Morality, ‘Cleanliness’ and Geography: Sex and Contagion in Cardiff’s Docklands

By Simon Jenkins

In 1935 the British Social Hygiene Council commissioned a report on social conditions in the dockland districts of Cardiff, Liverpool and London. The author of the report, ex-Navy Captain F. A. Richardson, declared that ‘Morality and cleanliness are as much matters of geography as they are dependent on circumstances.’[1] But in which particular ways were ideas of ‘morality’ and ‘cleanliness’ linked to one another, and to environment? Why was this a pressing concern for ports?

Through the example of Cardiff, I will explore how ideas of sex, race and prostitution have geographical aspects, and have, in a word, been ‘spatialized’. The dockland area of Butetown, in particular, became linked to specific problems by the interwar period, being seen by observers as a site of prostitution, disease and miscegenation. A central feature of this concern about space was anxieties over the sexual conduct of ‘colored seamen’ and ‘white prostitutes’, which many inhabitants saw as a threat to racial purity. This piece will illustrate how space was a continual factor in shaping ideas about, and the links between, sex, ‘race’ and health in the dockland environment. For contemporaries, the space of Butetown was not simply an aspect of debates over its ‘immorality’ or lack of ‘cleanliness’, but it was also central in shaping understandings about the sexual behaviors, social relationships and physical health of its residents.

Ordnance Survey County Series

Ordnance Survey County Series 1:2500, 2nd Revision 1906-1939, Cardiff. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2014). All rights reserved (1920). Using: EDINA Historic Digimap Service.

While the dockland had been linked to prostitution since its mid-nineteenth century growth and was seen as home to a ‘coarse and more vulgar common prostitute’, it had not been the dominant source of concern for Cardiff’s police.[2] Cardiff’s city center was policed heavily in the aftermath of the First World War, against a background of continuing concerns over the ‘prevalence of venereal diseases’ and the ‘peril’ they presented to the city. Of 1,545 individual hearings at Cardiff Petty Sessions for street prostitution offenses between 1920 and 1925, 888 were linked to streets in the city center, with 590 related to charges of being a ‘common prostitute’ and behaving in a ‘riotous manner’, and 298 to soliciting.

The next most common district was the dockland of Butetown, featuring in 347 hearings, followed by the civic center of Cathays Park with eighty-three. Cardiff’s Chief Constable, James Wilson, expressed his aims to ‘cleanse’ city center spaces in the early 1920s, in order to eradicate ‘vice’ and ‘immorality’ from important commercial thoroughfares. The heavy policing of city centers, commercial thoroughfares and their surrounding areas, forced women selling sex into neighboring districts, notably Butetown, Cathays Park and Temperance Town.

Butetown became the main focus of concern for the police and other observers by the mid-1920s. The dockland had become a space of racial tension in 1919, as it saw some of the most significant race rioting in British ports during the summer of that year. Through the recruitment of wartime shipping labor and demobilization, Butetown’s multiracial and multicultural population increased. The immediate post-war period saw tensions in the area, where 1,200 of its 3,000 seamen were unemployed with at least as many demobilized white soldiers. On 11 June 1919, the return of an excursion containing a number of black men and their white partners attracted a large and hostile crowd. This was followed by stones being thrown and shots fired between the two sides. A week of rioting ensued, which witnessed much violence and damage to property. Three men were killed and dozens were injured, while Cardiff City Council reported damages in excess of £3,000.[3] These riots had a significant impact in shaping perceptions of the space of Butetown and social relations in Cardiff as a whole.

Hand drawn maps 2

Hand-drawn map from Nancie Sharpe’s ‘Report on the Negro Population in London and Cardiff’ (1932), Cardiff Central Library (CCL) LC84:301.185 SHA.

