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Scottish Review of Books Vol 13 Number 1 2018

Published by The Islands Book Trust



Heloise Russell-Ferguson with ‘Harplet’ 1920

Author Helene Witcher will be appearing at Aye Write on 24 March 2018.

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Scottish Review of Books 13 August 2016

WHILST history may be one of the oldest scholarly disciplines, it has, until more recent times mostly averted its gaze from that other so-called ‘oldest profession’, prostitution, particularly in the Scottish context. However, as Louise Settle’s history of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early twentieth century shows, it can hugely benefit from the historian’s scrutiny.  The continuing and often heated contemporary debates about whether or how to regulate, legislate or obliterate prostitution in Scotland and elsewhere are almost as vigorous as those dealing with the ‘moral panic’ of ‘white slavery’ and the plight of ‘fallen women’ in the nineteenth century. The arguments among twenty-first century commentators centre on whether women involved in prostitution are victims of abuse in an unequal world or free agents making legitimate economic choices. Resolution looks a long way off. They might be missing a trick. Settle’s detailed and well researched book provides a welcome addition to our knowledge of this long standing and complex social issue, inviting us to look backwards to see how we got to here.

debunking the myth of free choice by so-called ‘happy hookers

Settle maintains that working class women’s involvement in prostitution in the early twentieth century was a survival strategy when the social, economic and cultural odds were heavily stacked against them.  Prostitution may have been a ‘choice’ but it was one made in Scotland at a time when the available options for many women were severely constrained by prevailing economic conditions and social norms governing women’s behaviour. While the risks were high, the alternatives were worse. Prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early twentieth century was not glamorous. There are no belles de jour here.

The growth of clandestine prostitution based around Italian ice cream cafes and fish and chip shops in the 1920s and 1930s is a surprising revelation.

Research into police, court, prison and voluntary social service agency records reveals the reality of prostitution from the accounts of those charged with arresting, prosecuting and reforming the women involved. However Settle’s approach pulls off a remarkable coup. Despite the public nature of her sources and the inherent bias likely in accounts of women’s lives mediated through public officials, the reality of lives in prostitution emerges. A collective biography approach to previously hidden life stories provides much needed insight into the women’s lives. We see their reasons for working in prostitution, its impact and how this was often compounded by the efforts of those determined to prevent it.  We also hear the women’s loud resistance screaming through.

‘Khaki fever’ led to a boost around the docks and railway stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the First World War.

The distinctions between the European, English and Scottish legal systems’ approach to prostitution in the nineteenth century clarify the roots of the particularly Scottish approach which emerged in the early twentieth century.  The growth of state regulation of prostitution across Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century was closely linked to efforts to reduce the spread of venereal disease. While many European countries adopted the French system of licensing state-regulated brothels, England regulated prostitution in order to control the spread of the diseases among men in the armed forces. A series of Contagious Diseases Acts passed in England in the 1860s made compulsory the genital examination of women suspected of being ‘common prostitutes’ working in naval ports and garrison towns.  Prior to their eventual repeal in 1886, things had begun to take a moral turn with the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act which responded to British public opinion seething with ‘moral panic’ following reports of the sexual exploitation and abduction of young girls into ‘white slavery’.  The Act raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, made brothel-keeping illegal across Britain while the National Vigilance Association (NVA) in England and the Scottish NVA (SNVA) were charged with upholding and enforcing the new morality laws. However policing remained the key mechanism for tackling prostitution in Scotland.

The 1892 Burgh Police (Scotland) Act and individual Scottish city acts criminalized outdoor prostitution by ‘street walkers’ and ‘common prostitutes’ ‘loitering or importuning for the purposes of prostitution’ and stipulating fines and imprisonment. Licensing laws targeted publicans and others using their premises for prostitution and the 1902 Immoral Traffic (Scotland) Act targeted men who trafficked women into prostitution,  acted as pimps or ‘bullies’ or lived off ‘immoral’ earnings, imposed penalties of up to six months imprisonment and later introduced flogging for these offences.

