15 Mother Needhan, Sally Salisbury & The Covent Garden Ladies
Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.
When the German traveller Archenholz visited London in the late eighteenth century, he noticed that every evening around dusk all the principal streets would fill with prostitutes dressed in gaudy colours. The better-class ladies of the night would walk about until they were addressed, but most of the streetwalkers actively ‘accost the passengers, and offer to accompany them: they even surround them in crowds, stop and overwhelm them with caresses and entreaties’. He was horrified to see eight- and nine-year-old girls proffering their charms. Around midnight, after the young women made their bargains and disappeared from the streets, ‘then the old wretches, of fifty or sixty years of age, descend from their garrets, and attack the intoxicated passengers, who are often prevailed upon to satisfy their passions in the open street’.
Common streetwalkers often shared lodgings, but in the neighbourhood of St James’s there were many fashionable brothels. ‘A little street called King’s Place is inhabited by nuns of this order alone, who live under the direction of several rich abbesses.’ These Madams rode in their own carriages and were attended by servants in livery. The price of admittance to their ‘convents’ excluded the lower and lower-middle classes, and welcomed the very rich, such as the government minister Charles James Fox. The better class of courtesans lived in the West End. Archenholz reckoned that 30,000 ladies of pleasure resided in the single parish of Marylebone, of whom 1,700 were kept mistresses paid an annuity by their seducers, living in elegant apartments and attended by servants. ‘These live very well, and without ever being disturbed by the magistrates.’ Archenholz wryly observed that if prostitution were suppressed, England’s trade and economy would suffer. Without prostitutes, the shops supplying fashionable clothes and luxury products would fail, the theatres would close (for men went to the playhouse mainly to ogle and converse with prostitutes), and most of the entertainment industry would cease: ‘London would soon be depopulated; the fine arts would be frightened away; one half of the inhabitants would be deprived of subsistence.’
Saunders Welch, a Justice of the Peace for both the County of Middlesex and the City and Liberty of Westminster, in 1758 published A Proposal to render effectual a Plan, To remove the Nuisance of Common Prostitutes from the Streets of this Metropolis. Welch argued that the Lock Hospital for venereal diseases was merely a temporary stopgap, because after their venereal distempers were cured, common prostitutes simply returned to their trade in the streets. Welch recognized that after prostitutes were discharged from prison or a venereal hospital, ‘having no means of recommendation, or honest method of supporting themselves, necessity, united to a mind abandoned to debauchery, drives them to their former practices for support’. The ‘useless severity’ of punishment ‘hardly ever produced one reformation’. The gaolers were more interested in selling liquors to their inmates than in reforming them. Welch was convinced that London’s Bridewells were ‘little better than nurseries of debauchery’. He did appreciate, however, that women who lived only by prostitution would be reduced to absolute distress if prostitution were totally suppressed. He therefore urged that a charity be established by the legislature to provide long-term relief and useful labour for prostitutes, and that charities be set up to support orphans and abandoned children, especially children between the ages of seven (when parental legal responsibility for them ceased) and fourteen (when the parish became legally responsible for them). He also proposed stricter regulation of immigration from Ireland, the source of much of the sexual labour force. Welch’s compassionate places of refuge, however, would be more like prisons; instead of being sent to Bridewell at hard labour for one month, convicted streetwalkers would be forcibly detained in this prison-hospital for not less than one full year. Welch also would impose severer penalties upon the keepers of bawdy houses, who were responsible for encouraging and exploiting prostitution: their sentence upon conviction would become seven years’ transportation rather than the usual small fine and a spell in the pillory. Welch’s harsh proposals were unreasonable, and were never enacted, though the Magdalen Hospital, which was founded in 1758, took in about 90 women per year until 1817; many of these women were not actually prostitutes but women considered to be at risk of entering prostitution. Bernard Mandeville in his Modest Defense of Public Stews (1724) had argued for the state regulation of prostitution, since repression obviously was not working, but most people were shocked by this suggestion. Prostitution was a serious problem. Some reformers claimed there were 3,000 full-time prostitutes in London and Westminster, but Welch thought the figure was far greater. By 1793, the magistrate Colquhoun concluded that there were 50,000 prostitutes in the metropolis. Michael Ryan, in Prostitution in London (1839), believed that by 1802 there were 80,000 prostitutes and 5,000 brothels.
Poverty was the main impetus to prostitution, more particularly ‘the culture of poverty’. Most of the prostitutes in London were second-generation Irish immigrants, whose fathers had not succeeded in finding an adequate livelihood. It is with good reason that the common nickname for a prostitute was ‘Molly’. But it is not quite accurate to claim that prostitution was ‘the last resort’ for desperate women. Life on the game in such a community was the norm rather than the last resort. Prostitutes’ mothers were very often prostitutes themselves. Prostitutes very often worked as servants in bawdy houses and disorderly houses before they entered the trade themselves. The view that women went into prostitution after being made pregnant and ‘abandoned’ by an apprentice who broke his promise to marry her is only partly true. Most prostitutes were married, and most of their husbands were thieves. Women in impoverished communities were quite likely to marry thieves because respectable tradesmen were thin on the ground. Many prostitutes were not ‘fallen’ women, because many were already born into the lowest social classes and had no great height to fall from. The ‘fallen woman’ image was part of the sentimentalization of prostitution that was employed by reformers to persuade middle-class people (especially ladies) to contribute funds towards hospitals or Magdalen Houses for helping prostitutes. However, Saunders Welch, on the basis of his extensive experience as a former Chief Constable, observed that prostitutes were not the children of the labouring poor, but came from the next higher class, what we today would call the respectable working class, the class from which respectable servants and tradesmen’s apprentices were recruited. These young women received some support from their parents and became dissatisfied with the meaner offices beneath the station of life which their education had promised. Instead of settling for a position as a domestic servant, they desired to be supported by a man in idleness and extravagance.
Most prostitutes had venereal disease. This was probably true of higher-class courtesans as well as streetwalkers. But they were neither the victims and passive recipients of venereal disease, nor the innocent victims of physical abuse. Prostitutes were the active agents in the spread of venereal disease in their community, and especially among the younger men of the navy (about 40 per cent of British sailors probably had venereal disease). More than 15 per cent of the women who sought divorces in the London Consistory Court claimed that their husbands had contracted venereal disease from a prostitute. The prevention of venereal disease was the primary reason why reformers wanted to regulate prostitution. The Societies for the Reformation of Manners were responsible for the arrest of more than 20,000 prostitutes during the first third of the century. The increasing regulation and control of prostitution from the late eighteenth century ironically had the effect of steadily disempowering the women engaged in the trade.
