Sex, in the city, has commonly been associated with dirt and disease; if not with these, then with trade. The resemblance exists even within the language itself; “hard core” is a term conventionally applied to pornography but its original meaning, in a London context, was that of “hard, rock-like rubbish” used in the building of roads and houses. Where there is rubbish, there is also death. The area around the Haymarket, a notorious haunt of prostitutes, encompasses “a march of the dead. It is a plague-spot—the real plague spot.”
From its earliest days London has been the site of sexual activity. A Roman model of a phallus was found in Coleman Street—later, paradoxically, a haven for Lollards and Puritans—as well as an architrave depicting three prostitutes. In the precincts of the Roman temple, where Gracechurch Street and Leadenhall Street now are, there would have been erotic celebrations connected with Saturn or Priapus, and beside the amphitheatre on the present site of the Guildhall we might expect to find a palaestra or promenade frequented by male and female prostitutes. There were brothels licensed by the Roman authorities, as well as “fornixes” or arches beneath which were located “mere dirty shacks” employed for the purposes of fornication. E.J. Burford, in his learned London: the Synfulle Citie, has remarked that on certain street corners a “herm” was placed, “a short stone pillar of Hermes” with an erect penis and “prepuce painted a brilliant red.”
Yet the use of arches and brothels meant that, in this most commercial of cities, sex had itself already been commercialised. In the centuries of Danish and Saxon occupation, young women were bought and sold like any other merchandise. “Gif a man buy a mayden with cattle,” according to one Saxon injunction, “let the bargain stand if it be without guile.” A thousand years later an eighteenth-century nursery rhyme contained the line, “I had to go to London town and buy me a wife.” There are supposed to have been auctions for women in certain secret markets, continuing well into the nineteenth century, and the emphasis upon finance is sustained by the enquiry of the late twentieth-century prostitute, “Do you want any business?” So does the spirit of London imprint itself upon the desires of its inhabitants. London is dedicated to selling. But the poor have nothing to sell, so they sell their bodies. Thus, sexual lust is free to roam down every lane and alley. London has always been the scene of covert debauchery.
Those medieval chroniclers who cited London for its drunkenness and sin-fulness also rebuked it for its rapists and its lechers, its harlots and its sodomites. In the twelfth century there is reference to Bordhawe, an area of brothels in the parish of St. Mary Colechurch. In the thirteenth century, and probably much earlier, there was a Gropecuntlane in the two parishes of St. Pancras and St. Mary Colechurch (also known as Groppecountelane, 1276 and Gropecontelane, 1279); the context and meaning here are obvious enough. In the same period there are references to Love Lane “where yonge couples were wont to sport” and Maid Lane “so-called of wantons there.”
Beside Smithfields there was also Cock Lane, which in 1241 was “assigned” for sexual congress. It became in a sense the first red-light district, notorious for prostitutes; “at the approach of night they sally forth from their homes … low taverns serve them as a retreat to receive their gallants.” The description was pertinent at any time from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and serves to emphasise how one small area can continue the same activity even as the city changes all around it. That lane was inhabited by the very types of London, such as Mrs. Martha King, “a little fat woman, known last winter by her velvet gown and pettecoat,” Mrs. Elizabeth Brown, “who has been a dealer in cullies [young girls] ever since she was fifteen; modest and pleasant enough, till after the third bottle,” and Mrs. Sarah Farmer, “a great two-handed strapper, having no charms either in person or in humour.” In Piers Plowman (c. 1362) Langland also commemorates “Clarice, of cokkeslane, and the clerke of the cherche.”
In the fourteenth century there are records of proceedings against whores, courtesans and bawds as well as whoremongers. In June 1338 William de Dalton was arrested for “keeping a house of ill fame in which married women and their paramours were wont to resort” and in the following month Robert de Stratford was arraigned for harbouring prostitutes.
In the following year Gilbert le Strengmaker, of Fleet Street, was charged with maintaining “a Disorderly House harbouring prostitutes and sodomites” while at the same sessions two courtesans, “Agnes and Juliana of Holborne,” were also accused of harbouring sodomites. So there was in medieval London a thriving homosexual community, which aligned itself with the world of brothels and bawds. It would be tempting to describe it as an underworld except that it was well known and ubiquitous.
