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London's Sinful Secret
The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London's Georgian Age
By Dan Cruickshank
St. Martins Press Copyright © 2009 Dan Cruickshank
All rights reserved.
The Nature of the Sex Industry
During the eighteenth century London had more prostitutes plying their trade on the open streets, over a greater proportion of the city, than could be found anywhere else in Europe. Prostitution was rife in Paris and in Amsterdam, but there it was more discreet, controlled and contained. This startling difference, and especially the quantities of patrolling street prostitutes, earned London an evil reputation.
A book published in 1734 evokes a memorable image of London street life:
When a person unacquainted with the Town passes at night thro' any of our Principal Streets, he is apt to wonder whence the vast body of Courtezans, which stand ready, on small Purchase, to obey the Laws of Nature, and gratify the Lust of every drunken Rake-hell, can take its Rise. Where the Devil do all those B — ches come from? being a common Fleet Street phrase ... when each revolving Evening sends them up from White-Chapel to Charing-Cross.
The publication is called Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation and its author – apparently – a French Dominican named Father Poussin who is said to have 'resided six and thirty years in Great Wild-Street, near Drury Lane'. The book claims to offer 'a view of the Present State of Fornication, Whorecraft and Adulteration in Great Britain' and was 'inscribed to the Bona-Roba's ... of Covent-Garden; and to the Band of Petticoat Pensioners'. So popular was this publication that it was reissued, almost verbatim, fifteen years later under the title Satan's Harvest Home, with the contents being described as the collected 'memoirs' of an 'intimate Comrade' of 'the Hon. Jack Snr'.
The title page of Satan's Harvest Home expands the lists of subjects covered to include 'Procuring, Pimping' as well as 'Sodomy' – as homosexual activity was generally termed, and 'the Game of Flatts' – as sex between women was specifically called and which John Cleland had described so memorably the year before in the early pages of his novel Fanny Hill, when the eponymous heroine comes under the hands of her 'wanton' tutoress Phoebe Ayres. Still innocent, Fanny recounts that Phoebe 'turned to me, embraced and kiss'd me with great eagerness. This was new, this was odd ...'
Pretty Doings goes out of its way to present London as the 'Sodom' of the age, the epicentre of iniquity – but was its author accurate? As with most complex subjects there is, perhaps, no objective truth, no absolute reality – most observers would have seen and felt things at least slightly differently according to their sensibilities, position in society, point of view and place of habitation within London. It is, however, possible to put the lurid scenes evoked by Pretty Doings and Satan's Harvest Home in context, to see what other contemporary observers wrote. If Daniel Defoe is to be trusted as an observer, and most would agree that he is, then this image of London's streets in the early eighteenth century was probably no exaggeration. In 1728 Defoe had written, 'Go all the world over and you'll see no such impudence as in the streets of London, which makes many foreigners give in general our women a bad character from the vile specimens they meet from one end of town to the other.'
It is interesting that Defoe evoked the opinions of 'foreigners' because, to judge by contemporary accounts, many were indeed shocked by London's streets. Their descriptions are particularly useful because they recorded sights that most Londoners – with the exception of such astute observers as Defoe – must have taken for granted and, as commonplaces, regarded as hardly worth talking or writing about. Many accounts by visitors suggest that Pretty Doings did not present an exaggerated or sensational view of London's street life. For example, Baron Zacharias von Uffenbach, a German who visited London in 1710, was struck 'by the great quantity of Moors of both sexes ... hawking their bottoms round the Strand and Covent Garden', while César de Saussure in the second half of the 1720s observed of London that 'the corruption of morals is very great [and] even shows itself in broad daylight [when] lords and other rich people go in daylight to houses of debauchery without attempting to make a secret of it. An Englishman, who knows his London very well, assured me there are more than 40,000 courtesans in the town.'
Friedrich Wilhelm von Schütz, in his Briefe über London (Letters from London), published in Hamburg in 1792, was more than shocked by what he saw, he was overwhelmed:
... so soon as the streets are lamp-lighted ... they begin to swarm with street girls who, well got-up and well dressed, display their attractions. Certain it is that no place in the world can be compared with London for wantonness ... the number of evening and night prowlers is so unbelievable.
