London: The Wicked City
London, The Wicked City by Fergus Linnane is a chronological survey of vice and, more particularly, prostitution in the British capital from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century. The first chapter insists on the efforts of various kings to restrict prostitution in London: "To some extent the story of the sex industry in London for almost nine hundred years is of official attempts to suppress or contain it, and the resilience of the industry in resisting" [p. 1]. Henry II allowed prostitution only in Southwark and forbade women to "get men's attention by calling or gesturing, or seizing them by the gown or harness," which recalls today's situation [p. 1]. Another Henry, the syphilitic Henry VIII, took drastic measures to try to curb prostitution, and in 1546 he suppressed the brothels in Southwark, but those measures remained dead letters and (except during the Commonwealth) prostitution prospered.
A number of kings between the Restoration and Queen Victoria's accession even took a leading role in condoning prostitution. Charles II, whose court was dissolute, had numerous mistresses, the most famous of whom was the actress Nell Gwyn. George I, who had locked up his unfaithful wife in a German castle, came from Hanover with his two mistresses, a thin one and a fat one, who were soon nicknamed respectively the Maypole and Elephant and Castle. His son, George II was a womaniser and George III's eldest son used to visit West End brothels.
Prostitution was not necessarily confined to brothels or street-walkers. The theatre, for instance, was inseparable from that trade since it was the haunt of many prostitutes, from the most expensive courtesans in the pit to the common whore in the upper gallery and "orange girls, who sold oranges, playbills and, sometimes, themselves" [p. 59]. One must not forget that actresses were often prostitutes, so much so that the two words soon became synonymous. Some of them became the mistresses of noblemen (Nell Gwyn became the king's mistress) and even married into the peerage. Some singers behaved very much like those actresses. The most famous one was certainly Mrs Billington, to whom, by the way, the soprano Dame Joan Sutherland paid tribute in one of her early recordings. Billington, who had started her career in Dublin before captivating "audiences and lovers as a singer at Drury Lane and Covent Garden," had been "lucky on her debut to attract the attention of the Viceroy, the Duke of Rutland" [p. 68].
Fergus Linnane also presents some of the most famous bawds of the eighteenth century, among whom there was the notorious Mother Needham, immortalised by Hogarth in the first plate of A Harlot's Progress [cf. print p. 150]. In the eighteenth century there were not only prostitutes who managed to have wealthy clients, many girls spent most of their time on the street, an aspect of prostitution that is studied in the chapter entitled "Mean Streets." It is no doubt one of the most interesting chapters among those devoted to that period, thanks to its felicitous choice of primary documents. The life of a prostitute could be hard and even tragic and could be made even worse by punishments. In the seventeenth century, a prostitute could be forced to wear the branks, "an iron mask with a vicious spike which was pushed into the mouth," and which, of course, caused wounds [p. 169]. In the eighteenth century prison was one of the most frequent punishments, but transportation was a dreadful alternative, as the voyage meant suffering from thirst, disease and depravity. "On board ship they could be expected to give sex freely to members of the crew, some of whom, including the senior officers, took women convicts as 'wives' for the duration of the voyage" [p. 184]. No wonder some would have preferred the death penalty, to which those who had been convicted of theft or coining were sentenced.
In Victorian Britain, prostitution was regarded as a great social evil; as Linnane points out, "foreign visitors were shocked by the spectacle of young whores crowding the fashionable streets and public entertainments of nineteenth-century London" [p. 199]. His analysis of prostitution in Victorian London is no doubt the most interesting part of the book because he studies the various facets of the problem. The causes of prostitution and the link with poverty are analysed convincingly. It is now admitted that poverty was one of its most frequent causes, but very often people are under the impression that prostitutes generally died very young in the utmost poverty, after a terrible illness, whereas a number of them stopped practising this trade after a few years either because they got married or because they had saved enough money to open a shop, for instance.
The Victorian period is often associated with Puritanism and a strict way of life, and little is said about its seamier side. In the chapter "The Pangs of Desire," Linnane explains that so many Victorians enjoyed flagellation that, in the capital, there were several whipping establishments equipped with all sorts of instruments, where they could either “birch” or “be birched.” Venereal diseases were frequent in those days, which had many consequences. A growing number of prostitutes and their clients were contaminated, and the government was concerned about the effects of those diseases on the army and the navy. This led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869, whereby the police could arrest and forcibly examine prostitutes near barracks and dockyards. If they were infected, they were confined in a hospital for treatment. Campaigners led by Josephine Butler insisted on the fact that these laws reinforced the double standards many women suffered from, and those Acts were suspended in 1883 and later repealed.
Virgin-mania was another consequence of those diseases. Men who were afraid of catching a sexually transmitted disease and then infecting their wives knew they would be safe with virgins. There was also the belief that sex with a virgin would cure venereal diseases. As a consequence, the demand for virgins always outran the supply and many young girls were raped after having been hoodwinked by unscrupulous brothel-keepers. They realised only too late that the job they had been offered (in the domestic service, for instance) had nothing to do with what was expected from them. After defloration, they joined the many child prostitutes available in the capital. It was not until 1885 that legislation was passed to put an end to that ignominious practice, partly thanks to the journalist W. T. Stead. The Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age of consent to 16 and outlawed brothels, throwing many prostitutes onto the streets. The pages on the Victorian era are so gripping that the chapters on the twentieth century come as an anticlimax although they contain valuable information about prostitution during the two world wars and in the 1950s. One may, however, regret that little is said about homosexual prostitution, especially in the Victorian era, and it would have been interesting to know if it was because of the lack of reliable documents.
The choice of the prints is inspired as they illustrate or complement Linnane's text, and some of his explanations will help the reader better understand famous engravings such as plate 3 of Hogarth's Rake's Progress [p. 105]. It is regrettable, however, that the dates of publication of those prints should not be given. The appendix on prices is disappointing because it is too vague. The reader will find more information about the earnings of Victorian prostitutes on page 289 than in this appendix. Moreover, it would have been useful to make comparisons with the wages of girls working in domesticity, dress-making or in factories. Those are minor failings, however, and people interested in London or in social history ought to read this well-documented book.