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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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The 17th century

Ratcliffe Highway

Sailors in port.
View full size imageSailors in port. © NMM

During the 17th century, the most notorious area for prostitution in the port was Ratcliffe Highway. This was a road lying to the north of the Wapping waterfront.

It was described in 1600 by John Stow as 'a continual street, or filthy straight passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages builded, inhabited by sailors and victuallers'.

Shipping in the Pool of London.
View full size imageShipping in the Pool of London. © NMM
Sailors from ships moored in the Pool of London flocked to the Highway. Most were single men with plenty of cash to spare after long voyages. They were looking for drink and women, and the taverns and brothels along its length provided for their every need. 


Songs and shanties were written in celebration of the Highway. This bawdy example is actually called 'The Ratcliffe Highway'.

Audio File Ratcliffe Highway
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View Transcription
Quotation marks left
As I wuz a roll-in' down the High-way one morn,
I spied a flash pack-et from ol' Wapping town
As soon as I seed her I slacked me main brace,
An' I hoist-ed me stun-sl's an' to her gave chase,

Jack Jolly steering down Wapping in Ballast trim (caricature)
View full size imageJack Jolly steering down Wapping in Ballast trim. © NMM
Oh, me rig-gin's slack, Aye me ratt-lin's are fray'd,
I've ratt-led me rig-gin' down Rat-cliffe High-way!

Her flag wuz three colours, her masthead wuz low,
She wuz round at the counter an’ bluff at the bow;
From larboard to starboard an’ so rolled she,
She wuz sailin’ at large, she wuz runnin’ free.

Sailors and 12 Apostles (caricature).
View full size imageSailors and 12 Apostles. © NMM
I fired me bow-chaser, the signal she new
She backed her main tops'l an' for me hove to'
I lowered down me jolly-boat an' roved alongside,
An' I found madam's gangway wuz open an' wide.

I hailed her in English, she answered me clear,
“I’m from the Black Arrow bound to the Shakespeare”;
So I wore ship wid a what d’yer know,
An’ I passed her me hawser an’ took her in tow.

The sailor and the quack doctor (caricature).
View full size imageThe sailor and the quack doctor. © NMM
I entered her little cabin, an' swore, "Damn your eyes!"
She wuz nothin' but a fireship rigged up in disguise;
She had a foul bottom, from sternpost to fore;
'Tween the wind and water she ran me ashore.

She set fire to me riggin', as well as me hull,
An' away to the lazareet I had to scull.
Wid me helm hard-a-starboard as I rolled along,
Me shipmates cried, "Hey, Jack, yer mainyard is sprung!"

Now I’m safe in harbour, me moorings all fast,
I lay here quite snug, boys, till all danger is past;
With me mainyard all served, boys, an’ parcelled an’

Quotation marks right
Wasn't that a stiff breeze, boys, that sprung me mainyard?

An international trade

During the 17th century the area around the Highway attracted prostitutes of several nationalities. There was an influx of Flemish women who had a reputation for their sexual expertise, and Venetian courtesans. The Venetians were too expensive for most sailors and were patronized by aristocrats and members of the royal court.

Damaris Page

Rigging for a cruise (caricature)
View full size imageRigging for a cruise. © NMM

One of the most notorious women in the 1650s was Damaris Page. Samuel Pepys described her as 'the great bawd of the seamen'. She was born in Stepney around 1620, became a teenage prostitute and married a man called William Baker in 1640.

During the following 15 years she moved from being a prostitute to running brothels. She owned two. The one on the Ratcliffe Highway catered for ordinary seamen. The second, in Rosemary Lane, was for naval officers and those who could afford more expensive prostitutes.

Mrs Fry visiting a female prisoner at Newgate.
View full size imageA spell in Newgate failed to persuade Page not to resume her career in the vice trade. © NMM

In 1653 Damaris married a second husband and two years later was brought before Clerkenwell Magistrates. The first charge of bigamy was dismissed on the grounds that her first marriage had not been sanctified. But the second charge, of killing one Eleanor Pooley while attempting to carry out an abortion with a fork, was far more serious.

She was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hang. Luckily, she was pregnant at the time and was instead given three years in Newgate. On her release she resumed her career as a madam and died a rich woman in her house on Ratcliffe Highway in 1669.

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