One Sunday in 1823, Christopher Woollacott, a newly instated pastor at a Baptist church in Romney Street, was perusing the streets of his new hometown. This was the first Sunday after his arrival, having come from a small rural baptist church in Modbury to a growing church, not far from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
Woollacott narrates his experience as he reflects upon this day later in his life, in third person prose.
“He was filled with horror at the dreadful exhibition of man’s vilest passions which he saw there. He had never beheld the like, and had not imagined that human beings in a civilized country would be so lost to all sense of shame…It seemed as if Satan’s seat was there. Their father trembled, for he feared that it would be impossible to preserve his children from contamination in the neighbourhood of such scenes.”
Woollacott was aghast at what he had encountered in Westminster – describing the heinousness as indicative of Satan’s stronghold over this area.
What was it Woollacott had encountered which spurred such a negative reaction? Likely, he had come face-to-face with the booming sexual industry of the time – prostitution.
Indeed, it was not uncommon to find “women of the town” parading themselves as exhibitions, inviting young men to engage their services. The number of prostitutes throughout London in the 19th century is unknown; some estimates claim their numbers were around 8,000 (the police) whereas others have argued there were more than 80,000 (evangelists). One thing which warrants no doubt, however, is that prostitution would have impacted the life of every Londoner.
In an interview with Charles Booth, Romney Street Baptist’s Pastor, George Davies, mentioned that prostitution was still an issue in the 1890s (though he believed it had improved since earlier in the century). Davies noted that “much secret vice” was still taking place in nearby Tufton, Chadwich, and Peter Street. Spurgeon, in 1885, devoted an entire sermon to the condemnation of the prevailing sin he perceived in London. He compares the streets of London to the most vile days of Sodom, before it was destroyed by God for its debauchery, and argues that Sodom “could scarce exceed this metropolis for open vice.”
Woollacott, C. (1868). Memorial of Elizabeth Ann Woollacott. London: Printed for private circulation only.
White, J. (2011). London in the nineteenth century. London: Random House.
London School of Economics Archives: Charles Booth Interview with George Davies, BOOTH/B/252
Spurgeon, C. (1885). Israel and Britain. A Note of Warning.