Reading against the grain: sex workers lives in a government archive
Historically, sex workers lives have been medicalised, criminalised and moralised, and this is reflected in many of the collections held by archives and research libraries. This post will explore women’s experiences of sex work in The National Archives (TNA) collections, which, despite this context, contain many fascinating records relating to sex workers lives.
‘Foreign born prostitutes’ in possession of Canadian passports, irregularly obtained: High Commissioner for Canada enquiry, 1936-1948. MEPO 3/1101, The National Archives.
While selling sex in Britain has never directly been illegal, many of the associated practices, such as brothel keeping, soliciting and kerb crawling, have been. This has led to records surviving which reflect the interests and concerns of past governments. The voice of sex workers can be heard in these archives, but rarely are they speaking on their own terms and controlling their own narratives. It is only relatively recently that the voices of sex workers and sex worker led organisations have started to be collected themselves.
Items in TNA collections tend to use passive language (‘treatment’, ‘imprisonment’ and ‘rehabilitation’). Opinions on sex work were often requested or sent in to government, and while they could be sympathetic or scathing towards sex workers, infrequently are the views of sex workers themselves taken in to account. The voice of people objecting to sex workers can also be found in the records, and, unsurprisingly, were more readily listened to than sex workers themselves.
Despite this, where items are seized by police or sex workers are asked to give statements, we can start to hear the voices of the individuals and understand more about sex workers lives. These collections present a contradiction; a perspective framed by the state, that contains surprisingly personal stories and insights, but never the full picture.
At times voices are verbatim, recorded after arrests or through undercover police observations; seized publications or newspaper articles record more first-hand viewpoints. In researching the lives of migrant sex workers, the additional focus on immigration status means that there is often more surviving material. While each of these sources may have their own complex origins and potential biases, they allow us to start to draw out the more ‘hidden’ voices of sex workers in a government archive. These items were never preserved to tell us about sex worker experiences, and yet they can provide vital information, if read against the grain of their original purpose.
Image of a police form showing people suspected of being sex workers or clients entering a public house over several nights. MEPO 2/384, TNA.
One particular documentcan be used as a case in point. Three different flats on Langham Street, Fitzrovia were under police observation in 1907: three different women each having their lives scrutinise by police, suspected of being sex workers. After a period of observation, particularly focusing on men and women leaving the properties, the police started arresting the women. Rita Jesse Crawford was the first. Rita was aged 21, married, but living apart from her husband. She opened the door to police wearing a chemise and stockings under a dressing gown, which, it was noted, was ‘not fastened down the front’. A drawer in her bedroom was found to contain an ‘obscene book’ and six photos of nude women. The women in the two other flats were also arrested. On being read the warrant, Kate Goldie, an actress, said: ‘It is not a brothel to have one gentleman visit here.’ Two of the women eventually took the stand. It seems that not all of the women were necessarily sex workers and there had been errors in the policing. It was noted of one of the women that she was, ‘leading an immoral life, but that “common prostitute” would be too harsh a term to apply to her’. The police assumptions and prejudices are clear in such records.
The case of Mabel Beale is unique in many ways, but also illustrative of trends found in other records. On 8 September 1907, Mabel was brought to Gerald Road police station, her nose bleeding and bodice saturated in blood. She had been travelling on the top deck of a bus by Sloane Square and was hit from behind by ‘a man unknown’ to her. That man turned out to be an off duty police officer. Both Mabel and the two female witnesses were sex workers. The document records Mabel’s first hand testimony of the occurrence. While the testimony is from Mabel, we can see the influence of the police in her words; in the opening line of her testimony Mabel describes herself as ‘an unfortunate’, using the legal language of the time (meaning sex worker). These are not unmediated sources; however, in eras where these women’s voices are rarely recorded such sources are vital.
Statement given to Police by Mabel Beale, 1907. MEPO 3/1791, TNA.
The state gives a unique perspective on past sex workers lives. It is possible to reframe, contextualise and essentially reclaim the narrative of the individual in state records. These records represent the ‘everyday’ perspective on history: they were not preserved because of the fame or notoriety of an individual, but because of their work interacting with the state. Unmediated, autobiographical sources relating to sex workers lives before the 1980s are rare, making it all the more important to read items against the grain of their intended purpose.
This work has endeavoured to highlight how against the odds, sex workers voices can be found in a government archive. In eras where these women’s voices were not given credence, this in itself is powerful.
Vicky Iglikowski-Broad is Principal Diverse Histories Records Specialist at The National Archives and has a research background in women and gender history. In this position Vicky promotes traditionally marginalised historical narratives within this state archive and strives to creatively engage new audiences with the collections.
 This research uses the term sex workers and sex work, as the widely accepted terms used by people working in the sex industry to self-define themselves and their work.
 For example, this can be seen in the collections of The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics and the Bishopsgate Institute: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/r?_q=English%20collective%20of%20prostitutes&_hb=oth
 Julia Laite’s work on Lydia Harvey also illustrates this. Julia Laite, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey (London, 2021).
 ‘Brothels: Keeping disorderly houses – special observation at local Council’s request’, 1907. MEPO 3/184, The National Archives.
 ‘Complaint by prostitute that a Police Constable failed to arrest a man, another Police Constable off duty, who had assaulted her: reports and statements’, 1907. MEPO 3/1791, TNA.