Susan Bennett's book 'The Infamous Mrs Gallagher' has an explanatory sub title of 'the prolific Victorian Brothel Keeper'. However, this hardly does the book justice since it is much more than this. Mrs Gallagher, the keeper of an unbelievably large number of Liverpool brothels in the 1800's, is the hub to which the book keeps returning after exploring the colourful lives, sometimes comic and often tragic, of a whole retinue of co-conspirators, rogues, larger than life chancers, family members, absent husbands, bigamous husbands……. the list goes on and on. And in following each of these threads the book extends far beyond the local history of Liverpool interesting as that is given that many of the locations identified still exist today.
The book ranges widely from London, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Southampton, Australia, to New York and Pennsylvania, and in doing so touches on many issues and aspects of Victorian life in the mid to late 1800s including the American Civil War, British support for the Confederate States, the long standing policy of criminal deportation to Australia, and more extensively the law of the time particularly that of Coverture which severely disadvantaged all married women.
In recreating this past world by piecing together elusive records of births, deaths, marriages, records of court proceedings, and newspaper reports, the book gives a very personal glimpse of lives long forgotten. These characters are no angels and recounting their lives reveals a world of scandal, deception and conniving dishonesty. Lives lived in a grey area between the legal and the illegal, hence endless court cases sometimes as claimant often as defendant. And always these lives seem precarious running a fine line between riches and the destitution that, in Victorian Britain, failure will likely result in.
What should we think of these characters? In particular was Mrs Gallagher and her likes at the very root of the much discussed social evil of prostitution? Was she an evil predatory woman living in luxury paid for by the misery and desperation of others. Alternatively ,was she simply more canny than most in using, to her own benefit, the very laws and system that, as a woman in Victorian Britain, constrained and disadvantaged her; the reality of her world being that she could not afford too many scruples if she were to thrive and provide for her children? Or maybe she was simply heartless, hard faced, and scruples never even entered her head. The book can never answer this but it certainly gives plenty of food for thought and is well worth reading.-
George J 7.2.2021
This is a compelling read: wide of scope, clearly researched with exhaustive rigour. It gave me a real sense of the time in which Mrs Gallagher operated, certainly an revealing tale of a woman operating in a man's world and outwitting them all. Deep in the salacious - Mrs Gallagher is an antediluvian Cynthia Payne but with more going on! An interesting insight into Liverpool's often hidden past and those who wielded power.
Peter B 13.12.2020