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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Barbara Tate, West End Girls: the real lives, loves and friendships of 1940s Soho and its working girls

This was a wonderful little study of the world of Soho prostitution in the late 1940s, by someone who became quite by chance a 'participant observer' through working as a prostitute's maid. This, it's clear, was necessitated by the laws on brothels (i.e. more than one prostitute working out of the same premises) and poncing - a man would have been assumed to be living on immoral earnings. Someone to take the money and look after it and be a deterrent to the client getting violent or trying to get away without paying. Also to run out and buy condoms etc as necessary.

Things notable: the sheer daily turnover of business, well into double figures, in really sordid surroundings - even after Babs had cleaned and tidied Mae's premises it all sounds very basic and lacking in amenities. And clearly, the act itself was no frills and over fast - use of pornographic postcards to get them rapidly to the point, and later, the two-way mirror for voyeurism. Use of condoms (gossiping against other prostitutes tended to invoke not using them). Men waiting their turn in the kitchen. Oral sex doesn't seem to have featured, except as something that, again, was an accusation against someone else ('takes it in her mouth'. Mae did do quite a lot of kinky trade, even having several masochists at a time tied up in various corners of the flat. But not all of them did.

Distinctions between Soho and other areas such as Shepherd Market - the girls were independent operators who lived outside the area and commuted in to their Soho flats. Elsewhere the ponces owned the flats and put girls in them. In Soho the ponces weren't involved with the business (except for, in many probably most cases, exploiting the girls they were in a relationship with) and they liked to live right outside the district so as not to fall foul of the police.

The police had a worked out system of the women being taken to court and fined at regular intervals. But in between they would be let alone. Even though the women tended not to solicit actively but just stand around, glance, jangle their keys, or possibly mention a 'nice time' - some of them were, it sounds, more aggressive than that - but on the whole they didn't need to.

Mae seems to have been getting round about £1 a time, at least to start with, for the straight act, and Babs was getting a tip of around 2/6 on that.

This more or less meshes with other evidence on the subject.

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