Most prostitutes rounded up by the watchman were set free after a night in the watchhouse, and given a cautionary warning. Many arrests of prostitutes took place on a Saturday night, the day their customers received and spent their week’s wages. They were held over in the watch-house until the Monday morning when they would be brought before a Justice of the Peace. A notorious incident occurred in July 1742 when twenty-five streetwalkers were crammed into the round-house of St Martin in the Fields, and were left overnight without water, with the doors and windows locked shut. Four were found dead the next morning, and two died shortly afterwards. An enraged crowd demolished the parish round-house.
Women rounded up and sent to the Wood Street and Poultry Compters would be brought before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House on charges of soliciting in the streets (the technical crime was not prostitution per se, but ‘street-walking’ or being ‘lewd and disorderly’). After being examined by a Justice of the Peace, prostitutes were usually given ‘summary justice’ by magistrates and sent to the House of Correction or Bridewell to beat hemp, or tried for a misdemeanour at Hicks’s Hall and briefly imprisoned. They were generally sentenced to one month (though later in the century just one or two weeks became more common), but many were released on bail (supplied by their bawds) after twenty-four hours – unless they were diseased, in which case they were left to languish in prison. Welch noted that ‘At the last general gaol-delivery, upon a commitment of this kind, wherein many names were inserted, only two poor wretches, almost naked, remained; and upon being ask’d, how they came not to be discharged as well as the rest? one of them in a feeble languishing tone of voice answered, Because we had no friends; upon which the court discharged them.’ A prostitute or disorderly person would be held in Bridewell until the Sessions could meet and decide a sentence. But in nearly half of all cases they were whipped and then released after a few days, which was less severe than being imprisoned for four to six weeks until the Sessions met. (Towards the end of the century the ratio was reversed: a higher proportion of prostitutes spent a full month in Bridewell, but only about one-sixth of them were whipped.) Persons convicted of keeping a bawdy house were typically fined 10s., and whipped while walking behind a cart (the ‘whipping tumbril’) along the Strand from Charing Cross to Somerset House, and then put in the pillory.
Constables frequently accepted bribes from prostitutes, in cash or in kind. The pamphlet titled Low Life (1764) spoke of ‘common whores telling their lamentable cases to Watchmen on their stands, and treating them with Geneva [gin] and tobacco, for the liberty of walking about their respective beats’. Two watchmen were dismissed in 1748 for taking a shilling to release disorderly women who had already been sentenced to the House of Correction. Sir John Fielding in 1770 said that the typical frequenters of the Westminster brothels and disorderly houses were ‘bawds, thieves, receivers of stolen goods, and Marshalsea Court and Sheriff’s Officers’. The prominent Westminster magistrate Thomas de Veil is believed to have fathered twenty-five illegitimate children upon the prostitutes whom he examined in his private chambers.
It hardly needs to be noted that the various ways of dealing with prostitutes had no deterrent effect whatsoever. In the early years of the century, the Societies for the Reformation of Manners focused upon prostitution not simply because it constituted sexual immorality, but because prostitution was an amalgam of all the social problems of the time: theft, especially pickpocketing; loose, idle and disorderly behaviour in the streets; begging and vagrancy; drunkenness and abject poverty; venereal disease. Prostitutes played key roles in the criminal underworld. They taught children how to beg and how to pick pockets; they seduced young men, persuading them to spend all their money on drink and pleasure, encouraging many to turn to theft to support them and the ‘flash’ lifestyle; they maintained safe houses for thieves; and they operated as fences for stolen goods.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the prostitute was the keystone of the criminal underworld, some historians maintain that prostitution was just one of the jobs open to poor women, attracting little censure among the working classes. Undoubtedly it is true that most prostitutes were born poor, and shared the wider culture of their impoverished community. Similarly, perhaps a majority of them were immigrants into London, either from the countryside, or from Ireland (even those born in London were often second- or third-generation immigrants). Life among the lower classes was ‘loose’, and a woman might be called a ‘whore’ without actually being a prostitute or sex-worker. Many couples in the lower classes never officially married under licence, but just lived with one another in serial concubinage. Many social historians claim that the usual pattern was for a maidservant to have sex only with the beau who had promised to marry her, and that the subsequent bastardy was not due to promiscuity. However, an examination of the records of nearly 400 women who had bastards in the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, between 1712 and 1721, has revealed that one-third did not know their partner on the first occasion of having sex with him, but had been picked up in the street and taken to a disreputable public house either in their own neighbourhood or in Covent Garden.
The argument that prostitution was just a part of normal plebian life rests upon the specific claim that prostitutes regularly shifted back and forth between prostitution and respectable labour, a phenomenon Daniel Defoe referred to as an ‘amphibious life’ (Everybody’s Business Is Nobody’s Business, 1725). However, this view is only rarely expressed in imaginative literature, and is very rarely documented in factual accounts. There certainly is not enough empirical evidence to suggest that this was the norm. The idea that many prostitutes were respectable servants who occasionally supplemented their income by prostitution, is not well supported by trial records or House of Correction records, which show that 10 to 15 per cent of the women convicted for prostitution offences were old offenders who had a long history of prostitution lasting about ten years. Jane Beckett was arrested in St James’s Park and brought before the Westminster Justices of the peace on twenty-one occasions from 1773 through 1779. Bathia Atkinson appeared before the aldermen at the Guildhall in the City repeatedly over a period of eight years, from 1788, on charges of lewd and disorderly behaviour and theft in relation to prostitution. Another 40 per cent of women arrested by constables for prostitution were immediately discharged and did not go on to trial and hence do not appear on conviction statistics. The figures suggest that there was a large core of hardened prostitutes, women whose primary or sole occupation was prostitution. The major respectable work in this allegedly amphibious life was clothes-making. In satirical literature a ‘milliner’ is a euphemism for a prostitute. In many cases that went to court, street-walkers claimed to be seamstresses, and regularly called mantua-makers (i.e. dress-makers) to appear as character witnesses for them. But it seems clear that these ‘mantua-makers’ often were brothel keepers. The occupation of millinery or mantua-making was widely regarded as just a cover for prostitution. Charles Horne in Serious Thoughts on the Miseries of Seduction and Prostitution (1783) warned parents not to allow their daughters to become milliners, mantua-makers, or workers in the various clothes trades because they were ‘actually seminaries of prostitution’. In so far as clothes-making is the only occupation that provides enough statistics to suggest a pattern of movement between prostitution and respectable work, I don’t think that the attempt by modern historians to ‘normalize’ prostitution is justified. Most prostitutes probably belonged not to the ‘respectable’ community but to the criminal underworld. When a woman could not earn enough from street-walking, her other cross-over occupation was far more likely to be pick-pocketing rather than mantua-making.
