Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Prostitution in 17th-18th century English ports

Above... 1777: 'Bachelor's fare' [note what he is passing her]

East Indiaman gone native note: This is an reworking of text from both main text and image descriptions. I selected just a fraction of the images.

17th century - Ratcliffe Highway

During the 17th century, the most notorious area for prostitution in the port of London was Ratcliffe Highway. This was a road lying to the north of the Wapping waterfront, on the north bank of the Thames. 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'. 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. At first, society regarded this as harmless fun.

Above...1781: 'An English sloop engaging a Dutch Man of War'


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

[ webiste has a link to allow readers to listen]

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,

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.

[I skipped a verse for brevity]

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!"

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

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.

A spell in Newgate failed to persuade Page not to resume her career in the vice trade. 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.

Above: 'The young wanton privateer bringing his Spanish prize into the port of love'

The 18th century - a booming business

The growth in the capital's maritime trade during the 18th century, along with the presence of the Royal Navy's dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford, brought more and more ships to the Port of London. 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. According to one contemporary estimate, almost a sixth of the total population of the capital were engaged in the vice-trade, often on a part-time basis.

Defoe's view

According to Daniel Defoe, writing in 1725, many prostitutes came from the huge army of maidservants in London and took to prostitution to support themselves when they were out of work. Others were young women who decided that they would rather sell their bodies than work 16 hours a day as laundresses or seamstresses.

Covent Garden

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. They tended to cater for wealthier clients than the establishments in Wapping and were frequented by ships' captains and rich merchants involved in the East India trade. 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'.

Covent Garden brothel keepers like Molly King and Mother Douglas were familiar figures in contemporary novels and prints. They were often depicted 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. According to one contemporary estimate, almost a sixth of the total population of the capital were engaged in the vice-trade, often on a part-time basis. Although many prostitutes were streetwalkers, others worked from home or could be approached in public places such as taverns, theatres or pleasure gardens.

Above... 'Jack got safe into port with his prize'

Guides to prostitution

The names of the higher end prostitutes, along with their addresses, a description of their appearance and their particular talents, could be found in publications such as The Covent Garden Magazine or Amorous Repository, The Man of Fashion’s Companion and The Rangers Magazine.

Above... 1791: 'An Englishman privateer bringing in 'La Monsieur' a French prize'

John Harris

The first lists, produced in the 1740s, were handwritten. They were complied by John Harris of the Shakespeare’s Head, a Covent Garden tavern frequented by sea captains and the directors of the East India Company. Demand for the lists was so great that Harris eventually went into print, publishing Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar (1758). More than 8000 copies of the first edition were sold. Harris died in 1765, but his list was issued, and updated, on an annual basis until the 1790s.

The descriptions in the lists make interesting reading:

Miss B____rn. No. 18 Old Compton Street, Soho….This accomplished nymph has just attained her 18th year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianoforte, sings, dances, and is mistress of every manoeuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance...In bed she is all the heart can wish; her price two pounds.

Above... 1791 'Men of War bound for the port of pleasure'

Preference for sailors

Other women had a preference for sailors. Mrs Crosby of 24 George Street, for example, 'being particularly attached to the sons of neptune', had married an elderly sea captain. When he died he left her a small annuity. This was enough to keep her off the streets, but not enough to live on - so she worked as a part-time prostitute.

According to Harris’s List, she could be contacted at home during the day or in the theatre at night. She was described as having dark hair flowing in ringlets down her back, languishing grey eyes and a tolerable complexion. She charged one guinea (£1.05).

Mrs Grafton of Wapping was also fond of sailors. Her 'best customers are sea officers, who she particularly likes, as they do not stay long at home, and always return fraught with love and presents'.

Miss Devonshire

Harris used nautical terminology when describing the charms of the women. Miss Devonshire of Queen Ann Street had 'a fair complexion, cerulean eyes and fine teeth.' However, the reader is also told that:

"many a man of war hath been her willing prisoner, and paid a proper ransom…she is so brave, that she is ever ready for an engagement, cares not how soon she comes to close quarters, and loves to fight yard arm and yard arm, and be briskly boarded"

* Note: 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. [horseshit]

Above... 1809: 'Launching a frigate'


No comments: