So far in my posts on this subject I’ve talked a little about the high-class prostitutes or courtesans, and about those who operated from private premises, either their own, or from a brothel run by a bawd.
Today I’m going to look at the life of the women who lived and worked either on the streets or in filthy hovels – the lowest end of the profession. Every prostitute with any sense must have realised that there was a reasonable chance of her ending up here, unless she became a bawd, or was lucky enough to snare a wealthy ‘keeper’.
These women operated from the poorest parts of the town, and were often very closely allied with criminals, including housebreakers, highwaymen and pickpockets. Many of them would charge as little as twopence to have sex behind a wall, and would often spend that on gin, which was the cheapest way to get drunk at that time, and was causing havoc in the cities – (the gin issue will be the subject of a future post). I think it’s hardly surprising that the women chose to be drunk as much as possible, when you read this description of them, given by Francis Place in the 1780s.
“…many had ragged dirty shoes and stockings and some no stockings at all…many of that time wore no stays, their gowns were low round the neck and open in front. Those who wore handkerchiefs had them always open in front to expose their breasts….and the breasts of many hung down in a most disgusting manner, their hair among the generality was straight and hung in rats tails over their eyes and was filled with lice.”
He also remarked that they were usually drunk and many had black eyes, as they fought regularly, not only with each other, but with men. They would regularly be raped or beaten by clients and by their pimps. These women led a brutal, desperate and often a short life, and it’s not really surprising that they became hard and unscrupulous.
Many of them were directly involved in robbery, sometimes of a very violent nature, when they would entice a client into a dark area with the promise of sex, after which the man would be attacked and robbed by waiting thieves. Some of these criminals were highly organised, operating in large gangs that would clear away passersby and intimidate any witnesses if the theft was reported to the authorities, with the result that it was difficult for a conviction to be brought. One famous example was of Ann Duck, who between 1743 and 44 was tried ten times for violent robbery, and was acquitted every time, because no witnesses were willing to testify, and often even the victim failed to appear at court.
Children were often sold by poor or ignorant parents as ‘apprentices’ to masters, who would then use them as prostitutes. This resulted in girls as young as 8 or 9 soliciting on the streets. Homeless or orphaned children accounted for some of these, but there were also brothels who specialised in supplying girls as young as 11 to rich clients.
Obviously it was these poorer prostitutes who attracted the attention of the authorities and the ire of the public, because they were far more visible than their higher-class compatriots, due to their operating in the open and to their drunkenness. In the main they were despised, accused of spreading venereal disease wantonly and deliberately, therefore infecting innocent and Godly wives (no mention of the husband’s part in this!). It wasn’t unusual in the mid-1700s for between 20-40% of sailors to be infected, mainly because of their liaisons with prostitutes in the ports.
In fact these women were often reviled from most sides, as being filthy, criminal, disease-ridden and corrupters of innocence, when in fact most of them were merely trying to survive in a society which gave them few if any cards to play.
Henry Fielding, the novelist and a magistrate in 1752, who with his brother John founded the Bow Street Runners, described them thus: “the basest, vilest and wickedest of all Creatures…who descend below the Dignity of Human Nature and partake the Office of a Beast…I think the Trade of a Prostitute can scarcely be called either a reputable or an innocent calling…nor…are they to be tolerated, nay even encouraged, on account of some Good which they produce in great Propriety of Speech…deserve the Name of an Evil”.
Many people would have agreed with him, although in practice he did often show sympathy to particularly young prostitutes who were brought before him, if he thought they would reform if given assistance.
It will probably not surprise you to realise that the rigours of the law were exercised against prostitutes rather than their clients. The women often entered their trade due to the discriminatory attitude that whilst it was perfectly acceptable, expected even, for a young man to ‘sow his wild oats’, the woman who he sowed them with was regarded as despicable and fallen. Similarly, if a woman married, she legally became the property of her husband, so if she wished to retain her independence, she had very few choices in life.
Of course, depending on the type of prostitute she was, she might still be dependent on a man to some extent, but at least usually had some amount of freedom. If pursued by the law, though, the male-dominated legal landscape once more reared its head.
In Westminster and Middlesex in 1720, 427 women were arrested for ‘sexual crimes’ whereas in the whole decade only 402 men were arrested. Convicted prostitutes were often committed to the local Bridewell (named for the notorious prison in Westminster, London) for a time to pick hemp, which was a brutal occupation, and which usually resulted in the woman becoming even more depraved through association with others who were often involved in criminal activity too.
There were other associations that attempted to help prostitutes, especially in London. These included the Magdalen Hospital for reformed prostitutes, which aimed to help women who wished to escape the sex industry, the Lock Hospital, which admitted people suffering from venereal disease, including a large number of poorer prostitutes, and the Foundling Hospital, which although not intended to assist prostitutes, instead attempting to reduce the number of young orphaned beggars and street dwellers, certainly was criticised as a place where prostitutes could leave their unwanted babies before returning to a life of moral depravity.
Certainly prostitutes who became pregnant faced a dilemma. They could have an abortion, from which a number of women died in agony, or they could choose to have the child. If they chose the latter, they could not keep it and continue their trade (which might be the only occupation they could have), so would either have to spend a lot of money to have it cared for, abandon it to take its chances, or even kill it, which if discovered, was a hanging offence. It shows the desperation and misery women must have faced to consider such options for their babies. For them the Foundling Hospital must have been an indescribable godsend.
In conclusion, in the 18th century prostitution was generally accepted by the public as a necessary evil, providing it kept its head beneath the parapet as it were. However, if they became a nuisance, whether by associating with criminals, engaging directly in criminal activity, or behaving too indiscreetly in public, they could be mercilessly prosecuted.
I cannot but help have sympathy with these women, many of whom merely chose what seemed the best of the very limited opportunities available for a woman who either did not wish to, or could not marry a man who would treat them well. I am extremely grateful that I live in a time of relatively equal rights, when I’m able to enjoy a freedom of opportunity that my Georgian sisters could not have even imagined.