Visit Covent Garden today and you are surrounded, not only by history, but also by tourists intent on pleasure. From chic eateries to Opera House, boutiques to flagship Apple store, clubs to coffee shops, this magnificent square has long been a hedonist’s dream destination. Built as a 16th century aristocratic Italianate piazza, by the mid-17th century the nobility had moved to pastures new. Over time, the magnificent houses became places of trade. Prostitutes of every description lingered beneath the porticos, danced in the inns, sported themselves in bagnios, brothels and Turkish hummums. They formed a ‘whores’ club and they were listed on Jack Harris’s Guide to Covent Garden Ladies. One street to the East of Covent Garden, the Magistrates’ court played host to the foremost detective agency in the land: Sir Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners paved the way for the Metropolitan Police service in this, the most vice-ridden area of London. Fielding called it the ‘Square of Venus’.
When Sir Henry Fielding died, in 1754, his brother, Sir John, stepped into his shoes. Covent Garden’s glory days were over. Now the aristocrats mostly took their pleasure in Soho or St. James. By the end of the 18th century, they were travelling even further – to newly built Marylebone. Although Covent Garden’s hay-day had passed, there were still brothels aplenty. The Hummums Turkish bath, in the Little Piazza, still welcomed the unwashed gentry. The Shakespeare’s Head still played host to Jack Harris and his harem. The Covent Garden Theatre (now the Opera House) and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (today, in its fourth incarnation) still drew crowds. Covent Garden was by no means dead. It had just become a seedy neighbourhood—down-at-heel, and treacherous.
Dan Cruickshank states in his book The Secret History of Georgian London that a staggering one in five women living in London during the 18th century were prostitutes. Given that the population ranged from seven hundred and fifty thousand, mid-century, to one million souls at the turn of the 19th century, Cruickshank’s figures, on first consideration, seem rather high. Elsewhere the statistics appear more realistic. The Universal Daily Register, published in 1786, suggested that one sixth of the population lived off the proceeds of thievery and whoring, whilst the German traveller, Johann Wilhelm Von Archenholz, claimed that fifty thousand prostitutes occupied London. Whatever the actual figure, the fact remains that women had few ‘career’ choices: they could be wives, widows, mothers, servants or whores. Of course, they were also street vendors, milliners, dressmakers, and actresses, but prostitutes plied their trade within all of those occupations. Add into the mix the idea that domestics often turned to whoring to supplement their scant income, and Cruickshank’s one in five might not be so far from the mark.
In the early years of the 18th century, Covent Garden’s licentious reputation waxed, and bawds such as Mother Needham gained notoriety for providing the very best ‘gentry morts’ to a clientele of such a high standing, she could count Dukes and Earls amongst her patrons. When the bawd of renowned prostitute Sally Salisbury died, she gave her services to Needham’s stable. Here, older whores procured from other establishments, combined with a continual influx of sweet young girls, fresh from the country and free from disease, meant customers were never short on choice. It was a commonly held belief that a young virgin could cure syphilis. A disturbing report, made by Michael Ryan in 1839, claimed that around 400 people made their living by kidnapping children to feed the common desire for child sex partners. Present day statistics tell us that a staggering 75% of prostitutes began their careers as children.
Two hundred and fifty years or so ago, as fast as the pretty young things were snapped up by avaricious bawds, they aged and died. A whore’s life was short. Few reached their thirties. There was no cure for ‘dripper’ or the ‘French pox’, other than to take mercury. Men of course, were not considered the repository of such diseases. It was all the women’s fault. Foreigners to our shores called English women ‘foul and fetid under cover’ (Lobcock 1795, p.94), and with this description, and the end of the 18th century, Covent Garden’s hay-day waned.
Nowadays, this popular tourist locale straddles the Boroughs of Westminster and Camden. Historically, the Northern boundary was Long Acre, but in recent times it has expanded and now encompasses all streets as far north as High Holborn, as far east as Drury Lane, down to the Strand in the South, and St Martin’s in the west. Whilst the fruit and vegetable stalls have gone, and the soliciting prostitutes banished to online seraglios and telephone kiosks, an echo of the 18th century still lingers in the cries of the ticket sellers greeting tourists outside the tube station, the harangues of the clowns and buskers, and the ever-constant chime of the clock on the square’s old Church.
