Some Thoughts on . . .

Female Prostitution in 18th-century England

In early eighteenth-century London, prostitution was not about sex: it was about theft. It was not about the exploitation of women: it was about the exploitation of men.

The main constraint upon and impetus to prostitution was poverty and more particularly “the culture of poverty” rather than specifically male domination. Most of the prostitutes in early eighteenth-century London were second-generation Irish immigrants, whose fathers had not succeeded in finding an adequate livelihood. Life on the game in such a community was the norm rather than the last resort. Prostitutes’ mothers were very often prostitutes themselves. Prostitutes very often worked as servants in bawdy houses and disorderly houses before they entered the trade themselves. The view that women went into prostitution after being made pregnant and "abandoned" by an apprentice who broke his promise to marry her is only partly true. Most prostitutes were married, and most of their husbands were thieves.

In eighteenth-century London, prostitutes, especially those who operated from the streets, regularly picked the pockets of the men they picked up. In most cases, theft rather than sex was the main object of the trade of prostitution. Prostitutes kept an eye out for drunkards, whom they could easily roll. It was common in the rougher parts of London for streetwalkers to simply assault and steal from potential clients without actually having sex with them. Streetwalkers used their sexuality aggressively. “Solicition” by women was often so forceful that it is more accurate to regard it as assault. For a woman to offer herself for sex should be considered one of the tools of theft, rather than as part of a sexual economy. The areas most noted as the haunts of streetwalkers coincided largely with the criminal underworld. Prostitutes usually plied their trade in pairs, partly for company and for mutual protection, and partly so they could overpower and rob men. The typical bawd who organized a small network of prostitutes was a landlady of a public house or a coffee house to which prostitutes brought their customers and robbed them. Bawds earned most of their money not from the receipts of their girls, but by fencing their stolen goods. Sailors sometimes tore down bawdy houses because they were so regularly fleeced and cheated in them. Higher-class madams ran gambling houses, where they also fleeced and cheated their male clientele.

Prostitutes played key roles in the criminal underworld. They taught children how to beg and how to pick pockets; they seduced foolish young men, persuading them to spend all their money on drink and pleasure, encouraging many to turn to theft to support them and the “flash” lifestyle; they maintained safe houses for thieves; and they operated as fences for stolen goods. There is overwhelming evidence that the prostitute was the keystone of the criminal underworld, at least in eighteenth-century London.

The argument that prostitution was just a part of normal plebian life rests upon the specific claim that prostitutes regularly shifted back and forth between prostitution and respectable labour, a phenomenon Daniel Defoe referred to as an "amphibious life" (in Everybody’s Business Is Nobody’s Business, 1725). However, this view is only rarely expressed in imaginative literature, and is very rarely documented in factual accounts. There certainly is not enough empirical evidence to suggest that this was the norm.

Nevertheless, Mary Wollstonecraft was correct that there was a significant overlap between a mantua-maker and a prostitute. The current view amongst social historians that prostitutes were not fixed in the single profession of prostitution, but moved back and forth between different types of respectable labour, and went into prostitution when times were hard in their other labour, is based upon a fair amount of evidence that when prostitutes were not prostitutes, they were milliners and mantua-makers (i.e. dressmakers). The practices of prostitution and mantua-making were so closely aligned that it becomes problematical whether or not mantua-making can really be classified as part of the world of respectable labour.

Campbell in The London Tradesman (1747) observed that "those [prostitutes] who pretend to deal only with select customers . . . take the title of milliner, a more polite name for bawd". Ned Ward in The London Spy (1698–99) observed a row of millinery shops in the Royal Exchange where the "women sat in their pinfolds begging of custom, with such amorous looks, and after so affable a manner, that I could not but fancy they had as much mind to dispose of themselves, as the commodities they dealt it" ("commodities" is one of the polite euphemisms for the female pudendum). In John Cleland's Fanny Hill Mrs Cole's establishment poses as a "millinery shop". A milliner's or mantua-maker's establishment was often likened to a house of prostitution, probably an accurate public perception.

