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.
|Men of war, bound for the port of pleasure. © NMM|
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.
Throughout its history, women worked as prostitutes on the wharves and quays of maritime London.
|The young wanton privateer bringing a Spanish prize into the port of love. © NMM|
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. © 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.
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.
|Exporting cattle not insurable. © NMM|