Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Regency Sex Trade

A little sauce today courtesy of Jude Knight and a look into the Regency era and the sex trade.

Congratulations to Marilyn, winner of A Baron for Becky!


In the 18th century, according to Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History of Georgian London, one in five women in London earned income from the sale of sex. He called London:
'a vast, hostile, soulless, wicked all-devouring but also fatally attractive place that makes and breaks, that tempts, inflames, satisfies, yet corrupts and ultimately kills'.
A ban on keeping a brothel was passed into law as early as 1751, but prostitution was not made an imprisoning offence until the 1820s. (Not that the new law stopped the trade, of course, but it did largely drive it off the streets, at least in the more genteel parts of town.) 
With no regulation, there are no reliable statistics. Estimates made at the time defined unmarried women living with their partners as prostitutes, so 50,000 is probably well over the top. But we have guides to the whores and brothels of London, newssheet accounts and cartoons of the fashionable courtesans at the peak of the trade, their own narratives, and other contemporary records to assure us that the sex trade continued to be a thriving part of the economy in the first decades of the 19th century.
Sex workers—defined as those who made some or part of their living by selling sex—ranged from those offering a quick bang up against a wall in a slum alley to those  accepting gifts from hopeful admirers while mixing on the fringes of Society. And everything in between. 
Most prostitutes seem to have been working class girls who, having surrendered their virtue to a man of their own class, sought some profit from their lapse. One woman said:
‘she had got tired of service, wanted to see life and be independent; & so she had become a prostitute…She…enjoyed it very much, thought it might raise her & perhaps be profitable’
Which it was, giving her enough savings to purchase a coffee house and set up in business. For others, prostitution was seasonal, or a temporary reaction to a financial crisis. Many worked for a year or two, then took their savings home, and married or set up in business. Prostitution might also be a way to supplement income from another job; seamstresses and milliners, in particular, were so poorly paid that many of them sold their bodies as well. 

Those who worked in wealthier areas, such as the West End, were more likely to find wealthy clients, and those with bit parts in the theatre, who then—as now—might be turned off in a moment if the performance did not please the audience, were well positioned to find a wealthy admirer to keep them in the style to which they would like to become accustomed.
A clever, pretty, talented girl could hope to attract a generous protector, perhaps even an admirer so besotted he would marry her. It happened, though rarely. More commonly, a man would set his mistress up in a house or apartment, and visit her when he was at leisure until he tired of her or she of him. 
Many sex workers, if not most, were in less fortunate circumstances. Those running the brothels constantly sought fresh girls to please the appetites of their customers. A girl who accepted a job, or even a bed for the night, might find herself put to work whether she wished or not, her virginity auctioned to the highest bidder, and her share of the income withheld to pay for her food, board, clothing, and whatever else the brothel-keeper could imagine.
(I say ‘her’, but of course the same applies to male sex workers, though—homosexuality being illegal—we have little information about their lives, and that little from court records.)

The risks were great. Contraception was very hit and miss, if used at all. Pregnancy must have been a constant worry. ‘Pulling out’ was the most common method for avoiding unwanted children, and was as effective then as it is now (which is to say, not very). Protective ‘Machines’—condoms made from oiled cloth or the intestines of various animals—were available, though men were more likely to use them to avoid disease than to prevent pregnancy. And they were probably better at the second, since water could go right through them and they tended to tear.
Various methods were used to abort unwanted pregnancies, many of them just as likely to kill the mother. A baby could be born alive but then killed, or put out to a baby farmer so that the mother could return to work. A mistress of a single protector might be in a slightly stronger position if the child’s father was willing to keep the mother on. Some men—and not just royal princes—had quite large families by their mistresses. 
Disease was the other big fear, for both the sex workers and their clients. Gonorrhea and syphilis were treated with ointments containing mercury, the toxic effects of which could be as dangerous as the diseases. Side effects included kidney failure, severe mouth ulcers, nerve damage, and loss of teeth. On the other hand, untreated syphilis ends in abcesses, ulcers, severe debility, and madness or death. And gonorrhea can spread to the blood and eventually kill. So not good choices.

