Welcome to Harriet’s house

He stepped ashore on Falmouth’s Town Quay one murky afternoon in January just as the light was beginning to fade. After six months or more at sea the solid ground was a stranger. Learning to walk like a landsman again, he and his mates headed for a drink.

The seaport had a good choice of convenient drinking places along its streets and alleys. They dived into one at random and, armed with some pints of Cornish ale – a marked improvement on the time Cornish ale was said to be only fit for pigs to wrestle in – conversation mounted as the party of seamen began to relax.

After some time, a rather large lady approached them confidently.

‘A’right, me ‘ansums? Just in, are ‘ee?’

‘Yeah’, offered one of them in reply, ‘what’s to do for fun round ‘ere then?’

‘Well, my treas ..’ she said, lowering her voice and lowering her bulk down onto the bench, ‘there’s my ‘ouse up Allen’s Yard. My girl Susan an’ ‘er friend Lizbeth are always ready for a good time. My name’s ‘Arriet by the way’.

Harriet Jordan, 37 years old, was described in the 1871 census as a ‘brothel keeper’, married to Thomas, a ‘labourer’. His role, if any, in his wife’s business is unknown. Her 16 year old daughter Susan was a prostitute as was another, Elizabeth Hotten, who lodged with the family.

The 1871 census was unusual in that it recorded 33 women in Falmouth who were given the occupational description of ‘prostitute’. In addition, four brothel keepers were listed. The only other town in Cornwall where prostitution was explicitly recorded in this way was St Austell. There seven prostitutes were enumerated. In Falmouth any passing seaman looking for the red-light district would not have had to go far. Most of the town’s prostitutes were found in the run-down housing in and around Allen’s Yard, between Market Street and Smithick Hill.

Allen’s Yard on a map of 1880

The census provides a snapshot of the trade. The prostitutes were young, the youngest so described being just 15 years old with only two older than 30. Their median age was 21 which suggests a short career before moving on to something safer and more acceptable if perhaps not so lucrative. Despite being just the right age to feature in the Victorian Lives database, unfortunately none of the prostitutes enumerated in 1871 can be found there, so at present we have no evidence of their later lives. All but two of the prostitutes were from Cornwall, with nine born in Falmouth, a somewhat lower proportion than for the general population. Redruth and Camborne between them also supplied eight girls.

Post Office Yard, next to Allen’s Yard.

Another brothel keeper was Elizabeth Defreeze, who was 84 years old. Her unmarried son Albert was said to be ‘supported by prostitutes’, even though only one was present in the household. The Defreeze family had a long association with the trade as an Ellen Defreeze and another woman, the two described as ‘prostitutes’, were found guilty of ‘violent language in the public highway between 11 and 12 at night’ and sentenced to a month in jail in 1858. Until the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 the authorities did not have the power to suppress brothels. Before then, a succession of women suspected of being prostitutes came before Falmouth magistrates charged with disturbing the peace, unruly conduct, or being drunk and disorderly but they usually escaped with small fines.

It goes without saying that their customers were not apprehended.

One thought on “Welcome to Harriet’s house

  1. Fascinating indeed, and as you imply, it would be wonderful to know more of these women’s lives. And also their feelings about it. Were they willing and proud, or had they known nothing else? It seems grim indeed if a mother markets her daughter as you say with Harriet and her daughter Susan. One can only unwillingly imagine Susan’s childhood.


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