At the turn of the twentieth century, prostitution was a bustling industry in Victoria. Men vastly outnumbered the women in the city, and brothels thrived. Broad Street was one hub where brothels competed for business, and Herald Street was the centre of the city’s de facto red light district.
One prominent madam and brothel owner, Stella Carroll, was particularly successful at her trade, managing the most elegant establishments worked by only the finest girls. The friend of liberal-minded politicians and violent lovers, Carroll was famously adorned with diamonds and dressed in hand-made lace gowns from Ireland, along with body-sculpting undergarments that gave her a regal stature. She was a tough business woman who was known from San Francisco to Victoria.
Carroll purchased her first brothel at the age of only 25 from her friend Vera Ashton. Having endured a difficult childhood and two failed marriages, she was fiercely determined never to return to her earlier way of life. Ashton had been intending to sell the brothel to another woman, Marval Conn, but when Conn died suddenly, Carroll made an offer.
The brothel was on Broad Street, and Carroll’s new landlord, Simeon Duck, was a local politician who had a liberal attitude towards prostitution. At the time, Broad Street was a particular hub, with seven brothels in that street alone.
Carroll’s business was a success. Her girls, known to be among the finest, paid her rent, and she made her money off liquor sales. Police raids were common, but this was merely a necessary business expense, and business thrived.
Record of these establishments can be seen in tax documents: prostitutes often officially dubbed themselves “dressmakers,” and indication of this trade, along with the record of police raids, helps scholars to determine which of these ladies were really making dresses and which were making something else.
With Duck’s support, Carroll had minor interference from local authorities, but when he died in 1905, things got tougher. In 1906, a new reformist mayor and rising public distaste for prostitution forced Carroll to agree to move her establishment to Herald Street.
Despite her move, police raids increased, and she again relocated her business to Gorge Road, where she purchased Rockwood, a sumptuous waterfront mansion. Decorating it with oriental rugs, velvet drapes, finely upholstered stools, and fresh flowers, she also hired a pianist and acquired a cylinder phonograph.
Public opinion, however, continued to rise against Carroll. Some of her practices were frowned upon––she was known to occasionally hit her girls and she sometimes had violent lovers, one of whom shot her in the leg, which then had to be amputated. With the arrival of Prohibition in the 1920s, times became even tougher. To make matters worse, her longtime lawyer, Todd Aikman, betrayed her. He took on a position as Saanich Prosecutor, meaning that with his intimate knowledge of her business secrets he had the power to do her serious legal harm.
Carroll was finally forced to return to San Francisco, where she at last married a more gentle-tempered man. Her sorrows continued, however: he suddenly died. Her story stands as a testament to the difficult life of a woman in the nineteenth century.
While Rockwood burned in 1921, Stella’s first establishments still stand at Broad Street, in the Duck Block, and at Herald Street, where the building is now a Youth Hospitality Training Centre.