The stories of women who worked the ports were those of sadness as well as badness. Helen Morgan from Abergavenny Local History Society reports
The records of the West Glamorgan Archive Service hold haunting ‘mugshots’ of fallen women including that of Elizabeth O’Brien. She was only 12 years old when she stole 45 hen’s eggs from a shop in 1887. She was fined 10/- (50p) or sentenced to seven days in jail. Punishment such as this was never going to reform her, and five years at a Reformatory school in Bristol did little to break the trend of misdemeanour. She was described as having ‘…had a very bad career, young as she was.’
Extract from the Cambrian newspaper. 1899
When a Government report on Welsh education in 1847 concluded that the Welsh language and non-conformity were the root of evil, bards and community leaders reacted with fury. The report, known as the Treachery of the Blue Books, also fanned the Temperance movement in Wales as chapels sought to uphold morals and defend the image of the Welsh.
Most people undoubtedly led decent, upright lives. Survival for some, however, must have been a struggle and contemporary reports tell how alcohol and its effects were the cause of many petty crimes –crimes that provided the money to buy the alcohol in dockside pubs where associations with transient sailors led to prostitution for the price of a drink, says Elizabeth Belcham whose talk on the Bad Girls of Swansea can be heard at the Borough Theatre on October 24. The Strand along the side of the North Dock was the main business thoroughfare for the port, with hostelries on nearly every corner. Regents Court off upper High Street was a notorious criminal hot spot. After it was demolished in 1878, Swansea’s Chief Constable complained that whereas the criminal element had been focused in one area, it was now dispersed over the entire city.
Swansea, of course, was not unique. The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 were created to control venereal disease in garrison towns and ports across England, Wales and Ireland. These laws gave policemen the right to examine any woman suspected of being a prostitute for signs of infection. Failure to insist on the same treatment for the clients made a nonsense of this goal from the outset.
By 1908 in Cardiff prostitution was such that its City fathers were provoked into action, hoping to incorporate a Private Bill dealing with prostitution and disorderly houses that would punish
the clientele as well as the brothel keeper. The aim was to try to reform “the low-class prostitute who lives from hand to mouth, who is almost invariably a drunkard, and frequently a thief. Who has no fixed abode and no clothing beyond what she is wearing. Who is constantly appearing before the Bench, and who spends a large part of her time in gaol,” according to the Cambrian newspaper.
Elizabeth Belcham’s talk on The Bad Girls of Swansea on October 24 at the Borough Theatre starts at 7.30pm. Non-members are welcome to join on the night. www.abergavennylocalhistorysociety.org.uk