Defoe's opinion of the London sex trade was also shared by some of his compatriots. Jonas Hanway, the philanthropist, traveller and great reformer of morals, observed in 1758 that 'there is, I believe, no city in the world, where such rank enormities prevail, as in this great metropolis [where] vice is become so cheap ... among many common people, that it is hard to say how far these acts of uncleanness may be carried'. As far as Hanway could see the ordinary 'inhabitants of London are more abandoned than their fore-fathers were, and among the higher classes, many refinements in vice, and various methods of carrying on the trade of lust, are introduced'.
One London law officer who took prostitution very seriously indeed was Saunders Welch, a friend of the novelist, playwright and magistrate Henry Fielding and an acquaintance of William Hogarth. Welch, high constable of Holborn and from 1755 assistant to Henry Fielding's half-brother and successor Sir John Fielding at the Bow Street magistrates court, was the author of a most intriguing and informative plan for the reformation of London's sex industry. Entitled A Proposal to Render Effectual a Plan to Remove the Nuisance of Common Prostitutes from the Streets of this Metropolis, and published in 1758, the document launched its argument in a sensational manner that echoed the tone of Pretty Doings:
Prostitutes swarm in the streets of this metropolis to such a degree, and bawdy-houses are kept in such an open and public manner, to the great scandal of our civil polity, that a stranger would think that such practices, instead of being prohibited, had the sanction of the legislature, and that the whole town was one general stew.
Welch calculated that if all the London women 'whose sole dependence is upon prostitution', then 3,000 would be a number that 'falls far short of the truth' (at a time when London's population was 675,000, this was a very modest total when compared with other eighteenth-and nineteenth-century estimates). Like Defoe, Welch attempted to shame his fellow Londoners by asking them to imagine how their city of rampant vice must appear to outsiders:
What idea must foreigners have of our policy, when in almost every street they see women publickly exposing themselves at the windows and doors of bawdy-houses, like beasts in a market for public sale, with language, dress, and gesture too offensive to mention; and find themselves tempted (it may be said assaulted) in the streets by a hundred women between Temple-Bar and Charing Cross, in terms shocking to the ear of modesty.
The cause of the trouble was, according to Welch, 'a general depravity of morals, a constant supply of sharpers [cheats] and robbers to infest our streets, and a train of other evils [that flow] from minds depraved by lust and enervated by debauchery.' Gloomily, he concluded that since 1753 (when he had written on the related subject of robbery):
... the evil has increased; prostitutes of a higher rank, and gayer turn, some from Bawdy-houses, others who have private lodgings of their own, publickly ply in the Strand and Fleet-Street at noon day; and except some parliamentary remedy be applied to stop this evil, it will not only be impossible for modest woman to walk the streets, as these harlots take every opportunity to affront and insult them, but an universal debauchery will also spread among our youth.
Welch's campaigning had little effect, for when the young Newcastle-born engraver Thomas Bewick arrived in London in 1776, harlots still held dominion over many of the city's major streets. Bewick recorded that what 'constantly hurt my feelings, was the seeing of such a number of fine looking women engaged in the wretched business of Street Walking'. The multitude of street-walkers in the centre of the city is confirmed by the Gentleman's Magazine. In April 1795 it observed:
... the public streets at the close of day ... are scarcely passable from the interruption occasioned by females, who, since first loss of virtue, and character, have gradually sunk into the grossest vices, and stand ready to draw in the inexperienced youth, or those of more advanced years whose reason has received a temporary shock from the intoxication of the bottle.
Schütz made a close study of the way in which London's street prostitutes operated:
Many of them stroll the streets alone and it must be said to their credit that they are fairly discreet. Either they silently offer one their arm or make use of all sorts of formulas, such as, for instance, 'I should so much like to marry you', 'Your love would make me happy' ... a single repulsing word is enough to drive these street ladies away, or it suffices even to pass silently by; but one must be careful not to move the right arm, as this sign may be taken for consent. Many, however, are not content with soliciting, but try to force their affections on one. It is difficult to get rid of these, as sometimes four, five and more, in competition, attach themselves to one.
