Sex and the City








and Sex

There were two ways for a girl to get on in the 18th century and they both involved sex and the risk of disease followed by the likelihood of an early death.

The choice for most women was either wife or city prostitute. Prostitution was the riskier option and the option most likely to taken by the poor – women who had been abandoned and those who were widowed.

The 18th century saw the birth of commerce and a huge expansion of trade in the great cities of the world. The goods on offer were not only tea and sugar – there was a thriving trade in sex as well.

Sex was the commodity most often traded in 18th-century cities – sex with women, sex with men, and, sex with children.

Sex and the Age of Marriage

Since the 12th century in Europe, the onset of puberty was the acceptable time for marriage. This 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 misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage.

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.

Sex and the French Revolution

The advent of the French Revolution hardly changed at a 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?  In the 18th-century there was little understanding of childhood as a concept. Children were seen as “little adults” who were born sinful and subject to the corruptions of the flesh.

Sex and the Job Market

Women and female children were barred by law and convention from all but the most menial jobs in Europe and in the colonies. There was no chance of a woman making a decent living on her own so many were forced to make an indecent living for themselves.

Some women inherited property from their families when there was no male heir, there are plenty of examples of female innkeepers 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. If the marriage was not a success she could be left with nothing.

With odds stacked against women economically, the trade in sex thrived. Thousands of women needed to make a living and the only thing most men would pay for was sex or sex with housework.

The Harlot’s Progress

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 journey into prostitution, from the innocent country girl we see arriving in London on the first plate through to her subsequent career as a harlot and her decline towards death in plate six, is generally acknowledged to mark a turning point both in British visual culture and in Hogarth’s career but it changed little for women like Moll.

Charlotte Hayes’ Nuns

Of course, taking control of their commercial assets was somewhat more difficult for the women, the commercial world was designed for men. However, some did. One such was a woman called Charlotte Hayes. Hayes ran a brothel or ‘nunnery’ in the parlance of the day. She grew wealthy on her girls, keeping a carriage and liveried servants for her ladies of the night. She taught her girls the manners and graces of elite London society to get a better price for them. One of these so-called ‘nuns’ was Emily Warren, an ‘exquisite beauty’ who became the muse to the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was discovered by Hayes leading her blind beggar of a father through the streets of London. The Georgian memoirist William Hickey described sleeping with her as follows;

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. Emily Warren had, like so many other girls, become a prostitute at the age of 12.

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’.

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 honeypots for prostitutes and pimps and saw peers of the realm mix with streetwalkers.

Inspired by the explorer-of-the-day James Cook‘s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, Charlotte Hayes organised a tableau in which ’12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’. These nymphs were to be publicly deflowered by 12 young men as in ‘the celebrated rites of Venus’. Her disreputable business earned Hayes, a teenage prostitute herself, a fortune of £20,000 – a sum a working man would have to work 500 years to earn.


The Harris’ List

The centre of the Georgian sex trade was Covent Garden. There, men could not pass it without being accosted by women silently offering their arm or making lewd suggestions in their direction.

In the Covent Garden 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.  A typical entry in 1788, described 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 with these words. ‘Usually, a crowd of female creatures stand in front of the theatres, amongst whom may be found children of nine or ten years, 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 but it did not go away. Streetwalking was made an imprisonable offence in the 1820s. For the whores, harlots, pimps, and courtesans of Georgian London, the party was over but their abuse was not.



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

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Flowers, Theatre and Fashion – Fanny Abington

Flowers, Theatre and Fashion – Fanny Abington

The actress Frances Barton or Frances “Fanny” Barton was the daughter of a private soldier who started her working life as a flower girl and a street singer. As an actress, she performed in taverns and resorted to selling herself as many hard-up women did in those days before she made it onto the stage.

Her first step to success came when she got a job as a servant to a French milliner. Fanny learned about costume and acquired some French which afterward stood her in good stead as she mingled in London’s high society as a famous actress.

Actress Fanny first appeared on the stage was at Haymarket in 1755 as Miranda in Mrs. Centlivre’s play, Busybody. Following that she became a member of the Drury Lane Company, where she was overshadowed by its more established actresses Hannah Pritchard and Kitty Clive. However, Fanny was an she was an ambitious actress and travelled to Ireland where she had her first major success Lady Townley in The Provok’d Husband by Vanbrugh and Cibber. Fanny worked at her trade, she became a consumate actress and five years after she began her career she received an invitation from David Garrick to return to Drury Lane.

Fanny married her music teacher, James Abington, a royal trumpeter, in 1759. It was not happy and the pair separated but she retained his name calling herself Mrs. Abington. She remained at Drury Lane for eighteen yearsFanny played Mrs. Teasel in Sheridan’s School for Scandal making the role her own. She also played Shakespearean heroines – Beatrice, Portia, Desdemona and Ophelia and the comic characters  Miss Hoyden, Biddy Tipkin, Lucy Lockit, and Miss Prue. Mrs. Abington’s Kitty in “High Life Below Stairs” put her in the foremost rank of comic actresses, making the mop cap she wore in the role the reigning fashion“.

