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The Spinning House girls: Cambridge University's distinctive policing of prostitution, 1823–1894


This article explores the regulation of prostitution in nineteenth-century Cambridge by an appraisal of the committal books of the university prison. Each evening in term-time the university proctors arrested and imprisoned local ‘streetwalkers’ in an attempt to protect the students’ morals. This research offers insight into the ways in which Cambridge's geography and its dual system of governance influenced the policing of prostitution in the town centre. The former compelled students and townspeople to share the same crowded space and the latter enabled the university to enforce traditional patterns of class and gender to control sexuality in the town.

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1 Anon., New Cambridge Guide, 5th edn (Cambridge, 1821).

2 Winstanley D.A., Early Victorian Cambridge (Cambridge, 1940), 122.

3 Atkinson T.D., Cambridge Described & Illustrated (London, 1897), 356.

4 University/Collect.Admin.9, 154–69 (Cambridge University Archives).

5 Bryan P., The Shaping of the City (Cambridge, 1999), 102.

6 Morris R.J., ‘Structure, culture and society in British towns’, in Daunton Martin (ed.). The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. III (Cambridge, 2000), 395–6.

7 Chalmers T., The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns, vol. I (Edinburgh, 1821), 27–9.

8 Vaughan R., The Age of Great Cities (London, 1843), 2.

9 University/Collect.Admin.9, 154–69.

10 Searby P., The History of the University of Cambridge 1750–1870 (Cambridge, 1997), 1.

11 Porter E., Victorian Cambridge: Josiah Chater's Diaries 1844–1884 (London, 1975), 30.

12 Leedham-Green E., A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge 1996), 11.

13 Reeve F.A., Cambridge (London, 1964), 97.

14 The Report of the Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons), 116 (1835), XXIII.

15 Times, 16 Nov. 1833.

16 Mansfield N., ‘Grads and snobs: John Brown, town and gown in nineteenth-century Cambridge’, History Workshop Journal, 35 (1993), 187–9.

17 Chadwick Edwin, Report from the Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (London, 1842).

18 The Report of H.M. Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the State and Revenues of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons), 1017 (1852), XLIV.

19 University/Collect.Admin.9, 154–69.

20 Cooper C.H., The Annals of Cambridge, vol. III (Cambridge, 1852), 16.

21 J. Marriott, ‘A study in the changing relationship between class structure and culture in a community undergoing rapid growth and urbanization: Barnwell 1790–1880’, unpublished MA dissertation, 1985; Cambridge Central Library, 52.

22 University/T.VIII, Spinning House Committal Books 1–3 (Cambridge University Archives).

23 University/T.VIII.1.

24 Porter, Josiah Chater's Diaries, 31.

25 Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1848–1864, Selected Passages from the Diary of the Rev. Joseph Romilly, ed. M.E. Bury and J.D. Pickles (Cambridge, 1994), 353.

26 Bryan, The Shaping of the City, 106.

27 University/Min.VI.6/13, 1860–63.

28 Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 338.

29 Mansfield, ‘Grads and snobs’, 184–98.

30 Wilcox P., ‘Marriage, Mobility and domestic service in Victorian Cambridge’, Local Population Studies, 29 (1982), 32.

31 Howell P., Geographies of Regulation, Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the Empire (Cambridge, 2009), 126.

32 Fifteenth Report of the Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain, Northern and Eastern Districts, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons), 1167 (1850), XXVIII, 215.

33 A.J. Engel, ‘Immoral intentions: the University of Oxford and the problem of prostitution, 1827–1914’, Victorian Studies, 23 (1979), 100.

34 Ibid., 81.

35 Times, 15 Dec. 1846.

36 Times, 11 Dec. 1846.

37 Gunn S., The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class: Ritual and Authority and the English Industrial City, 1840–1914 (Manchester, 2000), 14.

38 Winstanley D.A., Later Victorian Cambridge (Cambridge, 1947), 97.

39 Finnegan F., Poverty and Prostitution: A Study of Victorian Prostitutes in York (Cambridge, 1979).

40 Walkowitz J., Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge, 1980).

41 Luddy M., Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800–1940 (Cambridge, 2007).

* I thank Professor Clive Emsley and Dr Donna Loftus of the Open University for their help and encouragement when I was writing my Ph.D. thesis, Dr Loftus and my husband Philip Oswald for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this article and my son Christopher Oswald for creating the map.

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Urban History
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