Premarital relations among women were probably less common then than today (1965), but prostitution flourished to an extent hardly known again till our time. A foreign observer reckoned them at fifty thousand in London. They were found at town taverns, roadside inns, city gardens, public dances, concerts, and theaters; in Exeter Street and the Strand they sat at windows to encourage hesitant trade. In Drury Lane, sang Gay in his Trivia,
’Tis she who nightly strolls with saunt’ring pace;
No stubborn stays her yielding shape embrace;
Beneath the lamp her tawdry ribbons glare,
The new scour’d manteau, and the slattern air …
With flatt’ring sounds she soothes the cred’lous ear:
“My noble captain! charmer! love! my dear!”49
The law had no mercy on them. If found soliciting, they were taken to jail, whipped and pilloried. The Grub Street Journal for May 6, 1731, described the fate of one “madame”:
Yesterday the noted Mother Needham stood in the pillory in Park Place near St. James’s Street, and was severely handled by the populace. She was so very ill that she lay along the pillory, notwithstanding which she was severely pelted, and it is thought she will die in a day or two.50
But only the most impoverished prostitutes reached the pillory. Usually they evaded the law by bribery, or their landlord bailed them out; and some guardians of the law, perhaps recognizing their former hostesses, felt a degree of sympathy for women whom the statutes punished for the promiscuity of men. Probably not ten males in a London hundred came virginal to the marriage bed. Vice was publicly denounced, virtue was privately scorned. John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749), later known asFanny Hill, a concatenation of detailed seductions, was (and is) one of the most obscene and popular books of the century.
Some men banded together for mutual satisfaction. The London Journal for April 23 and 30, 1725, reported the arrest of seven homosexuals; on May 14 it recorded the hanging of three others for “sodomy.” It added: “We learn that they [the police] have discovered twenty houses or clubs where sodomites meet; moreover, they have an eye on nocturnal assemblies where these monsters meet in great number.” On July 7 the Journal noted the conviction of “Robert Whale and York Horner for having maintained in Westminster houses where they received amateurs of this detestable vice.” On July 23 it announced that “Marguerite Clapp, convicted of keeping a house of assignation for the use of sodomites,” had been “condemned to the pillory …, to pay a fine of ninety marks, and to spend two years in prison.”51
We are told, on good authority, that “a very large proportion of the people [of London] lived in a state of illicit cohabitation without marriage.”52 Love marriages were rising in number, at least in the novels of Richardson and Fielding, but most marriages were still arranged by the parents after careful weighing of the bride’s dowry against the bridegroom’s actual or prospective income. An act of 1753 prohibited persons under twenty-one from marrying without the consent of their parents or guardians. As this law applied to England alone, many English elopers crossed the border into Scotland, where the parsons in the village of Gretna Green followed an easier rule. Further conveniences for eager lovers were provided by acquisitive clergymen who performed clandestine marriages in taverns, brothels, garrets, or other places in or near the Fleet (a street and the debtors’ prison on it). Almost every tavern in that neighborhood had such a dominie ready, for a fee, to marry anyone without questions asked or license required. One such parson was reputed to have married six thousand couples per year. Marriages were entered upon in heat, and broken in thaw; thousands of women were deserted; sailors on shore for a day married, loved, and decamped. To end the evil Parliament decreed (1753) that no marriage in England, except between Quakers or Jews, should be valid unless performed by an Anglican priest in a parish church, after the publication of banns in that church for three successive Sundays; all violators of this statute were liable to deportation to the colonies.
Divorce was not allowed in England (before 1857) without a special act of Parliament,53 and the cost of such a procedure made it a luxury of the rich. Adultery flourished in all but the middle classes, with Georges I and II giving a royal example. “Everybody in this society,” Congreve had written in 1700, “was born with budding antlers”;54 and it was only less so in 1728, when Gay made Mrs. Peachum, in The Beggar’s Opera, ask her husband about her daughter, “Why must our Polly, forsooth, differ from her sex, and love only her husband? … All men are thieves in love, and like a woman the better for being another man’s property.”55 By and large, however, the morals of women were higher in England than in France; and in the middle classes, where the Puritan tradition was still strong, purity verged on prudery, and women might be such wives as men dream of—patient, industrious, and faithful. The double standard was imposed and accepted. Nice women heard much coarse speech and read Fielding and Smollett, but they were expected to blush alluringly, and to faint at a moment’s notice.
