For hundreds of years, London has been the great corrupter. Many of the great actors of history, previously untainted by the risqué values of this great metropolis, have arrived through its gates and left with a collection of moral vices and, no doubt, a corresponding quantity of sexually transmitted diseases. In no century is this truer than the riotous eighteenth when the capital was seen in the eyes of its contemporaries as a ‘laboratory of sin’; and with good reason. Those who lament the worst excesses of reality TV should perhaps reflect on what passed for entertainment in this period of history. A handbill from the time which was displayed at Hockley in the Hole reads:
‘This is to give notice to all gentlemen, gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honylane market… Likewise a green bull to be baited which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him; also a mad ass to be baited, with a variety of bull baiting and bear baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. Beginning exactly at three of the clock’
The young James Boswell's addiction to London was undoubtedly inspired by its venereal pleasures. When he first visited London in 1760 at the tender age of 21 he had a ‘gloriously rakish’ time of it; chasing street girls a plenty, which were hard to come by in the stony surroundings of Edinburgh. Upon his return two years later he wrote:
'When we came upon Highgate Hill and had a view of London, I was all life and joy. I repeated Cato's soliloquy of the soul, and my soul bounded forth to a certain prospect of happy futurity. I sung all manner of songs and began to make one about an amorous meeting with a pretty girl, the burthen of which was as follows,
'She gave me this, I gave her that
and tell me, had she not tit for tat?,
I gave three huzzahs! and we went briskly in'
Arriving again five years later, he 'sallied forth like a roaring lion after girls, blending philosophy and raking'. For many years thereafter he would 'still be in a flutter' at the prospect of returning to London despite the gruelling five day coach ride from Edinburgh. 'Swear solemn with drawn sword not to be with women sine condom nisi Swiss lass' he instructed himself in his continental diary and also to 'chase libertine fancies'. In fact, by the looks of it, it appears to have been more the raking and not the philosophy that mattered to him. By the age of 29 he had tried to seduce a dozen high born ladies, had made mistresses out of three wives, four actresses, Rousseau's paramour and three middling class women; he had also contrived to have sexual relations with over 66 street girls. Even though, according to his own testimony, he guarded himself ‘in armour complete', we should be sceptical of these precautions as he was infected with gonorrhoea at least 17 times in his life.
Boswell wasn’t unusual in his enthusiasms. The Duke of Norfolk for example had amours 'without delicacy and without number'. What he himself described as his ‘intemperate indulgence of animal impulse' lasted into his old age, even as he lived publicly with his mistress, Mary Gibbon.
When the young Benjamin Franklin left the shores of America in 1724 to buy a printing press in London he quickly realised that his backers had deserted him and that he would have to pay his own way. Upon taking his first job Franklin became disgusted at the habits of his fellow workers who believed, as was common at the time, that hard work required the consumption of strong beer. Workers of the time typically drank a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint with breakfast, a pint at midmorning, a pint with the midday meal, a pint in the afternoon and a pint at day’s end. When Franklin refused to contribute to the beer tab at his workplace he was ostracized by his colleagues who irritated him immensely by inserting errors into his printing work at every opportunity. When he confronted them about these activities they feigned innocence and claimed it was the fault of the company ghost.
Despite a strong moral upbringing in the Puritan surroundings of New England, Franklin was not able to resist the temptations of the city for very long. In his later biographies, he wrote that he had indulged in many ‘foolish intrigues with low women’. By ‘low women’ he of course meant prostitutes, who were described by a contemporary chronicler as ‘lechery-layers of around a guinea purchase’. At the time they were mainly to be found sitting in hairdressers shops, which were ‘seldom to be found without a whore as a bookseller’s shop in St Paul’s churchyard without a parson’. Presumably the consumers of the time could get a ‘foolish intrigue’ thrown in with their haircut.
On a more contemporary note, a few months ago I was interested to read that investigators researching the depraved sexual habits of the United Kingdom had discovered a website which had been set up for the purposes of reviewing and assigning ‘starred’ ratings to prostitutes. This was reported as heralding a new benchmark in moral turpitude; although apparently, in a typically British manner, the denizens of the website appear to have been more concerned with the availability of parking spaces in the vicinity of the prostitutes than with the ‘quality’ of the ladies in question.
Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a precedent for this in the 18th century. The great moralist Francis Place wrote a full six volumes on the 'manners and morals' of the era including a great wodge of 'extracts from publications mostly sold at respectable booksellers without disguise'. One of the main targets for his wrath was a book called Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. This he explains was once an annual publication 'sold openly in booksellers shop(s). Despite the name Harris, it was actually written by Samuel Derrick, an impoverished Irish poet, who worked from the list of available women carried by the notorious Jack Harris (aka John Harrison) who had christened himself the 'Pimp General of All England'. Derrick himself was dubbed by Boswell as 'a little blackguard pimping dog'. The 1786 edition, which Place documented, contained the names of 105 women who, he quotes in disbelief, 'seem the most pleased with that refined sensation (who) wantonly and mutually enjoy the ecstatic bliss, (who), return with equal vigor...the meeting shower and sigh for sigh, the gasping torrent pour'. Place then documents the description for 'Miss M of New Compton Street (her price, one guinea)
'Lovely man my anguish
See supine a tender maid
Begs you will not let her languish
One good **** will ease the jade
Did you know how brisk her motion
You will need not long **** alone
Prince of nature’s balmy lotion
Nine inches long without the bone'
He also quoted the description for Miss L of 30 Newman Street whose 'seat of love' is 'supported on two marble pillows framed by the just hand of symmetry' and whose 'raven coloured harbour of bliss, is guarded by her blushing clytoris, now swelled with delight, now reddening with desire: apply then ye sons of pleasure, the full swelled engine and stem the rapid torrent. Three guineas is the price'.
Catering to a variety of vile tastes (eyeball-licking included), the List also recommended Miss Love, of Tottenham Court Road, as 'a damned fine hairy piece'; Nancy Basket, of Westminster, who 'flays, they say, with an amazing grace'; and 'roguish' Madam Dafloz, a Soho resident possessed of 'a certain cleanliness in the Netherlands'. It also warned prospective clients off Lucy Paterson, 'as lewd as goats and monkies… a vile bitch', Pol Forrester - 'breath worse than a Welch bagpipe' - and the 'contaminated carcase' that was Miss Young, at the Turk's Head Bagnio.
Place did note with some approval that, in the more refined moral climate of the early Victorian era, he had to scour a hundred bookshops to be able to find a copy.
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