Charges were laid against brothels in the wards of Aldersgate, the Tower, Billingsgate, Bridge (here one prostitute was known as Clarice la Claterballock), Broad Street, Aldgate, Farringdon and elsewhere. Many of those arrested for sexual offences came from areas far from London itself, however, suggesting that the reports of sexual licence—and profit—had spread throughout the country. London had long ago become the centre of England’s sinfulness. A great chronicle of the period, Brut, remarks upon “ladies … waerynge Foxtayles sewed wythynne to hide their arses,” while another reports on the ladies of the town with “breasts and bellies exposed.” There were in fact sumptuary laws which proscribed lewd women from wearing the same clothes as “noble Dames and Damsels of the Realm”; they were obliged to wear striped garments as a sign of their profession, which indirectly suggests the level of tolerance exercised in medieval Catholic London: prostitution was neither banned nor excluded.
The level of vice was in late medieval London far higher, or at least more open, than at any period in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries; it reached such an extent that it provoked alarm among the city authorities who in 1483 published a proclamation against “the Stynkynge and Horrible Synne of Lecherie … which dayly groweth and is used more than in dayes past by the means of Strumpettes, mysguded and idyll women dayly vagraunt.” There were attempts then to remove the “mysguded” from the more respectable thoroughfares of the city, by confining the women to the areas of Smithfield and Southwark beyond the walls. But in Southwark the Bankside brothels south of the river were continually placed in jeopardy by the whims or panics of the authorities, and the women themselves chose to congregate in areas such as St. Giles, Shoreditch (where they still can be seen), and Ave Maria Alley beside St. Paul’s Cathedral. They were also to be found in the Harry in Cheapside, the Bell in Gracechurch Street, and a score of other stews within the city. The derivation of the term “stews” comes not from some reference to cloying meat or hot broth, but from the old French for artificially stocked fishponds—estuier, to shut up. That sense of closeted heat, stew-boiled, was exacerbated by the incidence of syphilis which in the sixteenth century became the object of outrage from moralists and rage from satirists.
The sexual life of the city continued regardless, in any case, with visitors remarking on the casual intimacy of the relations between the sexes. A Venetian of the sixteenth century commented that “Many of the young women gather outside Moorgate to play with the young lads, even though they do not know them … They kiss each other a lot.” Married females seem to have taken part in the same pursuit, and in the early seventeenth century a tall flagpole was set up on the shore of the Thames, just past Deptford, “to which horns of all kinds and descriptions are fixed, in honour of all the English cuckolds or horn carriers … and the English have much fun and amusement with each other, as they pass by and doff their hats to each other and to all around.” It was well known, as the title of one early seventeenth-century London broadside put it, to be A Marry’d Woman’s Case.
The ubiquity of whores meant that they had a hundred different nicknames—punks, madams, fireships, jilts, doxies, wagtails, drabs, smuts, cracks, mawkes, trulls, trugmoldies, bunters, does, punchable nuns, molls, Mother Midnights, blowzes, buttered buns, squirrels, mackerels, cats, ladybirds, blowzabellas, and others. Madame Cresswell of Clerkenwell was a notorious procuress, who was painted and engraved on several occasions; in her house she kept “Beauties of all Complexions, from the cole-black clyng-fast to the golden lock’d insatiate, from the sleepy ey’d Slug to the lewd Fricatrix” and she corresponded with agents all over England to discover the young and the attractive. She was one of many famous London bawds. In the first of his series A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth pictured Mother Needham who owned a notorious brothel in Park Place. But she was pelted to death in the pillory, and Hogarth had to substitute for her Mother Bentley who was equally famous in the streets of London. These “Mothers” were indeed the mothers of a city of lust.
Some of its daughters, and its sons, were young indeed. “Every ten yards,” a German traveller wrote, “one is beset, even by children of twelve years old, who by the manner of their address save one the trouble of asking whether they know what they want. They attach themselves to you like limpets … Often they seize hold of you after a fashion of which I can give you the best notion by the fact that I say nothing about it.”
Boswell’s diary of street life in 1762 provides an account of sexual favours currently on offer. On the evening of Thursday 25 November, he picked up a girl in the Strand, and “went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [i.e. wearing a condom]. But she had none … she wondered at my size, and said if ever I took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” On the night of 31 March, in the following year, “I strolled into the Park and took the first whore I met, whom I without many words copulated with free from danger, being safely sheathed. She was ugly and lean and her breath smelled of spirits. I never asked her name. When it was done, she slunk off.” On 13 April, “I took a little girl into a court; but wanted vigour.” Boswell, often a moralist after the event, does not regard the fact that it was a “little girl” as of any significance; this suggests that there were many such thrown upon the streets of London.