In all classes woman was looked upon as naturally and irrevocably inferior to man. Even the proud and rebellious Lady Mary conceded this, though perhaps with her sharp tongue in her cheek:
I am not now arguing for an equality of the sexes. I do not doubt God and nature have thrown us into an inferior rank; we are a lower part of the creation, we owe obedience and submission to the superior sex, and any woman who suffers her vanity and folly to deny this, rebels against the law of the Creator and indisputable order of nature.56
The Puritan interlude had brought woman down from her status under Elizabeth. One student judged that “about 1750, women in England had reached a new low level hardly in advance of their position in the twelfth century.”57
Social, economic, and political morality were at nadir. Gambling, which had been discouraged by Queen Anne, was restored to royal grace by Georges I and II. A special officer, the groom porter, controlled gambling at the court. Cardplaying was the favorite amusement of rich and poor, seldom without stakes, often with cheating. It was not unusual for highborn wastrels to win or lose two hundred guineas at one sitting; the Duke of Devonshire gambled away an estate in one game; and Lord Chesterfield gambled recklessly between lectures to his son. Under George I gambling became a public passion to a degree probably never rivaled since. Gambling casinos were opened at White’s Club, at Charing Cross, in Leicester Fields, in Golden Square, and in Bath. An engraving in Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress shows men and women gambling at White’s, and paying no attention to an announcement that the building is on fire; the game must be fought to a decision.I George II forbade such organized gambling, but sanctioned the government lottery, which had been established in 1569 and which survived till 1826. Lottery tickets were sold to the public by every device of promotion; excitement was worked up to such a pitch that servants robbed their masters, clerks their employees, to get a stake in the game.58
Drinking was even more popular than gambling. Beer or ale was the national drink. The London male consumed a hundred gallons a year, or a quart per day, as safer and tastier than water. The damp climate created a demand for rum, punch, brandy, gin, cordials, whiskey; and wine was a favorite medicine. Taverns and liquor stores were everywhere; out of 7,066 houses in the parish of Holborn 1,350 sold liquor. Landowners—and therefore Parliament—smiled on the whiskey trade, since it opened an added market for their barley and wheat;59 almost a third of the arable land of England was planted to barley. In the upper classes whiskey tended to replace wine as the repeated wars with France hindered the commerce with Bordeaux and Oporto, and the Dutch and the Germans brought in their preference for hard liquor. Here, as in gambling, the government set the pace: Harley, prime minister under Anne, was reported to have come drunk into the presence of the Queen; Bolingbroke sometimes sat up all night drinking; and Robert Walpole had been taught drunkenness by a father resolved not to be seen drunk by a sober son.60
When the passion for gin spread among the populace the government was disturbed. The spirits distilled in Britain rose from 527,000 gallons in 1684 to 5,394,000 gallons in 1735, with no comparable rise in population; on the contrary, physicians warned the government that gin drinking had rapidly increased the rate of mortality in London; and a Middlesex grand jury ascribed to that liquor much of the poverty and crime of the capital. Retailers of gin hung out signs promising to make their customers drunk for a penny, and offering them free beds of straw in the cellar.
The alarmed rulers tried prohibition by taxation. An act of Parliament in 1736 laid a duty of twenty shillings a gallon on gin, and required fifty pounds a year for license to sell it. The thirsting poor rose in violent riots. As Walpole had predicted, the prohibition led to smuggling, secret distilling, and clandestine trade. The number of gin shops rose to seventeen thousand, the distilled gallons to over seven million, and crime increased. The experiment was abandoned, the license fee was reduced to twenty pounds, the duty to a penny per gallon; the people rejoiced and drank. In 1751 a series of moderate and ingenious measures (such as making small debts to liquor dealers irrecoverable at law) effected a mild improvement.61 The philosopher Berkeley illuminated the situation by denouncing the upper classes for the evil example they gave to the masses, and warning them that “a nation lighted up at both ends must soon be consumed.”62
The moral level was low in business too. Great fortunes were derived from smuggling, piracy, and catching or selling slaves. Complaints arose that the water of the Thames was defiled by commercial as well as human waste, that wine was debased with cider and spirits of corn, that bread was adulterated with alum and chalk, that aging meats had their complexions freshened with chemicals dangerous to health and life. When attempts were made to check such practices, the patriots of business cried out for freedom and the right of “every man … to live in his own way without restraint.”63
The government interfered with liberty, but chiefy to impress men into the armed services. When various financial inducements failed to man the navy, “press gangs” (from 1744 onward) were sent out by the state to snare, drug, or otherwise persuade men into his Majesty’s ships. Intoxication was the easiest method, for in that condition a man could be led to sign away a year or more of his life. From the time they were so brought on board, said Admiral Vernon (1746), such men were “in effect condemned to death, since they are never allowed again to set foot on shore, but turned over from ship to ship … without any regard for the hardships they have undergone.”64 “No man,” said Samuel Johnson, “will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail.… The man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”65 Sailors secured by impressment were usually weak in body and mind, but the rough discipline and ruthless selection by ordeal of fire and flogging (as described and doubtless exaggerated in Smollett’s Roderick Random) made the survivors the toughest and proudest warriors on the sea.
