Serious fires which swept through two of Auckland’s brothels in the early 1880s whetted my interest in those establishments and the women who occupied them. This resulted in the story of “Madame Valentine Becquet” who, with Julia Curtis (Wilson), were very well known. See “Valentine’s Days in Auckland“ on this website.
My research tracing Madame Valentine suggested a wider account was justified of a seamier side of city life in those days…
The Move Uptown
Most brothels at this time were “up-town”, following a concerted campaign by police to rid Chancery Street of the hovels that housed prostitutes there. By the mid-1870s there were “houses” in Wellesley, Albert, Cook, Nelson and Abercrombie (Wakefield) Streets, Edwards Street (Airedale Street), Grey Street (Greys Avenue nowadays) and the infamous “nest” of brothels in Rokeby Street (now Waverly Street) with one on the corner of Rokeby and Upper Queen Street as it was named. (Queen Street uphill from the Grey Street corner was considered Upper Queen Street). Newton and Arch Hill clients had their own facility in Oxford Street (now Ophir Street).
Almost all these brothels, and their owners, were at some stage in trouble with the police resulting in arrests, court appearances and reports in newspapers. The very nature of their business, the types who frequented these premises, crimes committed therein and contretemps between prostitutes, were all starting points for police intervention.
Intoxication was the most prevalent offending in brothels, along with activities carried out by drunken men. While common assault in or around these premises was prevalent, it was not always fisticuffs between prostitutes and their clients. Sometimes it was action taken by one or more of the women to keep drunk or unwanted men from entering the brothel, occasionally it was between men within the place who had a difference of opinion and from time to time it was punching and kicking among the women: fights fuelled by alcohol over jealousies, sharing the proceeds or personal vendettas.
One account given in court revealed the beer had been spiked with a crushed sleeping tablet, inducing the victim into a deep sleep so that he could easily be robbed. Large sums could be involved… the clients were often bushmen or farmers from the country, or sailors in port, all in town to have a good time, spending some of their hard-earned money on drink and women. They carried the money in their wallet, easily accessible when in an alcoholic coma.
The most serious assault resulted in a charge of murder when a man living in an Upper Queen Street brothel was punched and kicked to death by clients. Other more severe crimes included setting fire to a brothel and theft of £30 from a client (the accused was Valentine Becquet – on both occasions she was found not guilty) theft of jewellery, gambling or selling liquor on the premises and wilful damage.
By far the most common charges made against the women were vagrancy, keeping a brothel, being on premises known as a brothel, having no lawful visible means of support, and using obscene language.
Liquor played a big part in offending. There are stories of Madames employing kids to fetch beer from the nearest hotel, drinks being sold (illegally) for five shillings each. Beer bottles were used as weapons on several occasions when things got a bit rough.
In 1883 an alcohol-affected a man went with Julia Curtis and her female companions to a brothel in Chancery Lane. The man sent out for two bottles of rum, some beer and lemonade… and all concerned had a party. The man left the premises complaining of being unwell and was a little later found dead nearby. The “New Zealand Herald” said “the death sheds a lurid light on one phase of social life in the back slums of the city where deceased had resorted”.
Drink-affected prostitutes often quarrelled among themselves and then faced charges of wilful damage to furniture, doors and windows, frequently the property of a competing brothel.
Court Room Tactics
It is difficult, exactly, to track prostitutes because they had many aliases, frequently given to police when they were arrested. This alias continued into the Court, the accused happy to appear under a new name which meant their previous convictions might go unnoticed. Those who frequently appeared, however, could not avoid notoriety, no matter what name was on the charge sheet!
Women often brought charges against their clients. Broken crockery, a dispute over payment or who should have paid for the beer… and police would be called, the man or men, arrested and taken off to the police station to be formally charged, their names entered in the Charge Book. Late evening, a reporter from the “New Zealand Herald” would take down details from the Charge Book and the list would be published in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper. The names would often be linked to the charges with the addresses of known brothels or names of the women (prostitutes) making the complaint. These women, seeing the names in print, would figure publication was a just punishment, together with the associated shame, and not offer evidence or they would seek to withdraw the charges. The cases would be dismissed.