When Thomas De Quincey met one of them, Ann, he spent many nights with her walking “up and down Oxford Street” but “she was timid and dejected to a degree which showed how deeply sorrow had taken hold of her young heart.” He left her for a while, naming a spot at the corner of Titchfield Street where they should wait for each other. But he never saw her again. He looked for Ann in vain among the thousand faces of young girls in the London crowd and called Oxford Street “stony hearted stepmother, thou that listenest to the sighs of orphans, and drinkest the tears of children.” This compassionate attitude to the suffering of young female prostitutes rarely, if ever, emerges in eighteenth-century records, including that of Boswell. The month after taking the “little girl into a court,” for example, Boswell picked up a woman and “conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and then in armour complete did I engage her upon this noble edifice.” This, in the slang of the time, was probably “a threepenny upright.” “The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us aroused me much.”
To Boswell she was only a “low wretch” and by definition unclean; therefore, after the event, she became an object of suspicion and threat. Boswell was always terrified of catching venereal disease, like most of his contemporaries. John Gay in a purview of London warned against the pursuit of
the tawdry band
That romp from lamp to lamp—for health expect
Disease, for fleeting pleasure foul remorse
And daily, nightly, agonising pains
Such were the pains suffered by Casanova who, after visiting a prostitute in the Canon Tavern, was infected with gonorrhoea.
Casanova described how on an earlier occasion he entered another brothel, the Star Tavern, where he ordered a private room. He engaged in conversation with “the grave and reverend landlord”—a good aside, touching the assumed character of many London brothel-keepers—before turning away all the women who came to his room. “Give a shilling for the porters and send her away,” said his host after the first refusal. “We don’t trouble ourselves about ceremonies in London.”
There was no ceremony when Samuel Johnson was accosted by a prostitute in the Strand—“No, no, my girl,” he murmured, “it won’t do.” Richard Steele was approached by another such girl, “newly come upon the Town,” near the Piazza in Covent Garden. She asked “if I was for a Pint of Wine” but, under the arches of the Market at twilight, he noticed in her countenance “Hunger and Cold; Her Eyes were wan and eager, her Dress thin and tawdry, her Mien genteel and childish. This strange Figure gave me much Anguish of Heart, and to avoid being seen with her I went away.”
The Strand and Covent Garden, as well as all the lanes which crossed them, were known places of sexual resort. There were public houses in the vicinity where “posture dancers” performed an eighteenth-century version of striptease; there were “houses of pleasure” which specialised in flagellation, and there were “Mollie houses” which were frequented by homosexuals. The London Journal of May 1726 discovered twenty “Sodomitical Clubs”—including, it would seem, the “Bog-Houses” of Lincoln’s Inn—“where they make their execrable Bargains, and then withdraw into some dark Corners to perpetrate their odious Wickedness.” Mother Clap’s in Holborn, and the Talbot Inn in the Strand, were favourite meeting-places for homosexual men, and there was a male brothel by the Old Bailey “where it was customary for the men to address each other as ‘Madam’ or ‘Ladyship.’” The Horseshoe in Beech Lane, and the Fountain in the Strand, were the eighteenth-century equivalent of “gay pubs” while the area around the Royal Exchange was known for its “cruising” when, as a contemporary verse put it, “Sodomites were so impudent to ply on th’Exchange.” Pope’s Head Alley and Sweetings Alley were all streets with a similar reputation; the male owner of a tavern or brothel in Camomile Street was known as “the Countess of camomile.” At Mother Clap’s itself there were beds in every room with “commonly thirty to forty Chaps every Night—and even more—especially on Sunday Nights,” while in a Beech Street brothel were found “a company of men fiddling dancing and singing bawdy songs.” There was a darker side to these festivities, however. When a certain “Club of Buggerantoes” was raided, several of those arrested committed suicide, among them a mercer, a draper and a chaplain. There were also many cases of blackmail so that there was danger, as well as excitement, in the city. Nevertheless London remained the centre of homosexuality where, under conditions of privacy and anonymity, the elect could pursue their calling. City juries were in any case notoriously reluctant to pronounce the capital sentence for the crime of sodomy; the usual verdict was “attempted” sodomy, for which a fine, short imprisonment, or spell in the pillory, was sufficient. Londoners are characteristically lenient in matters of sexual impropriety. How can they be otherwise in a city where every form of vice and extravagance is continually available?