Piracy was still winked at as a form of commerce, but it was in decline as navies grew stronger. The slave trade flourished; English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese ships competed for the privilege of selling African Negroes to American Christians. By the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) Spain had transferred from France to England the Asiento, the contract to supply the Spanish colonies annually with 4,800 slaves. Of the 74,000 slaves transported to America in the one year 1790, the French carried 20,000, the Dutch 4,000, the Danes 2,000, the Portuguese 10,000, and the British 38,000—more than half the total.66 “The English alone, at a low estimate,” says an English authority, “carried over two million negroes to America in the period between 1680 and 1786.”67 Some Negro slaves were kept for service in English homes. The newspapers contained promises of rewards for the return of runaway slaves; one advertisement offered “a negro boy, about twelve years of age, … to be sold.”68 Slaves were sold at Paris till 1762, and even the popes had Turkish galley slaves from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.69 The Quakers began in 1727 a movement to end the British share in the slave trade; Steele and Pope supported them; the Methodists advanced the crusade; but the campaign for abolition made no substantial progress before 1772.
Political morality reflected the triumph of a hard commercial spirit. Hardly anything could be effected without bribery, and nearly every official had his price. Offices were sold, and votes in Parliament were bought like merchandise. M.P.s sold their franking privilege. Noble lords sold positions in their households,70 and “obstructed attempts to check the purchase of nominations to Parliament, or of members of the Commons.”71 “Rotten boroughs,” with a handful of inhabitants, sent to Parliament as many representatives as counties abounding in population and industry; “Old Sarum,” with not a single resident, sent two delegates; and such boroughs were easily controlled by men of birth or wealth. Businessmen, seeking political influence commensurate with their economic power, bought nominations or nominees to Parliament for some £ 1,500 each.72 All in all, this half century was the most corrupt and merciless in English history; and the historian finds it no simple matter to explain how, from the venality of that age, Britain has risen to such high repute for the integrity of its businessmen and its government.
Amid the debasement of morals and politics there were many touches of humanitarian sentiment. There were homes, however ill-kept, for the old, the disabled, and the poor. There were guilds in which masters were kindly fathers to their apprentices; there were families that sheltered and educated orphans; there were associations—“box clubs”—for mutual aid in evil days. There was an impressive example—the first in modern history—of international charity when England contributed £ 100,000 sterling to her economic ally, Portugal, for the relief of sufferers from the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.73 Between 1700 and 1825 one hundred and fifty-four new hospitals and dispensaries were established in Britain, four in London in one generation (1700–45). Most of these institutions were financed by private subscription. The best of those set up in the first half of the eighteenth century was the Foundling Hospital, organized by Captain Thomas Coram. Hogarth painted him in 1740 as a gift to the hospital: rotund, white-haired, kindly, with the royal charter at his right hand, and a globe at his feet; for Coram had earned his fortune as a captain in the merchant marine. Retiring, he was shocked by the high infant mortality in London, and by the number of infants exposed or deserted by mothers with no funds to care for them or no father’s name to give them. Coram persuaded highborn ladies to sign a petition for a foundling hospital; he secured a charter and two thousand pounds from George II; his appeal for contributions was met with unexpected generosity; the great Handel gave an organ and the now precious score of his Messiah, and directed concerts that raised ten thousand pounds. In 1739 the trustees commissioned Theodore Jacobsen to design a spacious group of buildings and grounds, which became one of the proudest sights of London.