Prostitutes were in a risky business when it came to offending against the law and they appeared hundreds of times, even in the period 1874 – 1901, and I think some dined-out on the notoriety resulting from publication in newspaper Court Reports. I believe some also considered it good advertising for them, their house and their business.
Those more familiar with the court process often deployed defences to try to minimise their offending in the hope of being let off without penalty… or with a minimal sentence. Here’s a range of pleas taken from court reports:
“I have seen the error of my ways; I am going to return to the country home”: charges dismissed
“We are leaving on the next boat to San Francisco”: charges dismissed
“I have taken a course in needlework so I will have a new life”: charge dismissed
“I am leaving town for a better life”: charge held over until proof the defendant had left town
“I have a husband now: he’s the complainant”: case recalled because no marriage had taken place
“I had drinks with the police constable before he arrested me that night”: case instantly dismissed
“The by-law governing brothels is, legalistically, poorly worded”: case dismissed
“What if I pay costs of prosecution and leave town…?: no fine imposed
“I leave the door of my house open at night to get cooling air, not to entice clients”: woman was given the benefit of the doubt: case dismissed
“I say the passage of the by-law by the Council must be proven, and it has not”: case dismissed
“I am not offering any details of the assault I complained about”: case dismissed
Police : ”The accused woman has left town”: case withdrawn
“I am soon to be married to the complainant”: there was no such plan to wed – conviction entered
“I make hat-boxes and support my family“: brothel-keeping was proved: jail sentence imposed
“My daughters are supporting me”. Fine imposed when this statement was found to be untrue
“I will live with my mother”. Fined when the promise to the court had not been carried out
“I apologise, I have a brain disease, and when I drink brandy, it invariably affects my head and makes me frolic-some”: fine imposed
“The witness testifying against me is my daughter using an alias: case dismissed
“I am selling the property; the house is on the market”: case held over to check the statement with land agents
From time-to-time brothels and their occupants were dragged in to other matters, for instance with the City Council, when residents of Rokeby and surrounding streets complained about the noise, late night parties and comings and goings caused by “the nest of bawdy houses”. The madames hired a lawyer to defend their businesses, sparking arguments about the law, the exact definitions of brothels and the legal situation of those who owned, managed, and frequented them. The Town Clerk, Philip Aaron Philips, was called on to prove the legitimacy of the bylaw and produced the original document bearing the seal of the Corporation. In that case the eviction notices went ahead, although they were only partially successful in cleaning up the neighbourhood.
In 1896 Julia’s house in Rokeby Street got a mention in divorce proceedings in the Supreme Court. The applicant said her husband had an adulterous liaison with one of Julia’s “girls”. The divorce was granted.
Prostitutes sometimes came to notice when there was concern for the welfare of their children.
Civil court hearings reveal a most unfortunate under-belly of the business, such as the case against a well-known prostitute charged with neglecting her 2 sons, aged 8 and 3. She did not want them sent to reformatory residential school and said she would place them in private care. But the Bench could not agree to this when it was revealed she already had 3 kids in care.
Several women were charged with allowing under-age daughters to live in – and/or work in – the brothels, while another prostitute was charged with recruiting young women in the street.
Hotels have always required a licence to operate, the suitability of the publican taken into account when it’s time to appear before the court seeking renewal of the licence. So an allegation about running a brothel within the Crown Hotel could have cost mine-host, Isaac Duane, his licence. Brothel keeping came up during the hearing but it was proven the publican had no knowledge of any side-line business. His licence was renewed.