Prostitutes or Pickpockets?
Paul Lorrain, the Ordinary of Newgate, recording the Confession and Dying Words of two women hanged for robbery in 1703, observed that ‘stealing and whoring are two things that generally go together, so far as this at least; That though every thief may not be a whore or whoremaster; yet every whore or whoremaster is a thief.’ Prostitutes, especially those who operated from the streets, regularly picked the pockets of the men they picked up. The anonymous author of Low-Life observed that from about 2 to 3 in the morning, ‘Poor unfortunate whores, who have had no business the night past, begin creating quarrels in the streets, that they may raise a mob, and pick pockets, for the ensuing day’s sustenance.’ But in most cases, theft rather than sex was the main object of the trade of prostitution.
Elizabeth Scott of St Giles’s in the Fields told the Court in September 1730 that the silver watch in her possession had not been stolen, but that her client had given it to her ‘to hold in pledge for half a Crown that he was to give her for having carnal conversation with her, he refusing to give her the money first, and telling her, that he never us’d to give a woman any thing before hand, and that afterwards he would not give her the half crown, and therefore she would not give him the watch.’ This seems fair enough, but she was found guilty of theft and transported. Hundreds of similar cases boiled down to the word of the client versus the word of the prostitute, and juries regularly believed the client unless they were as disreputable as the prostitute. The exchange of a silver watch was always incriminating, because sex was sold much more cheaply than that. Perhaps neither the prosecutor nor the prostitute could be wholly believed, but in most instances the jury probably came to the right decision as to the basic fact of theft. Men had very little reason to engage in the trouble and expense of mounting a prosecution against a streetwalker unless things of substantial value had actually been stolen.
The men picked up by common streetwalkers did not generally come from the higher classes, and their watches were usually the most valuable things they carried with them. For many, to lose a watch was to lose something of significant value. The cost of his silver watch was a particular concern to the baker Robert Wright, who was picked up by Hannah Cummins in March 1734 and taken to a room in a public house. The court’s short-hand reporter has faithfully copied Wright’s dialect:
Then Sir she sate her sell o’ my knee, and said what wull ye gi us to neet. I said I dinna maiter an I gi her anything, an I cud do any thing toll her, but at that preesent time d’na care to be consairn’d wi’ her. Then she laid herself on the beed and said my breeches hurted her, and so she put her hand doon, and pull oot my watch and knock’d, and Betty cam up tull her. Hannah quo’ I, what mean ye by sairving me so? Ye ha’ tacken my watch and it coast me five punds. Haudyer [hold your] peace quo’ she, and be easy, be easy, canno’ ye be easy No I canno’ be easy till I ha’ my watch again for it coast me five punds.
A typical defence was offered by Elizabeth Mordant, alias Sheilds, of Stepney, who was arrested for stealing a pouch of money from Thomas Clark in August 1723. Clark had just received his wages at the end of a voyage in the service of the Merchantman Forward, and was passing by the Stepney Fields Half-way-house when Mordant approached him. ‘She asked me to spend a penny with her, and thereupon we went into the yard belonging to the Half-way-house, sat down in one of the boxes, and drank a pot of beer, and a bottle and pint together.’ Mordant’s account differed: ‘As I was going along the Back-lane from Rag-Fair, with a basket of oysters, the prosecutor took hold of my arm, and told me I was very like a young woman that he courted seven years ago, and asked me to go and drink with him at the sign of the Ship, but I refused; yet still he followed me, and offered two shillings to do the story with me.’ She declared she was not the sort of woman he took her to be, ‘and, tho’ I was poor and ragged, I was honest. Upon that, he threw down my basket of oysters, call’d me a hundred ugly names, and said he had been with a bitch that had pick’d his pocket, and if I would not do so and so, to gratify his wicked will, he would swear the robbery upon me.’ She didn’t call anyone to prove her story or give her character, and was found guilty to the value of 10d, and transported.
Grace Long, another oyster woman, was transported in 1734 for having stolen not only her gentleman’s watch, but also his shoe-buckles, knee-buckles, crystal buttons, gold ring and mother-of-pearl snuff-box. The court asked Evan Edwards how he had managed to lose all these, and he replied ‘She took them when I was asleep, for I pull’d off my breeches, and the rest of my things and went to bed with her.’ Grace had picked him up in Temple Bar and taken him to her lodgings in a cellar by St Giles’s Pound. At the trial Grace claimed that she had slept with Edwards on many occasions, and was got with child by him. She said the things were not stolen by her, but by another woman, but this account didn’t explain how Grace came to pawn them. A man who was having a drink when Grace went into a public house two days later, when she had the watch and snuff-box, followed her upstairs and stood listening outside a door and overheard a woman inside say ‘Well, Grace, What have you got tonight?’ Grace answered, ‘That as will fetch my clothes out of pawn, and now I’ll follow this trade no more, but get into a place and live honest.’
Women who picked pockets when they picked up men were usually acquitted if there were no witnesses, or if small amounts of money were allegedly stolen. Sarah Thornton of St Clements Danes one day in April 1723 picked up John Cutter by asking him to give her a bottle of wine; he protested he did not know her, but she replied, ‘May be so, nor do I know you; but it’s no matter for that; we can soon be better acquainted.’ So they went to the Crown Tavern by St Clements Church, and after they finished the bottle and he was going, she said ‘I hope, my dear, you’ll make me a small present, for having my company’, so he drew some coins from his pocket and gave her half a crown, and put another half-crown and half-guinea back into his pocket. ‘Now, my dear,’ says she, ‘let us have t’other pint for better acquaintance.’ ‘So I sat down again,’ said Cutter, ‘and by and by I felt her hand in my pocket. I catched hold of her hand, and endeavoured to open it; but before I could do so, she clapt it to her mouth, and, as I suppose, swallowed the half guinea’. As physical evidence of the theft could not be established, she was acquitted.
