Prostitution in maritime London
|The 18th century|
A booming business
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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