Another German visitor – the historian and writer Johann Wilhelm Daniel von Archenholz – made an almost clinical study of London's street life and sex industry. In his A Picture of England, written in about 1780 although not published in England until 1789, Archenholz recorded that: 'So soon as it becomes dark these girls [professional prostitutes], well turned-out, in all seasons flood the principal streets and squares of the town.' Displaying the enquiring mind of a social historian, he further investigated the workings of the trade:
Many go on the man-hunt in borrowed clothes which they hire by the day from the matrons, who for safety's sake pay another woman to follow the huntress continuously on foot in order to see that she does not run away with the clothes. If the girl makes no capture and comes home without money, she will be ill-treated and must go hungry. They therefore accost passers-by and take them either home or to taverns. They can be seen standing in groups. The best class of prostitutes, who live independently, are content to go on their own way 'til they are spoken to.
The boisterous but also beleaguered behaviour of London's street prostitutes was confirmed by an anonymous and evangelical author who in 1796 stated that 'it is generally allowed, that no persons are more miserable or mischievous than those unhappy women, who disgrace our streets, and subsist on the wages of iniquity'. This observer seems to have been particularly worried by the idea that these 'young women' were 'prepared for every enormity' and that 'having been seduced, deserted and banished from their friends, are frequently left without other resources than that of entering the recesses of debauchery, the general consequences of which are increasing wickedness, a ruined constitution, a premature death, and, as far as we can see, everlasting destruction'.
Archenholz, while pondering London's prostitutes, added an extra – and rather intriguing – ingredient: 'Many married women even who live in distant parts of town, come to the Westminster district where they are unknown and carry on the profession, either from vice or need.'
This loaded observation reflects much late-eighteenth-century discussion about the nature and meaning of prostitution. Archenholz is referring, in a most judgemental way, to a type of middle-class woman much spoken about at the time and termed a 'demi-rep' – meaning of doubtful morality and so 'demi' (i.e. half) respectable – who from time to time was alleged to escape the constraints of respectable married life and enjoy intrigues of a sexual nature, in pursuit of pleasure, profit or – on occasion – a delightful, dangerous and thrilling mix of the two. Archenholz completes his account by painting a particularly lurid scene: 'At midnight the girls leave the streets and old beggar women of 60 and more come out of their hiding places in order to serve drunken men returning heated from their revels, who must satisfy their animal needs blindly, as it were "at the gallop".'
Individual observations about the large scale of London's sex industry are supported by various overviews that were attempted during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, despite all the attempts at reform and reduction through legislation, London's sex trade was apparently conducted on a gigantic scale. In 1795 Patrick Colquhoun, a police magistrate, calculated that there were 50,000 prostitutes of various regular and irregular types in London which then had a population of nearly one million. Colquhoun was a native of Glasgow, where he had worked as a merchant and magistrate. After serving as Lord Provost, he moved to London in 1791. There in 1792 he was appointed a police magistrate, based first at the Worship Street office and then at Queen Square until his retirement in 1818.
During his first three years of work in London Colquhoun was so amazed and alarmed by what he saw that he felt compelled to extrapolate his personal experiences into a citywide portrait of crime and debauchery. In 1796 he published – initially anonymously – A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis: Containing a Detail of the various Crimes and Misdemeanours By which Public and Private Property and Security are, at present, injured and endangered. As with Welch nearly forty years earlier, having analysed the problem and revealed its huge scale Colquhoun suggested 'remedies for their Prevention'.
Colquhoun's Treatise was a pioneering work (one historian has described him as the 'first major writer on public order and the machinery of justice to use "police" in a strict sense closely akin to modern usage'), but it's now difficult to verify his statistics and conclusions, confused as they are by the moral opinions of the age. Nevertheless, he makes a useful distinction between the 20,000 full-time or professional prostitutes he reckoned to have been former menial servants and factory workers, and the majority whom he believed either to be casual and occasional prostitutes, resorting to this extremity when times were tough, or else women who lived with men to whom they were not married and so displayed a relaxed attitude to morals and conventions that, Colquhoun believed, could lead them easily into prostitution. His statistics remain open to debate, but if roughly correct suggest that in about 1800 one-fifth of the female population of London of sexually active age was involved, in one way or other, in the capital's sex industry.
Excerpted from London's Sinful Secret by Dan Cruickshank. Copyright © 2009 Dan Cruickshank. Excerpted by permission of St. Martins Press.
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