Prostitution in Québec City in the 19th Century (Part II)

In the 19th century, a growing and diversified population roamed the streets of Québec City. Commercial activities multiplied thanks to the port, which became an important crossroads. British sailors and soldiers were everywhere. The Irish, fleeing famine, arrived en masse. People poured in from rural areas to toil in the workshops of Lower Town (la Basse-Ville).  

By Marie-Claude Simard

The “coin flambant” was the nexus of prostitution in Québec City in the 19th century. Today it is the corner of la Côte Badelard and rue Lavigueur.

Street Girl, Brothel Girl

In the 19th century, women either worked in a brothel or on the street. Some did both without being attached to a particular establishment. In general, those who walked the streets were older. They were in their 30s or 40s, and sometimes even older than that.

All of them were exposed to violence, illness and alcohol dependence. Those who worked from a brothel were somewhat protected by their madam in exchange for part of the proceeds. Those who walked the streets did so in small groups, but they were far more vulnerable. They often hung out close to the port or near the entrances of the city walls, in shadowy places. Some brought their customers into the woods of the Plains of Abraham. Afterwards, they would sleep in abandoned buildings.

Most brothels were kept by women. The prostitutes and madams tended to be French Canadians and Irish from poor, marginalized families. Proof of that comes from court documents of the era.

The sex trade was particularly lively in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood. In the middle of the 19th century, according to Donald Fyson, a history professor at Laval University, most of this neighborhood’s streets harbored at least one brothel. From 1880 to 1905, about three-quarters of all police raids on brothels took place in this district.

Le coin flambant

As the century drew to a close these brothels tended to concentrate more and more in the “coin flambant” (flaming corner), whose epicentre was Richmond Street (today called Lavigueur) near Badelard. In this sector, prostitution enjoyed a tolerance that came pretty close to absolute protection, exasperated local residents believed. Residents regularly sent complaints and petitions to the civic administration. These “houses of ill repute” were directly attacked by citizens several times.      

At this point, prostitution was so pervasive that it influenced the district’s street names.

One name was a reference to a prominent local madam. That was the former “côte de la Négresse,” now called côte Badelard. According to the Ville de Québec website, “The Côte Badelard goes from Saint-Roch to a part of the St-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood nicknamed le coin flambant because of the prostitution that flourished there in the 19th century. Apparently, a black madam lived on the corner of Richmond, which is today Lavigueur.”

The “Côte de la Négresse” was home to debauchery, drunkenness and attacks of all sorts.

That original street name first appeared on city maps in 1858. Starting in 1864, residents complained about the state of the street and the area’s dangerousness. Renovated several times, this road still exists, but is inaccessible to cars. Its name was changed in 1921 to honor French officer and surgeon Philippe-Louis-François Badelard.

In 1866, the City finally enacted “Le règlement 206 concernant les maisons de prostitution, mal famées, déréglées ou réputées telles” (Bylaw 206 concerning houses of prostitution, ill repute, disorderly or so reputed). Brothels were now forbidden to be located near churches and schools. Their windows had to be entirely covered. No solicitation on streets or in doorways was permitted. Brothel owners were responsible for the behavior of “their girls.” The law provided for $100 fines and jail sentences for delinquent madams. 

First seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 29, no. 4, mai (May) 2021, pages 24 – 27

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