This cap was soon referred to as the “Abington Cap” and frequently seen on stage as well as in hat shops across Ireland and England. Adoring fans donned copies of this cap and it became an essential part of the well-appointed woman’s wardrobe. The actress soon became known for her avant-garde fashion and she even came up with a way of making the female figure appear taller. She began to wear a tall-hat called a ziggurat adorned with long flowing feathers and began to follow the French custom of putting red powder on her hair.

An example of Fanny’s influence on fashion – the high ziggurat style hat.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her as Miss Prue a character from Congreve’s Love for Love. The portrait is the best-known of his half-dozen or more portraits of her. In 1782 she left Drury Lane for Covent Garden. After an absence from the stage from 1790 until 1797, she reappeared, quitting it finally in 1799. Her ambition, personal wit, and cleverness won her a distinguished position in society, in spite of her humble origin.

Source; Wikipedia

Illustrations: Fanny Abington, Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Marie-Dauncey,1789, James-Northcote, Fanny as Miss Prue, Joshua Reynolds.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

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May Day – It’s not what it used to be!

May Day – It’s not what it used to be!

When I think of May Day I think either of Maypoles, Morris Dancing and the Jack in the Green or the old Soviet military processions in Red Square.

The origins of May Day stretch back into the mists of time. In the late Middle Ages people in England started to dance around a Maypole (a pole with no ribbons) as a celebration of Spring and to encourage fertility in the soil and people. This was banned by the Puritans but came back with the Restoration in 1660 and has remained with us ever since – the Victorians added the ribbons.

By the seventeenth century England was on the long march to modernity and urban living and London was well on the way to being the first great modern city in the world so May Day in London had nothing to do with May Poles or flowers. It was one of a number of days of the year; Shrove Tuesday, Ascension Day, Midsummer and St Bartholomew’s Day; when disorder reigned.  Between 1603 and 1642 Shrove Tuesday riots involved apprentice boys attacking brothels, bawdy houses and playhouses to reduce temptation during Lent! In the same period there were eight May Day riots. The attacks on bawdy houses seem to peter out after the Restoration and the nature of May Day and other celebration days changes again.

In the late seventeenth century there is evidence of what are called ‘ridings’ in London and other towns. In a ‘riding’ those who are viewed to have transgressed the sexual morality of the day were harangued in the street by the mod who beat their pots and pans and shouted at the tops of their voices in what was called ‘rough music.’ In June 1664 a woman appeared before a magistrate in Middlesex accused of following a woman down the street shouting, ‘whore, whore’ and clapping her hands. She was joined by others and soon there was a riot. On May Day those who were deemed to have offended their community were spat on, had dirt and stones thrown at them as well as the contents of chamber pots. In London the haranguing husbands who had beaten or cheated on their wives was particularly popular as was terrorising brothel keepers and the mothers of illegitimate children.

Historian Charles Pythian-Adams has argued that during the eighteenth century May Day celebrations in London were transformed. The population of the city was becoming socially segregated with the rich withdrawing from popular or plebeian activities, but this notion leaves out the growing urban middle class and the effects of growing religious non-conformity. As the eighteenth century progressed so did social separation (both class and gender) but it was not exclusively the elites separating themselves from the poor, the middle class were able to buy their way into urban elite culture, they may not have had a box at the theatre but they could have a seat in the stalls; and as for the poor they separated into those who chose the strictures of religious non-conformity (no pagan rituals) over the perceived laxity of the established church were certain pagan rituals were accepted. This new urban culture was not conducive to what we think of as May Day traditions and its celebration or marking lapsed until it was re-invented and sanitised by the Victorians who gave us children holding ribbons and dancing round the May Pole in the Board School yard.

Source: The Eighteenth-Century Town: A Reader in English Urban History 1688-1820, By Peter Borsay, Routledge 2013

Illustration: Country Dances round a Maypole (decorative painting for a supper-box at Vauxhall Gardens, London), Francis Hayman (1708–1776), Victoria and Albert Museum.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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Mary Wollstonecraft’s Friends

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Friends

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 she is one of the world’s first feminist writers.

Wollstonecraft decided to become a writer in 1787, 230 years ago, when she moved to 45 George Street, in Southwark, now called Dolben Street. It was from Dolben Street[1]  that she launched her career, with the publication of her novel, Mary: A Fiction or Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman is a philosophical and gothic novel that revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband. The story focuses on the societal rather than the individual “wrongs of woman” and criticises what Wollstonecraft viewed as the patriarchal institution of marriage in eighteenth-century Britain and the legal system that protected it. However, the heroine’s inability to relinquish her romantic fantasies also reveals women’s collusion in their oppression through false and damaging sentimentalism. The novel pioneered the celebration of female sexuality and cross-class identification between women. Such themes, coupled with the publication of Godwin’s scandalous Memoirs of Wollstonecraft’s life, made the novel unpopular at the time it was published.

