Portsmouth Writers’ Season: William Sutton

S&C presents a short story from Portsmouth author William Sutton, new novel, featuring Victorian detective Sergeant Campbell Lawless, known as Watchman because he was formerly a watchmaker’s apprentice. This short story coincides with the launch of the third in the Lawless series, published by Titan Books.

Lawless and the Three Pompey Piglets

One of the most disgraceful, horrible and revolting practices carried on by Europeans is the importation of girls into England from foreign countries to swell the ranks of prostitution.

Henry Mayhew, “Traffic in Foreign Women”, London Labour and the London Poor, 1862

Rana’s letter

Dear Sergeant Lawless,

I throw myself upon your mercy. I am an honourable woman, fallen into ignominy, through no fault of my own. Where once I travelled the fine cities of the Grand Tour with my wealthy family, now I live days of disrepute and nights of shame. I have read in Mr Dickens’ paper of your prosecutions of the London netherworld; I humbly beg that you turn your detective abilities on the ignoble practices perpetrated here, in Portsmouth, where many a shapely vessel is shipwrecked and sunken in the mire.

I grew up in Bombay, but my father’s mercantile dealings brought us to Amsterdam, where we enjoyed a social life of the highest order among the broad-minded Dutch. We travelled often, and luxuriously. Summering in the resort of Le Touquet, I so delighted in walking by the seafront that my family allowed me to promenade unaccompanied. Among the civilised holidayers, my father had little fear for my safety, thinking me still a girl, while I thought myself a woman and ready for adventure. How misguided we were.

A fine madame engaged me in conversation in a cafe. After some manoeuvring and bush-beating, she asked me if I knew London. She happened to be scouting for tutors and governesses on behalf of certain reputable houses. My father had kept us from England, demonising it as a pit of immorality, where revolutionaries and assassins consorted with philanderers and home-wreckers. I longed to see England, and told her so, though London sounded foggy and dark, and I should miss the sea. What good fortune, said she, that she also knew of a house in Portsmouth. The salary was high, the house comfortable.

“Just be good enough to sign this agreement, ma chère. Merely a matter of form. Sign without fear or trembling.”

The coffee and sea air had me in high spirits. Without reading the half sheet of foolscap, for I had no wish to offend her, I wrote my name. We arranged to meet at the dock the next day. I knew my parents would never allow me to go, but when I returned a year hence, with my purse full of gold and my heart of new experiences, I hoped they would forgive me. Father always said we learn most by seeing how others live.

Aboard the steamer, I got to know two others of the madame’s coterie bound for Portmsouth: Flea, a housemaid from the Basque country, and a Walloon cook, named Ladybird. We should all be working in different parts of the madame’s establishment. They, poor things, were as deluded as I.

We were transferred to a vessel anchored at a buoy in the middle of the Solent. A fearsome naval officer named Wolfe oversaw us aboard a rowboat. As we entered the harbour, I wept, for it put me in mind of my childhood home, Bombay. One of the sailors told me the city was nicknamed Pompey for that very reason; he hoped he might tell me more in his visits to Madame Rosabella’s; he dropped us on Spice Island, giving a peculiar wink to the madame.

The house was roomy and elegant; my bedroom compact, comfortable, and better furnished than I expected: red curtains, clean linen, a marble wash-stand and a bidet, a big four-post bed with handsome hangings of red damask; and a large cheval-glass.

I thanked the madame for her consideration. She began to laugh.

“Did I not say you would be well-treated?”

Need I expatiate, sir, on the horrors that ensued? After bitter struggles, I was soon enough conquered. Ruined, I was inconsolable. I begged to be sent home. My writing desk is filled with letters I composed to beg their help, but never sent, for I knew my father would revile me in mythis pitiable state.

Fool that I am, I have signed my life away. My friends, Flea and Ladybird, endure the same fate, but are kept in different houses, so as to demoralise us. Some customers are kind; but sailors have filthy appetites, even officers. If we behave, we are allowed the privilege of walking the walls, to attract trade; I ask the gods that I shall not end among those syphilitic veterans of Venus, embracing hurriedly in the shadowy arches. We are always watched, and warned that, should we flee, the big bad Wolfe will catch us, who governs the whole operation, and huffs and puffs at Madame Rosabella, threatening to blow down all our houses.

