Women of Pleasure: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London

Seminar Paper, 2005

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Social background
2.2.Education and Apprenticeship

3. Turn to Prostitution
3.2. Opinions of Society

4. The Life of a Woman of Pleasure
4.1. Working and Living Conditions
4.2. Pregnancy and Diseases
4.3. Repentance and Punishment

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

On the threshold of industrialisation many significant changes took place in England throughout the eighteenth century. Trade and economy grew more and more and consequently trade centres like London became metropolises to which many people moved to from rural areas due to the bigger chance to find a job there. The society in such cities was dominated by men and there was no equality of the sexes as women were considered to be inferior and dependent on men. They had to obey their fathers or husbands, who made all decisions for them and they had no own property as everything they had belonged to their husbands[1]. But there were women who tried to escape the subordinate role they possessed. Expected to be virtuous housewives, mothers and wives, who obey their husbands unconditionally, some women led totally different lives. Instead of marrying, bringing up children and doing the household they worked to earn their living. But whereas many women chose to work as servants or seamstresses, the business of some other young ladies was of a totally different nature – of a disorderly nature. They earned their money by offering sexual services in exchange for money. In other words they worked as prostitutes. Especially London was a city where this sexual trade was very widespread due to the constantly arriving tradesmen and sailors who were willing to pay women to satisfy their needs.

But who were these women of pleasure? Why did they work as prostitutes and how did they live? To answer these questions it is necessary to look at the lives of these women in detail.

Their social backgrounds and their education can be considered as the origin of their later work as harlots. As people cannot only be characterised by what they do themselves but by the opinions of the people around them as well, it is important to consider the reactions of society towards prostitutes. And last but not least the living and working conditions of streetwalkers as well as the risks they had to face in their everyday lives are worth consideration.

As most information dealing with prostitution in eighteenth-century England, which were handed down through the centuries, provide an insight into the prostitution in London and due to the fact that this city was a big centre of this business, because of the numerous tradesmen there, who enlisted the services of prostitutes, and thus the great number of possible customers, it is appropriate to use this capital as the basis for the consideration of the lives of harlots at that time. The most useful sources for this topic, to which the following paragraphs are related to, are seven different books. Five of them are factual books: Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Covent Garden Ladies –Pimp General Jack & The Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List’, which gives an insight into the lives of the London pimp Jack Harris and the prostitutes of Covent Garden; ‘Sex in Georgian England’ by A. D. Harvey, that deals with the development of sexuality in England throughout the eighteenth century; Vivien Jones’s ‘Women in the Eighteenth Century- Constructions of femininity’, which includes texts by authors of the eighteenth century, that deal with different aspects in the lives of women at that time like education and sexuality; ‘Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720’ by S. Mendelson and P. Crawford, which tries to show the development of the status of women over a period of 170 years and ‘English Society in the 18th Century’ , which was written by Roy Porter, who gives a survey of the society in England and its changes compared to other centuries. The basis of some paragraphs is formed by the two fictional books ‘Moll Flanders’ by Daniel Defoe and John Cleland’s epistolary ‘Fanny Hill- Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’, which were written in the eighteenth century and deal with the lives of two women, who were involved into prostitution (at least to a certain degree) and thus can be used as examples for prostitutes.

2. Social background


The social origins of prostitutes were diverse. Rubenhold argues that many of them belonged to the poorest of the poor. Abandoned by their parents, who had not enough money to maintain them, or growing up as orphans, they early had to cope with the difficulties of life on their own.[2]Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’, for instance, (although a fictional prostitute) is born in the prison of Newgate and left alone after her mother was convicted to transportation to the American colonies. The heroine in John Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill- Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ has to survive on her own as well after her poor parents died when she was fifteen years old. Girls like them usually spent their childhood in rural areas (Fanny Hill grows up in Lancashire and Moll in Colchester). In fact, sixty percent of London’s prostitutes were born in the English countryside or immigrated from Ireland[3].

The remaining forty percent grew up in London and many of them belonged to the middle class, of which some were daughters of shopkeepers, master craftsmen or other members of the bourgeoisie. Whereas others had parents, who worked very hard to subsist, these girls had parents, who could afford an apprenticeship for their daughters[4]. Nevertheless, people like the author and lawyer Thomas Vaughan, for example, explained, that their daughters became whores although they belonged to the middle-class, because the ``[…] lack of funds meant his girls might ‘have to turn out whores’. ´´ (Hallie Rubenhold, p.124)[5]

Hallie Rubenhold reports, that some of the later prostitutes were very familiar with the disorderly business, as they grew up with mothers or sisters, who were prostitutes as well[6]. Patrick Colquhoun, the stipendiary magistrate at the Queen Square Office in Westminster, documented, that there were 50000 prostitutes in London by the time of 1800, of which 5000 belonged to a higher social class or were well educated[7]. These numbers might be too high, which might be caused by the fact that every woman who had extramarital sex was considered to be a whore; but, nevertheless, they show, that most of the prostitutes had to live in poverty, at least during their childhood.

2.2.Education and Apprenticeship

The middle class daughters could benefit from an education, because their parents were able to pay for it. But, as already mentioned in the previous chapter, they were only a little percentage of all whores in London.

The majority of the later prostitutes had to do without an apprenticeship. According to Jones the offspring of poor families usually lacked a proper education, either because

their parents neglected their education or they had no money to finance it[8]. As a

consequence these girls often lacked skills, needed to get a profitable job. Fanny Hill,

for instance, describes her education this way:

‘‘My education, till past fourteen, was no better than very vulgar; reading, or rather spelling, an illegible scrawl, and a little ordinary work composed the whole system of it; and then all my foundation in virtue was no other than a total ignorance of vice, and the shy timidity general to our sex, […]’’(‘Fanny Hill- Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1963, p.4)

To summarise this statement, education was, for most of the girls, close to not existing.

As far as moral education is concerned, other sources underline Fanny’s experiences. Bernard Mandeville mentioned, that ‘‘ [y]oung girls are taught to hate a whore, before they know what the word means, and when they grow up, they find their worldly Interest entirely depending upon the Reputation of their Chastity.’’(from ‘A Modest defence of Public stews: or, Essay upon Whoring ‘, 1724)[9]. This shows that there was no real sex education. Girls were told what to do without any greater explanations. In other words, girls tried to avoid everything, that could be immoral, to keep their reputation, although they did not really know, why certain things were morally wrong. They were taught, that chastity was one of their greatest virtues and that this virtue was essential to be desired by men[10]. Jones says, that writings like conduct manuals were published to give young women instructions in all areas of social life, especially in terms of female virtues and their ideal representation in society, to make them admirable for future husbands[11]. These manuals glorified marriage and told them how to dress and how to behave in public life.

Most women had no proper apprenticeship due to the fact that their parents could not afford it or that they were wanted to be virtuous mothers and wives, whose only business should be to supply the family[12].


[1]Porter, p.24

[2]Rubenhold, p.122

[3]H-Net Reviews

[4]Rubenhold, p.124

[5]Rubenhold, p.124

[6]Rubenhold, p.293

[7]Harvey, p. 92/93

[8]Jones, p. 89

[9]Jones, p.65

[10]Jones, p.29

[11]Jones, p.14/15

[12]Jones, p.69

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Women of Pleasure: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
449 KB
Women, Pleasure, Prostitution, Eighteenth-Century, London
Quote paper
Antje Bernstein (Author), 2005, Women of Pleasure: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/71335


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Women of Pleasure: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free