The Drama Queens
Some women (like Alice Allen) dressed to the nines whenever they appeared in court, their fashionable outfits and hats often commented-on by the newspapers. They must have thought that looking chic bolstered their reputation. Maggie Moran chose “equestrian” when she appeared in 1884 wearing a stylish riding habit and hunting cap. Charged with vagrancy (again) she was let off with (another) warning.
Others (including Valentine Becquet) would stage a diversionary hissy-fit the moment they entered the prisoner’s dock, on one occasion Valentine carried on despite the Judge’s reprimand. On another appearance, at the end of the hearing, she all but collapsed, moaning and groaning, even though her lawyer kept telling her that it was all over, the charges had been dropped – she had won!
Maggie Moran was frequently in court – on the one occasion when she was discharged with a caution, Maggie looked up to the bench and bowed in gratitude.
But another prostitute, not so lucky, was jailed and “led out of the Court in a paroxysm of rage”.
Using a weapon readily to hand was common. “I jostled against a man, asked him for money, and because he did not give it to me, I struck him over the head with my umbrella”. Fined with costs, or, in default, 48 hours’ imprisonment.
It was prostitute-against-prostitute in a court case in 1893 when one of the well-known women about town complained that 4 others had assaulted her. But when it came to court, the complainant was slow in coming forward to testify. The Bench waited a short time, but it was clear the “complainant was clean gone” so a reluctant constable had to recommend that the charges be withdrawn. The Bench agreed. “The Auckland Star”: “This announcement was received most graciously by the four Graces and outside was heard loud “hurrahs” by a full choir of fourteen voices, all members of the easy sisterhood”.
Their Good Health
In the 1870s there had been continual debate about the risk prostitutes posed to community health through the spread of venereal infections. Civic authorities considered measures under the Contagious Diseases Act to detain sufferers in a special hospital until they were cured. In the mid-1870s public health doctors believed prostitution had become so prevalent that a “Lock Hospital” (as it was known) was warranted. This was contested by those who thought it would merely legitimise the business, further increasing the numbers of prostitutes. Lengthy debate followed with the Christian, and more particularly, women’s, viewpoints urged on the City Council.
Notwithstanding, a Lock Hospital was opened in September 1883 beside the jail in Mt Eden and it treated the city’s prostitutes, detaining them until “signed off’ by the medics as clear of venereal disease and allied conditions.
It was short-lived, the Lock Hospital closed just 3 years later as part of the Council’s entrenchment. It had treated women aged between 10 and 46 with the average detention almost a month.
What Prostitutes Were Called
Prostitutes in the time we are talking were regarded as very much second-class, even evil, citizens so it was easy, without likely repercussion, that newspapers of the day, prosecutors in court, and others, coined names and phrases as euphemisms for the word “prostitute”. Some showed inventive imagination, others poked fun. Here’s a range of alternatives as published in various newspapers…
Known to the police for some time as of indifferent reputation
A woman of the town
Reputed occupiers of a house of ill fame
Representatives of the demi-monde
A lady of gay exterior
A contemptible woman
A common prostitute
A batch of incorrigible Rogues and Vagabonds
Women of light reputation
Nymphs of the pave
Inmates of a bawdy house
Women of noted character
Belles of the pavement
Women of unfortunate status
Well known habitués of the dock
Members of the easy sisterhood
What Brothels Were Called
Similarly, phrases were coined by newspapermen to avoid duplication of the word “brothel”… or to dodge the word entirely.
A den of infamy
Well-known house of ill fame
Common bawdy houses
House of bad repute
An improper place
Maison de joie
House of Immoral Character
And the names given particular brothels in Auckland:
The White House
The Brick House
The Stone Jug
[The newspaper “The Thames Star” coined the phrase “Belles of the Pavement” when reporting prostitution in Auckland, September 1882]
National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past website
NZ Archives on-line
Auckland City Archives
“Decently and in Order”, G. A. Bush, Auckland City Council, 1971
© R C Carlyon 14th February 2022