The Scottish system included cautioning whereby a woman was only arrested after being caught importuning three times. Thereafter she was deemed a ‘common prostitute’. Police made a distinction between the ‘common’ or ‘hardened prostitute’ regarded as a public nuisance who were dealt with in the courts and younger women seen as ‘victims’ or ‘amateurs’ with the potential to be diverted from prostitution. Settle found a degree of sympathy among police officers for young women whose difficult life circumstances drew them into prostitution and whom officers judged as having the potential for change. In 1907, the option of probation became available to courts and with the discretion available to police on the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, probation officers and the SNVA and the Magdalene Asylums took the opportunity to ‘reform’ the lives and characters of young women deemed to be at risk. This informal ‘penal-welfare’ system diverted women either to a closed institution or subjected them to close supervision by a probation officer in the community. They aimed to teach young women to conduct themselves in a manner more aligned with middle class morality and expectations of femininity in their working and private lives. While some women undoubtedly responded positively to this approach, others fiercely resisted the interference and all attempts at ‘reform’.

Women were ill-served by an unequal society which targeted them for being the wrong kind of woman whilst turning a blind eye to the men who paid for sex with them.

Who were the women caught up in this system? Unsurprisingly they were working class and experiencing considerable hardship.  Information about their backgrounds shows that many came from poor families and either struggled to find work or survived on very low wages. Once involved in prostitution the women suffered from extreme ill health, abuse, exploitation, homelessness and destitution; they often lived chaotic lives and many died young. Many were single mothers, deserted by their husbands, working to feed their children and avoid the poorhouse. There were many who attempted suicide, or were charged with drunkenness and often being ‘drunk in charge of a child’, breach of the peace, assault or theft; they were frequently in and out of prison, poorhouses, reform homes and hospitals.  In poor working class communities prostitution was regarded simply as a fact of life and a way to make some money – women were not unduly stigmatised. They took whatever paid work was available and in straitened circumstances prostitution could temporarily make ends meet despite the risks.

Prostitution was indeed a ‘choice’ for women desperately short of options.

This pragmatism and sheer determination was at some remove from the opinions of the moralisers and law enforcers who condemned prostitutes as having pathological character flaws. The exploration of the social geography of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow charting the sites known for street prostitution and the location of brothels in both cities is revealing. In Edinburgh, street prostitution was traditionally centred on the Old Town and the Mound, in Glasgow around High Street and Glasgow Green. However by the early twentieth century women moved to the expanding commercial and entertainment centres of the cities to meet new demand. ‘Khaki fever’ led to a boost around the docks and railway stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the First World War. The number of brothels also increased during this period with women soliciting in the streets then taking men to flats or private rooms rented by the hour thus blurring the distinctions between outdoor and indoor prostitution. The police seemed unable to deter women from working in the city centres or to make many inroads in closing down brothels or prosecuting pimps. Settle shows that the relationships between the women working in prostitution, brothel keepers and ‘bullies’ was complex. Women working as prostitutes might rent rooms in their own houses for other women to use.  While some women had cruel, controlling and exploitative pimps, others had husbands who played no part as pimps.

Women were ill-served by an unequal society which targeted them for being the wrong kind of woman whilst turning a blind eye to the men who paid for sex with them.

The growth of clandestine prostitution based around Italian ice cream cafes and fish and chip shops in the 1920s and 1930s is a surprising revelation. So too are the links between prostitution and the new craze for dance clubs. This was highlighted by the high profile trial and conviction of Kosmo club owner Asher Barnard and his two managers in 1933 for using the venue to profit from prostitution. The trial shed light on prostitution’s ability to embrace changing technology, survive the economic downturn, capitalise on changing public mores, and expand its reach in novel ways. The Club at 20 Swinton Row in the east end of Edinburgh was one of a number in the city where men could ‘book out’ a ‘dance partner’ for thirty shillings for the whole evening by telephone – the origin of the term ‘call girl’. Telephone calls to a network of taxi drivers, hotels, lodging houses, or flats swung into action to whisk the man and his ‘dance partner’ off somewhere to have sex. Women witnesses in the trial described being coerced into being ‘booked out’, having no access to the telephone to make their own arrangements or control the bookings. Earnings from the ‘booking out’ system however far exceeded those working only as dance partners.  Settle argues that earning differentials, lack of alternative employment, coercion and the economic challenges women faced reveal how problematic the notion of ‘choice’ in prostitution at the time was.

