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Mug shot of a women charged with prostitution by the Victoria police c. 1900. (Handout/Handout)
Mug shot of a women charged with prostitution by the Victoria police c. 1900. (Handout/Handout)

Victoria's colourful history of sex for sale Add to ...

In April, the Victoria police chief delivered a shocking report on brothels to city council.

Seven had been identified along a short stretch of downtown's Broad Street. Others could be found on adjacent streets, as well as in Trounce Alley.

The report also identified brothel owners, including the proprietor of a nearby hairdressing salon who had once signed a petition calling for annexation by the United States.

The barber also happened to be an alderman, so the police chief's report did not surprise him.

Another brothel was owned by a former mayor.

Among the Broad Street brothel owners was Simeon Duck, a prominent manufacturer who properly deserved to be addressed as Honourable for he was serving as the province's finance minister.

The sex trade flourished in downtown Victoria in April, 1886.

While the Victorian era is recalled in the popular imagination as an age of repression, prostitution was not only widespread but indulged by the burghers of the provincial capital.

You might even call Victoria the city of brothel-y love.

Historian Patrick Dunae has immersed himself in the colourful story of sex for sale in a place whose very name recalls images of high collars and ankle-length skirts.

He recently won a prestigious prize for an academic paper published by the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. Its unsexy title: "Geographies Of Sexual Commerce And The Production Of Prostitutional Space: Victoria, British Columbia, 1860-1914."

By studying census forms, tax assessment rolls and police charge books, Prof. Dunae has managed to recreate a lively trade that at the time was quietly acknowledged. The occasional police raid and subsequent fines were seen as little more than a minor nuisance in an otherwise profitable enterprise.

"That was the cost of doing business," he said.

At the time, Broad Street was an important commercial thoroughfare book-ended by a swanky hotel at one end and a Methodist church at the other. The four-block-long stretch included the YMCA, the Victoria Stock Exchange and the editorial headquarters of the rival daily newspapers, the Times and Colonist. Not to mention seven brothels.

Some of these were owned by Margaret Doane, a widow. The best brothels included piano players and Chinese cooks, ever more profit to be made from the sale of food and drink as male customers lingered.

A much less favourable circumstance faced those women unlucky enough to be plying their trade in what were known as "cribs," one-room shacks.

"I don't think they enjoyed the same comfort and security as their brothel sorority," he said.

Newspaper reports of police raids described the brothel women as "inmates," while they were also described as "sporting women," or "women of gay character," or, with a reference to the ancient worship of Aphrodite on Cyprus, "Cyprians." The male customers were called "frequenters." A frequenter strolling along Broad Street had many alibis for his presence.

The sex trade was tolerated because outfitters and others feared their business would be lost to Seattle or Vancouver if gold-rush prospectors could not patronize brothels.

Prof. Dunae, a researcher associate at Vancouver Island University and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Victoria, unlocked a secret to the business at the provincial archives some years ago. The chief census officer encouraged a field enumerator to use "dressmaker" as a euphemism for prostitute while conducting the door-to-door survey in 1891.

By cross-referencing the census forms with police charge sheets, he was able to separate the needle-holding dressmakers from the (wink) "dressmakers." (Among some of the other professions noted by women charged with prostitution - singer, actress, florist, seamstress and typewriter, as stenographers were once known.)

Exorbitant downtown rents, a commercial move toward tourism, and a change in public attitude - "the moral winds blew more strongly" - made the business less prominent in the years before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Brothels became known as nettles in the city of gardens.

Prof. Dunae's own fascination with the past may have been initiated during a boyhood in which he played with a box of badges and medals given to his grandmother, a nursing sister, by soldiers recuperating from wounds suffered on the Western Front. He had a summer job as a tour guide at Fort Rodd Hill before gaining a history degree at UVic and a doctorate from the University of Manchester in England.

Even today, downtown Victoria has several sites whose shady pasts are known by but a few. The parking lot for Capital Iron? It was once the site of brothels and cribs, many destroyed during a major fire in 1907.

A three-storey red-brick building occupies much of the 1300 block of Broad Street. A chiselled inscription high over the main entrance reads: "Duck's Building, A.D. 1892." The finance minister had replaced a wood building housing his brothel with this still handsome structure, home over the years to a succession of brothels.

The professor has looked through many contemporary mug shots. He finds it striking the women are carefully dressed and made up. They do not look in the least embarrassed, or remorseful, a striking difference from male mug shots of the time, in which men appear sullen, their clothing askew.

These photographs were distributed among police departments, ostensibly to aid sharp-eyed detectives in spotting women of ill-repute as they alighted from steamers. Instead, I suspect, they were held as collector items, forbidden icons of desire.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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