Streetwalkers had a set formula for accounting for the missing money on their persons if they had to defend themselves in Court. Elizabeth Smith of St Botolph claimed that ‘she had an occasion to go out into the yard to do what no body could do for her’, when the man who claimed she had stolen his money ‘came to her, and offered her half a crown to buy some rods to whip him with, and that she told him she whipt no body besides her children’. As in virtually all cases involving this defence, the jury did not believe her and found her guilty to the value of 10d., which meant that she would be transported. Susanna Hutchins in 1724 denied stealing money from Thomas Edsar, who had treated her to a drink at a pub in Newgate Street, and unwisely exposed his bag of money. At first she denied having the money, but a constable was fetched and brought her to a Justice, who ordered a woman to search her, and the bag of money was found in a secret place next to her shift. Hutchins defended herself in Court: ‘Well, and what if ye did? there is nothing freer than gift, he gave me the money, and who has to do with it? . . . And when we had been drinking a little together, he gave me a penny, to fetch a penn’orth of rods to flog him, and I went to a chandler’s shop hard by, and bought the rods, and whipt him to his heart’s content, ‘till I had worn the rods quite to the stumps, and when I had done, he was so well pleased with my obliging him in this manner, that he gave me the bag of money, and said I was welcome to it, and wish’d, for my sake, it had been twice as much, for it should all have been at my service. And therefore, as he gave it me, there’s nothing freer than gift.’ Because Hutchins had brandished a knife to prevent being searched, and her behaviour in Court was so impudent, she was sentenced to death, though later she was reprieved and transported.
Another defence was to claim that the watch or money simply got mislaid during the erotic tumble. Sarah Bye defended herself against a charge of stealing a gentleman’s watch by claiming that he had asked her to drink and then gave her half a crown to lie with her, ‘and got her down on the ground, and his breeches being down might lose his watch there, for it was afterwards found in the ashes in the chimney-corner’. But she was found guilty and transported in May 1731.
Many of the men whose pockets were picked by prostitutes were ‘fuddled’ at the time. Prostitutes kept an eye out for drunkards, whom they could easily roll. Sarah Bromhall in June 1730 carried a drunken man home to her lodgings in St Andrews, Holborn, sat him down in a chair, unbuttoned his breeches, and took his money. He feared making a fuss because of her bullies. The court learned from one of her partners that although Sarah had gotten a total of three guineas from the man, ‘her husband had met her, and got it from her, and had lost 35s. of it the next night in gaming, saying, she might go a whoring and thieving all her days to no purpose.’
It was common in the rougher parts of London for streetwalkers to simply assault and steal from potential clients without actually having sex with them. Such a victim claimed that in November 1730 as he was walking near the end of Chick Lane, he saw three women standing in the street, one of whom asked him to give her a drink, which he refusing to do, ‘they dragged him into a little alley, and the other two women, being one on each side of him, [Hannah] Ayres said, let’s feel what you have got, and putting her hand to his fob, pulled out his watch, and made off with it, the other two stopping him’. Streetwalkers used their sexuality aggressively. A rather virtuous man in April 1730 was taken into a house by Jane Tyrrel of St Brides and offered a quartern of brandy, which he refused to drink but offered to pay for. He was then taken into her room, which he tried to leave when he saw it had a bed in it, when she stopped him, ‘and pulling up all her cloaths ran against him, and forc’d him into the room, that she got hold of the chain of his watch, and he felt her draw it out, and then she ran away’.
There are so many cases in which sex did not actually take place, that to offer oneself for sex should be considered one of the techniques of theft, rather than part of a sexual economy. As a typical instance, in February 1731 as Charles Martin was going through the Old Bailey about noon, he saw two girls go into a house and followed them; they invited him into a back room, where they were joined by Alice Day, who put her hand round his neck, and sat herself down in his lap, then jumped up and went out of the room, whereupon he discovered she had picked his pocket (for which she was sentenced to transportation). An apparent sexual advance often lead directly to outright theft. For example, shortly before Christmas, 1735, as William Humphreys was walking along the strand, Martha Stracey came up to him and said ‘Where are you going, my dear?’ He replied, ‘What is that to you, you bitch.’ Whereupon one man came behind him and grabbed his collar, another man came up and held him by the neck, and Stracey unbuttoned his breeches and turned his pockets inside out, and took his money. When they let him go, one of the men struck him with a two-and-a-half-foot-long stick and Stracey shouted ‘Damn him, kill him, he squeaks.’ But Humphreys kept hold of her skirts and called the watch, and the other two men ran away. At the trial, Stracey protested that ‘He pulled me into an alley, and wanted to be concerned with me.’ She was taken to St Martin’s watch-house, where she whispered into the ear of the constable of the night, ‘Mr Constable, I know it is in your power to leave the watch-house door open, and let me go out, if you will, you shall have a whenever you please.’ But he did not relent, and during his search the stolen guinea was found in her mouth. In due course she was sentenced to death for robbery with violence.
Solicitation and Bawdy-Houses
In Some Considerations upon Street-Walkers (c. 1750), a letter addressed to Parliament against the ‘winking indulgence’ granted to common strumpets who crowded the streets of London after nightfall, the author remarks: ‘With what impatience and indignation have I walked from Charing-Cross to Ludgate, when being in full speed upon important business, I have every now and then been put to the halt; sometimes by the full encounter of an audacious harlot, whose impudent leer shewd she only stopp’d my passage in order to draw my observation on her; at other times, by twitches on the sleeve, lewd and ogling salutations; and not infrequently by the more profligate impudence of some jades, who boldly dare to seize a man by the elbow, and make insolent demands of wine and treats before they let him go.’ Foreign visitors to London assured him that such public solicitation was found in no other city in Europe, where brothels were commonly licensed. ‘In Paris, . . . men meet no temptations in the streets, tho’ every one knows where he may repair when frailty comes upon him; so that in spight of our Reforming Society, we are more scandalously lewd, tho’ they may be as sinfully so.’ In Rome and Naples and other great cities, the common whores were allowed to ply their trade only in certain areas, where they followed prescribed rules of behaviour, ‘so that in effect they give no scandal, tho’ they commit some sin’. But in England the reformers, who made no allowance for human weakness, insisted upon eradication rather than regulation, and ‘have cut and flash’d with so little distinction, that the peccant humours have escap’d them, mingled with the mass, and render’d the malady incurable’.
