Section 54 (11) of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 criminalized the act of a common prostitute causing annoyance by soliciting in public.2 For the police to implement this legislation was no simple matter, as no definition of “prostitute,” or indeed “annoyance,” was scribed in statute law. Although common law aided the interpretation of this offense—the case of Rex v. de Munck (1918): “We are of the opinion that prostitution is proved if it is shown that a woman offers her body commonly for lewdness of payment in return”3—in practice, identifying a “common prostitute” and defining “annoyance” was left to the discretion of the individual police officer. Although specific squads were deployed to target streetwalkers in West End police divisions, where the presence of prostitutes was more likely to cause public offense, a “blind eye” was often turned to women soliciting in the less salubrious streets of the metropolis. Local knowledge gained on the beat and the informal advice of colleagues shaped an unofficial police policy of containment and toleration.4
A truncated version of this essay was presented to the Institute of Historical Research's Parliament, Representation and Society Seminar on May 20, 2008. The author is particularly indebted to Penelope Corfield, Bob Morris, Heather Shore, and John Carter Wood for agreeing to read various drafts of this manuscript following the helpful suggestions made to him by David Tannenhaus and three anonymous reviewers for Law and History Review. Any errors in fact or interpretation remain the sole responsibility of the author. Stefan Slater works as a barman, and may be contacted at <email@example.com>.