The records of Aberdeen’s Police Commissioners paint a grim picture of life in the cramped, stifling, diseased streets of the Victorian city.
In the 18th Century, the population of Aberdeen was roughly 25,000. By 1840, the industrialisation and urban movement of the 19th Century saw the city’s population triple, but people still lived in the old narrow streets. This resulted in cramped, dingy slums rife with sickness. Poverty grew and the city’s elites found that they could employ the poor for a pittance.
In all this, the city’s Police Commissioners – a public health and urban planning body, rather than what we would think of as a modern “police” service – had their work cut out for them.
In their records we can gain a sharp sense of the inequality and poverty that shaped life in Victorian Aberdeen. Streets were filthy, buildings collapsed, disease spread and water was dirty. Nowhere is this clearer than in the city’s sole surviving Prostitution Return, carried out as part of a monthly headcount by the Police Commissioners in January 1855. These were usually destroyed later, as they were working documents rather than items intended to remain as evidence of central decisions of the Commissioners. Only one survived, kept by a Victorian official as a strange curio.
The numbers are sobering – a clear indictment of the indifference of Victorian society that notes some 500 women between the ages of 15 and 44 engaged in sex work within the city, as well as 36 public houses where women were encouraged by their procurers to bring men. On top of that, there were 36 known brothels operating within Aberdeen, mostly concentrated on Guestrow, Broad Street, Gallowgate, and Shuttle Lane – catering primarily to sailors, students, clerks and advocates.
That the Prostitution Return for 1855 survived at all is a fluke: it is a window into an otherwise unspoken aspect of Victorian life. By taking the names and information from this volume and comparing them with other records from the period, we can shed some light on the city’s Victorian secrets.