Sex in the Georgian city

I recently came across a post on one of my favourite blogs - The History Blog. A family having problems with their drains in southern Italy did a spot of excavating, and uncovered 2,500 years of historical remains lying beneath their house. The post made me muse about the history that lies beneath our feet; and reminded me of a programme I'd seen some time ago on, I think, the BBC.

A couple were living in a terraced Georgian house in the heart of London's Soho. Wanting a bit more living space they bought the house that lay immediately behind theirs intending to knock into it, and so double the size of their property. Soho has long been a rather strange collection of commercial and domestic properties, and the new house hadn't been lived in for some time. There were layers of wallpaper to get off, and as the couple went down through the wallpaper, they started to hit something very unusual - first Victorian and then Georgian wallpaper, possibly from when the house was brand new.

Things however took a rather sinister turn when they started to deal with the damp problem in the basement. It turned out that there was a large pit in the basement which appeared to be there for no purpose. At around this point the BBC and Dan Cruickshank became involved; and it turned out that the property was probably one of the first Turkish baths or bagnios in Georgian London. Its role as a bagnio almost certainly meant that it was a brothel as well. Ironically it appears that after the bagnio closed there was little evidence that the property had continued to be a part of the sex industry unlike many of the houses around it in the area; but it was fascinating to suddenly see its old self re-emerging.

Dan Cruickshank's The secret history of Georgian London : how the wages of sin shaped the capital looks at the underworld, primarily the sex trade, that underpinned the booming city. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, London grew exponentially till by Queen Victoria's time it was the sprawling metropolis beloved of Dickens. In the early eighteenth century however there were still fields (especially on the south bank) near the Thames, and much of London would have felt quite rural. By the mid-eighteenth century there was a major property boom (us Brits do seem to love our bricks and mortar). Much of the boom was funded by aristocrats, who owned the land, could put up properties cheaply, lease the land, and then take it back along with the property after the leasehold was up. Meanwhile landlords could let out properties, or even just rooms in properties, at high rents, and make a fortune.
Joshua Reynolds' muse, the witty Kitty Fisher

This is where the Georgian sex industry could make phenomenal amounts of money. Prostitutes and their bawds (brothel madams) often earned substantially more than your average worker. They could put money into property knowing that there would be a safe return, and that their hard earned cash would see them safely into retirement (if they were lucky enough to live that long).

For some women prostitution was a sensible career choice - options for single women of a marriageable age were limited. Marriage risked being chained to the wrong man for the rest of your life with no financial independence, and the risk of rape and violence; while employment opportunities were limited and usually poorly paid. But for every woman who went into prostitution and ended up marrying a lord, there were many who faced violence, transportation, and a society that both connived with the sex industry while dealing harshly with those who were caught up in it. It's an oddly hypocritical society, although one that is very recognisably British (we always do seem to have had an ambivalent attitude towards sex).

Some of Cruickshank's book is truly shocking. As a musician I've long been familiar with Handel and the Foundling Hospital. What I hadn't known about was the less agreeable history of the institution, particularly the horrendous mortality rate among the orphans: calculated at one point as around 75%; and then there was the in-fighting that led to its founder, Thomas Coram, stepping down even before the first brick was laid. The prevalence of child abuse on Georgian streets was also truly shocking.

Lavinia Fenton - from prostitute to the Duchess of Bolton
On the brighter side there were some fascinating stories and characters - the wonderful cross-dressing women, at least one of whom ended up as a Chelsea pensioner; some of my favourite eighteenth century characters, the artist Hogarth and the writers Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, who seem to be every bit as nice as I thought they were, and the former prostitute turned actress, Lavinia Fenton, who reduced a duke to tears by her performance as Polly Peachum, and subsequently married him.

There's a strange tale here too - Lavinia Fenton married the Duke of Bolton. Her twentieth-century namesake went in search of the current Lord Bolton, and subsequently married him!

It's an astonishing and fascinating tale not just of the social history of the period, but also of its cultural and political life. Cruickshank may sometimes be a little simplistic in his conclusions, but he tells the story of these people with great humanity, and very readably too. It's an enthralling look at the true story behind many of my "bad girls" such as Moll Flanders and Roxana, and reveals what often lies beneath a booming economy.


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