PortCities London

Prostitution in maritime London

The 18th century

A booming business

Bachelor's Fare - or Bread and Cheese with kisses (caricature).
View full size imageBachelor's fare - or bread and cheese with kisses. © NMM
The growth in London’s maritime trade during the 18th century brought more and more ships to the wharves and quays. With the ships came sailors and inevitably there was an increase in the supply of prostitutes to meet the growing demand.

Many women were forced into prostitution by poverty. Others decided that they would rather sell their bodies than work long hours as laundresses, servants or seamstresses. For most prostitutes, life was a constant struggle against poverty, illness and danger. The Times reported in 1785 that every year 5000 streetwalkers died in the city.

Defoe's view

Wapping (caricature).
View full size imageWapping. © NMM

According to Daniel Defoe, writing in 1725, many prostitutes came from the huge number of servants in London. They took to prostitution to support themselves when they were unemployed.

‘This is the reason why our streets are swarming with strumpets. Thus many of them rove from place to place, from bawdy-house to service, and from service to bawdy-house again.'

Covent Garden

A cruise to Covent Garden! (caricature).
View full size imageA cruise to Covent Garden! © NMM

Prostitution was not confined to the maritime districts of the East End. It was also endemic in the West End. By the middle of the 18th century Covent Garden was full of seedy lodging houses and an astonishing number of Turkish baths, many of which were brothels.

Sir John Fielding, the magistrate, called Covent Garden 'the great square of Venus'. He said, 'One would imagine that all the prostitutes in the kingdom had picked upon the rendezvous'.

John Cleland’s promiscuous heroine, Fanny Hill, had lodgings in Covent Garden. 

Quotation marks left
... by having been, for several successions, tenanted by ladies of pleasure, the landlord of them was familiarized to their ways; and provided the rent was duly paid, everything else was as
Quotation marks right
easy and commodious as one could desire.
Launching a Frigate (caricature).
View full size imageLaunching a frigate. © NMM

Covent Garden brothel keepers like Molly King and Mother Douglas were familiar figures in contemporary novels and prints. They were often shown enticing innocent young country girls into their employment.


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

Although many prostitutes were clearly downtrodden victims exposed to disease and violence, it is clear that a minority at least had some control over their lives. Women such as this had a higher standard of living than others of a similar background. They had money, clothing and could afford their own rooms. Some even became wealthy lodging-house keepers.

They also had access to the tavern. This was a focus of social and political life, but was off limits to the more 'virtuous' woman. Prostitution made few women rich, but it did give some a measure of social and economic independence.

    Back to Wharves of the Pool: the south bank
* *