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Not-So-Nice Work: Prostitution in 18th-Century London

November 6, 2009

Louis-Leopold Boilly, "Point de Convention," c 1797

What price virtue?

It’s time for decadent revels a la Studio 54, 1770s style, in the newest installment of my column, Anglo Files TGIF: “Mrs. Cornelys Brings Nightclubbing to Georgian London”, just posted on Anglotopia. But do linger for a moment with me here before you visit Cornelys, that canny courtesan,  crooner and lover of Casanova. Before you go, you’ll want to know that Mrs. Cornelys was without family or support when she arrived in England in mid-life. Having failed to make it on the stage and blessed with few marketable skills, only one likely employment alternative awaited her if her notorious parties failed to catch on...

“One in eight of all London’s adult females worked as prostitutes in the late eighteenth century,” writes Kate Williams in England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s famous mistress. “Most were under 18,” she continues, “some hardly older than 12,” and roughly a third were fired servant girls. For their customers, no stigma attached from the trade. For the girls themselves (for they were mostly young), survival trumped reputation, no matter what the moralists suggested.

Come evening, wrote one 1760s chronicler of London quoted in Liza Picard’s Dr. Johnson’s London, the local women “range themselves in a file in the footpaths of all the great streets in companies  of five or six, most of them dressed very genteely. The low tavern serves them as a retreat to receive their gallants in.” The Strand was a common place to find them, as was Covent Garden, referred to by some as “Venus Square” for the many lovelies on offer

Of course, these were the cleaner sorts of girls, Williams points out, often hired on by tavern keepers to draw trade. They were probably cleaner than most workingmen’s wives, she adds, and offered rare access to private rooms at a time when tenements and hovels teemed with noisy, unwashed humanity.

Older or uglier whores worked the streets alone, while the better endowed powdered their hair and populated well appointed brothels. As quoted in Peter Ackroyd’s London, the Biography, people-watcher James Boswell recounted a late March evening in 1762 when,

I strolled into the Park [quite likely St. James] and took the first whore I met, whom I without many words copulated with free from danger, being safely sheathed. She was ugly and lean and her breath smelled of spirits. I never asked her name.

(Boswell’s sheath might have been a length of sheep’s intestine tied with a ribbon. Reuseable, of course.)

In the high-end houses, women were better fed and dressed but often bound by debt to their madams (no accident) and thus effectively enslaved. In these bagnios, wrote Casanova (per Picard), “a rich man can sup, bathe and sleep with a fashionable courtesan, of which there are many in London. It makes a magnificent debauch and only costs six guineas,” about equal to a housemaid’s yearly wage.

"Retailers not affected by the shop tax," gripes this 1787 cartoon. (Note the sign over the door.)

Why would sweet young maids, often untutored country girls, offer themselves so readily on the street? Among the paltry employment options for unskilled girls, Williams elaborates, “work in the soap factories or brick kilns meant a twelve-hour day in steaming conditions, risking acid burn and injury. Many women believed prostitution less dangerous than factory work and more bearable than domestic service: there were no early starts, backbreaking scrubbing, lascivious masters who considered their maids fair game, or need to be perpetually servile…”

Maids under 16, moreover, received no salary at all above “bed” and meager board. Many slept, in fact, on floors and were the first to wake in a household and the last to eat. “By the age of 21,” says Williams, “most had fallen ill from the round of heavy manual labor, become pregnant, married or turned to prostitution.” Not surprisingly, nearly a quarter of maids left their positions after just a few weeks or months.

“We might think nowadays that we would rather steal or beg,” Williams posits. “Beggars, however, were usually attacked, and crimes against property were so stringently punished that a girl who stole a handkerchief could be executed or deported.” Laws against prostitution, by contrast, were only loosely enforced, presumably because (as with America’s 1920s Prohibition on spirits), they were so widely flouted.

Unattached sailors, laborers or tourists were just part of the active market for commercial sex. Most of society winked at, tolerated, or even approved, married men’s taking of mistresses and other extra-marital opportunities for sex. And yet, genteel girls and women — indeed, any who could afford the luxury of chastity — were zealously sheltered before marriage from most any sort of public life.

Indeed, the hypocrisy of damning the “fallen” women on whom society depended did not go unnoticed. A 1787 meeting at Mitre Tavern of the Society for Free Debate — a common amusement for middle and upper class men — devoted itself to the question,

Does that Infamy which follows a Female’s first deviation from Chastity, operate more to keep the sex Virtuous; or to render the Seduced more desperate in Vice?

Reported the Morning Herald, “The Question was, after a most animated debate, before a crowded audience, determined that it made them more desperate in vice.”

Print, "Bagnio" from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, copyright expired.
Painting, "Point de Convention" (in English: "No Deal"), by Louis-Leopold Boilly, c. 1707, copyright expired, acquired via Wikimedia Commons. 

Peter Ackroyd, London, the Biography
Liza Picard, Dr. Johnson's London
Kate Williams, England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton
8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2009 3:26 pm

    At work we just played, “if you could be anyone in history for one day, who would you be?” I chose Elizabeth I. The only problem I had, of course, was that whole virgin queen thing. I like to tell myself, as many historians do, that Elizabeth really was playing tickle the pickle, she was just good at hiding her little secret. When I read about the chastity of women in the 1700s, 1800s, heck forever! I like to think that they were up to no good too. They just weren’t allowed to have bragging rights…

  2. November 6, 2009 4:21 pm

    First off, it’s time for either a cold shower or a couple hours playing Island with a Philippa Gregory bodice ripper. “The Virgin’s Lover” deals with Elizabeth but I can recommend “The Other Boleyn Girl” if you’ve got the hots. And surely you’ve heard of Fanny Hill? (Do not repeat do not look for images of her on Wikimedia Commons unless you are really, shall we say, in the mood for ‘love.’)

    Be of good cheer: Of course a horny gal could have fun back then. In fact, fertility theory considered female orgasm a prerequisite to conception. As noted midwifery expert Mrs. Jane Sharp explained, the “clitoris will stand and fall as the yard doth, and makes women lustfull and take delight in copulation,” and were it not for this they would have no desire nor delight, nor would they ever conceive.” (By “yard,” I do not think she intended a sailing term.)

  3. McCranky permalink
    November 9, 2009 1:02 pm

    Surely the standing and falling “yard” was not so named by reference to the linear measurement of the same name, except perhaps in the Trobriand Islands. I would take exception to 18th-century English fertility theory – had they looked to the Emerald Isle across the Irish Sea, they would have found a land of profound sexual repression and high fertility.

    • November 9, 2009 2:20 pm

      Good to hear from you, McCranky. Those are some interesting ideas you’ve run up the, er, flagpole.

  4. November 21, 2009 4:23 pm


    LOVE your posts. When do we get a review of the new movie on the old (well, young) Victoria? Would love your take on Albert.

  5. carolegill permalink
    September 2, 2013 1:13 pm

    Reblogged this on carolegill and commented:
    excellent post.
    i am using it for research and have subscribed to your blog. i love it!


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