Help us, Sergeant. Liberate us.

Rana Cawnpoor (here known as Frog)


By all the gods, show this letter to nobody, unless you wish my swift extinction.


Narrative of Sergeant Lawless

The waters glittered beneath the rickety platform, as I stepped from the train at Portsmouth Harbour, come in search of a Frog, a Flea and a Ladybird.

The quality from first class stepped on toward the waiting ferry, but many a well-to-do child in little Lord Fauntleroy garb tugged a father’s arm, begging a farthing to throw from the precarious platform. In the mud below, knee-deep in the grime, waited a legion of urchins. These mudlarks, with acrobatic tumbles, scooped up the coins with a genteel bow, doubtless trumping my income as detective sergeant of £58 per annum.

It was low tide, and the smell eclipsed the town’s aromas of biscuits and breweries. I screwed up my nose, tugging down my borrowed sailor’s cap, as I espied a boatload of women being rowed ashore.

The stationmaster noted my curiosity. “Seeking aught, sir? There’s fresh piglets ashore. Fine ham on Spice Island, if that’s your taste.”

I glanced at the boat, and regarded him. “I like an exotic dish.”

“Madame Rosabella’s, then.” He winked. “She cooks a wild boar, she does.”

Through narrow streets, I followed his directions into Portsea. A stroll past the fish market, fishwives braying and dockworkers catcalling. Over drawbridges, past the Ordnance wall, into back alleys where venality and fleshly indulgence were offered me from every window. The brass plaque of a Philosophical Institution was tarnished by time, but the bill alongside was fresh, offering prize money for slave-captures, if only fiddlers, midshipmen and quartermasters would sign up for HMS Procrastination:


for the Gallant British Lads.


Increase of the Royal Marines, Portsmouth Division.

The Standard is Lowered and the Bounty Increased.

They serve both by Land and Sea.

40 to 50 POUNDS per man to spend as they like.

Many return from abroad to receive £100 in Pay and Prize Money

and may purchase their discharge with plenty left to enjoy themselves.

It did not take long to understand that Spice Island was not merely named after import goods. Down every alleyway stood girls painted for action.

One raised her brows, addressing me drunkenly. “Is the ship in?”

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“I’d say the ship’s in.” She glanced unapologetically at my breeches. “But needs work, in the dock, as you might say.” She pronounced these innuendoes without moistening her lips or showing her ankle, or any of the wiles I had seen in London’s Haymarket.

I found Madame Rosabella’s, on Bateman Alley, besieged by Russian sailors. “Rom! Rom!” A Cossack monk, in bearskin cap, long velvet gown and top boots, bolted his rum as a juggler swallows fire. “Madame! Rom, rom!”

My careful demand for an exotic piglet led to the room of Letitia. This blonde Belgian beauty, still rejoicing in the plumpness of youth, also had hangings of red damask around her bed; between bidet and wash-stand stood a large inviting tub; the cheval-glass, which could be turned in any direction, stood just at the level of the bed, so that sitting or lying you might see yourself reflected in it.

In broken French, I established that I preferred to try her storytelling rather than her horizontal talents. Overcoming a certain incredulity, Letitia told of her enticement to Madame Rosabella’s. Undoubtedly, she was the Ladybird mentioned in the letter.

I paid and, without risking mention of Rana (here known as Frog), left town by the next train.

I drew up my Guernsey frock collar, and pushed my way into The Benbow’s Head, where Commissioner Fox of the Portsmouth Police was to meet me. On this, my second visit, the Portsmouth docks were still thronging with Russians: big ugly men of a burnt hue and a faithful look, a mix of swarthy, Scandinavian and Tartar, their ship’s name on the ribbon of their hat, knives dangling at their sides.

