In my last post I wrote about courtesans, but of course the vast majority of girls who entered prostitution as a way to make a living would not even dream of ever being a wealthy kept mistress. Although prostitution was not illegal at this time, it was still a dangerous job, for many reasons.
Some of the dangers applied to all prostitutes – that of pregnancy followed by the risks of abortion or childbirth, or of contracting venereal disease, called the pox or French pox, which was ultimately fatal, and for which the ‘cures’ were both expensive and horrific. There were condoms available at this time, made of sheep’s intestine, but they were expensive and rarely used by clients. Then there was the fact that once you became older and unattractive, your income would plummet, if not disappear altogether. These risks applied to all prostitutes, from the highest to the lowest classes. But there were other risks for girls at the middle to lower end of the scale.
Firstly there was the law. It was not illegal at this time to be a prostitute, but there were a good number of people who persecuted them for various reasons, the most active being vigilante evangelical institutions, some of whom would go to extraordinary and very dubious lengths to have prostitutes imprisoned.
As well as this, there was the risk of attracting an unsavoury character, and being robbed, assaulted, raped or even killed by him.
For this reason, many girls would choose to work in a bawdy-house or brothel, which was usually run by an older prostitute whose beauty had faded. The advantages of working from a brothel was that you had a roof over your head, food and warmth, the companionship of the other prostitutes, and protection, often in the form of a man employed by the bawd to control both unruly clients and disobedient women. Working in a brothel certainly gave the girls a degree of security, but it also had its disadvantages, the most obvious one being that the bawd rather than the prostitute took most of the money the client paid.
A middle-range prostitute in a brothel could easily earn a guinea or more for each liaison, but she would not see anything like that amount of money, whereas working on her own, she would keep the whole sum.
Bawds were universally hated by the public, which might seem a little unfair, when you think that it was virtually the only career option open to a prostitute whose looks had faded. But they were renowned for corrupting innocent young girls and even children, and for having no scruples at all.
In Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, plate one shows the innocent country girl Moll Hackabout being procured by an old bawd as she arrives in London from the country. It was a common ploy to befriend young girls, allow them to stay at the brothel and get them to sign a paper in exchange for some cheap clothes. After this the girl would be threatened with debtor’s prison if she didn’t agree to become a prostitute to pay off the debt. It was claimed that thousands of innocent country girls were procured in this way, and the public was understandably outraged.
In Hogarth’s picture, the bawd is believed to be Mother Elizabeth Needham, who was famous for procuring Ann Bond, an innocent girl, as a ‘servant’ for Colonel Charteris, a renowned bully and brutaliser of women. Upon refusing his attentions, Ann was raped and whipped by Charteris before being thrown out, but instead of accepting this, Ann took him to court and the resultant trial was a sensation, especially when, in spite of his connections Charteris was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was pardoned by the king, but Mother Needham’s part in procuring the innocent Ann certainly contributed to her brutal death in 1730, when she was pilloried for a minor offence, but was so brutally attacked while in the stocks that she died a few days later.
Bawdy houses came in many different types, from the cheap ones in poorer areas of town, where the prostitutes were often diseased and dirty, to the more exclusive seraglios and ‘convents’ in the richer parts of town.
The richer ones were very luxuriously furnished, and the girls beautifully dressed. The ‘convent’ would have its own carriage and servants, and the prostitutes would not solicit for custom on the streets, although they would frequent the parks and thoroughfares where the wealthy and noble congregated, and would seem completely at home there. Their clients would be the rich and noblemen, and they could charge an exorbitant fee for their services, although of course the majority of the fee would go to the bawd, or madam who ran the house. These houses usually had no trouble with the law at all, and were so discreet they were almost invisible.
As for the poorer brothels, the law did keep an eye on these, because although prostitution wasn’t illegal, these houses were known as places where criminals would congregate, and were sometimes locations of considerable disorder, to the annoyance of respectable neighbours. Having said that, if a bawdy house was too noisy or indiscreet it could be closed down and the bawd arrested, so attempts were made to ensure a veneer of respectability was in place. Keeping a Bible conspicuously displayed on a table in the hall was one ploy to persuade any visiting officials that the house was reputable.
In poorer houses the bedrooms were often shared by girls, who would take turns at entertaining their clients there. These often catered for military men and sailors, as well as other working men. As with the higher class brothels, the girls did not generally go out to solicit for trade, instead the men would come to the house.
These brothels were usually located near taverns, theatres, coffee-houses and other places of entertainment, where some of the bawdy house prostitutes would wait to pick up customers and a great deal of the street girls (who will be dealt with in my next post) would solicit.
Some girls did reject the idea of a brothel, and would set up in rooms on their own. Some of these girls are mentioned in Harris’s List. In this time in London houses were being built very cheaply, with corners being cut, which resulted in large areas of the town being covered with unsound buildings. But the rents on these were reasonable, and in fact many of them were constructed by bawds or pimps as investments, and were rented out to independent prostitutes at exorbitant rents that no ordinary working person could afford.
From these rooms, the girls would then ply their trade, with varying degrees of success. As I stated at the start of the post, the risks of working alone were much greater, but then so was the income, for an independent girl would get to keep her whole fee.
Landlords would often be happy to rent out part of their house to a prostitute, as they could charge them a much higher rent than they could ordinary tradesmen, although the other tenants in the house might not be so happy, especially as some of the prostitutes advertised their presence and wares by displaying themselves in the windows of their apartments in a state of undress, and making obscene movements. Indeed this was such a common way of a prostitute plying for trade that for a time any woman who showed herself at a window at all was considered improper.
Although not as privileged as the courtesans, girls in brothels or in respectable lodgings did have a more comfortable, and often a safer life than the street girls, whose story I will tell in my next post.