The Sex Workers of Georgian London

If the word ‘Georgian’ brings pictures of lofty  buildings sporting large staircases and high ceilings to your mind, then it is time to look into the gutter of Georgian London. Observe the genteel people from Georgette Heyer's period novels in their time off the set meeting the people who never made it onto it.



Everybody is appalled that sex trade today has grown into a multi-billion pound industry. The problem is that it hasn't grown into that, it had been that big since Georgian times. If you convert the known historical amounts earned at the time into today’s money, there is not much of a difference. And we are only talking about the known figures.


In his book The Secret History Of Georgian London which was published by Random House, Dan Cruickshank explores the depth of depravity that was an accepted way of life in Georgian London. His estimate that about every fifth woman was a sex worker might hit near the mark considering all the evidence he has amassed. Stripping away the romanticist embellishments added later by Victorian writers, he gets into cases to prove his points.


The female sex workers held to a strict caste system. I suppose everybody needs somebody to look down upon; starting in the gutter were the streetwalkers, next up came the harlots working from brothels, then the prostitutes being part of a ‘nunnery’, and at the top the courtesans. The latter were kept mistresses of the rich and the powerful. Some few of them even managed to marry into a peerage, like the Gunning sisters.


Courtesans were celebrities in their own right and would be received in most except the most high ton establishments such as Almack’s. One well known celebrity was Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson. But the star of them was probably Sally Salisbury who is believed to have written her own autobiography. Among her clients and protectors she named Lord Bolingbroke, the Duke of Richmond, and King George II. But like so many, she succumbed to alcohol and ended her life in jail.


Brothels were run by brawds, harlots having become too old for the trade. They collected the day’s arrivals from the country directly from the coaches coming into London. They would take them to their homes offering friendship and counsel. They then blackmailed their charges by presenting them with fake bills and debts they would have to work off.


Charlotte Hayes was a famous keeper of a nunnery. One of her protegees was Emily Warren who was to become Sir Joshua Reynolds muse. William Hickey, author of a Georgian memoir, wrote about her: ‘I however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’


In her will, Charlotte Hayes left the staggering sum of 20,000 pounds (well over a million pounds in today’s money) she had amassed through her dealings. But she didn't do cheap or small while alive. Inspired by James Cook’s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, she organised a tableau in which ‘12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’ were to loose their virginity to 12 young men in front of  a high paying audience. Please note that 'audience' is gender neutral on purpose. The high ticket prices paid by the patrons included the right to join in the frolic.


Dan Cruickshank covers the range of sex workers well. He added child abuse to the picture which was common at the time. It was believed that intercourse with a child would relieve sufferers of venereal diseases they had picked up during their debauchery. The asking price for a virgin was around 150 pounds in these dealings and could mean children as young as eight. On the other hand, Dan Cruickshank completely ignores the male sex workers which obviously, considering Hayes little tableau and mixed patronage, existed at that time just as today.


The streetwalkers were forbidden their trade by law in 1820, and with the start of the Victorian age and its double standards of morale, the sex trade was driven underground to produce even more exotic flowers than in the Georgian era.


For those who have read books by Georgette Heyer, this book is an eye-opener as to the good old days portrayed by her. And those who haven’t read her books, reading some after this book might give you a better feel for the period as she was a masterly writer on period detail.