Prostitution is described as the oldest ‘profession’ but its roots lie in one of the world’s oldest oppressions – women’s.

Prostitution is described as the oldest ‘profession’ but its roots lie in one of the world’s oldest oppressions – women’s. ‘Profession’ implies choice. While its academic purpose is clear and important, the glimpses this book provides into the life of women is where it shines while debunking the myth of free choice by so-called ‘happy hookers’.  Early twentieth-century Scotland blamed the women for making bad choices yet failed to address the harm it caused or why men wanted to rent their bodies in the first place. Abuse victims or free agents? Probably both.  Prostitution was indeed a ‘choice’ for women desperately short of options; while dance clubs and brothels may have been preferable to the street, women often made the best of it despite the risks.  This complicated clandestine world was challenging to police. Women were ill-served by an unequal society which targeted them for being the wrong kind of woman whilst turning a blind eye to the men who paid for sex with them.

Sex for sale in Scotland – Prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1900-1939

Louise Settle

Edinburgh University Press, £70, ISBN 978-1474400008, PP218

women's lib  in scotland book cover

Scottish Review of Books Vol 10 Issue 4 November 2014

Sarah Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland c 1968-c.1979, Manchester University Press

Book Review by Anni Donaldson


If we were a’ sensible, there would be nae fools

Traveller’s Life – The Autobiography of Sheila Stewart

Published April 2011

Birlinn £9.99

Maybe this book is not like other people’s biographies.  But it has to be different…because a travellers’ life is different from anyone else’s.’   And so it is.  A Traveller’s Life by Sheila Stewart is a life’s story we should know about.  The joys, tensions and traditions of a member of one of Scotland’s best known Scottish Traveller families provides a welcome antidote to the negative press reports of Traveller conflicts with settled or ‘scaldie’ communities such as the long running Dale Farm dispute and of the extravagances displayed in Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

Born in a stable in Blairgowrie ‘into a world of poems and stories and songs’, described as ‘the voice of Blairgowrie… a raven-haired beauty, envy of many traveller lassies and the dream girl of the laddies…with a perfect voice’, Sheila’s spirit as a tradition bearer for travelling people was recognised by her uncle Donald when she was only five years old.  Sheila’s autobiography is also full of songs and tales from her Traveller community and is the next best thing to hearing these tales told with the smell of wood smoke in the air.  The transience of the Traveller way of life with its deeply felt communality is held together by the long bonds of this shared lore and spoken in Cant.   Sheila also provides a glossary of Perthshire Travellers’ Cant.

Sheila and her family moved around a great deal, earning money by raking dumps, gathering rags and selling them, seasonal farm labour, lifting potatoes, berry picking, making, hawking and repairing tinware,  basins and pea strainers.   Despite living with the deeply ingrained prejudice and casual violence of people in settled communities and the sheer grind of making a living, there is no resentment, not a trace of self-pity and a great deal of black humour in this book.   ‘Although we were persecuted in Blair, and got beaten up for being travellers, my mother loved Blairgowrie, and I would like the people of Blair to remember that.’  Travellers were sustained by loyalty, a shared oral culture and language.   Storytelling and ballad singing, woven into the fabric of Traveller life, carried the values of a nomadic community living on the margins of settled society.  Sheila recounts many of these tales in her book: morality tales about how to be human and what sort of human to be, songs and stories celebrating the close relationship Travellers have with nature and its mysteries, fantastic tales full of spirits and demons, lighthearted fables full of fun and high jinks.  Tales told to instruct and to entertain or given as gifts, created a welcoming hearth shared by a seemingly endless stream of characters flowing with the seasons and the harvests.