The sexual ambience of nineteenth-century London, despite the cliché of “the Victorian age” as one of upright family values, was no less lascivious than its eighteenth-century counterpart. In her London Journal Flora Tristan wrote in 1840 that “in London all classes are deeply corrupted. Vice comes to them early.” She had been shocked by an “orgy” in a tavern where English aristocrats and Members of Parliament disported themselves with drunken women until daybreak. In quite a different sphere Henry Mayhew noted of London street children that “their most remarkable characteristic … is their extraordinary licentiousness.” As a result of his observations he guessed that the age of puberty came much earlier than most people believed; he declined to give, however, “the details of filthiness and of all uncleanness.” Even in the areas where the more respectable working class lived, it was customary for couples as young as thirteen and fourteen to live and procreate without the need for marriage vows; there was a church in Bethnal Green, for example, where these “Cockney marriages” could be performed and where “you might be married for sevenpence if you were fourteen years old.” One curate of the East End recalled a Christmas morning when he “stood marrying blaspheming youths and girls to one another … ghastly mockery.” Here sexual profligacy is associated with a general irreligion or atheism which is another characteristic emblem of London life.
Yet the major concern of nineteenth-century urban observers lay with the extent and nature of prostitution. Surveys—by Mayhew, by Booth, by Acton and others—suggest that it became something of an obsession. There were books entitled Prostitution in London, or, more elaborately, Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social & Sanitary Aspects. There were tables and statistics about where prostitutes were kept, lodged or resorted, with divisions and subdivisions: “Well-dressed living in Brothels,” “Well-dressed living in Private Lodgings,” “In Low Neighbourhoods,” “Introducing Houses” and “Accommodation Houses.” There were detailed observations on “Bent and Character of Mind,” “Manner of Passing Their Leisure Hours,” “Moral Defects” (spiritous liquor) and “Good Qualities” (strong sympathy for one another). Prostitution seems to have been the overwhelming consideration of Victorian social reformers, complementary to the efforts of other workers in matters of sanitation and housing; in that sense all were concerned with the inheritance of a thousand years of unchecked urban living, with a strong effort to cleanse or purify it.
The connection of sexuality and disease was also explicitly made. William Acton, in Prostitution in London, revealed that these “rouged and whitewashed creatures, with painted lips and eyebrows, and false hair, accustomed to haunt Langham Place, portions of the New Road, the Quadrant … the City Road, and the purlieus of the Lyceum” were on investigation more often than not found to be “a mass of syphilis.” The characteristic metaphor of waste or refuse was also adduced. “As a heap of rubbish will ferment, so surely will a number of unvirtuous women.” The prostitute then becomes a symbol of contagion, both moral and physical. Of the eighty thousand in London in the 1830s, it was said that eight thousand would die each year. In the London hospitals 2,700 cases of syphilis occurred each year “in children from eleven to sixteen years of age.” The actual number of female prostitutes was a subject of endless speculation and invention—seventy thousand, eighty thousand, ninety thousand, or higher, and in the mid-nineteenth century it was computed that “£8,000,000 are expended annually on this vice in London alone.” In that sense prostitution itself becomes a token of London’s commercial rapacity, as well as of the fears attendant upon the overwhelming growth of both vice and the city itself.
The degradation of civilisation, in the very centre of London, can take many different forms. Some of them were recorded in Ryan’s Prostitution in London, published in 1839. “Maria Scoggins, aged fifteen, held a situation as a stay-maker. On her way to her father’s house in the evening she was decoyed to a brothel kept by Rosetta Davis, alias Abrahams, and turned upon the streets.” Another girl, aged fifteen “was actually sold by her step-mother to the keeper of one of these houses in the eastern part of London.” Unwary children of both sexes were merchandise. Leah Davis was an elderly female, the mother of thirteen daughters, “all either prostitutes or brothel-keepers.” The metaphor of youth being sacrificed is redolent of barbaric rituals at the altars of Troy or Gomorrah, while the image of girls “thrown,” “turned,” or “decoyed” upon the streets suggests a vision of a dark and labyrinthine city where innocence is quickly scented and destroyed. Three girls of fifteen were despatched to lure many youths together “so as to make their united payments considerable”; “they were admitted to the scene of depravity which the establishment unfolded … These houses were used as lodging houses for thieves, vagabonds, mendicants, and others of the lowest grade … it was well known that the most diabolical practices were constantly perpetrated within them … in the midst of a dense and ignorant population … Men, women and children, of all ages, were there associated for the vilest and basest purposes … spreading a moral miasma around.” This is a record of what was considered to be the shadow of pagan darkness not in the suburbs, or in well-localised stews, but in the very heart of the city.
