It's my pleasure to welcome Bliss Bennet, who is here to share tales of prostitution and the long arm of the law.
Prostitution and the Law in the Long 18th Century
. . . all common Prostitutes or Night Walkers wandering in the public Streets or public Highways, not giving a satisfactory account of themselves, shall be deemed idle and disorderly Persons; and it shall and may be lawful for any Justice of the Peace to commit such Offenders (being thereof convicted before him, by his own View, or his, her or their own Confession, or by the Oath of One or more credible Witness or Witnesses,) to the House of Correction, there to be kept to hard Labour for any Time not exceeding one Calendar Month.
—3 Geo.IV, c. 40 (1822): An Act for Consolidating into one Act and Amending the Laws relating to Idle and Disorderly Persons, Rogues and Vagabonds.
Vagabonds sign. Derbyshire Heritage
Though humans have been exchanging sexual favors for money for millennia, it was not until the Vagrancy Act of 1822 that the word “prostitutes” first appeared in English law, and provisions outlining the grounds upon which prostitutes, as opposed to other vagrants or disturbers of the peace, were to be prosecuted. Before the passage of the act, to be convicted for behavior we would now call prostitution, a woman had to be proven to have been committing “a specifically offensive act at the time of her arrest,” as historian Tony Henderson notes. But after 1822, disorderly women could be arrested merely for being unable to give “a satisfactory account of themselves.
|Reverend Martin Madan, by Thomas Kitchin.|
Before the passage of the 1822 Vagrancy Act, many eighteenth and early nineteenth century writers put forth their own ideas about how to suppress the sex trade. Some urged toleration. For example, in his 1724 pamphlet, A Modest Defence of Publick Stews, philosopher Bernard Mandeville argued that the government should establish and regulate public bawdy houses, to limit the spread of venereal disease and to protect virtuous women from seduction. Some even suggested that prostitution should be legalized altogether, “for surely it would be more agreeable to have them orderly with law, than disorderly and licentious without it” opined a writer in The Times (29 Aug. 1787). Other proposals were even more radical: 1756’s Reflections Arising from the Immorality of the Present Age proposed reviving the medieval sumptuary laws, decreeing that prostitutes wear a mark or special clothing that would distinguish them from other women (although later in the treatise, the anonymous author worried that fashionable women would imitate such apparel!). And Reverend Martin Madan, the chaplain for the London Lock Hospital (where cases of venereal disease were treated), argued in Thelyphthora, or, A Treatise on Female Ruin (1780) that the only way to eradicate prostitution was to allow men to take more than one wife. Polygamy, in London!
The majority of calls for the reform of the laws dealing with prostitution urged not toleration, however, but greater severity. Many of these suggestions focused on the where, rather than the who, of the trade. Proposals were urged to license coffee shops and lodging houses, where whores often plied their trade; to make landlords liable for any prostitution that occurred in their buildings; and to no longer grant those accused of owning bawdy or disorderly houses the right of a trial by jury. The most punitive called for the deportation of night walkers themselves, believing that any woman who engaged in such behavior to be depraved beyond redemption.
Few such laws were implemented, however, largely due to changes in the way the English were coming to think about prostitution. Before the 18th century, society tended to regard the prostitute as little different from any woman who engaged in sexual behavior outside of marriage. Whore, wanton, promiscuous woman, harlot—the majority of words used to name the one could just as equally be applied to the other. But by 1750, many began to regard the prostitute differently, with pity rather than (or in addition to) disgust. Commentators pointed out that women did not fall on their own; at some point, a man had to supply the requisite push. Others suggested that poverty, rather than innate sinfulness, led many women to trade their bodies for sex:
“It is easy talking of being virtuous with a Coach and Six, but it is difficult, nay I may say impossible, being really so, without either Friends, Money, Character, or Subsistence . . . . They will use what God, and his Handmaiden Nature, have bestowed upon [them], in order to get Subsistence, seeing the poor women cannot starve, and I think it very unreasonable in any to imagine they should, whilst they have got any Commodity to dispose of that can bring them in a Penny.” —Particular but Melancholy Account of the Great Hardships, Difficulties and Miseries, that those unhappy and Much-to-be-pitied Creatures, the Common Women of the Town, are Plung’d into at this Juncture (1751)
“Touch for Touch, or, a Female Physician in full practice.” Thomas Rowlandson, early 1800s.
Both those who took pity on the prostitute as well as those who regarded her as a corrupt, corrupting predator believed that once sucked into the reprehensible trade, she would quickly descend into a vile, debauched death. Those who were coming to think of such women as victims, however, began to suggest that philanthropy, both rational and moral, might be used to save the prostitute from her inevitable, undeserved, decline. The Magdalene Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes opened in London in 1758, and in the opening years of the nineteenth century, a group of London citizens who called themselves the Guardian Society, funded asylums where penitent prostitutes could be morally redeemed and retrained for other, less sinful, jobs.
