Colony's founders fail to stop prostitution’s ‘social evil’ being rife on streets of Adelaide


Eliminating prostitution was one of the South Australian colony’s founding aims. This was to be achieved by adhering to Edward Gibbon Wakefield's argument that emigration “as far as possible, be adult persons of the two sexes in equal proportion”.

But the founders failed to balance gender numbers to make the bourgeois family unit that they believed would be central to the new colony’s success. Adelaide’s west end – notably Hindley and Waymouth streets and Light Square – quickly developed a sex industry, highlighted by moral outage in the newspapers. By 1842, the number of prostitutes in Adelaide was “out of all proportion to the respectable population”.

South Australia’s Police Act 1844 set penalties (maximum: one month’s hard labour) for prostitutes found in public houses or places. These penalties had little impact, even when increased in 1863 and 1869. The “social evil” of prostitution was blamed on causes such as the “scum” being sent to the colony from the workhouses of England and Ireland.

A more sensible debate emerged in the late 19th Century, reflected by parliament passing the Protection of Young Persons Bill 1885, promoted by the women, including Mary Lee of the Social Purity Society. Prostitution was seen as the result of poverty and women's dependence on fathers, husbands and sons.

In 1883, the rate of infant mortality among Adelaide’s illegitimate children was 40%. Domestic servants made up 88% of single pregnant women admitted to the lying-in home, and 148 families (65 adults and 421 children) were receiving relief, with 12 wives in the destitute asylum and 217 deserted children either in the industrial school or placed out in foster homes.

Sex work became an alternative to domestic service, where girls were subjected to the sexual advances of their masters, or to the poorly paid sweatshops of the garment trade.

The right to own property was advocated to give women the economic independence to care for themselves and their children without having to resort to prostitution.

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