Unlike the major cities on the European Continent, London had no ‘red-light district’ in which the sexual underworld could be hidden from public view. In contrast, nearly all of London’s major thoroughfares were thronged with sexually aggressive women who would not let a gentleman pass without grabbing at his breeches and demanding a ‘treat’. Saunders Welch complained that in almost every street in London, one could see women ‘publickly exposing themselves at the windows and doors of bawdy-houses, like beasts in a market for pubick sale’, and that a man walking from Temple Bar to Charing Cross would be assaulted by a hundred prostitutes. On Sundays, after the sermon, Gray’s Inn Walk would be lined by prostitutes standing rank and file. The areas most noted as the haunt of streetwalkers coincided largely with the criminal underworld: Drury Lane, Covent Garden, Charing Cross, the Strand, Fleet Street, Holborn (especially Chick Lane), Cheapside, Leadenhall Street, East Smithfield (especially Rosemary Lane), Southwark, Whitechapel and Shadwell along the Thames. One could also pick up women in the more fashionable areas of Hyde Park and Vauxhall Gardens. Later in the century the pattern of prostitution followed the growth of London, moving out of the City and into Westminster and urban Middlesex. Sir John Fielding in 1768 believed that the rise in the number of brothels in Covent Garden was related to fashionable people abandoning their houses in the area, with the result that ‘the Leases of the Houses were so near expiring, that it was not worthwhile to repair them till they were out [i.e. expired], by which means they were let for almost anything to the lowest of wretches, who hired three or four of them and filled them with common prostitutes.’ Hedge Lane, near Charing Cross, may have had twenty bawdy houses in mid-century. Throughout the century, more than half of London’s bawdy houses were located in the small courts and narrow alleys in the ward of Farringdon Without, a large ward along the western edge of the City, running from Holborn down to the Temple. The lanes off Fleet Street remained the major centre of ‘vice’ well into the nineteenth century.
The trade of prostitution was controlled almost entirely by women throughout the eighteenth century. Streetwalkers were independent workers. Bullies who extracted protection money from prostitutes did not arise until the late eighteenth century. Most of the brothels were owned by the bawds who ran them, though often a husband and wife team owned a string of brothels and public houses. Bawds such as Madam Creswell (c.1625–84), the most famous seventeenth-century ‘madam’, catered for the upper classes, and even had a network of agents scouring Amsterdam and other foreign cities to keep her bagnios well stocked. She and some other famous bawds became very wealthy and powerful and owned many properties. (The ground landlords in Covent Garden were of course male aristocrats, but they did not organize and control prostitution.) Aristocratic female bawds owned and ran gaming houses, where higher-class prostitutes met their clients. Generally speaking, from the lowest to the highest levels, prostitutes controlled their own activities. The main constraint was poverty in general rather than specifically male domination.
At the high end of the scale, Archenholz during his visit to London was especially struck by the city’s ‘bagnios’. These were magnificent buildings, beautifully furnished, which sometimes really did offer hot and cold baths, from which their name derived. They were very expensive places of pleasure, and stayed open all night long. Usually they were situated near theatres and taverns, especially around Covent Garden. But there seems to have been a bagnio in the poorer area of Wapping, where black prostitutes offered their services. The bagnios were not literally brothels, because prostitutes did not actually reside on the premises, but would be fetched in a chair if a client required their services. They were basically houses of assignation, and their owners often earned more by presiding over gambling activities than from organized prostitution. They became sufficiently fashionable for young girls to be seduced by the ‘glamorous’ life of the prostitute.
Reformers, especially later in the century, complained that girls as young as 12 or 13 years old were soliciting men, and The Times in 1786 and 1788 complained that ‘infant prostitutes’ 9 or 10 years old were offering themselves to men along the Strand, and inviting them into the bagnios of Catherine Street and Bridges Street. Letters in The Times even claimed that some female boarding schools were run by bawds to supply recruits to their brothels. By portraying the prostitute as a child and a victim, reformers generated sympathy for prostitutes, which helped in the campaign to ameliorate their genuinely wretched lives. But the ‘child brothels’, complained of by reformers, have never been documented, and most prostitutes were in fact adult women rather than girls. The average age of prostitutes was probably no lower than 18, possibly much higher. Of twenty-five prostitutes arrested by Sir John Fielding in 1758 in the bawdy houses of Hedge Lane, eleven were aged between 18 and 19. Twelve of the twenty-five women began working as prostitutes at the age of 18 or older, though one, now 15 years old, had plied the streets since the age of 12. (Many of the women seized that night were already infected with venereal disease.) Statistics about ages of defendants in criminal prosecutions were not recorded until late in the century, from 1791 (and even then only the ages of people convicted rather than those acquitted). For 179199 and 182025 the mean age of women convicted at the Old Bailey for prostitution-related offences was 28 years. The mean age of ‘disorderly women’ held at Bridewell 181517 was 26 years. A Select Committee of Police examining this problem in 1816 determined that the mean age of prostitutes was 24 years. Persons acquitted were likely to be younger than persons convicted (who would more likely be repeat offenders). It is impossible to produce statistics for most of the eighteenth century, but not even anecdotal evidence would suggest a youthful age profile for the average streetwalker. It seems very likely that prostitutes entered the trade in their late teens or early twenties.