“A Cruize to Covent Garden.” Isaac Cruikshank, date unknown. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
It was reading Tony Henderson’s book on prostitution in the period, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830, as well as many of the sources upon which Henderson draws, that inspired the plot of my current historical romance, A Man without a Mistress. In order to persuade others to vote in favor of the 1822 Vagrancy Act, the political mentor of my hero convinces him to track down and interview purportedly penitent prostitutes, to see if the interventions of the Guardian Society and other such organizations were having any success in their attempts to rehabilitate women arrested for prostitution. Discovering, as did Henderson, that women engaged in prostitution primarily due to poverty, and that the state of the economy, rather than their individual morals, was a better predictor of recidivism, Sir Peregrine Sayre finds himself at odds with his patron, who is in favor of passing the Vagrancy Act.
“Launching a Frigate” Newton (artist); Thomas Rowlandson (engraver); Thomas Tegg (publisher) 1809. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. The more modern view: an innocent young woman drawn into the field of prostitution by an older bawd.
I’ve twisted history a bit here; readings of the 1822 Vagrancy bill in Parliament led to no major debates or controversies. Only after newspapers began printing reports of innocent Londoners taken up by the watch for disorderly conduct and summarily sentenced to hard labor in Coldbath Fields did public opinion begin to rise up against the encroachments on the rights of Englishmen authorized by the Act. Because of this public outcry, by 1824 the Vagrancy Act had to be amended; no longer required to give “a satisfactory account of themselves,” women accused of prostitution now had to be proven to be “wandering and behaving in a riotous and indecent manner” in order to be prosecuted.
I like to think that A Man without a Mistress’s Sir Peregrine Sayre played an integral role in protesting against this law, and in its subsequent amendment.
If you’d like to find out more about prostitution in the long eighteenth century, check out these books, articles, and pamphlets:
An Account of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Magdalen Hospital, for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes. (1776)
Dingley, Robert. Proposals for Establishing a Public Place of Reception for Penitent Prostitutes. (1758)
Fielding, John. An Account of the Origin and Effects of a Police Set on Foot by His Grace the Duke of Newcastle in the Year 1753, upon a plan presented to his Grace by the late Henry Fielding, Esq; to which is added a Plan for Preserving those deserted Girls in this Town, who become Prostitutes from Necessity. (1758)
Hanway, Jonas. Letter V to Robert Dingley, Esq; Being a Proposal for the Relief and Employment of Friendless Girls and Repenting Prostitutes. (1758)
Mandan, Martin. Thelyphthora, or, A Treatise on Female Ruin. (1780)
Mandeville, Bernard. A Modest Defence of Publick Stews. (1724)
Report of the Provisional Committee of the Guardian Society, for the Preservation of Public Morals, by Providing Temporary asylums for Prostitutes, Removed by the operation of the Laws from the Public Streets, and Affording to such of them as are Destitute, Employment and Relief. (1816)
Welch, Saunders. A Proposal to render effectual a Plan, to remove the Nuisance of Common Prostitutes from the Streets of this Metropolis. (1758)
Low, Donald A. The Regency Underworld. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1982, 1999.
Henderson, Tony. Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830. London: Longman, 1999.
Prochaska, F. K. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Roberts, M. J. D. “Public and Private in Early Nineteenth-Century London: The Vagrant Act of 1822 and its Enforcement.” Social History 13.3 (1988): 273-294.
About the Author
Bliss Bennet writes smart, edgy novels for readers who love history as much as they love romance. Despite being born and bred in New England, Bliss finds herself fascinated by the history of that country across the pond, particularly the politically-volatile period known as the English Regency. Her first historical romance, A Rebel without a Rogue, was praised by the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Reviews as “a sparking debut.”
Bliss’s mild-mannered alter ego, Jackie Horne, writes about the intersection of gender and genre at the Romance Novels for Feminists blog.
web site: www.blissbennet.com
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A Rebel without a Rogue
Fianna Cameron has devoted her life to avenging the death of her father, hanged as a traitor during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Now, on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, only one last miscreant remains: Major Christopher Pennington, who both oversaw her father’s execution and maligned his honor. Fianna risks everything to travel to London and confront the man who has haunted her every nightmare. Only after her pistol misfires does she realize her sickening mistake: the Pennington she wounded is far too young to be her intended target.
A man who will protect his family at all costs
Rumors of being shot by a spurned mistress might burnish the reputation of a rake, but for Kit Pennington, determined to win a seat in Parliament, such salacious gossip is a nightmare. To regain his good name, Kit vows to track down his mysterious attacker and force her to reveal why she fired on him. Accepting an acquaintance’s mistress as an ally in his search is risky enough, but when Kit begins to develop feelings for the icy, ethereal Miss Cameron, more than his political career is in danger.
As their search begins to unearth long-held secrets, Kit and Fianna find themselves caught between duty to family and their beliefs in what’s right. How can you balance the competing demands of loyalty and justice—especially when you add love to the mix?
Hearts Through History’s Romance Through the Ages contest (Georgian/Regency/Victorian category)
The Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot contest
The Valley Forge Romance Writers’ Sheila Contest
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Written content of this post copyright © Bliss Bennet, 2016.