I’ve recently been thinking a lot about Arnold Bennett’s novel about wartime prostitution, The Pretty Lady, so was delighted to come across a webpage referencing the November 1916 Oxford Vigilance Committee, and its report on the immorality of wartime Oxford.
The committee sees prostitution as a ‘permanent social disease’, but the war is creating conditions in which more young women are tempted into immorality; ‘It is feared that a large number of soldiers’ wives encourage soldiers to visit them in their homes for immoral purposes.’
War has encouraged:
…a state of mind of which everyone is more or less conscious, half-excitement and half melancholy, in which the ordinary interests and standards of life are obscured, and a kind of recklessness drives one to extremes of vice, almost as easily as extremes of virtue. Among girls there exists a widespread extravagance of dress and manners, and a desire for excitement and ‘experiences’ which is at the bottom of much that is going on now in Oxford.
The committee clearly shares the common early twentieth-century suspicion of the cinema as a place of temptation and vice: ‘three well-known girls of bad character have been seen at a Cinema theatre in the afternoon with three cadets’).
The committee’s patrols walked around Oxford noting ‘couples standing close together in dark corners against walls or railings’. Brasenose Lane, next to the Bodleian, seems to have been a popular spot. The patrols were ‘handicapped by the darkness of the streets, and by their inability to challenge or to arrest’.
It is acknowledged that men are partly responsible, but the main burden of blame in the report is placed upon the women, whose loose morals are encouraged by drinking, and by women’s economic freedom, and by ‘literature and many of the entertainments patronised by young girls directly or indirectly stimulate sexual ideas. Two girls admitted to a rescue worker that ‘the first suggestion of evil came to them through indecent postcards shown to them by men.’ Apparently there were five shops in Oxford stocking such postcards. The police were watching them.
The complete report can be found at http://www.oxfordatwar.uk/files/original/22ddb8ae44b2251cbd29ca522db02924.pdf