‘In the 1880s, Little Lon was Melbourne’s premier sex-work precinct.’
I did not know, until I read this book, that prostitution was not technically illegal for most of the 19th century. Instead of being charged with soliciting or prostitution, women (most sex workers were female) could be charged with ‘being drunk and disorderly’ or ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’. Little Lon (Little Lonsdale Street) was not the only site of brothels in central Melbourne but thanks to C. J. Dennis, in ‘Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’:
‘Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?
They scraps in ole Verona with the’r swords,
An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,
An that’s Romance.
But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots
In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.’
Little Lon became more infamous for drunkenness, gang violence and prostitution than Little Bourke Street.
In this book, as she describes the economy and the community centred around sex work, as well as the hazards, Ms Minchinton mentions many women by name. But the most powerful part of the book, for me, was Part 3, in which Ms Minchinton writes about five quite different women who demonstrate different aspects of the business of sex work. Some of these women were quite wealthy, with their own real estate empires. Many of the brothels were owned an operated by women. Some of the women may have turned to sex work because of financial necessity but others enjoyed the freedom provided at a time when most women could only choose domestic work or marriage (which would usually involve domestic work).
I found this book fascinating and while I appreciate the challenge Ms Minchinton had in trying to trace lives through public records, I found it interesting to learn about the different women involved.
‘When it comes to reforming sex-work legislation today, the history of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century industry offers one important lesson: while sex workers need the same protection from violence and exploitation as other workers, the more salient issue is the ongoing stigma and discrimination that sex workers suffer as a result of other people’s moral disapproval. Until sex workers and the services they provide are accorded legitimacy and respect, they will require a regulatory model that addresses the ugly moralism passed down from the nineteenth century.’