Friday, 24 June 2005

London Prostitution in the 1700s

1630s brothel scene - Nicolaus Knuepfer

The whole Covent Garden area and part of the Strand was a notorious haunt for prostitutes in the 1700s. There was a variety of choices on offer. A gentleman could visit the more "prestigious" brothels or just go down a dark alley with one of the multitude of street walkers. Either way, he would almost certainly get venereal disease and then go home to pass it on to his wife and worse still, his unborn children.

A well known madame of the time was Elizabeth Wisebourn (no pun intended). She herself had syphilis and was horribly disfigured but her 'girls' were reknown for their beauty and 'talents'. In the hallway she had a big Bible open on a table to remind her punters that she was afterall a clergyman's daughter and therefore God-fearing. It would cost them one guinea to enter the brothel and after that it was up to them to decide what they wanted to give to the girl of their choice. 'Virgins' were easy to find, as their maidenhood had been surgically restored over and over again to supply the demand. In each room upstairs, a mirror was placed in a position "so conveniently placed that those who have a mind to it, may see what they do: for some take as much delight in seeing as in doing". Mother Whybourn, as she was known to her girls and clients, would go around the London taverns daily, to see what innocent young girls she could find, girls who had just arrived from the country and ahd no idea what to do or where to go. She would bring them back to her 'house', give them food, shelter, nice clothes and teach them how to please the gentlemen. On Sunday she would take all her charges to church, where they would advertise themselves. One of her girls said: "We'd take all opportunities, as we came down stairs from the galleries, or as we past over the kennels in the streets, to lift up our skirts so high that we might show our handsome legs and feet, with a good fine worsted or silk pair of stockings on; by which means the gallants would be sure either to dog us themselves or else to send their footmen to see where we lived and then they would afterwards come to us themselves and by that means we have got many a good customer."

All the best brothels had their own in-house doctor to take care of the girls that were still young and beautiful. Those whose looks had never been that impressive, or the ones who were past their prime would be thrown out to the streets to fend for themselves and ultimately die in squalor.


John Doom said...

The mighty syphilis brought back from the "East Indies" as a gift for Columbus' men.

ResoluteReader said...

Well, since Columbus' men and their successors committed genocide against many of the people who had welcomed them, Syphilis perhaps was a good gift.

Interestingly, there seems to be some debate that Syphilis had existed in a slightly different form earlier in European history.

Interesting article on Wikipedia going through some of the debate

Alterior said...

Yes, I know. I wrote about syphillis in one of my earlier posts. The plague for example was said to have existed in different forms throughout history and there is also speculation that the first epidemic of plague in Europe, the Black Death, was not bubonic plague but an earlier form of teh disease...

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your bringing this disease to light.

There are millions of wives in countries around the world who end up paying for their husbands' pleasures today.