The less genteel side to Salisbury

By Editor, 2 September 2009 - 11:35am

Alan Crosby uncovers an unexpected side to Salisbury...

Sometimes we laugh aloud at something that turns up in local history research - it can be a bit embarrassing in the middle of a quiet searchroom, but this time it was in the privacy of my own study. No danger of showing myself up.

A friend had sent me a copy of the 1851 census for Winchester Street, Salisbury. What could be more respectable than that delightful city, with its wonderful cathedral and superb medieval planned layout, set amid lovely countryside? Well, even the most respectable places have their unsavoury – no, be charitable, less genteel – corners, and early Victorian Salisbury was no exception.

Now, the occupations given on the census are, of course, often a source of amusement or puzzlement. Technical terms for specialised trades might mean we resort to a dictionary for enlightenment. But there can be no question of what was going on in Winchester Street at the beginning of the 1850s.

In the two folios which I have, 22 females were listed, and the occupation of five of these (two aged 18, two aged 19 and one aged 23) is stated without elaboration: ‘Common prostitute’. But even better, perhaps, is that some of the clients who were ‘overnighting’ are also listed, after a fashion.

A typical entry reads: Name: unknown; stranger; condition: not known; age: about 30; occupation: not known: place of birth: not known. Now as a family historian this intrigues me very much. I imagine the terrible shock of tracing an ancestress (let us say, 18-year old Emma Hopkins, born at Shaftesbury, Dorset) and then learning of her occupation – oh, the shame! But what of that elusive male ancestor who simply cannot be traced on the census indexes. Is it possible that … no, surely not!

Alan Crosby is editor of The Local Historian

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