One of the things I love about this blog is that I can look at the stats and find out exactly what people were looking for when they clicked on an entry. For instance, the entry ‘Where the Chartered Thames doth Flow’ gets a lot of traffic from people looking for information on William Blake. And ‘Apocalypse London’ gets a lot of searches related to Nineteen Eighty-Four, 28 Days Later and War of the Worlds. What’s slightly distressing, though, is that having written an entry that mentions prostitution in Southwark (‘Nice One, Shakespeare’ if you’re interested), I’ve noticed a sharp rise in the number of people who’ve clicked on this blog looking for information on prostitutes in London. Now, I’m not the sort of person who likes to deceive. If I was, I’d write “Jessica Alba naked” in the hope of snaring people through Google. But I’m not like that. I’m not the sort of person who’d put “Emma Watson nude” in an entry for no reason. The very concept of writing “Megan Fox topless” in a blog entry when I have no such photographs fills me with moral repulsion. So you’ll understand that it upsets me that people come here looking for information on prostitutes in London and find only semi-related information about Billy Shakespeare.
So, in an attempt to redress the balance, here’s an entry about prostitution in London. It’s one of those things that’s always been around, and probably always will be around. It’s also rather difficult to find concrete facts on the subject, due to the fact that it’s an underground and often illegal trade (although it is worth noting that prostitution is not, in itself, illegal in the UK – the laws are confusing and damn if I’m going to make my Google search history look any worse by asking for specifics).
It seems to have centred on the West End for as long as there’s been a West End. Soho is currently the favoured port of call for the desperate gent, but it seems that this has only really been the case since the Second World War. The obvious conclusion is that it has something to do with the rise of Theatreland – a popular stereotype of actresses from the Restoration onwards (before which time women on stage had been illegal) was that they were basically whores. Well, why else would they go on stage where everyone can see them? Interestingly, nobody seems to have come to any similar conclusions with male actors. Anyway.
Of course, whether you believe the “actresses are whores” argument or not (knowing a few actresses myself, I don’t – apart from anything else, they might be reading this), it did make sense to set up shop in the West End. After all, if you’re a roarin’ young lad on a night out at the theatre, how better to round off the evening than with a fine strumpet. Or trull, doxy, cyprian, crack, blowzabella, trugmoldy or punchable nun, to use just some of the many nicknames employed.
The 18th century gent might employ Harris’s List of Covent Garden Cyprians, published by Jack Harris, a barman at the Shakespear’s Head in Drury Lane who nicknamed himself “Pimp General of all England,” although history does not record whether he made himself a special uniform.
The book was an underground success, though the Pimp General was eventually jailed for producing it. If he’d been two hundred and fifty years later, he could have started a website or something. Alas, poor Jack. Still, even after he “abandoned” the venture, it continued to be published for some years by a gentleman named Samuel Derrick, although connoisseurs of that sort of thing say it jumped the shark after Jack left.
As you might imagine, the book was a guide to prostitutes working in the area. I recommend the following article for extracts from the work: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3644319/As-lewd-as-goats-and-monkeys.html
It seems that the doxies of Covent Garden catered for all tastes. As well as the female brothels and ladies “working” the coffee houses, there were a fair few molly houses (male brothels) and houses of flagellation. One of these,
owned by one Mrs Colet, was supposedly a favourite haunt of George IV. I have an image in my head of a dominatrix saying, “You opposed Catholic emancipation, didn’t you, you naughty boy?”
This certainly goes some way to explaining why George supported the ‘Pains and Penalties Bill’ – he probably thought it sounded rather fun.
I’m not entirely clear when Soho became the primary red light district in London. In Henry Mayhew’s London’s Underworld (published 1862), he notes that Dean Street and Windmill Street were already popular sites. However, he seems to suggest that Haymarket was the place to be if you were looking for a punchable nun. Incidentally, I recommend Mayhew to anyone looking for a history of the less well documented areas of Victorian society – his style is very frank and readable. What’s more, the main character in Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew, is named after him.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the 1959 Street Offences Act would be what clinched it. This made it illegal for prostitutes to go out on the streets. As much of the West End had gone upmarket over the past two centuries, and as much of the London gangland scene was already centred on Soho, it made a kind of sense to set up shop there. If anyone wants to correct me, then please do.