Armed with a pint of Long’s Southsea Stout, I lurked outside, eyeing the waters that seemed to insinuate themselves beneath the very streets of the town. The tide was high, and it looked as if the buildings were floating, like islands, upon the shimmering harbour. I had brought along Molly, an urchin associate in my occasional employ. Versed in all manner of underworld argot, she would be better placed than I to dig out secrets from the harbour grime; I could see her, at work already, exchanging quips beneath the Dockyard walls, winning the confidence of the mudlarks.

Nobody asked who I was or where I was headed. This was a place where men of all stations gathered, without question, for their last taste of English beer.

Twenty minutes late, up rolled a rickety chaise in the latest style. The Commissioner, like a Persian Emperor, declined to descend until his constable had opened the door and brushed straw on to the pavement. Down he swept and into the pub, nodding and waving to all assembled; and I had requested a quiet meeting. I kept my head down, and gave no greeting; for there could be no swifter way to be known by the city’s debauched and criminal element. I needed my anonymity. Instead, I observed the Commissioner lapping up the benefits of his position: attentive barmaids, bigwigs and braggarts paying their respects and, in at least two cases, giving moneys.

This, then, was the way of the police. The Customs House and the Navy Police had equally assured me that there could be no trafficking of women in such a well-monitored port. And yet, stood between The Fortitude Tap and The Receiving House for the Drowned, I saw with the naked eye rowboats plying to and from the Spit Sand buoy, with cargoes of women, just as Rana’s letter had described.

This time, I asked Madame Rosabella for a swarthier girl. She escorted me to the next door house, where I was presented to the Basque, by name Felicia, or Flea; a fetching figure of a woman, but I was disappointed that she spoke not a word of English, nor even of French.

“If it’s talk you’re wanting,” said Madame Rosabella, “you’re in the wrong house. My specialism is foreigners and gypsies, and not one of them speaks the Queen’s English.”

I did not need to accentuate my Scots brogue. “No more do I.” I fingered in my pocket Rana’s strange letter, looking around the opulent brothel: the tired grandfather clock, the new range blacked with lead polish; everywhere trinkets, green glass, an ornamental cat, the harmonium at which a spindly girl sang Thomas Adams’ Burlesque Quadrille.

The madame followed my inquisitive eye suspiciously. “Are you a mutton shunter?”

“What if I were? Don’t policemen have desires too?” I laughed. “You need have no fear. And if I repair your clock mechanism, will you not find me a more outlandish girl? Have you no Persians? Or a Hindoo, perhaps?”

And that is how, for an increased fee, I gained my introduction to Rana Cawnpoor (here known as Frog), the mahajarah’s princess of Madame Rosabella’s third house. Well-groomed, simply dressed, a satin saree draping her sylphan shape and comely kettledrums; bright gold garters, three quarters of an inch broad, holding up black silk stockings; her hair was black, her eyes dark hazel. It was easy to see how she made men rampant with desire, though she was barely eighteen. Of the anguish apparent in her letter, I saw little trace, as she retold her tale cheerfully enough.

I confess I was a little in love with all of them, the blonde Belgian, the full-bosomed Basque and this Hindoo sorceress. Any red-blooded man would have been, though he might not readily admit it, competing in his daydreams as to whose favour he would prefer to win.

I produced from my pocket the fateful envelope and held up her letter as a talisman.

“You? The johnny darby?” Blinking rapidly, she swooned, rather deliberately, into my arms. “But where is your bulls-eye?”

“Detectives carry no lantern,” I said setting her delicately on the leather chair. “I have my billy, if you need convincing.”

At the sight of my police truncheon, she became most attentive. “You may need it, if they have rumbled you.” She leaned close to me and whispered. “If they should summon Wolfe.”

Continually listening at the door, to see if we were overheard, she fitfully apprised me of the details she had omitted from her letter. How were girls smuggled in here, circumventing the efficient customs house? Why, Madame Rosabella had a deal with a commodore or two. Navy ships could not carry women, or rather, not officially. Officers’ wives, however, had the right to come aboard in harbour. In return for certain favours, captains ferried women to and fro, outwith the remit of the customs and the harbour police, endorsing a modern servitude beneath the very noses of the naval police. The point of transfer was HMS So-and-So, anchored at Spit Sand buoy, supposedly, to plumb the waters; for one of Palmerston’s ‘Follies’ was to sink its foundations there (that mighty ring of forts encircling the Dockyard to ward off Napoleonic pilfering and pummelling, an excessive deterrent for which the nation is still paying).