And if a sex worker survived these scourges, age was just around the corner. Cosmetics could be used to keep the appearance of beauty, but they had their own dangers. The white pigment used to colour face foundation was very toxic, being lead-based. Rouge might be made of tin. But slow poisoning being better than fast starvation, women painted anyway.
Even those with wildly successful careers seldom came to good ends. Many—probably most—died young. Some married. Some set up in business for themselves and retired rich. And some, like Harriet Wilson, became penniless as their appeal faded. Harriet famously responded by publishing her memoirs, having first warned all her former lovers, and taken out those who paid for her silence. 
Sadly, the fortune she earned was squandered by the scoundrel she subsequently married, and she died in poverty in France.
  1. Daniel Cruikshank London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=wdOiNVveUoQC&pg=PA2&lpg=PA2&dq=hostile,+soulless,+wicked+all-devouring&source=bl&ots=Pf9dLo548f&sig=vUbqcGRotcTRv3c4Q4nv0Q07pgg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAGoVChMIn73U7pi8xwIVSKeUCh0sBwV-#v=onepage&q=hostile%2C%20soulless%2C%20wicked%20all-devouring&f=false
  2. Judith Flanders http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/prostitution#sthash.eqdvAlNk.dpuf
  3. Vic https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/progress-of-a-woman-of-pleasureprostitutes-in-18th-century-london/
  4. Heather Carroll http://georgianaduchessofdevonshire.blogspot.co.nz/2008/10/safe-sex.html
  5. John Frith http://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
A Baron for Becky
Becky is the envy of the courtesans of the demi-monde - the indulged mistress of the wealthy and charismatic Marquis of Aldridge. But she dreams of a normal life; one in which her daughter can have a future that does not depend on beauty, sex, and the whims of a man.
Finding herself with child, she hesitates to tell Aldridge. Will he cast her off, send her away, or keep her and condemn another child to this uncertain shadow world?
The devil-may-care face Hugh shows to the world hides a desperate sorrow; a sorrow he tries to drown with drink and riotous living. His years at war haunt him, but even more, he doesn't want to think about the illness that robbed him of the ability to father a son. When he dies, his barony will die with him. His title will fall into abeyance, and his estate will be scooped up by the Crown.
When Aldridge surprises them both with a daring proposition, they do not expect love to be part of the bargain.

About the Author
Jude Knight writes strong determined heroines, heroes who can appreciate a clever capable woman, villains you’ll love to loathe, and all with a leavening of humour. 
Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. Her novella, Candle’s Christmas Chair, was released in December 2014, and is in the top ten on several Amazon bestseller lists in the US and UK. Her first novel Farewell to Kindness, was released on 1 April, and is first in a series: The Golden Redepennings. 
Buy links
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Jude’s Other Books (on Amazon)
Candle’s Christmas Chair (free novella)
Farewell to Kindness (Book One, the Golden Redepennings)

Aldridge never did find out how he came to be naked, alone, and sleeping in the small summerhouse in the garden of a country cottage. His last memory of the night before, had him twenty miles away, and—although not dressed—in a comfortable bed, and in company.
The first time he woke, he had no idea how far he’d come, but the moonlight was bright enough to show him half-trellised window openings, and an archway leading down a short flight of steps into a garden. A house loomed a few hundred feet distant, a dark shape against the star-bright sky. But getting up was too much trouble, particularly with a headache that hung inches above him, threatening to split his head if he moved. The cushioned bench on which he lay invited him to shut his eyes and go back to sleep. Time enough to find out where he was in the morning.
When he woke again, he was facing away from the archway entrance, and there was someone behind him. Silence now, but in his memory, the sound of light footsteps shifting the stones on the path outside, followed by twin intakes of breath as the walkers saw him.
One of them spoke; a woman’s voice, but low—almost husky. “Sarah, go back to the first rosebush and watch the house.”
“Yes, Mama.” A child’s voice. 
Aldridge waited until he heard the child dance lightly down the steps and away along the path, then shifted his weight slightly letting his body roll over till he was lying on his back.
He waited for the exclamation of shock, but none came. Carefully—he wanted to observe her before he let her know he was awake, and anyway, any sudden movement might start up the hammers above his eye sockets—he cracked open his lids, masking his eyes with his lashes.
He could see more than he expected. The woman was using a shuttered lantern to examine him, starting at his feet. She paused for a long time when she reached his morning salute and it grew even prouder. Then she swept her light up his torso so quickly, he barely had time to slam his lids shut before the light reached and lingered over his face.
She was just a vague shadow behind the light. He held himself still while she completed her examination, which she did with a snort of disgust. Not the reaction to which he was accustomed.
This post copyright © Jude Knight, 2015.


  1. Dan Cruickshank’s quote reminds me that London never actually changed . How terribly rude of it.

    1. Big cities seem to be the same the world over, Leonard

  2. Thank you. It was an interesting post to write.

  3. Fascinating subject.Prostitution had social distinctions of its own. As for contraception, no mention was made of douches--which themselves contained toxic chemicals. Still earning enough money to buy a shop or bar was probably the best of solutions since the woman (or man) could eventually experience some independence.

