The Adelaide Red Light District: Then and Now

Interested in the why Hindley Street has a reputation for being Adelaide’s red light district?

Though the closest thing to street hookers you can find these days on Hindley Street is in a gentleman’s club, the area was once the centre of prostitution for the city. Hindley Street is still the centre of the adult services industry in Adelaide but 100 years ago you could find working women plying their trade in hotels, theatres and on the streets.

In our guide to how the red light district of Adelaide has changed over the years you can find a brief history of prostitution in the 20 minute city.

Birth of the city

The capital of South Australia was born in 1836 in the seaside suburb known as Glenelg. Adelaide grew rapidly from its birthplace, north to the deep water harbour of what is known as Port Adelaide and inland along the Karrawirra Parri.

In the mid to late 19th century, prostitution was rife on the streets of Adelaide with the City of Churches having more hookers per capita than Sydney. In common with a lot of cities, the first red light district in Adelaide grew around where the work was; the city’s port.

Port Adelaide, now a district some 14km northwest of the CBD, was the main commercial hub for the city and street hookers were known to keep regular hours touting for business. As the city spread south and the area we recognise today as the centre of the city became developed and prostitution followed.

red light adelaide history
Birth of a city, Port Adelaide in 1850. Image via State Library of SA.

Initially, it was the area around Light Square that gained a reputation for street hookers and brothels, as this report from The Register shows:

“Can you inform me how long the neighbourhood of Weymouth [sic] Street and Light Square are to be infested with brothels, and when the inhabitants are to be rid of the music, dancing, revelry and the mob of drunken blacklegs who idle about there all day and live on plunder and prostitution at night?”

The number of ‘pestiferous’ dens in this area gave the location a reputation as a den of vice with commentators of the time looking for an answer to this ‘great social evil’. As is often the case, public pressure forced the removal of some brothels but merely moved many of them along to the next location; Hindley Street. An area already popular with drinking establishments the street was an obvious migration with most hookers knowing there to be a plethora of potential johns.

Residents were still unhappy….

“It is about time that some means were adopted to prevent young girls parading Hindley Street all through the day with the most unblushing effrontery, sometimes drunk or nearly so, but at all times appearing in such guise that, taken together with their conduct, there is no mistaking the life they follow…”

By the 1880’s there were two classes of hookers working the streets and both within the Hindley Street area. The first, and ‘better’ quality of prostitute would frequent hotels like the Theatre Royal with a favourite spot being colloquially known as the ‘Saddling Paddock’. Wearing white gloves and red satin dresses, these women would service a higher class of men. Working class men could rely on the services of the women who lived in Boddington’s Row; a cluster of houses on Hindley Street which backed on to, what is now known as, Phillip Street. Demand for services usually peaked at around 7pm as men made their way home from work.

red light adelaide history
The Theatre Royal was a popular haunt for high class hookers in 1880. Image via State Library of SA.

An account of the day made by an amateur inspector, reports of Boddington’s Row:

“In the principal room…, were several men lounging about and three women, one of whom, a young creature apparently not more than 20 years of age was smoking a common black clay pipe. In the close evil smelling boxes were some men lying in drunken unconsciousness on the filthy beds.”

Residents of the area regularly complained to the authorities and a cycle of the women being turned onto the streets would occur. Despite the continued harassment by both the police and society in general, brothels still flourished in the city. Both a constant demand and a steady supply made (as it does today) prostitution an important economy.

Changes in legislation

In 1907, it was reported that 103 brothels were operating in Adelaide. Due to residents complaining about the value of their houses being affected by the unwelcome trade, the Suppression of Brothels Bill was introduced. A further piece of legislation, the Venereal Diseases Act of 1920 which threatened harsh penalties for knowingly permitting anyone with VD to occupy or use a premises for prostitution, had a further impact on the industry.

Red light area of Adelaide: Today

Despite these changes, the Hindley Street area remained a popular haunt for street prostitutes of both classes into the twentieth century and still has a reputation for being a red-light district today.

Though soliciting in public and brothels is illegal in Adelaide at the moment, Hindley Street is still associated with the sex trade. These days adult services are performed via adult massage, strip shows and gentleman’s clubs with sex not being legally available for sale. Having said that, there are places in Adelaide that you can still pick up prostitutes or get a happy ending to your massage. There are also estimated to be around 1000 working women in and around the city offering escort services.

strip club hindley street
Hindley Street today has no brothels but plenty of adult action.

Though there is no modern day equivalent to the red light areas of historical Adelaide, Hindley Street is still centrally located to be able to sample what is on offer in the city.

You can read our guide to what adult services you can find in modern Hindley Road here.



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