Prostitutes usually plied their trade in pairs, partly for company and for mutual protection, partly so they could overpower and rob men. Their client would usually take both of them for a drink, and then have sex with one of them (if he was not robbed before sex took place). Occasionally he would have sex with both of them at the same time, for which he would pay a higher premium than usual. In March 1718 Bernard Kemble was picked up in the Strand by Betty Tooley and Amy Harrison, and they went together to the latter’s lodgings in St Giles’s, where he got fuddled on 8s. worth of raspberry-brandy, and the party was joined by a third woman. Kemble then gave one crown to Harrison, and half-a-crown apiece to the two other women, to join him in what he called ‘the Pageantry of Lying in State’. It was described for the Court by Amy Harrison: ‘Kemble, herself, and the two women stripped themselves all naked, and Kemble lay with her in the middle, laying his hands on the bellies of the two other women that lay naked on each side her.’ Kemble subsequently accused Harrison of robbing him, but she said that, on the contrary, ‘he had put her to the charge and trouble to break a good broom to whip him with’ as he had allegedly taken a fancy to being whipped as well as Lying in State. The Court acquitted her, observing that Kemble, ‘an old clumsy fellow, deserved to be whipped for picking up whores’.
The typical bawd who organized a small network of prostitutes was a landlady of a public house or a coffee house to which prostitutes brought their customers and robbed them. Bawds earned most of their money not from the receipts of their girls, but by fencing their stolen goods. For example, in 1721 Susanna Miller and Elizabeth Marsh were indicted for privately stealing, by picking up a man and picking his pocket while he was fumbling under the petticoat of one of them, which took place in the pub run by their accomplice Mary Roberts. One explained their practice: ‘Now, you must know, it was our custom, that when any of us had pick’d a man’s pocket, Mrs. Roberts, our landlady, was to have five shillings in the pound, or three-pence in the shilling, of what we got.’ Mrs Roberts would take her money to a nearby alehouse for safekeeping. She was sentenced to death, but reprieved; the other two were acquitted.
Contrary to a modern claim that prostitution was an integral and accepted part of working-class communities, local householders and merchants were invariably dismayed to discover that there was a notorious bawdy house in their district, because disorderly houses threatened regular commerce and made the area unsafe. Such houses were accurately called ‘disorderly houses’, and were frequented by thieves quick to erupt into violent quarrels. Local residents did not prosecute or testify against houses notorious for being frequented by footpads, pickpockets and whores because of fear of retaliatory damage against them or their own premises. Once a year inquest juries of each City ward sent to the Court of Aldermen a list of people believed to run disorderly and bawdy houses, and requested that they be prosecuted at the expense of the City. It is worth emphasizing that such lists did not originated with busybody authorities, but were drawn up following the receipt of petitions from ordinary people complaining about disorderly houses in their neighbourhoods. For example, in 1786 twenty people in Coleman Street ward complained about four persons who kept disorderly houses in Little Swan Alley and Langthorne Court which lodged ‘bad and disorderly women’: ‘no gentleman can pass the said houses even in open daylight without every method being used to decoy them in or insult them.’ On four occasions between 1742 and 1745 the Tower Ward inquest jury presented ‘the Bagnio or hot-house’ on Tower Hill for ‘entertaining women of ill fame’. Bagnios were increasingly replaced by cheap hotels towards the end of the century, which in turn became notorious as temporary accommodation for prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes often inhabited dilapidated houses in the small alleys that ran off the main streets. Mary Walker, who lived in the cellar of a house of ill-fame in Phoenix Alley, off Long Acre, in April 1773 was nearly suffocated by the smoke that the chimney failed to draw up from the hearth, and the incident provoked an appeal to the magistrates to clean up the neighbourhood: ‘these houses are chiefly inhabited by the most abandoned prostitutes, whose midnight riots are a continual terror to the sober part of the neighbourhood’ (Morning Chronicle).
Sailors sometimes tore down bawdy houses because they were so regularly fleeced and cheated in them. In 1749 aggrieved sailors from Wapping gutted three bawdy houses in the Strand, beginning with the notorious Star tavern where their pockets had been pilfered by the ladies, and made a bonfire of their goods before their doors. This was followed by a riot at Tyburn when one of the participants (Bosavern Penlez, an unfortunate passer-by who joined in the looting) was executed. Saunders Welch said that the riot in 1749 prompted the legislature to pass a new statute regulating bawdy houses. The Act for preventing thefts and robberies, and for regulating places of public entertainment, and punishing persons keeping disorderly houses, 1752 (25 Geo. II, cap. 36), enacted some of the recommendations put forward in Henry Fielding’s Enquiry. Any house having a room for music, dancing, drinking or public entertainment, which was not licensed for that purpose, would be deemed a disorderly house. A noted London bawdy house and a noted gaming house were raided as an immediate effect of the Act, but, in general, no one liked to be branded an informer, and few came forward to prosecute. The bawds of Covent Garden temporarily closed their houses or moved further west, but after a year they were operating with bare-faced impunity once again. One bawd went so far as to advertise in the newspapers that she had moved from Covent Garden to Bow Street the street more commonly associated with the agents of the law, the Bow Street Runners.
Welch observed that bawdy-house keepers employed agents to attend the arrival of wagons and carriages from the country, keeping a look-out for pretty young women in need of a place to stay. They would be given the address of a gentlewoman who boards young ladies, who was in need of a servant. Once the girl from the country was ‘hired’, she would discover she had been entrapped by a bawd. Her own clothes and belongings would be taken away, and she would be given a flimsy suit of second-hand clothes for daily wear and a gaudy suit for entertaining customers. Once ensnared, it was virtually impossible to escape. Welch recounts an incident in which a despairing girl threw herself from the window of an infamous bawdy house in Exeter Street.
We know from many records that bawdy-house keepers maintained firm control over their girls. The house would officially be a lodging house, and the girls would be charged for their lodgings, usually double the common rent, sometimes as much for an apartment as the owner paid for the entire house. Their clothes often would also be provided, at a price, by the bawd. Earnings from a woman’s prostitution would just about cover the exorbitant costs of her lodgings, clothes, food, and protection. In 1791, when an artisan paid an average rent of 2s. 6d. a week, Ann Thompson and Elizabeth Webb paid 14s. a week for board and lodging in a bawdy house kept by Jonathan Britt, plus 2s. each time they had a male visitor. If a prostitute tried to leave a brothel, she could be prosecuted by the keeper for stealing the clothes she wore while soliciting, or for failing to pay the rent. Maria Ann Cooke, charged with stealing clothes from her bawdy-house keeper Hannah Swinchurch in October 1790, claimed that she was allowed only one shilling a week, that Swinchurch threatened her with death if she failed to bring home one man a night, and that Swinchurch turned three of her girls out of doors ‘as naked as they were born’. The Times in June 1788 reported the case of 19-year-old Elizabeth Moore, who was prosecuted by her bawdy house keeper Mother Wood for unpaid board and lodgings when she left Wood’s house to go to Mother Johnstone’s establishment. Elizabeth had been beaten by Wood whenever she failed to earn sufficient money. Prostitutes’ bullies, however, were genuine friends to the prostitutes, either protecting the bawdy houses from invasion by constables or disgruntled clients, or assisting the prostitutes in robbing their clients. The type of pimp who terrorized his girl did not come into existence until the nineteenth century, but was matched by the Georgian madams.
