Getting jiggy in Georgian London

Filed in History by on February 16, 2013 3 Comments

The Secret History of Georgian London

The Secret History of Georgian London – sordid, seamy, captivating, alluring, repelling, wicked, fascinating, and very, very British – and that’s just the first page.

It’s a strange thing; the Lock Hospital (18th-century London’s first institution specifically for treating sexually-transmitted diseases) made almost as much money from renting out pews in its chapel for Sunday services as it did from bequests and other contributions.

Why? According to author Dan Cruickshank, the number of do-gooders trying to make a difference were virtually outnumbered by the rubber-neckers who would rent out the pews for ‘the chance to see an assemblage of exotic or alarming-looking patients… the chapel became a money spinner’.

It’s a good example of how society can simultaneously uplift and corrupt its citizens, a great glimpse into human nature – and just one of the many fascinating anecdotes illustrating how 18th century London was both repelled and enthralled by its sordid underbelly.

I have to admit it was the fruity title of the book which first caught my eye (never underestimate the power of innuendo to capture a guy’s attention). And to answer the ‘how much ‘naughty stuff’ is there?’ question right off the bat, to quote Dr McCoy is ‘It’s life Jim, but not as we know it’. More on that later.

Cruickshank’s work examines the role that London’s 18-century army of 50,000+ street-walkers played in bankrolling the city’s growth into the international metropolis that we know today. With the author also being an historian and BBC television presenter I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – A textbook? Social commentary? A treatise on architecture? A bit of nudge nudge wink wink say no more?

“Miss Johnson, 17 Goodge Street, who … had ‘such elasticity in her loins, that she can cast her lover to a pleasing height and receive him again with utmost dexterity’” (p187)

The work shoots for all of these things (yep, there’s even a stack of ribald 1700s-style literary erotica – I’ve included a couple here), but to be honest, despite a mighty effort Georgian London falls slightly short. Cruickshank’s attempt to cast such a wide net means that his book never really seems to attain or maintain a consistent narrative – it just all seems a bit mixed up.

Georgian London switches from subject to subject in a seemingly random fashion, jumping from portraits of the pimps, rakes and madams (or ‘bawds’ to use the phrase of the time) who scandalised society, to examining the economics underpinning the Georgian sex industry, to an analysis of the architecture of the average 1700s London bordello, all without really succeeding in pulling it all together into a cogent thesis. One feels that just a little more work on the structure of the argument would have made a world of difference.

To my mind the book doesn’t quite live up to its premise – that London was built with the …erm… sweat of the sex industry. Cruickshank spends time in drawing all of the dots – he just doesn’t quite join them. While Georgian London discusses at length how much money the industry made, and where, it doesn’t pay as much attention to putting it into context or comparing it to other industries, allowing the reader to make his or her own mind up.


You’ll think twice about your next cappucino

Secret History of Georgian London - HogarthThe book opens with a study of some of the major characters in the industry, however it doesn’t provide any context – no background to the city or to the values of the time, which makes it hard to appreciate why these sex-industry doyens were so notable in the first place. No standard is established to measure these characters against, no explanation of the city, laws, and so on – the essential elements which would help us fit it all together. Once these elements are introduced later in the book it all starts to come together, but a bit later than I would have liked.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, or perhaps I am just nitpicking, for all in all I found this book a highly enjoyable read. It is packed with marvellous glimpses of the lost world of pre-Victorian London which trivia hounds (such as myself) find endlessly absorbing. For example, according to Cruickshank the origins of today’s humble Cappuccino can be found in the ‘capucin’, the drink of choice for prostitutes who would while away their time in London coffee houses while they waited for their next prospect.

“’[W]e … Jostled in amongst a parcel of Swarthy Buggerantoes, Prenatural Fornicators, as my Friend call’d them, who would Ogle a Handsome Young man with as much lust, as aTrue-bred English Whoremaster would gaze upon a Beautiful Virgin’. (The London Spy, 1699)

Another thing that surprised me was the extent to which your average 18th century chronicler indulged in the odd expletive… in fact the last time I saw such a profligate use of the ‘c’ word I was at a Charity Shield match. If you’re going to read this one on the train, don’t get caught on the wrong page – your fellow travellers won’t look at you in the same way again (trust me).

Happily, despite my earlier whinging, later sections of the book feature some quite insightful observations of Georgian society which still have relevance today. Cruickshank proposes that men of the Georgian era were actually afraid of the female body, finding it simultaneously ‘arousing and frightening’. As he says on page 446, “Men in Georgian Britain failed to understand not only the psychology of women but also their physiology.” I know just how they feel.

There is also a great chapter comparing the Georgian-era slave trade and the sex trade. Cruickshank examines why it was that two industries which had so much in common were regarded so differently (slavery being abolished and prostitution tolerated), and why there was so little perception of this blind spot at the time ‘Both involved one human being having, for their own profit or pleasure, domination and power over another’ (p 450).

“‘What a deplorable Sight it is,’ recorded Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation in 1734, ‘to behold Numbers of the little Creatures pil’d up in Heaps upon one another, sleeping in the publick Streets, in the most rigorous Seasons, and some of them whose Heads will hardly reach above the Waistband of a Man’s Breeches, found to be quick with Child’. (p52)

All in all, The Secret History of Georgian London is a commendable read. The book contains some eye-opening almost heartbreaking material (see above) and generally succeeds in painting a compelling picture of the trials of those who lived, survived and died in 18th century London’s sordid underbelly.


Added bonus – Georgian London trivia:

  • Drug gangs terrorised parts London even back in the 18th century.
  • Marijuana could apparently be found growing freely along the city streets, a crop which was encouraged by the Crown for the hemp which was used to make nets and ropes for Britain’s naval and fishing fleets
  • A skilled prostitute could earn the yearly wage of a working man in a week
  • Benjamin Franklin visited one of London’s most notorious hellfire clubs in the 1740s
  • While the average yearly wage was 70 pounds, high-class sex workers could spend more than 10 thousand pounds per year merely on fashion to maintain their image – yet be penniless, disease-ridden and/or dead within a year or two
  • The growth of London’s sex industry was limited not by the availability of sex workers or their clients, but by the expansion of the sewerage and fresh water systems
  • Thanks to a common method of solicitation, simply sitting by a window was considered a sign of prostitution in 18th century Britain
  • In Georgian times the most erotic parts of a women’s body were considered to be the ankle, wrist and neck
  • Sir Joseph Banks (of Captain Cook’s voyage fame) became a laughing stock in London when his personal ‘voyage of discovery’ with numerous Polynesian women became public knowledge. He was known thereafter as ‘the Botanical Macaroni’.


Dan Cruickshank
The Secret History of Georgian London

The Secret History of Georgian London

Genre: History

The Secret History of Georgian London – sordid, seamy, captivating, alluring, repelling, wicked, fascinating, and very, very British – and that’s just the first page.

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About the Author ()

Nick Buchan is currently writing his first novel ‘Leopard Tree’, available 2015. “A burnt-out police detective becomes embroiled in a child murder investigation while on African safari. Will this case send Detective Duffy over the edge?” Follow ‘Leopard Tree’ online at or

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  1. Solving crime by The Yard - a book review : Deadline Zombie | April 25, 2013
  1. authorsanon says:

    I shall look forward to reading this, it does sound like an excellent background reference.

  2. authorsanon says:

    Although ‘looking forward to’ is not, perhaps, quite the expression I meant… 🙂

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