Prostitutes were regarded with mixed feelings in the 18th century. An awareness of the vulnerability of women who had few economic options for making their way in the world owed much to the sentimental view taken of prostitutes. Ladies of pleasure were generally born into poverty and had little education or work skills. The sentimental prostitute narrative, which was common at the time, rarely condemned these women. These narratives, whether in print or on canvas, tell the story of a prostitute’s career and sexual fall, and generally end their tales in two ways: happily, through her marriage or finding acceptable employment, or tragically with her death.
The Progress of a Woman of Pleasure was drawn by Richard Newton, a young artist who died at 21 in 1798, two years after making this illustration. The “Progress” formula, which Newton used for a variety of prints, is a familiar one to those who have viewed William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, Marriage a la Mode, Industry and Idleness and A Harlot’s Progress. Progress series demonstrate in a progression of satirical paintings and prints how lives were transformed by temptation, bad luck and poor choices.
A closer look at Progress of a Woman of Pleasure reveals Newton’s sentimental take of the prostitute theme, as well as details about the life of an 18th Century lady of ill repute. For many 18th century prostitutes, their occupation was transitional, meant to economically tide them over a particularly bad hump in their lives. Many eventually married or found another occupation.
“A great lady in King’s Place” refers to Charlotte Hayes, who ran a high-class brothel in King’s-Place off Pall Mall. Gentlemen of the upper classes frequented this brothel located in london’s tony west end. With the use of the term ‘preferment’, Newton makes it obvious that this woman has set her sights high. Her clothes are rather simple and plain as compared to the second scene below.
London was a notorious hot bed for prostitutes. Fully one in five women in London (50,000) worked as ladies of the night. Many of them worked alone, plying their trade on the streets, in their own rooms, or in brothels. One foreign traveler was amazed at the variety of ways a man could have a woman:
…dressed, bound up, hitched up, tight-laced, loose, painted, done up or raw, scented, in silk or wool, with or without sugar. - Daily Life in 18th Century England, Kirsten Olsen, p. 49
Masquerades were wildly popular in 18th century London. Hidden behind masks and disguised in costumes, people from varying social classes freely intermingled at these events, where licentious behavior was common. Prostitutes attended these events in order to attract customers, or, as in this instance, were brought there by their benefactors.
As this courtesan finds out the hard way, she is with her companion for only as long as she is useful to him. In this instance, her outrageous behavior causes him to cast her off. The aim of the successful prostitute/mistress/courtesan was to find a benefactor from the highest echelons of society and to make a long-lasting arrangement that created a financially fruitful association for her. For the number of women who rose in the ranks of serving as mistress to important men, there was an equal number that had no place to go but down. The idea was to extend your association for as long as possible and retire in comfort.
Newton’s prostitute must have been a pretty woman indeed if the hair dresser was willing to marry her. The attitude towards prostitutes in the 18th century was more forgiving that it would be in the 19th century, and a former courtesan could still attain a certain level of social acceptance. At this stage, Newton could have ended his sentimental “Progress” with a happy ending and shown our heroine as being reformed and leading a happy life. Note how simple and plain her dress is compared to the previous three drawings.
Newton’s prostitute was not only a bit dim, but her huge ego stood in the way of her success. Two hundred a year was a huge sum of money for that day and age. A single gentleman in London could live very comfortably on that sum, although it would not allow him to keep a horse in Town. Nevertheless, such an amount would have been considered staggering for a prostitute and her working class husband. Newton’s contemporary audience would have understood this. Note how much more social caché a draper’s man had over a mere hair dresser! (Well, at least for a woman of her station. A lady wouldn’t have bothered to tell the difference, I’m sure.)
Our prostitute’s pride ruins any chance of happiness she might have found as a respectable married woman. This up and down course of events is not unusual. Many prostitutes in their (generally) short careers went from rags to riches and back to rags and riches again. The cycle, in Newton’s instance, is ever downward.
Marylebone was once a Georgian estate in London that was developed into housing tracts. By 1792-99, Richard Horwood’s map showed that the area from Oxford Street to the Marylebone Road was covered with houses. (The Heart of Marylebone.) Prostitutes were scattered throughout London, including the “Marybone” area (as many as 30,000 in Marylebone alone by one count):
They tended to gather in areas with looser police control; when the police became stricter in the City of London in the eighteenth century, the prostitutes gravitated toward the west and east ends of the city; when police control loosened in the early nineteenth century, they returned to the City. Prostitutes also tended to congregate in areas with cheap lodging houses and lots of men. St. Giles and St. James, home to many cheap boardinghouses, were popular with prostitutes in Westminster; the Docks, where many sailors disembarked, was popular on the east side of the city. – Prostitutes in 18th-Century London
It is interesting to note that William Holland, the artist’s publisher, had his shop on 50 Oxford Street.