A good many of the fallen women whose bastard children were put into the Foundling Hospital were seamstresses. Millinery and dressmaking were a kind of introduction to the prostitute's trade. What trial records show is that when prostitutes were brought into court (usually for stealing a gentleman's watch while his trousers were down), they would describe themselves as apprentices to a mantua-maker, or as being at one time a mantua-marker before they were led astray. A character witness for a prostitute will commonly be a mantua-maker, but I think many judges and juries realized that this mantua-maker acted as the "aunt" at the head of a small-time ring of streetwalkers. The professional mantua-maker often took in lodgers to supplement her income, and the real situation, often as not, is that she would have a few girl "apprentices" who mended stolen clothes and made new clothes from stolen textiles while they are not otherwise engaged picking up men in the street and bringing them to their mistress's upstairs rooms. It was not uncommon for a gentleman to go into a milliner's shop and have sex with one of the girls then and there. Though dressmaking could of course involve a high degree of professional skill, it also provided good cover for both prostitution and fencing stolen goods. Very large quantities of linen and silk, plus ribbons and lace etc., were regularly stolen from warehouses, and found their way to mantua-makers, milliners, and tailors. Tailors and milliners often acted as pawnbrokers, which to a great extent meant dealing in stolen goods. They operated on the boundary between the underworld and the respectable world.

The occupation of millinery or mantua-making was widely regarded as just a cover for prostitution. Charles Horne in Serious Thoughts on the Miseries of Seduction and Prostitution (1783) warned parents not to allow their daughters to become milliners, mantua-makers, or workers in the various clothes trades because they were "actually seminaries of prostitution". In so far as clothes-making is the only occupation that provides enough statistics to suggest a pattern of movement between prostitution and respectable work, I don’t think that the attempt by modern historians to "normalize" prostitution is justified. Most prostitutes probably belonged not to the "respectable" community but to the criminal underworld. When a woman could not earn enough from street-walking, her other cross-over occupation was far more likely to be pick-pocketing rather than mantua-making.

The power of the prostitute has generally declined since the eighteenth century. In eighteenth-century England the trade of prostitution was controlled by women. At the level of streetwalking, the prostitutes were independent and were not controlled by pimps. Some of them did employ bullies for protection, but this protection by men was not inverted into overt control by pimps until the nineteenth century, or perhaps towards the end of the eighteenth century. Common streetwalkers often beat up men who did not offer to buy them a dram. Several prostitutes might work out of lodging houses where they brought their customers. These lodging houses were owned by women; they earned their money by selling liquor, by getting a share of what the prostitutes got, and by operating as fences for the stolen goods brought in by the prostitutes. Bullies who extracted protection money from prostitutes did not arise until the late eighteenth century. Most of the brothels were owned by the bawds who ran them, though often a husband and wife team owned a string of brothels and public houses. Bawds such as Madam Creswell (c.1625–84), the most famous seventeenth-century "madam", catered for the upper classes, and even had a network of agents scouring Amsterdam and other foreign cities to keep her bagnios well stocked. She and some other famous bawds became very wealthy and powerful and owned many properties. (The ground landlords in Covent Garden were of course male aristocrats, but they did not organize and control prostitution.) Aristocratic female bawds owned and ran gaming houses, where higher-class prostitutes met their clients.

Generally speaking, from the lowest to the highest levels, prostitutes controlled their own activities. The main constraint was poverty of women in general rather than specifically male domination. It is true, however, that in the brothels with resident prostitutes, the prostitutes were exploited by the madams, and they had very little independent power, though they had greater security of employment. At the level of high-class courtesans, most of them were quite independent, many became wealthy and managed their own affairs and their own financial investments. But by the mid-1800s only high-class courtesans retained this kind of independence, and all other levels of prostitution became firmly controlled by men.

Copyright © 2002, 2006, 2008, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. Some of my comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in May 2002, and on the History of Sexuality Discussion List in April 2006 and April 2008.

Return to Some Thoughts On ...

Return to Essays by Rictor Norton