The Secret History Of Georgian London

If ‘Georgian London’ conjures pictures of large, white, representative buildings, then this book will take you down a peg or two. If you think that your earlier incarnation was sweeping down majestic staircases in beautiful gowns, chances are much higher you would have lived in the gutter. Come to meet the girls and boys widely ignored by Georgette Heyer in her period novels.

Everybody pretends surprised when told that today's sex trade has grown into a multi-billion pound industry. The problem is that it hasn’t grown into that, it is one of the most stable businesses in history. If we convert figures spent on sex in Georgian London into today’s money, we arrive at the same stupendous amount of money. And we are only talking about known figures.

Dan Cruickshank explores the depth of depravity hidden behind the impressive facades of Georgian London. Diligently collecting and presenting his evidence, he arrives at an estimate: About every fifth woman in London was a sex worker. Stripping away romantic embellishments added by Victorian writers, he gets down to cases to prove his point.

Female sex workers were living in a strict caste system. Everybody needs somebody to look down on. The bottom of the ladder started in the gutter with the streetwalkers, next came harlots who worked from brothels, then prostitutes who formed part of a ‘nunnery’, and at the top the courtesans that were kept as mistresses by the rich and powerful. A famous handful even managed to marry into a peerage like the Gunning sisters.

Courtesans were celebrities in their own right like the Kardashians. They would be received as guests in most except the most exclusive establishments. One such well known celebrity was Emma Lady Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson. But the star of them was probably Sally Salisbury, she is believed to have written her own autobiography. Amongst her clients and protectors she could name Lord Bolingbroke, the Duke of Richmond and King George II. But like so many others, she succumbed to alcohol and ended her life in goal.

Brothels were run by brawds. They were harlots that had become too old for the trade. They would go to the coach stations of London and collect the day’s arrivals from the country. At first offering friendship and help, they would then put pressure on their prey with fake bills and debts that the girls and boys would have to work off.

Charlotte Hayes was famous as the keeper of a nunnery. One of her protégées was Emily Warren who became Sir Joshua Reynolds' muse. William Hickey, the Georgian memoir writer and contemporary, 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 a staggering sum of 20,000 pounds (well over a million pounds in today’s money) that she had amassed through her trade. Inspired by James Cook’s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, she would organized tableaux in which ‘twelve beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’ were to be deflowered by twelve equally beautiful young men. The paying audience to this life event were later asked to join in the frolic, at a price it is understood.

Dan Cruickshank covers the range of depravity well, adding child sex abuse to the picture. It was believed that sexual intercourse with a virgin child (male or female) would relieve sufferers of the venereal diseases they had picked up frolicking around. The asking price for a virgin was around 150 pounds. The children involved were as young as eight. On the other hand, Dan Cruickshank completely ignores the male sex workers which obviously, considering Charlotte Hayes' little tableaux, existed then just like today.

Streetwalkers were forbidden their trade in 1820. With the start of the Victorian age and its vicious double standards on all things moral, the sex trade was driven underground where it produced even more exotic flowers than in the Georgian era. Dan Cruikshank's The Secret History Of Georgian London was published by Random House.

For readers of Georgette Heyer's novels, the book is an eye-opener as to the good old days. And those who haven’t read her books, reading some after this book might give you a better feel for the period’s upper and lower classes, as she is a masterly writer on period detail. 

Further reading
The White Sex Slaves of 1874
How a House Became a Home in Georgian London
Who Would Want to Go to Dijon?