Bagnigge Wells no longer exists. It was a spa for the “middling sort”, located on the River Fleet near St. Pancras. The River Fleet is now one of London’s underground rivers. The guinea’s value was more than a pound. The coin itself was valuable, for it was made of gold and the value of a 5 guinea piece fluctuated during the 18th century. A crown was a silver coin worth five shillings, considerably less than a five guinea piece.
We already know that our prostitute does not take to drink well. She now turns to brandy. A bumper of brandy is no small amount, as you can see from the bottle in her hand. The Book of Scottish Anecdotes contains this little tale:
While Burns was at Moffat once with Clark the composer, the poet called for a bumper of brandy. “Oh, not a bumper,” said the musician. “I prefer two small glasses.”
“Two glasses?” cried Burns; “Why, you are like the lass in Kyle, who said she would rather be kissed twice bare-headed than once with her bonnet on.” – p81.
Scaly fellows were the lowest of the low. Also note the clocks (embroidery) on the prostitute’s stockings, which were quite fashionable in her day.
Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies contained a description of Miss Devonshire on Queen Anne Street. At this point, our lady of pleasure has gravitated towards a tavern on a street near Marlebone .
Due to her inability to hold her temper, our lady’s downhill slide is guaranteed. Richard Newton was known for his drawings of bare-breasted ladies. It could not have been hard to tug a woman’s chemise down over her bosom in those days.
Our lady of pleasure has moved from the West End to Covent Garden.
By the middle of the 18th century Covent Garden was full of seedy lodging houses and an astonishing number of Turkish baths, many of which were brothels.
Sir John Fielding, the magistrate, called Covent Garden ‘the great square of Venus’. He said, ‘One would imagine that all the prostitutes in the kingdom had picked upon the rendezvous’. – Prostitution in Maritime London
And so our prostitute has fallen further. She is attracting customers of a lower sort, such as an apprentice who has taken to thievery to afford her wares. It is obvious that she no longer holds herself out for the highest bidder.
Our lady of pleasure is on a slight uptick again, having become the mistress to a gambler. Riding outfits, made by tailors, were quite expensive. To cut a dash was to make a fine figure and to look quite smart. One assumes that the gambler took his mistress horse back riding in London’s Hyde Park, which meant that he kept her in fancy digs until his luck ran out. Once again, our lady of the night shows poor judgment and gives him a physical memory of her temper, flogging him with her riding whip.
One can only imagine that this prostitute is reaping what she sowed, and that she made quite a few enemies when her luck ran high. Now that she is in debt herself, she has no one to turn to.
The normal process was for the debtor to be arrested by a bailiff or sheriff’s officer, and then taken to what was called a sponging-house, usually the officer’s own house. There, the debtor would be persuaded that they should pay their debts, otherwise, they faced a court appearance, and a debtors’ prison. – The Real Little Dorrit
Gin was also known as blue ruin. Before 1734 it was the drink of choice for poor people.
Along with promiscuous and adulterous behavior, gin became associated with prostitution, an issue that ranked high on the agenda of moral reformers. The association between gin and prostitution came about because gin-shops were public places that brought prostitute and customer together. It is important to note however that gin-shops were simply places where ordinary people gathered in a city where there were few other social spaces. As such, gin-shops were perhaps unfairly associated with prostitution in the sense that prostitution occurs where people happen to frequently gather. - The Gin Craze
Our whore is so down on her luck, she’ll take any man as a customer, even criminals. Her two shopmen have been transported, to Australia no doubt. She’s most likely working in back alleys and near the ports of London. Her jewelry is gone and her clothes are old-fashioned rags. Selling her thimble, an important item for sewing, for food means that she has no resources left. I know little about ‘qui tam’ attorneys except to say that their practice had fallen into disrepute in England by the 19th century.
A groat was worth only four pence in the 1700s.
Board wages mean that our prostitute worked very hard to earn enough money for her room, but had barely enough left over for food. Porter during this time was a strong dark beer. It was a good thing that she could afford alcohol, for I imagine that the wells in her neighborhood were contaminated with fecal matter. Water was a dangerous substance in the poorer sections of London. This prostitute’s narrative provides a cautionary tale for viewers. Her actions caused her downfall; her inability to hold her temper or her drink led to her ruin.
Our “heroine” falls sick and dies outdoors, to be buried in a potter’s field. Nothing could have been said more clearly about this unfortunate woman’s social worthlessness than her degrading end: No one, not even her former servant, now mistress, is willing to put up a single pence for her funeral.
More on the topic:
- Not so Nice Work: Prostitution in 18th century London
- John Wilmott’s A Ramble in St. James’s Park
- Nightwalkers: Prostitute Narratives from the 18th Century,Laura Jean Rosenthal, 2008
- Prostitution in London, Tufts Digital Library
- Staging the 18th Century Prostitute for the 21st Century
- Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies
- The Truth Behind Prostitute Fanny Hill’s Antics 200 Years Ago
- Two Nerdy History Girls also covered this topic: The Progress of a Woman of Pleasure