South Devon local historian Kevin Dixon looks into Torquay’s other history: pubs, bands & us ordinary folk
At a time when benefit cuts for the unemployed are being discussed, it’s worth noting that the final resort of desperate women remains the selling of themselves.
Torquay has always had its prostitutes. In the 19th century the town was described as the wealthiest in England for its size, and the affluent needed a large servile class – by 1901 18.5 per cent of the population were employed as domestic servants.
This saw women far outnumbering men: in 1871 there were 12,772 females to 8,885 males in Torquay.
For those not able to secure employment, there were few alternatives, and prostitutes could be found at night frequenting harbour pubs and Cary Green – the area in front of The Pavilion.
In 1853 Chief Constable Charles Kilby complained of the ‘unbecoming manner that young women of the town wander around the thoroughfares without bonnets and shawls’.
Poverty also inevitably leads to the exploitation of the young. From the Torquay Directory of 1870: “Charlotte Winser has long been notorious as keeper of a house in the town of the most profligate character… recruiting even her own daughters for her unholy gain. Their mother has for years made a profit by pandering to the worst vices of others.”
Winser was sentenced to death, and local entrepreneurs were never one to miss a trick: “It will hardly be credited that men in this town organised excursions offering to take persons to Exeter to witness (Winser’s) execution then back to Newton Races for four shillings.”
Generally, the activities of Torquay’s underclass were ignored and rarely commented on… unless they reached the courts. The Victorian reliance on euphemisms in an effort not to offend can also disguise what was really happening. In 1899 the landlord of the Abbey Inn on Abbey Road was charged with allowing his pub to be used as ‘a habitual resort of women of ill-fame’.
A Detective Thomas watched the Abbey Inn on the night of March 12 between the hours of 8 and 11. “He saw women of loose character enter. They stayed for a considerable time – between 10 and 25 minutes. They entered and returned several times on the same evening, sometimes alone and sometimes in company with men… Entering the Inn, he saw three loose women in one of the rooms.”
Unaccompanied women of good character were unlikely to visit an inn and so evidence of impropriety included a notice instructing females not to remain in the house for more than a quarter of an hour.
On one occasion the detective heard the landlord shout: “Time, Ladies!” indicating that women were not being escorted by a man.
While being cross-examined, Thomas said: “There is nothing to distinguish them from others except their bad language. The house was a quiet one and perhaps was not likely to attract women of the town in pursuit of their vocation.”
In a statement that reminds us of a modern Torquay club owner defending ‘drink all you can’ offers, the defendant protested on his arrest: “What can I do with so much rates and taxes to pay. They bring me my living.”
Nevertheless, he was fined £5 with £1 costs and the brewery took away his tenancy.
Late into the 1950s women were still to be found loitering around Cary Green waiting to take their customers to the darker recesses of Rock Walk.