The streets of London immortalized by Dickens in their fascination and horror were in many ways embodied by the spectacle of prostitutes, many little more than children, plying their trade. Prostitution became a symbol of the worst excesses of Victorian Britain, and as such were a focus for attempts at change.
As with many social ills that attract a variety of attention, prostitution was viewed through a number of different lenses according to the interests of the viewer. By the beginning of the 1840's a number of different groups:- mainly religious groups, major news organizations and women's social groups - began to take notice of the problem of prostitution. One of the major reasons for this new attention, as William Acton noted in his landmark study, Prostitution (1870) was the sheer number of prostitutes now visible on metropolitan streets in general, and London streets in particular. Acton estimated that there were at least 40,000 prostitutes actively working in London alone. It had become impossible to simply ignore the activity as it was so prevalent. The very title of Acton's book shows the variety of different perspectives that were taken on the subject:
The basic foundation for the study was moralistic in nature, but as was often the case in Victorian thought, it needed at least a veneer of the rational, scientific thought that had come to such dominance during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Thus the "social" and "sanitary" aspects also need to be considered. The concentration on "London" and "Other Large Cities" reflects the concern that these massively growing conurbations were essentially out of control. Prostitution was a visible, terrible sign of this lack of control.
Various reasons were put forward to explain why there were so many prostitutes. The idea of the "fallen woman" was prevalent among these, as Walkowitz (1982) suggests. The fallen woman archetype was, of course, an essential element of the Christian theology of the period which often associated any expression of sexuality, and specifically any embodiment of female sexuality, as innately evil and something to be avoided. The "fallen woman" was in fact any woman who had sexual relations with a man outside of marriage, whether she had a single lover or slept with dozens of men a day as her profession. Prostitution was seen as a moral and social problem by many of the writers of the time such as Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew (Walkowitz, 1992).
One major 'reason' given for prostitution by contemporary commentators was the rather surprising gender disparity that had been revealed by the 1851 census. This showed that there were 4% more women than men. This implied that about 750,000 women would remain unmarried because there were not enough men to go around. These unmarried females began to be known as "superfluous women" and/or "redundant women" (Bartley, 1999). These designations are telling: a woman's worth is seen purely within her ability to marry a man. Any woman who cannot marry because of a shortage of men is at risk for becoming a prostitute.
The doubtful logic that this rather large leap relied upon was that unmarried women had no man to support them and so would need to support themselves through illegitimate means. The idea that all unmarried women would be tempted to