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Prostitution in maritime London

The 17th century
The 18th century
Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies
19th-century responses to prostitution
The Contagious Diseases Act
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Men of war, bound for the port of pleasure.
View full size imageMen of war, bound for the port of pleasure. © NMM
As a commercial and political centre, London could offer sailors and merchants a range of maritime services that was unrivalled by other British ports. Important institutions like Lloyd’s of London and The Baltic Exchange began their insurance and ship-broking activities in its coffee houses.

The port was also a major centre for shipbuilding and the making of scientific instruments. However, the port also provided services of a less respectable nature.

The Young Wanton Privateer bringing a Spanish Prize into the Port of Love (caricature).
View full size imageThe young wanton privateer bringing a Spanish prize into the port of love. © NMM
Throughout its history, women worked as prostitutes on the wharves and quays of maritime London.

As we shall see, these women were often described in the prints of the time as 'privateers' or 'frigates' embarking on 'cruises' to bring home 'prizes'.

Indeed, so strong was the connection between prostitutes and maritime terminology that by about 1700, 'frigate' was naval slang for a woman.


Sea stores.
View full size imageSea stores. © NMM

The artist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) was an astute observer of life on the waterfront and in the taverns of maritime London. The prostitutes in Rowlandson’s pictures are young, pretty and buxom.

They have little caps with feathers and ribbons on their heads, fancy necklaces, and they are dressed in low-cut, high-waisted dresses that emphasize their generous figures.

Rowlandson’s prostitutes are not downtrodden victims on the verge of starvation, but are charming and seemingly carefree women.

Exporting Cattle not Insurable, no 188 (caricature).
View full size imageExporting cattle not insurable. © NMM
As we shall see, the reality for many prostitutes was a long way from this cheerful stereotype. For most prostitutes, life was highly unpleasant. They were in constant danger of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and were frequently subjected to male violence.

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The port was a dangerous place
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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