    1. Casanova used half a lemon rind as a cervical cap, purportedly. And sponges dipped in vinegar were also used to plug up the cervix, as were other more noxious substances.

    2. Fascinating, Jude.The things that women did to themselves before modern contraception doesn't bear thinking about.

  4. I enjoyed this article. The 1 in 5 statistic is hard to fathom.

  5. What a great article. I love learning about the different aspects of life during the Regency era. It makes the novels I read about that time much more engaging.

  6. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I know there were/ are some successful prostitutes but I feel desperately sorry for women at the bottom end of the scale, exposed as they are to ever-present levels of violence and harm. However, I do like the extract Jude, specially the two line paragraph at the end. It promises a surprise :)

  7. Yesterday in The Times there was an article on how some female students have taken sugar daddies to pay their fees and loans offering sex in return. We seem to be becoming more like the Georgians.

  8. Excellent excerpt from your book. Just the kind of book that I enjoy reading.

  9. Excellent post, thank you for sharing! I already have my copy of A Baron For Becky and cannot wait to start reading it! :)

  10. Great post. I'm always interested in the street life of London.

    I read recently syphilis really did not appear in Europe until the 15th century, brought back by the intrepid explorers who sailed to Espanola. The disease was so virulent then, the poor victim suffered terribly and died quickly. By the long 17th and 18th centuries, it had evolved into a less horrific disease, but still terrible.

    1. It's one of those diseases I just can't help but link with the 18th century!

  11. It's a bit more complex than that Katherine, but such syphilis as there was, which originated in Africa, tended to be of a less virulent strain, or was misdiagnosed as leprosy. [I read archaeological epidemiology reports for fun...] essentially, however, as you say, syphilis either did not appear in a modern form, or was not recognised as such, and may, or may not, have originated in llamas. [my bedtime reading is eclectic]. It's a fascinating study, and the signs left on bones of both leprosy and tertiary syphilis may be very similar, but there's an awful lot going on with a number of different hypotheses put forward....

  12. You're absolutely right, Sarah! Syphilis is such an interesting subject. As horrible as it was, it inspired genius, innovation, and really helped to shape the modern world. I did a blog post on the subject recently, and if you're at all interested, you can find it here: http://www.authorjessicacale.com/2015/04/s-is-for-syphilis-genius-madness-and.html.

  13. ooer! I got there and it told me this page does not exist...and so I looked for a search widget and couldn't find it.
    I like that you tackle cross-racial romance!

    1. Oh dear! Sorry about that -- have added a search widget (great feedback!) and it's also listed on this page here: http://www.authorjessicacale.com/p/history.html. Thanks very much! :)

  14. Grand! Have signed up for your excellent blog

    1. Thank you so much! It doesn't hold a candle to this one, of course, but I do appreciate it! History blogs are the best! :)

    2. Jessica, I've just finished browsing your wonderful site! if I can ever tempt you to a guest blog here in the salon, just say the word and you'd be more than welcome.

    3. Thank you so much, I would absolutely love that! :D

  15. I love history blogs, and the great thing is that no two are alike - not necessarily better, nor worse, but always different because they reflect the passions of the writer

    1. I agree! That's a great way of looking at it. The more history blogs, the better! Thanks very much for taking the time! :)

  16. Just loved the cover of A Baron for Becky. That Greuze was my favourite painting by far when I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Of course, you've cropped the bottom of the painting so she's rather more decorous on your cover than in real life. But still gorgeous.

    1. The cover, at least, needs to be 'G' rated. :-)

  17. BTW, Jude's Buy Link to Amazon UK doesn't work. It goes to generic Amazon.com

  18. Wow this is fascinating but there were so few options for women in making enough money to support themselves for what we call today a living wage... other than marriage... somehow it doesn't surprise me. Thank you for the article.
    Marilyn ewatvess@yahoo.com

    1. Drumroll... Marilyn, you are the winner; congratulations! I shall pass your details onto Jude so you can receive your prize.

  19. Great post, Jude! I'm off to get Dan's book, he's so entertaining while he educates us.
    My 3x great grandmother was classified as a prostitute, along with most of the other women on the convict ship she sailed on in 1817 (!!). As you say, a woman was either a maid, a wife... or a prostitute, in the eyes of many authorities. Which skews the statistics, and just shows you how our forebears were regarded.