Sex in the city: how the Georgian London of ITV’s Harlots was built on the profits of prostitution

Historian Dan Cruickshank reveals the truth behind the setting for a bawdy new drama

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London’s great Georgian terraces and squares are works of architectural beauty, whose classical proportions perfectly convey a mixture of grandeur and domesticity, but they hide one very important detail – many of them were paid for by sex.

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The sex industry was one of the most significant economic forces in Georgian Britain, particularly in its cities and most notably in London. Its very high value is suggested by the astonishing claim – repeated consistently in the 18th century – that one London woman in five was engaged in the capital’s sex industry.

The income generated played a key role in the construction of the capital since money made by harlots, bawds or their pimps was either invested in speculative house building, which was the process by which the vast majority of the fabric of Georgian London was created, or used to pay high rents and thus encourage house building.

But the sex industry played more than just a crucial role in the construction and economy of the Georgian city. It was also a powerful and complex cultural force that helped give Georgian society its fascinating and often seemingly contradictory character.

Prostitutes, at the high end of the trade, could achieve celebrity status and become involved directly and inspirationally in the arts. Some acted as muses and models for such artists as Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose most evocative portraits are often of high courtesans such as Kitty Fisher and Emily Warren, while others, like Fanny Abington, became charismatic actresses and leaders of fashion.

Most women entered the trade out of desperation or to escape poverty because they were prepared to take a terrifying gamble and hoped to achieve independence, and perhaps even fame and fortune, in a male-dominated society where women had few opportunities.

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Lesley Manville as Lydia Quigley

A girl, with no useful connections and limited education, could – during most of the 18th century – expect to make no more than £5 a year as a domestic servant. But in contrast by working as a prostitute she could hope to make the same amount a week, certainly by the late 18th century. At the time, an ordinary working man in London earned little more than £50 a year.

Of course the gamble for the majority of women ended in poverty, disease, crime, brutal punishment and premature death. Prostitution was not illegal in Georgian Britain, but disorderly conduct and vagrancy were unlawful and many poor street prostitutes became part of the criminal underworld and fell foul of legislation intended to “reform” society.

The tales generated by the Georgian sex industry, and its often remarkable characters, are part of the fabric of the age. As well as inspiring painters like Reynolds and William Hogarth, the tragic, comic and salutary aspects of the industry also inflamed the imaginations of numerous writers.

Notable examples are Daniel Defoe, whose Moll Flanders of 1722 was inspired in part by a notorious harlot, coffee-house keeper and bawd called Moll King – and, of course, John Cleland’s 1740s novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Bawds play significant roles in both these works because they fascinated and horrified the age.

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Holli Dempsey as Emily Lacey 

They were regarded as predatory “she-devils” who ruthlessly enticed girls into prostitution and terrorised them into obedience. Henry Fielding – author, playwright and general chronicler of the sex industry who turned magistrate in 1740s – had much time for abused and vulnerable young harlots but none whatsoever for bawds or their “disorderly” bawdy houses.

Yet these seemingly hated figures became major – if infamous – characters in Georgian London. Among the most famous was Charlotte Hayes, who in the 1770s ran an exclusive brothel in a manner then novel for London – clean, fashionable, efficient and discreet. As was the fashion at the time the brothel, in King’s Place, St James, was referred to, in the Ottoman fashion, as a “seraglio” and – playfully and of course naughtily – as a “cloister” or “nunnery”, with Mrs Hayes as the abbess and her girls the nuns.

Health checks were standard, the “nuns” and their customers were supplied with new fangled “cundums” (made of sheep’s gut and intended primarily to prevent the spread of contagion rather than pregnancy) and all was regulated, including what was on offer and prices charged.

Information about the number of women engaged in Georgian London’s sex industry is mostly anecdotal and little more than hearsay, but it does reveal that a consistent consensus had emerged about its scale. For example the anonymous Congratulatory Epistle from a Reformed Rake of 1758 states that “by my own Experience… I might venture to pronounce that amongst every five Women there is (at least) one Whore”.

London’s population around 1760 was approaching 740,000, so if half were female then a fifth of the number of sexually active age would be enormous, as indeed it was according to the calculation of the “Reformed Rake” who reckoned that “there are Sixty-two Thousand Five Hundred Whores” in London. This figure might seem outlandish, but is supported by numerous other 18th-century accounts. In the late 1720s a French visitor, Cesar de Saussure, in his Letters from London put the number of “courtesans in the town” as “more than 40,000”.

All these estimates could be gross exaggerations based on the large numbers of prostitutes seen on the streets of London and their forceful and lewd soliciting. But there is a far more authoritative account that suggests the huge scale of Georgian London’s sex industry.

In 1795, the London magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, working with court statistics, calculated that there were 50,000 prostitutes in the capital, although not all working full time. The population of London at time was still significantly under one million so Colquhoun confirms the estimate that around one women in five of London’s Georgian sexually active female population was involved in the capital’s sex industry.

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Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells 

The income generated by this vast industry can now only be deduced from myriad contemporary sources. These include journals, such as James Boswell’s, that make it clear that a street girl in mid-Georgian London could be picked up and “used” for a shilling or far less, while a high courtesan like Kitty Fisher would demand £100 for a night of her company.

A useful guide to the charges of the middling prostitute in mid-to-late Georgian London is Jack Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. Published from the late 1750s, the guide lists harlots, their addresses, their particular skills and their charges. Some entries are most enigmatic about rates of payment. For example, we learn from the 1788 edition of the List that a Miss Corbet “had one fixed rule” regarding price: “She always measures a gentleman’s maypole by a standard of nine inches and expects a guinea for every inch it is short of full measure.”

This system presents problems for modern analysis but close reading of the texts in numerous volumes suggest that the average charge for London prostitutes was two guineas per night. If accurate then this figure, combined with the high number of prostitutes estimated to be active in late-18th-century London, means that the gross value of the sex industry was over £20 million a year, making it one of the most valuable industries in the capital.

Georgian London – a city of bewitching beauty, rational in its planning and architecture and a monument to the enlightenment – was also a place of darkness and brutality that was built on sin.

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Harlots Monday 10:00pm ITV Encore