But if one image of the London prostitute was of disease and contagion, embodying in striking form all the anxieties and fears which the city itself may provoke, the other was of isolation and alienation. De Quincey’s account of Ann, daughter of stony-hearted Oxford Street, is one of the first examples of that urban vision which sees in the plight of the young prostitute the very condition of living in the city; she had become a prey to all its merciless commercial forces as well as to its underlying indifference and forgetfulness.
Dostoevsky, when wandering down the Haymarket, noticed how “mothers brought their little daughters to make them ply the same trade.” He observed one girl “not older than six, all in rags, dirty, bare-foot and hollow cheeked; she had been severely beaten and her body, which showed through the rags, was covered with bruises … Nobody was paying any attention to her.” Here we have an image of suffering in London, amid the endlessly hurrying and passing crowd who would no more pause to consider a bruised child than a maimed dog. What struck Dostoevsky, who himself was used to terror and hopelessness in his own country, was “the look of such distress, such hopeless despair on her face … She kept on shaking her tousled head as if arguing about something, gesticulated and spread her little hands and then suddenly clasped them together and pressed them to her little bare breast.” These are the sights and pictures of London. On another evening a woman dressed all in black passed him and hurriedly thrust a piece of paper in his hand. He looked at it and saw that it contained the Christian message “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” But how could anyone believe the precepts of the New Testament, when they had witnessed the pain and loneliness of a six-year-old girl? When the city was described as pagan, it was partly because no one living among such urban suffering could have much faith in a god who allowed cities such as London to flourish.
Yet perhaps the true gods of the city are of a different nature. When the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, otherwise known as Eros, was unveiled in 1893 at Piccadilly Circus, it was only a few yards from the infamous Hay-market where mothers had brought their young daughters for sale. Eros was the first statue ever made of aluminium, and in that conflation of ancient passion and new-minted metal, we have an emblem of desire as old and as new as the city itself. Eros has been drawing people ever since. In a twentieth-century novel by Sam Selvon, entitled The Lonely Londoners, one of the protagonists, a Trinidadian, notices that the “circus have magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and ending of the world.”
Throughout this century Piccadilly Circus has been the site of nightly sexual encounters, and an area where young people drift in search of adventure. It is a place where all the roads seem to meet, in endless disarray, and it exudes an atmosphere both energetic and impersonal. That is perhaps also why it has been for many decades a centre of prostitution and easy pick-ups, both male and female. It has always been the part of London most identified with casual sex. “There were regular places they haunted,” Theodore Dreiser wrote of London prostitutes at the beginning of the twentieth century, “Piccadilly being the best,” and that sentiment has been echoed in a thousand novels and documentary reports. The statue of Eros has, after all, commanded a strange power. The city itself is a form of promiscuous desire, with its endless display of other streets and other people affording the opportunity of a thousand encounters and a thousand departures. The very strangeness of London, its multifarious areas remaining unknown even to its inhabitants, includes the possibility of chance and sudden meetings. To be alone or solitary, a characteristic symptom of city life, is to become an adventurer in search of brief companionship; it also is the mark of the predator. The anonymity or impersonality of London life is itself the source of sexual desire, where the appetite can be satisfied without the usual constraints of a smaller society. So the actual vastness of London encourages fantasy and illimitable desire.
That is why the general sexual condition of London has always remained the same, in its voraciousness and insatiability. Today, there are strip bars and clubs where lap dancers perform; a thousand pubs and nightclubs cater for every kind of sexual perversity; there are streets known for prostitutes and parks used at night for cruising. Whole areas of London at night assume a different face, so that the city is like some endlessly fecund source which can offer alternative realities and different experiences. That is why it is in itself “sexy,” displaying its secret places and tempting the unwary. To turn just one more corner, or walk down one more path, may bring … who knows what? The telephone booths are littered with advertisements for sadistic or transsexual prostitutes, some of them claiming to be “new in town” or “new to London.” They are reminiscent of the eighteenth-century prostitute in Covent Garden, “newly come upon the Town.” But nothing is ever new in London, where the young still offer up their bodies for sale.