I promised Rana I would return, soon, and with the force to see the thing through. Making good my debt to Madame Rosabella—the grandfather clock needed the slightest adjustment to the pendulum arm—I left, and precipitously, for I felt the madame’s eyes upon me.

What did the beguiling Rana want? She wanted to be liberated from Madame Rosabella, the bawd responsible for her slavery; and she wanted the madame punished with the full fury of the law. Stop one of the boats sent out into the harbour, check the credentials of these naval wives, and my job would be done. That was her plan. But such an intervention might prove little, with so many palms so very greasy; I must prevent Madame Rosabella denying her culpability.

I am tall, and broad enough as policemen go. Rarely in my rounds of London do I feel physically intimidated, even south of the river. But within five minutes of leaving Madame Rosabella’s, I was ill-at-ease. Down every alley flooded brutes and animals, stoutly booted, shouldering leather bags, every doorway disgorging wives and children to welcome their master. I fled, under the shadows of the old city wall; but as the stampede continued, I took the chance to ask an old washerwoman what was afoot.

“Home.” She drew her sleeve across her face. If her intention was to clear it of mucus, this had rather the opposite effect. “From work.”

“All at the same time?”

She looked at me as if I were mad. “Dockyard, in’t it, you dinlow.”

Too late did I notice I had fled in quite the wrong direction.

My mind was taken up with Rana’s tale. I believed her. Yet something disconcerted me. It was no surprise that she had turned up the heat of her anguish, once she realised I was her knight in shining armour; but I knew several Indians, and her accents sounded more Hibernian than Hindoo.

Not until I reached a stretch of barren beach did I stop. Grand vessels alongside Spit Sands buoy glimmered on their sides, canvasses flying in the wind; boats flittered between them, butterflies among sea-eagles. The mist was descending; the Isle of Wight was already obscured; a foghorn sonata sounded.

I walked on, thinking of Molly, amid that stampede. In such streets, a young girl all alone was in danger, even one as savvy as Molly; among these dockers and sailors, her boyish garb would give her little protection. I regretted involving her in this. How relieved I was to see her strolling across the Common toward me.

“I scarpered, Watchman,” she said, “I don’t mind telling you, lest they shopped me in as a spy. Them mudlarks down The Hard, and them dirty Gunwharf grubbers, they took my queries quite amiss. I reckon as the whole city’s in cahoots.” She tugged at my coat, her eyes wide. “In league against us. But fear not. I’ve found you someone with a sharp eye. Someone who’s not in colluding with this city’s fearful masonic leagues. Look.”

I blinked at the shoreline ahead, unable to credit my eyes.

Two sea-monsters were emerging from the waves. They squirted playful jets of water over the fearless man who led them ashore.

“Sanger’s Circus.” Molly grinned. The red and white marquees dotted Southsea Common. “Elephants’ bath time.”

Mr Sanger, a gentle, dapper circus man, clearly fond of his beasts, confirmed what the Hindoo girl had told me; but his version darkened the waters.

The girls were coerced from abroad, redistributed at Spit Sands, to outwit the customs; then not only dispatched to local brothels, but sold to the highest bidders in a secret nefarious auction house on the hill. He urged me to catch the blackguard kidnappers and throw them in the Tower of London.

Why should he wish to inform on these practices? The web of secrecy was tight. Had he no fear of reprisals?

Because those blackguard villains had stolen his own little daughter. Back when she was only a child, and wandered too far from her caravan, as every little gypsy girl is wont to. They had stolen his little Frog.

At Portsmouth Harbour station, the fine matrons battered aside sea salts to get to the Isle of Wight ferry.

I caught the stationmaster’s eye.