For all that prostitution is no longer as visible in Covent Garden as it once was, more prostitutes operate in Westminster than any other London borough. In June 2013 the Mayor’s office commissioned a survey called Capital Exploits: A Study of Prostitution and Trafficking in London in which authors Julie Bindel, Ruth Breslin and Laura Brown stated that, “London continues to have a thriving sex industry, both on and off-street, with thousands of women involved in prostitution, a proportion of whom have been trafficked. There is clear evidence of this industry in the vast majority of London boroughs.” The authors went on to identify “2,103 ‘businesses’ in London where sex was for sale, and estimated that 5,299 women were involved in off-street prostitution.” When one compares these figures against those of the London population as a whole (currently standing at 8.6 million), and then look again at those of the 18th century, what becomes evident is that today, far fewer women choose prostitution as a way of life. Some of that may be to do with the welfare state, but some of may be down to society’s changed attitude towards women. That said, prostitution is still a significant problem for many who fall on hard times.
Whilst in the past women were described as the weaker sex and, at one time, were effectively owned by their fathers and husbands, it was never in doubt that women were as capable as men, of giving and receiving sexual pleasure. The Victorians might have repressed these sensibilities, but the Georgian man of the 18th Century was a robust sort, given to accosting the domestics, soliciting on street corners, and taking mistresses with no thought to the diseases they might pass to their unwary wives. A certain class of women responded in a likewise, licentious fashion. Some might say, nothing has changed.
As to the whores themselves, they were frequently of a lowly sort and given to drink. Gin was a particular craze, after all. They were less frequently addicted to opium, which was traded in China by the East India Company in exchange for tea, but almost everyone had a penchant for coffee and cups of rich chocolate. Confection aside, 95% of today’s prostitutes are drug users; with heroin coming top of the list. Back in the day, many were educated country girls, enticed into the trade by promises of money and fine clothes. Just as girls are trafficked today across international borders, only to end up as sex slaves with no hope of escape, so in the 18th century prostitutes could do little to break away from their tawdry lives. It is a trade that has changed little. Few women avoided the control of their ‘beardsplitter’, who gave a roof and food with one hand, whilst taking away the means to independence with the other. It can be argued that even the whores of highest renown relied on the income they had from being ‘kept women’, and that even though they appeared to be free agents, their escape came by way of an early death, or marriage. The much celebrated Sally Salisbury, for instance, was imprisoned for stabbing a man, and died of syphilis whilst in Newgate prison. The idea that these women retain their independence by whoring is a fiction that has long remained with us.
As to the criminal aspects of prostitution in Georgian England, as today, opinion was divided. Whilst there were laws against keeping a disorderly house, few bawds were charged, and streetwalkers suffered arrest for theft more frequently than they did for solicitation. Whilst Sir John Fielding had given the men in his charge power to apprehend whores, and had the backing of laws passed mid-century, more frequently than not they simply maintained the status quo. This led to accusations that the Bow Street Runners operated ‘protection rackets’. Complaints were more frequently laid at the door of those policing the streets, than the trouble-makers themselves. Not that anyone really ‘policed’ 18th century London. Prosecutions were brought, not by the Crown Prosecution Service, as is the case now, but by the victim of a crime, or, in the case of a murder, by someone with a close association to the victim. The early Bow Street Runners had been recruited from the ranks of ‘thief-takers’; they were essentially, professional thugs.
The Disorderly Houses Act of 1751 placed restrictions on brothel keepers, but it was not until the Vagrancy Act of 1824 that prostitutes themselves were criminalised. Further laws in the 1840s, 1860s and in 1880s increased the difficulties. The Street Offences Act of 1959 made it an offence for women to “to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution”, and in 1985 the Sexual Offences Act criminalised the kerb crawling clients. Over the last two centuries, the law appears to have dealt firmly with prostitution, yet the oldest profession remains a scurrilous reminder of our base nature.
Read The Finish – The Progress of Murder Uncovered by Angela Elliott