worst sections, she may employ a man to act as lookout and warn of approaching police, but that’s the extent of their business dealings with men.
London bobbies stay on the same beat for years and get to know local prostitutes by their first names. The bobby has two jobs in this connection: to keep the competition from getting too violent, and check health cards. All London prostitutes carry the cards, issued by the city and checked regularly at St Thomas Hospital.
If a policeman finds that a girl has missed her check-up or is operating with a card that labels her as diseased, he runs her in. For this offense, as well as for street fighting, the court fine is 40 shillings. The girls are by now so accustomed to the fines that the call them ‘our income taxes’.
We wondered about the ‘taxes’ elsewhere in England, and a tour of the country revealed that the provinces are jolly well holding their own. In Manchester, an industrial centre of 700,000, we were told of an official study which disclosed that 400 streetwalkers worked the town and that many hotels were hospitable to their trade.
In Newcastle, a seaport, prostitution flourished so disastrously after the war that an enlarged police force was given orders to patrol all streets every 20 minutes and arrest all women who appeared to be loitering.
Cardiff, once the roughest town in Great Britain, had so many police on the streets that we thought the town had been invaded. Prostitutes were not to be found.
Right, back to the capital
Evidently, the pressure in the provinces has served to heighten the concentration in London. There, in the world’s largest city, they all have room to maneuver. In Park Lane, where expensive hotels overlook Hyde Park, we saw one woman accost 30 men in less than an hour. Rebuffed but undiscouraged, she tramped on, until the last we saw of her she was strutting across the street and into the park.
In Soho we saw two British soldiers approached four times by elderly women who greeted them with ‘Got the time, dearie?’
In the Bayswater Road area, we noticed a large number of car pickups. The cars took off to the rows of apartment buildings near Paddington Station.
Tenants of those apartment houses have complained bitterly that the night traffic in the neighbourhood resembles a parade. Resultant raids occasionally net a few girls who are charged with disturbing the peace, but the clean-ups are so ineffective that they are conducted half-heartedly.
Another police headache are the groups of girls who try to set up parlour houses. They take short leases on apartments and small houses and take turns outdoors, drumming up business for each other. For the police, locating the establishments is somewhat like trying to track down a floating crap game.
In Leicester Square, we got an invitation to visit such an establishment, described to us by a sallow teenage girl as ‘the club’. She assured us that there was no admission fee and that the selection was varied. Asked for a rain check until the following week, the girl said ‘who knows where we’ll be next week?’
Present headquarters, she said, was over a pub and, though the owner enjoyed collecting the high rent, he feared that police would spot the traffic. Being caught would mean his license.
Many such youngsters, we learned, actually live with their families, spending what time they can soliciting customers. They are the most youthful of daytime streetwalkers and usually return to their homes in the late evening, when the old-timers hit the sidewalks.
Though London has always had its share of commercialised vice, the problem, according to police, has never been as great as it is now. At one time, a high percentage of the trollops were foreign, coming over from Paris and berlin when travel was easier and prices higher. The war finished London for the Germans, and the French who arrive now are in the elegant higher brackets.
It was the war, say authorities who should know, that brought on the current vice epidemic. Remnants of defeated European armies moved to England. The US sent over hundreds of thousands of men for the European campaign.
Thus London became a huge garrison playground. Operating prostitutes made fortunes, and gossip of their profits attracted newcomers. A sad but true fact was that Americans contributed largely to the decline.
Few English women had met any Americans before the war. Suddenly the country was jammed with thousands of fast-talking, fun-seeking, easy-spending Yanks who treated the women with a lavishness and intensity such as they had never known before. To Englishwomen, Americans were the greatest import since tobacco.
The girls went wild. Thousands left home in order to make themselves more available. Many hoped to marry Americans eventually, and some did. But the majority were left on the wharf, some, unfortunately, with illegitimate children to support. For hundreds, there was no recourse but to make their bodies public property.
Post-war controls greatly restricted British life. Spending a night at beer and darts in his favourite pub was the only way an Englishman could spend his money – if he had any money to spend. Knowing this, the desperate girls learned to haunt the dark streets at night, hoping to find a man who would want them. As the years passed, prostitution increased, until today the British themselves admit that London has the largest population of harlots on the Western world.
Older members of this profession, unable to make out any longer, become charity cases. The outcasts often resort to robbery and mugging when other business is slow.
In an effort to improve this disgraceful state of affairs, a committee of fifteen eminent men and women was recently organized* and began casting about for solutions. The police told them, in effect: ‘Increased arrests will only cause a new problem. We don’t have enough room in our jails to accommodate that mob.’
But the picture is not completely barren of solution. Social workers point out, for example, that the British economy is becoming more robust. In some trades, jobs are going begging.
The London committee, believing that most of the streetwalkers would not have chosen their present calling had they have been able to find honest, fair-paying employment, hopes to organise a salvage operation. The girls will be encouraged to take jobs – if employers can be persuaded to overlook the past.
Should this campaign prove successful, and should the sidewalks become less congested, many Londoners will consider the time ripe to take the next step: fill up the jails, not with the girls, but with their customers. These observers are sure that once it becomes a public offense to patronise a prostitute, vice will approach the vanishing point.
The average Britishers are not losing any sleep waiting for this moral millennium, however. Being very practical people, they know that women will be wearing streetwalkers’ shoes for some time to come and derive comfort from the knowledge that as long as this must be, at least they’ll be wearing them in good health.
*This led to the Wolfenden Report.