“Find yourself some good crackling, did ye?”

“I did.” I moved closer, speaking softly. “But if I wanted to buy a piglet of my own? A lovely fresh piglet.”

He eyed my sailor’s cap appraisingly. “Come into some prize money, have we?”

I touched my cap. “Her Majesty’s been generous.”

“You’ll want to go up the hill. Fort Nelson. Ask to see their piglets.”

Fort Nelson was the most complete of Palmerston’s Follies upon the hill overlooking the city. It took several weeks of planning, and negotiating with admirals, through the Prince of Wales, to have the harbour watched, to follow the women freshly arrived from the continent and herded up to the fort, to demand an instantaneous inspection. We unearthed an auction room in the tunnels beneath the fort: a luxuriously furnished bordello, with adjoining dormitories, where the girls had their halfway house. There they were paraded before assorted bawd madames and wealthy gentlemen, come from as far afield as London and Liverpool to make their sordid purchases.

Several officers were reprimanded, though none was ever gaoled. Which galled me.

We turned our attention to the houses of Spice Island. At every turn, I expected the wrath of the police Commissioner; instead Fox sought a transfer to Hartlepool. At every turn, I expected the mysterious Wolfe to materialise and defy us. By the time we arrested Madame Rosabella, I had armed myself with pistols to be ready for him. We closed the bordello down without a shot. I began to believe that Wolfe was an invention, to scare the little piglets into conformity. Who authorised and organised the trade remains unclear.

From our intervention, little changed. The police Commissioner used his naval contacts to set up a new trafficking line in Hartlepool. The Portsmouth traffic doubtless continues through other more clandestine routes. This is the normal state of affairs in harbour towns; two Inspectors at the Yard wondered why I wasted my time on it.

I went to liberate the women; but my three beauties had vanished. I drew it out of the madame, rather roughly.

The three girls had misbehaved, and been dispatched to a private asylum, between Fratton station and the Canal. I went forthwith, bringing representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Women.

Letitia the Walloon was traumatised; but she recovered. She returned to Wallonia, where her friends were reluctant to believe the tale she told them. Thrown on her own resources, without a character, and her mind disturbed, she found it impossible to secure reputable employ, and had at last recourse to prostitution; so hard it is to return to the right, when once we stray upon the path of dalliance.

Felicia the Basque resisted with imaginative violence, she had to be sedated and restrained. The nurses would not hear of her being freed from her straightjacket; and with her papers in order, we had no jurisdiction.

Rana, the Frog, had been prey to the caprices of the energetic surgeon who owned the asylum. He reported, quite at ease, his experiments upon her. Following the latest theorems, he had run electrical currents through her cerebellum, aiming to expunge her tendencies toward vice and immorality. He had success at first. She wept, and spoke lovingly of her family, alongside incoherent accounts of acrobats and elephants.

I said nothing. The picture was clear enough. Rana was no Hindoo princess, but rather the lost itinerant circus girl, Frog, whose family had no idea their lost darling was so nearby. Whether coerced, or simply run away, from the circus into a more debased trade, she had invented for herself a past to rival her glamorous colleagues. Given to reading sensational news and detective stories, she had written to me in a fit of romanticism. How she basked in the role of dispossessed damsel, just as she thrived as a courtesan. Having fallen into the trade so young, she was innocent of the gravity of great affairs. She had no intention of overthrowing the whole trade. She just wished to free herself, and her friends, from the tyranny of Madame Rosabella’s; perhaps they hoped to take over the bawd house, or to run away, and invent new characters for themselves. Instead, she was brought to this pass.

The doctor blinked. “Sadly, after the third treatment, you see, she became depressed, and somehow squeezed through the bars of her window. Astonishing, really. As if she were a trained acrobat. Straight into the canal, poor thing.”

This story also appears in Portsmouth Fairy Tales [for Grown-Ups]. William Sutton would like to thank Tom Harris, Matt Wingett, Tessa Ditner, Zella Compton, the Portsmouth City Museum, and Caroline Morrison at the Victory Museum in the Historic Dockyard for their help with this story.