The customs and daily habits of Travellers, deeply rooted in history, experience and nature, kept its members healthy and often alive in the absence of medical treatment.  Remedies were derived from generations of accumulated knowledge:  the healing properties of plants and herbs – how to  tempt a  tapeworm from inside someone’s stomach with a piece of meat placed on their tongue – how to mix a simple and highly effective  earth and water poltice held in place with dock leaves to treat someone’s badly scalded legs – the importance of cleanliness and never washing anything in a sink and always using a basin.

Although not always a wholly biddable daughter, independent and highly intelligent, Sheila describes how her life, like other women’s in her community, was mainly defined by others and her expectations clearly proscribed.  Loyalty to parents and family were extended to her husband on marriage.   Marriage and childbirth were not straightforward – although Sheila’s husband Ian was not a Traveller, he was accepted by her family and became a willing convert to the way of life.  Ian’s jealousy and fondness for drink [peeve] were clear even before they married and he often blew his wages in the pub with his friends.   A volatile and occasionally violent man, Sheila describes theirs as a ‘peculiar kind of love…very deep.  We couldn’t agree, yet we couldn’t stay away from each other.’  Iain ‘was not husband material. Although he adored his kids, he wasn’t very family-oriented. But I loved him and I was his wife. I had made my bed, and I would have to lie in it.‘

Acting without her consent, Sheila’s  mother and husband gave permission for her to be sterilised, ‘I had no say in the matter of my own body…I was used to my life’s decisions being made for me and so I just accepted it.’  She had wanted to breast feed her newborn daughter but when she came home from hospital the baby was already being bottle fed and Sheila’s milk had gone. ‘I was so sad about that.’  Sheila was not allowed to choose any of her children’s names.   Women with children still had to do their share of the work – even during potato lifting. Sheila and her husband Ian worked together, dividing the field up between them and keeping a fire at one end to boil kettles for tea and to cook and keep warm when it was cold.  Sheila describes having one child walking about the field, one in a basket and another in a pram while she worked in the field.

Obligations to her husband led to conflict about her performing at home and abroad. Ian’s reluctance to let Sheila travel was usually overcome by the prospect of the money she would earn.  The contradictions in Sheila’s life were well summed up by this conversation with her father, a noted piper, Willie Stewart, ‘You were in America, met royalty, and were made the blood-sister of a Comanche Chief.  Then you come home and go raking a midden, and give your blood to an auld traveller woman to glue her clay cutty [pipe] tegither.  How do you feel about that?  Daddy, I was born a traveller and I will die one, I prefer travellers any day, they are my folk. I will never change.’   

After the death of her mother Belle, instead of becoming a ‘bingo granny’ Sheila started performing again and felt ‘liberated for the first time in her life, and it was a great feeling’.  She could sing where and what she wanted and soon overcame her anxiety about speaking to audiences directly as her mother used to do.   Against the advice of some academics, Sheila wrote her mother Belle’s biography ‘Queen amang the heather’ and has now written her own.

Now in her seventies Sheila is rightly acknowledged as one of Scotland’s great folklorists, teaching and performing all over Scotland and abroad and still speaking out on behalf of Travellers and the continuing prejudice they face. Sheila has found common ground with traditional singers and musicians from other nomadic cultures around the globe, who also experience discrimination at the hands of settled communities.    Sheila has rightly been inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame – an accolade she cherishes – and has been awarded the MBE.

Sheila Stewart continues to thrive on people and life and her singing and story telling are still best experienced in the flesh. Her rich voice, singing unaccompanied, redolent of the countryside, is like a full-throated songbird.  It carries history and tradition and connects us to a time when we lived close to nature and respected its gifts and dangers.  In that listening moment, time is suspended in the presence of our shared humanity and in appreciation of our world. This reader is grateful to her for her gift of this life and its story.  If you have not heard her live then this book will make you want to hear that astonishing voice sing its conyach [heart music] – it really should have an accompanying CD!

Anni Donaldson

Book Review of the Month  Published by Glasgow Women’s Library 2012

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