Sensational Victorian sex scandals!

Victorian sex scandals

I’ve been investigating 19th century sleaze and goodness me, there’s a lot of it. Victorian sex scandals come by the bucket load and threatened to bring down some of the greatest political figures of the era. So, let’s start with that pillar of morality – or so it seemed – the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone. And this post will contain a great deal of whipping – so beloved of the Victorians!

Gladstone ‘rescuing’ prostitutes

Victorian London was the biggest city in the world with a vast gulf between rich and poor. There was little by way of a safety net to protect those who fell on hard times. And so, tragically, many women sold their bodies to survive. Each night venturing out on to the streets and alleys of the capital of the British Empire.

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on and off between the 1860s and 1890s. A looming figure over Victorian politics in the second half of the 19th century. Referred to by fans as the Grand Old Man, he was renowned for his upright moral demeanour. This extended to ‘saving’ women who had fallen into prostitution by picking them up off the streets. His enemies mocked Gladstone’s unorthodox nocturnal roaming.

“If there was one thing he [Gladstone] enjoyed more than chopping down trees (his passion by day) it was accosting prostitutes by night, enticing them home for tea, money, and condescending Christian lectures, and sending them back into the streets, presumably to sin no more.”

Gladstone would leave the House of Commons in the evening after hours of debates in the chamber. He then approached women and girls who were clearly on the game. Maybe business hadn’t been that good as they loitered with immoral intent. Gladstone offered food, shelter, and the promise of a job. Plus a heavy dose of moralising.

However, the Grand Old Man’s detractors guffawed behind his back suggesting this was all a cover for something more inappropriate. They claimed that this great Victorian was a sanctimonious masochist who, after closing the door on these poor unfortunates, whipped himself into a frenzy engaging in other “strange and humbling acts”. He was a tormented soul trying to resist his own sexual longings, even reading large amounts of pornography in the misguided belief he could become deadened to its imagery.

And there was no shortage of pornography in the era of Victorian sex scandals. A gentleman could stroll down Holywell Street or neighbouring Wych Street in central London and buy any amount of salacious literature from the bookshops. That might include The Lustful Turk, or Lascivious Scenes from a Harem – a raunchy tale where, according to the publisher in 1865, “every stretch of voluptuous imagination is here fully depicted, rogering, ramming, one unbounded scene of lust, lechery, and licentiousness“. Unsurprisingly, the two streets were demolished during urban “improvements” in the early 20th century.

DISCOVER: Victorian slang for beginners

Respectable old lady had a sleazy past

Victorian sex scandals could extend to all classes and ages in 19th century society.

The sleepy seaside town of Weymouth in Dorset, southern England, was home to 90-year-old Priscilla Guppy. A kindly old soul living out her last years. Until that is, her past came to light. Sixty-five years earlier in the year 1792, Priscilla had lived in a brothel. She was described in contemporary newspaper reports as having been an “inmate”. Weymouth was gobsmacked to discover Priscilla’s former trade.

One night, all those years ago, two men – Morgan a jeweller and Hardy a farmer – had a fight in the brothel. Hardy struck Morgan hard over the head and the young Priscilla finished the deed with a flat iron. She and Hardy then tried to dispose of Morgan’s body but after being interrupted, dumped it in the street where it was found the next day. The head was a bloody mess.

Spots of blood led the authorities back to the brothel and several of the women were arrested. Priscilla was found to have Morgan’s gold watch and chain concealed in her hair. I’m assuming a big Georgian wig to have hidden those items. She got away with the crime in 1792 and avoided being hanged. On being exposed yet again as a murderer in 1857, the 90-year-old exclaimed: “May God have mercy on my soul.”

She died shortly afterwards, escaping the noose for a second time.

The Victorian fondness for flagellation

The topic of Victorian whipping requires a blog post all of its own. It’s grim and astonishing to note that in 1899, the Virginia state legislature in the United States reintroduced the medieval punishment of public whipping. Not conducted behind prison walls but in a public square. The first victim was an 18-year-old girl, Mary Ball, tied to a post in front of a gawping crowd, stripped to the waist, and given ten lashes “on her bare back” (as one newspaper gleefully reported).

As I mentioned, William Gladstone was allegedly fond of whipping himself. And the Victorians had an obsession with the subject of flagellation. Books were written describing the different forms and instruments used – and these tomes were bestsellers. They catered for two very Victorian audiences – both male. Men who wanted to dominate women completely – especially working-class women – and gentlemen who enjoyed beating themselves.

In 1890, an American newspaper – the St Louis GlobeDemocrat – complained about the declining standard of beating:

“Flagellation has gone nearly out of fashion in this country, and the rattan and ruler of today is but the ghost of what the birch was a hundred years ago, and the rod of that period only a faint shadow of the terrible whips and scourges of ancient Rome.”

It reminisced approvingly about a school teacher who had not spared the rod. Over a period of fifty years, he had administered an eye-watering 500,000 canings and 124,000 “proper beatings”. Victorians, most of whom would have been beaten at school, were in awe of those with the stamina and willpower to deliver decades of torment with a cane.

The Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner was thrilled that a masochistic saint in ancient times “at one performance” had managed to lash himself 183,000 times. These figures are, of course, ridiculous. But they crop up over and again. This saint’s usual daily “allowance” of self-inflicted lashes was 30,000. Victorian readers gasped in admiration.

What strikes me reading 19th century newspapers is the candour with which Victorians – men it should be said – admit they enjoy corporate punishment. In 1898, Reynolds’s Newspaper opined that whipping had been an important part of religious and erotic history. It was reviewing a steamy book that was not for “babes and sucklings”.

These days, it stated, if a gentleman wanted a sound beating, he must adjourn to certain specialist places: “For what are many of the massage establishments to which attention has been called from time to time in this journal but temples of Eros?”

In my own extensive library of old books, I have A History of the Rod written by the Reverend William Cooper. An image below for you! With lots of illustrations it details the use of whipping at different times and places in history. There’s a lurid fascination with what allegedly went on behind the doors of monasteries and convents as well as English public schools. And the author claims that whipping clubs with male and female members were formed to whip each other for fun.

Cooper recounts one rich German woman who “was very fond of the exercise of whipping, that she was accustomed to rise early in the morning and make the tour of her servants’ bedrooms whipping all those that she caught in bed”.

I think that’s enough Victorian sex scandals for now – but if you found this interesting, I’ll return to the subject!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: