A ‘Hotbed of Immorality’? World War One and Sexual Panic

War generates change (both perceived and real) in sexual conduct, and at the beginning of the First World War, young women were accused of being carried away by ‘Khaki Fever’ which in turn drove campaigns to curb the behaviour of young, mainly working-class, women. Similarly, fears that soldiers and sailors would be in danger of contracting venereal diseases from an increased number of women working as prostitutes resulted in draconian military legislation on the female population. Curfews were enforced, anti-immorality associations were formed, and female police officers were introduced.

In Swansea, a Women’s Citizen Union with a membership of 120 was formed at a conference for the promotion of public morals which was convened by women’s groups and led by well-known philanthropists Lady Lyons and Lady Llewelyn. Public morality had always been of concern to many women’s groups in Swansea, Lady Llewelyn had instigated and chaired a Ladies’ Workhouse Visiting Committee, and had also chaired the Ladies Committee for Cwmdonkin Shelter, a home for ‘fallen women’ in Swansea. As Angela Woolacott argues, ongoing concerns about the morals of working-class women were exacerbated by the ‘excited atmosphere’ wrought by war.

One of the concerns was that young girls were being ‘lured away’ and onto ships in the docks.

‘Workmen at the docks declared that the Swansea Docks was a hot-bed of immorality, and much worse than ever before, and that there were girls to be seen from 13 years of age with drunken sailors day and night and on boards ships’

By 1917 it was reported that around 80 women and girls were involved in the ‘trade’ aboard the ships. Many women had come from other ports and there were rumours of a local man involved in the ‘procurement’ of women. Although a public meeting attracted 2,000 people protesting about the lack of action by the authorities to stamp out ‘the sad and disgraceful condition of affairs in and around the Docks at Swansea’, apparently little could be done to prevent women boarding the ships.

In early 1915 newspapers reported that a ‘respectable class of girl’ in Swansea was being led astray by Norwegian sailors, and the National Union of Women Workers of Great Britain and Ireland (NUWW) argued that  ‘the girlhood of the country was thrown off its balance’ which could result in ‘leading them into grave moral danger’. The Swansea committee of the NUWW appealed to the chief constable for the formation of women’s patrols for the town but the request was declined at that time. However by the end of the year deputations citing the support of Lord Kitchener and successes in London and other towns occasioned the ‘interesting experiment’ of women’s patrols in Swansea.

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Lady Llewelyn again led the committee responsible for managing the patrols which included representatives from the Y.W.C.A., the Church Army, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, and the Salvation Army. Lady Llewelyn wanted to provide ‘lady patrols’ for Swansea to ‘get hold of the young girls who were acting in an excited and giddy manner’. She reported seeing girls ‘walking backwards in front of strange men, stuffing notes into their pockets to attract their attention’ and girls ‘standing outside the hospital wishing to get into conversation with wounded soldiers’.

While Swansea argued about how the docks could be policed and middle-class women were organising patrols to protect or control ‘giddy’ girls, the surveillance of women in Cardiff amounted to martial law.

Curfews for women in Cardiff

In November 1914 the Cambria Daily News reported ‘Colonel East’s Strong Stand at Cardiff’ to ‘prevent drinking and other evils among women’. East, who commanded the Severn region issued an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), prohibiting ‘certain women’ from being out of doors between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m. All women were banned from licensed premises between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Five women were subsequently court marshalled, and they all received prison terms of 62 days. This piece of draconian legislation did not last, but it is clear that working-class women were to be held responsible for moral degradation in Cardiff. By 1916 it was an offence for any woman convicted of prostitution or vagrancy related offences to be close to military camps.

As Louise Jackson argues, sexuality in wartime was perceived as dangerous because of the spread of venereal disease, national moral degeneracy, illegitimacy and the ‘scourge’ of prostitution. ‘Cleaning up’ the streets was part of the war effort and working-class women were held responsible for the perceived corruption.

Further reading:

Louise A. Jackson, Women Police: Gender, Welfare and Surveillance in the Twentieth Century (Manchester Manchester University Press, 2006).

Philippa Levine, ‘“Walking the Streets in a Way No Decent Woman Should’: Women Police in World War I’, The Journal of Modern History 66:1 (1994), 34-78.

Angela Woolacott, ‘“Khaki Fever” and Its Control: Gender, Class, Age and Sexual Morality on the British Homefront in the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, 29:2 (1994), 325-347.

Richard Marshall, The British Army’s fight against Venereal Disease in the ‘Heroic Age of Prostitution’.

All the newspaper reports used can be freely accessed on the Welsh Newspapers Online site from the National Library of Wales

This post results from research conducted for two programmes I recorded in 2014 for the BBC World War One at Home series here and here.

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5 thoughts on “A ‘Hotbed of Immorality’? World War One and Sexual Panic

  1. Hi Lesley. May I share this? With the 2015 Centenary of Australia joining the First World War, I’d like to facilitate a conversation about what it meant for the ‘gels’ of the Commonwealth…

    Cheers – Jean

    Jean Wyldbore 64 High Street Maldon Victoria 3463 Australia

    e: jeanwyldbore@gmail.com Jean mob: 0408 055 245 Landline: 03 5475 1435 (from 15 June 2015)

    Skype me: jwyldbore Follow me on facebook: Jean Wyldbore

    “Spelling: A lossed Art.” (Dave TV, 2014)

    >

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