The ‘foreign’ element was an acute source of anxiety for Chief Constable Wilson throughout the interwar years. Amongst the wider racial tensions of ‘alien’ legislation in the mid-1920s, which prohibited undocumented ‘alien coloured seamen’ from working on British ships, Wilson became concerned ‘with the growth in […] Bute Town, of questionable establishments which are styled as “cafés”’ owned by ‘Maltese, Indians, other colored men, and some aliens’. Wilson saw these as ‘a serious menace, not only to the welfare of seamen of all nations who enter this port but to young men and women of this City and its environs, who, through unemployment and vicious tendencies, are attracted to the shipping quarter.’[4]

A central facet of the Chief Constable’s concerns over the Maltese café in particular was that, through acting covertly as a brothel, it attracted and exploited local ‘British’ girls and enabled ‘illicit carnal intercourse between the white and colored races’.[5] For Wilson, these liaisons represented a threat to racial and physical health, and he was perturbed enough to advocate the adoption of laws along the lines of South Africa’s 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited interracial sexual contact. In his view, police forces (as opposed to social reformers) were in an ideal position to act against ‘the fact that our race has become leavened with color strain to such an extent’.[6] While the Chief Constable drew on the language of eugenics and established links between ‘race’ and intellectual inferiority in his arguments, the space of Butetown itself was a central causal factor in his depictions of miscegenation.

hand drawn maps 1

Hand-drawn map from Nancie Sharpe’s ‘Report on the Negro Population in London and Cardiff’ (1932), Cardiff Central Library (CCL) LC84:301.185 SHA.

Notions of space as creating the means for miscegenation and prostitution were prominent in these debates. In particular, the physical boundaries of Butetown served both to reinforce conceptions of prostitution as an aspect of a wider ‘racial problem’, and to bolster ideas of it as being a contagious and alluring locale. For observers like the social investigator Nancie Sharpe, who attempted to rethink the predicament of ‘black’ communities, the areas of the dockland shaped the health and activity of its residents. In her 1932 report financed by the Wesleyan Church, she stressed the spatial concentration of Cardiff’s ‘negro population’ and argued that the loneliness and ‘drab dock environment’ of the area led its men to seek a ‘sexual outlet’ through the ‘many prostitutes’ and ‘low places of amusement’ that were seen to be intrinsic to dockland spaces.[7] She also felt that the docks influenced women to ‘make money out of their sex, and the women native to the port areas see that sex plays a large part in the life [a]round them and get used to the idea of giving it an artificial importance.’[8] Social investigators like Sharpe and Gladys Mary Hall also stressed the allure of the docklands to young girls, arguing that there was a ‘certain mystery’ about the ‘foreign’ space ‘which attracts adventurous white girls like a magnet’.[9] Butetown was thus perceived as a corrupting and contagious space to those who might be seen to lack adequate judgement to negotiate the perceived dangers of its environment.

The British Social Hygiene Council report on British docklands, prompted by concerns about the welfare of seamen in British dockland spaces, was presented at an international conference in London on the mercantile marine in 1935. It emphasized Butetown’s spatial deprivation and the influence this had over residents, and framed venal sexual activities as a facet of Butetown’s ‘dilapidated’ environment. Furthermore, while the report covered Cardiff, Liverpool and London, Cardiff was the only focus when it came to matters of sex. Stressing the spatial concentration of Cardiff’s dockland, Richardson noted that such ‘problems’ were compounded in Butetown given that ‘where all that is spread over many miles in London, dockland is concentrated into one square mile in Cardiff.’ Richardson’s account continued explicitly to frame Butetown as a space of vice and contagion, arguing that its café-brothels attracted ‘not only […] the sailors, but the men from the surrounding country as well’, adding the claim that 88% of venereal disease cases in the port came ‘from abroad’ while in excess of 50% of cases in ‘the mining villages and towns around Cardiff’ could be traced ‘to the so-called cafés in Bute Street’.

Cover 1935 survey

The cover to a 1935 survey commissioned by the British Social Hygiene Council (Women’s Library 3AMS/B/08/03).

While being one of a number of districts that became more associated with prostitution at the courts during the 1920s, for the police and other observers it was the dockland of Butetown that presented the most significant threat. The spatial concentration and segregation of Butetown was crucial in shaping public conceptions of the very nature of its ‘problems’. Stemming from nineteenth-century perceptions of the area as an ‘alien enclave’ of transient seafarers and ‘vulgar common prostitutes’, connections between ‘immoral’ sex and the space of the dockland intensified in the interwar years. Via the impact of the race rioting of 1919, the district’s prostitution came to be seen as part of a ‘racial problem’, with sexual activity entangled in a wider debate over the area’s perceived threat to ‘British’ norms and racial health. The environment of the dockland was seen as shaping the district’s ‘vice’, and this link framed the racialized perceptions of sex and morality, both in Cardiff itself and in wider discussions of port welfare in interwar Britain.