Brothels of the sort that we think of when we use the term today houses with a resident keeper controlling her staff of women living on the premises were mostly the expensive establishments located in St James’s. The Times in 1786 and 1788 exposed some of the ‘Mother Abbesses’ who ran these ‘convents’ or ‘nunneries’: the ‘Little Harpy of iniquity from Germyn-street’ who went with her ‘meretricious attendants’ to the theatre and the pleasure gardens; Mammy Windsor of King’s Place; Mother Johnson who went in an elaborate carriage in the Queen’s birthday parade in 1788. Mary Bunce, who was pilloried, fined and imprisoned for six months in October 1761 for keeping a bawdy house in James Street, the Haymarket, was said to have no fewer than twenty-two bawdy houses under her charge, by which she made a considerable fortune.
A catalogue of noted brothel-keepers would include Mother Elizabeth Whyburn, ‘the most notorious bawd in the reign of Queen Anne’, whose customers included John Gay and Alexander Pope; Richard Haddock, the Whoremaster-General of Covent Garden, who rented out numerous tenements for ‘tenants’, i.e. freelance whores; Mother Jane Douglas, brothel-keeper eulogized by John Gay; Theresa Phillips, supplier of condoms from her own sex shop on Half Moon Street; and the famous London procuress Mother Needham and her aristocratic brothel in St James’s.
Elizabeth Needham kept private houses of assignation at several addresses during the 1720s, e.g. in Albemarle Street in 1721, and in Porter Street in 1723. She began as an orange-girl and turned prostitute around the age of 14. She was so handsome and charming that she earned enough money from rich admirers to set herself up as a high-class procuress around 1710. Her specialty seems to have been recruiting homeless young girls.
The first plate in Hogarth’s series of prints A Harlot’s Progress portrays Mother Needham, dressed in fine silk and simpering behind numerous beauty patches on her aging face, recruiting the future Harlot as a girl fresh from the country; in a door in the background stands Colonel Frances Charteris, known as the Rape-Master-General of Britain. Charteris would pay Mother Needham 20 guineas for supplying him with a plump young virgin. Dryden in the Dunciad said that Mother Needham had a bad temper and foul tongue, and others suggested that she treated her girls as little more than slaves. She and the girls in her houses were arrested on more than one occasion. The Daily Journal reported on 14 March 1723 that Mother Needham and Mother Hodgson, ‘both very eminent in the business of their profession’, had been arrested, ‘together with 13 of their doxies, one of them a Blackmoor’, and committed to the Westminster Gatehouse and Tothill Fields Bridewell for hard labour. According to the report, ‘great quantities of foreign implements made use of in the affairs of love were found upon the Ladies, and were produced before the Justices at the Westminster Sessions on Monday by the Constables’ – but unfortunately these ‘foreign implements’ were not identified. They might have been condoms; dildoes, imported mainly from France, were not widely employed in bawdy houses.
In July 1724 Mother Needham was committed to Newgate following a raid on her house during which a great number of ladies and gentlemen were arrested and taken to the Round House. The gentlemen were released, but some of the prostitutes were sent to hard labour in Tothill Fields Bridewell. The arrest of Mother Needham was expected to be her ruin, but she was soon bailed out. In August she was indicted at the Crown Court for keeping a disorderly house, and again returned to Newgate pending trial. She was served with an execution order from a bailiff and her goods were due to be sold, but early in September a fire broke out in her house in Conduit Street, near Hanover Square, and the house with all of its furnishings was quickly consumed. Captain Barbute, a French Half-Pay Officer ‘who had been drawn in to spend his fortune and to keep her and her strumpets company’, failed to escape in time, and his blackened skull was found by the labourers clearing up the rubbish a few days later.
In April 1725 Mother Needham was again arrested for keeping a disorderly house in Union Street near Bond Street, and held in prison until she could find sureties for her good behaviour. On this occasion she revealed the names of several other women who kept disorderly houses, as well as the names of the gentlemen who most frequented them. She was fined only 1s. and sentenced to stand in the pillory. In October 1726 a satirical mock elegy on her supposed death was published in the Weekly Journal, or The British Gazetteer:
Last week died the noted Mother Needham, who we hear has left several valuable legacies to her acquaintance, in particular the picture of Sodom and Gomorrah to indorsing Dn; an ounce of Mercuris Dulcis to Beau Ce, of St. Martin’s Lane; her estate to the Duke of Wharton; her library to Ned C; and a receipt to cure a clap to little Quibus; but as we have not the entire copy of her Will, we shall only at this time publish her Epitaph, as it was sent us by one of our Correspondents.Mother Needham was in fact alive and well, and by 1728 she was keeping a brothel in fashionable Park Place, near St James’s Street, where all her neighbours were aristocrats, such as George Hamilton, Earl of Orkney. Her protector may have been the Duke of Wharton, who was a cousin to Colonel Charteris. Her house was raided that November, and its numerous ladies of pleasure sent to the Round House at Bond Street.Here lies Dame Needham in this grave,
The mock elegy of 1726 was extraordinarily prescient of her real death, which occurred in 1731, when she was about 50 years old. Her downfall came in the train of the scandal of Colonel Charteris, who in 1731 was convicted of raping his servant Ann Bond, who may have been supplied by Mother Needham. Charteris was sentenced to death, but subsequently pardoned through the efforts of the Duke of Wharton. Wharton, however, did not similarly help Mother Needham when, in April 1731, she was convicted for keeping a disorderly house in Park Place, for which she was fined 1s., sentenced to stand twice in the pillory, and required to find sureties for her good behaviour for three years. She stood in the pillory in Park Place on Friday, 30th April, and was severely pelted by the populace. According to the newspaper reports, she was screened by a party of hired fellows, and lay on her face on the pillory platform, but she was nevertheless very badly injured by brickbats. She was not the only one injured. ‘A boy getting upon a lamp post near the pillory, fell from the same upon iron spikes, and tore his belly in so violent a manner, that his bowels came out, and he expired in a few hours in great agonies.’ Mother Needham was due to stand in the pillory again on 5th May, but she died of her wounds on 3rd May. ‘She declared in her last words, that what most affected her was the terror of standing in the pillory tomorrow in New Palace Yard, having been so ungratefully used by the populace on Wednesday.’ The editor of the Grub Street Journal commented that the public ‘acted very ungratefully, considering how much she had done to oblige them’.
