There were two ways for a girl to get on in the 18th century and they both involved sex, the risk of disease and the likelihood of an early death. A woman could become a wife  or a city prostitute; of course the latter was the far riskier option and the one most likely to taken by the poor.

The 18th century sees the birth of commerce and a huge expansion of trade in the great cities of the world. The goods on offer included  sex, as well as tea and sugar. Sex was the commodity most often traded in 18th century cities – sex with women, sex with men and sex with children.

Since the 12th century in Europe the onset of puberty was the acceptable time for marriage that was about 12 for girls and around 14 for boys. The first recorded age-of-consent law appeared in 1275 in England in the Statute of Westminster. It  made it a misdemeanour to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” whether with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age. The American colonies followed the English tradition, but the law was more of a guide –  Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams.

In Europe, the situation was much the same.  The advent of the French Revolution hardly changed at thing for women and girls. The age of consent for sexual intercourse was set at 11 years for girls in 1791. How enlightened was that?  18th century attitudes were different. There was little understanding of childhood as a concept;  children were seen as “little adults” who  like everyone else  were born sinful and subject to the corruptions of the flesh.

Women and female children were barred by law and convention from all but the most menial jobs in society. There was no chance of a woman making a decent living on her own. Some women inherited property from their families, there are plenty of examples of female inn owners and shop owners but most of them were widows.

The problem for a woman with property was that when she got married it became her husband’s and if the marriage was not a success she was left with nothing. So, it should come as no surprise that the sex trade was enormous not just in London but in every large European city and in the colonies too. Thousands of women needed to make a living and the only thing most men would pay for was sex or sex with housework.

William Hogarth’s six part Harlot’s Progress of 1732 makes the lot of the prostitute visible in a straightforward way. The representation of Moll  Hackabout’s seduction into prostitution, from the innocent country girl we see arriving in London in the first plate of the series through to her subsequent career and downward progress towards her death in plate six is generally acknowledged to mark a turning point both in British visual culture and in Hogarth’s  career.

Hogarth succeeded in making ‘low characters’ the subject of high and popular art. The paintings, which Hogarth showed in his house in Covent Garden attracted so much attention that he engraved them as prints. The prints were so popular there were no less than eight pirated versions of a Harlot’s Progress  on the market within a year of its first publication. The prints were bought by the emerging middle and professional  classes who accepted Hogarth’s new type of art depicting ‘low characters’ and their plight.  As a painter and a print maker Hogarth was able to take control of his images by petitioning Parliament to create what was the first Engraving Copyright Act 1734.

Of course taking control of their commercial assets was somewhat more difficult for the women of the trade however some did. Charlotte Hayes ran a brothel or ‘nunnery’ in the parlance of the day, keeping a carriage and liveried servants for her ladies of the night, who were taught manners and graces. One of these so-called ‘nuns’ was Emily Warren, an ‘exquisite beauty’ who became muse to the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Georgian memoirist William Hickey describes sleeping with her; ‘Never did I behold so perfect a beauty. I passed a night that many would have given thousands to do. ‘I however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’ Little wonder, perhaps. Warren had like so many other girls become a prostitute at the age of 12, having been discovered by Hayes leading her blind beggar father through the streets of London.

Hayes dressed her girls in French silks and lace and promised they would ‘satisfy all fantasies, caprices and extravagances of the male visitor, carrying out their every wish’. Inspired by the explorer-of-the-day James Cook‘s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, she organised a tableau in which ’12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’, were to be publicly deflowered by 12 young men as in ‘the celebrated rites of Venus’.  Later, the high-paying audience was encouraged to participate. For her part, Hayes, a former teenage prostitute, amassed a fortune of £20,000 – a sum a working man would have to work 500 years to earn.

Masquerade parties were a popular cover for anonymous sexual encounters. Among the most sought after of these risque gatherings were those held by one Mrs Cornley, reputedly a lover of Casanova; they were held in a grand house or ‘fairy palace’ in Soho Square. The parties were honey pots for prostitutes and pimps, and saw peers of the realm mix with streetwalkers.

The centre of the Georgian sex trade was Covent Garden. There, men could not pass without being accosted by women silently offering their arm or lewd suggestions. At coffee shops and jelly houses, where exotic concoctions were eaten from tall glasses, hundreds of lavishly adorned women sat looking for business. The infamous Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies was a directory of London prostitutes, circulating from the late 1740s. It detailed each girl’s charms. Typical is the entry in 1788, describing Miss Lister, of 6 Union Street, Oxford Road. ‘She is painted by the masterly hand of nature, shaded by tresses of the darkest brown, with the neighbouring hills below full ripe for manual pressure, firm and elastic, and heave at every touch.’

A German visitor of the time observed prostitutes in the West End. ‘Usually a crowd of female creatures stand in front of the theatres, amongst whom may be found children of nine or ten year, the best evidence of moral depravity in London. ‘In general, the English nation oversteps all others in immorality, and the abuses which come to light through addiction to debauchery are unbelievable.’

The dawn of the Victorian age and new attitudes to morality meant that prostitution gradually went underground. Streetwalking was made an imprisonable offence in the 1820s. For the whores, harlots, pimps and courtesans of Georgian London, the party was over.


The Secret History Of Georgian London,  Dan Cruickshank

Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce and Morality,  edited by Ann Lewis, Markman Ellis

Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-century British Literature and Culture, Laura J. Rosenthal

Find Books by Julia Herdman