Simon Jenkins is a PhD student at Cardiff University. His thesis examines prostitution in twentieth-century Cardiff, with particular focus on the relationship between prostitution and debates over ‘port welfare’ in the interwar years, and the role of space/place in forming perceptions of commercial sex and how it was regulated. He has recently published an article in Cultural and Social History, which examines miscegenation and prostitution in debates over Cardiff’s dockland.

[1] Women’s Library (WL) 3AMS/B/08/03. Joint Council of BSHC and BCWMM, ‘Social Conditions in Ports and Dockland Areas’ (1935).

[2] See: Western Mail, 1 December 1869, p. 2; 2 December 1869, p. 2. In contrast, the middle-class district of Roath was the ‘prowling place’ of a ‘harlot of the genteeler class’, seen to be ‘less dirty’ than the ‘barefaced and impudent streetwalker’.

[3] For an overview of the Cardiff riots, see: Neil Evans: ‘The South Wales Race Riots of 1919’, Llafur, 3:1 (1980), 5-29; ‘The South Wales Race Riots of 1919: a documentary postscript’, Llafur, 3:4 (1983), 76-88; ‘Regulating the reserve army: Arabs, blacks, and the local state in Cardiff, 1919-45’, Immigrants and Minorities, 4:2 (1985), 68-115; and ‘Across the Universe: Racial Violence and the Post-War Crisis in Imperial Britain’, Immigrants and Minorities, 13:2-3, 59-88.

[4] Glamorgan Archives DCONC/7/7. Report from Chief Constable J. A. Wilson, Cardiff City Police, to the Home Office, 23 September 1927.

[5] WL 3AMS/08/B/02. Wilson, ‘Problems peculiar to the Bute Town area or shipping quarter of the City and Port of Cardiff’, 10 April 1929.

[6] For a detailed discussion of the connections between miscegenation and prostitution in Cardiff, see: Simon Jenkins, ‘Aliens and Predators: Miscegenation, Prostitution and Racial Identities in Cardiff, 1927–47’, Cultural and Social History, 11:4 (2014), 575-596.

[7] Cardiff Central Library LC84:301.185 SHA. Nancie Sharpe, ‘Report on the Negro Population in London and Cardiff’ (1932), p. 33, p. 102.

[8] Nancie Sharpe, ‘Cardiff’s Coloured Population’, The Keys, 1:3 (1934), p. 5.

[9] Gladys Mary Hall, Prostitution: A Survey and a Challenge (London, 1933), p. 48.


  1. David Harley

    <[Glenn] Jordan, an African-American whose father was descended from a slave owner and whose mother was part-Cherokee, was drawn by Butetown's mixed ethnic heritage. What makes it unique, he says, is its level of intermarriage between male immigrants and Welsh women. "The social history of Butetown provides us with valuable lessons about how to live with others – with people of different skin colours, beliefs and ways of life – in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and harmony."


  2. David Harley

    The view of parts of the urban settlement as foci of disease is an old one. It can be seen even before the arrival of syphilis. The influence of the Hippocratic “Airs, Waters, and Places” tradition put slums, poor water supplies, slaughterhouses, and brothels into the same category, as the source of miasmatic pollution. The moral and medical environments overlapped, so that outbreaks of plague led to streetcleaning but also to action against dockland brothels rather than upmarket houses of pleasure. The city had to be purged of its evil odours, cleansed morally as well as environmentally.


  3. Reblogged this on Investigación en Salud Ambiental y Ecotoxicología and commented:
    Interesante estudio sobre Salud Pública que integra tanto consideraciones geográficas como sociológicas. Los enfoques tan multidisciplinares son complejos, pero mejoran muchísimo nuestra comprensión de los procesos que también son complejos.


  4. Pingback: Links for (the evening of) December 22 | AmericanScience

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