A large body of popular literature detailed the lives and adventures of noted ladies of pleasure. Fanny Murray was alluded to in contemporary works such as Eliza Haywood’s play The Wife (1756), and her own Memoirs went into a second edition in 1759. Bon-vivants in the eighteenth century frequently retailed stories about celebrated courtesans. The fame of Kitty Fisher, for example, extended well beyond the period of her peak in the 1750s. Unlike the streetwalking hoydens, Kitty Fisher was renowned for her elegance, delicacy, wit and beauty, ‘joined to a most agreeable and captivating vivacity’. She charged a hundred guineas a night. Archenholz in the 1780s repeated a famous story about one of her votaries, the Duke of York, brother to the King: ‘one morning [he] left fifty pounds on her toilet. This present so much offended Miss Fisher, that she declared that her doors should ever be shut against him in future; and to shew, by the most convincing proofs, how much she despised his present, she clapt the bank-note between two slices of bread and butter, and ate it for her breakfast.’ Other noted ladies of pleasure include Betsy Careless who worked from her own ‘coffee house’ which she advertised in the papers; Fanny Murray, who began her career with Richard ‘Beau’ Nash as her protector; Molly Mogg, a famous bar-maid at the Rose tavern in Wokingham, and the subject of many poems in the newspapers; and Sally Salisbury, the first ‘Toast of the Town’, the model for Hogarth’s the Harlot and Cleland’s Fanny Hill.
Numerous pamphlets were published about Sarah Priddon, alias Sally Salisbury, who was born in Shrewsbury around 1690. Bad fortune brought her parents to London when she was three years old. Her father joined the Footguards, and lived in St Giles’s in the Fields, where he also worked as a bricklayer and a solicitor. At the age of nine Sally was apprenticed to a seamstress near Aldgate. She soon left her parents and worked as a costermonger in Covent Garden, at different seasons of the year shelling beans and peas, or selling nosegays, newspapers, matches. At the age of fifteen she was recruited by Mother Wisebourn, who rigged her up in fine clothes, and her first client was an elderly physician which was just as well, for she soon contracted venereal disease. After her cure by a surgeon regularly employed by Mother Wisebourn for that purpose, Sally no longer plied the streets of Drury, but was kept by a Peer in Villiers Street. She nevertheless kept in touch with the girls in the employ of Mother Wisebourn, and on one of her visits to them, in 1713, Elizabeth Wisebourn’s house was raided by some Reforming constables, and Sally was sent to Tothill Fields Bridewell. The Justice of the Peace sent instructions that she was not to receive the usual punishment, but was to be privately disciplined by himself.
Sally’s mother acted as her pimp, and organized abortions for her. Her father sometimes acted as her bully, frightening away men who threatened to give trouble, and demanding suitable payment from her clients. Sally took her alias after an acquaintance pointed out a resemblance between her and the Countess of Salisbury, which prompted her to pose as a natural daughter of one of noble lords of that family. According to Capt. Charles Walker in his Authentick Memoirs of the Life Intrigues and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury (1723), Sally was kept by ‘Signor Gambolini’, a minister under the late Queen Anne. This man was in fact Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a noted libertine who was notorious for having bedded two prostitutes at the same time. He paid 140 guineas for Mrs Wisebourn to send Sally under guard to Kensington Palace. There he gave Sally three £50 banknotes for three nights’ lodging, and said ‘He would glut the bitch with money, could he secure her to his embraces only.’ Sally was settled in Bolinbroke’s own house, but then she found out that he kept another mistress on the same premises; in revenge, she revealed all to his wife. Mother Wisebourn died in 1719, leaving a large estate from her service to the rich and famous (the poet Alexander Pope was reputed to be one of her customers), and Sally then became a protégé of Mother Needham.
Sally joined a group of courtiers who hanged out at a tavern near St James’s Palace. There are many interesting anecdotes of her witty repartee to the ladies of the upper classes, but her special favours were reserved for the gentlemen. One of the diversions for which she became famous, consisted of her standing on her head in bed, naked, with two peers supporting, and spreading, her shapely legs, as her admirers chucked gold coins into her treasure chest:
Between two marble-pillars, round and plump,Sally was working in the long-established tradition of ‘Posture Molls’: naked women striking indecent poses to demonstrate such things as ‘how the watermen shoot London Bridge’. She was avaricious in getting money, but prodigal and extravagant in spending it. She enjoyed gambling at the Wells in Hampstead, where a rich elderly gamester became her paramour. She wore a splendid new dress every day, and became ‘the most conspicuous punk, that has shin’d in a side box, or empty’d the privy purse of a Peer, for this last century’.
In December 1721 Sally had a drunken quarrel with her current paramour, the Honourable John Finch, in the Three Tuns tavern in Chandos Street, Covent Garden. She picked up the case-knife that had been supplied for cutting the bread roll, and stabbed him in the chest. A surgeon came and dressed the wound. Sally said ‘Jacky, do you forgive me?’ And Finch answered, ‘Yes, I do, and can die with pleasure by your hand.’ He took some broth and they all drank some Frontinac, then they all left the tavern. Finch languished for some time, and died from the wound. Sally was charged with murder in February 1723, but became so ill that the trial was postponed. At her trial in April she was found guilty of assaulting and wounding Finch, but was acquitted of doing it with an intent to murder him. She was sentenced to a fine of £100, to suffer one year’s imprisonment, and to find security for two years’ good behaviour. Before her prison term ended, she died in Newgate, in February 1724. She was buried in the parish of St Andrew’s, Holborn. For the next decade, her grave became a place of pilgrimage for her sisters in the Hundreds of Drury.
Return to The Georgian Underworld