Two friendships shaped Wollstonecraft’s early life. The first was with Jane Arden. At the age of nine Wollstonecraft was taken to a farm near Beverley in Yorkshire with her brothers and sisters. They lived a wild life, roaming around the flat land of the Humber estuary until her father took a house in the town opposite the Minster. It was in Beverley she met Jane Arden. Life in Beverley was remarkably civilised, there was a theatre, dances at the Assembly Rooms and a race course with a spring meeting that co-inside with the Spring Fair. Part of my own novel Sinclair is set in Beverley.

Image result for Beverley yorkshire creative commons

Beverley, Yorkshire

The girls frequently read books together and attended lectures presented by Arden’s father, a self-styled philosopher and scientist. John Arden was the descendant of the playwright Arden of Faversham but was disinherited by his family, and forced to set himself up as a roving teacher of practical mathematics and experimental philosophy. After a spell in Germany, he settled in Bath for a while where he became a founder member of the Bath Philosophical Society. Then moved onto Derby where he made friends with the artist Joseph Wright. Wright painted him as the Philosopher in his work entitled: A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, or the full title, A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in the place of the sun, in 1766.


Image result for The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery

The Orrery, Joseph Wright of Derby – Derby Museum and Art Gallery

The Orrery, which now hangs in the Derby Museum, caused a sensation at the time because it replaced a classical motif with a scientific one. In this picture, Wright replaces the awe inspired by God with the wonder of science.  [John Arden – The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, iOpening Books 2016.]




At fourteen Wollstonecraft revelled in the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household and valued her friendship with Jane Arden greatly, sometimes to the point of being emotionally possessive. Wollstonecraft wrote to her: “I have formed romantic notions of friendship … I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none.” In some of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Arden, she reveals the volatile and depressive emotions that would haunt her throughout her life. Mary’s crush for Jane ended badly, in quarrel spiked with jealousy and rage.

Her second and more important friendship was with Fanny (Frances) Blood, who was introduced to Wollstonecraft by the Clares, an elderly couple from Hoxton who became parental figures to her. Mr Clare was a retired clergyman with a taste for poetry, and Mrs Clare encouraged Mary’s reading, providing her with copies of Milton, Shakespeare, Pope and Johnson. Like Fanny, Mary learned the accomplishments expected of a middle-class woman from Mrs Clare – sewing, drawing and letter writing. Above all, she learned to be feminine and neat.

Unhappy with her home life, Wollstonecraft struck out on her own in 1778 and accepted a job as a lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787).

In 1780 she returned home because she was called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Mrs Dawson’s employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods.

Fanny Blood was paid by the botanist William Curtis to paint wildflowers for his book Flora Londinensis. When Mary was living with the Bloods Fanny became engaged to Hugh Skeys, but the pair could not marry immediately and Skeys was forced to go the sea to finance the marriage. Fanny’s brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762–1844), became good friends with Mary so much so that William Godwin, Mary’s husband wrote that Mary had “contracted a friendship so fervent, as for years to have constituted the ruling passion of her mind”.

Blood, together with Mary Wollstonecraft and Wollstonecraft’s sisters, Eliza and Everina, opened a school first in Islington, which soon failed, and then in Newington Green. The school was combined with a boarding house for women and their children.

On February 24, 1785, Fanny Blood married Hugh Skeys who had made himself into a successful wine merchant based in Dublin. When Blood married and left the school, Wollstonecraft left too, and so their other school failed.

Fanny died in childbirth in Lisbon, Portugal, on November 29, 1785. Wollstonecraft was deeply affected by Blood’s death and in part inspired her first novel, Mary: A Fiction in 1788. She also named her own daughter, Fanny Imlay (1794–1816), after her friend.Frances “Fanny” Imlay was Mary’s daughter by the American commercial speculator and diplomat Gilbert Imlay. The pair never married and when Mary died Fanny remained part of the family of the man her mother had married, William Godwin. She was born in Le Havre in 1794 as the French Revolution took hold. Her half-sister Claire Clairmont would become Byron’s lover and her sister by Godwin would elope with the poet Shelley and write the gothic novel Frankenstein.

In later years, Mary realised during the two years she spent with the Blood family she had idealised Fanny as a woman like herself, fiercely independent and intellectual but Fanny was not like Mary, she wanted to be a wife and a mother more than a revolutionary. Nevertheless, Mary loved the Bloods and remained dedicated to them throughout her life. Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood; they made plans to rent rooms together and to support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream come to nothing. The weight of economic reality and social conformity as well as  being women in what was to all intents and purposes a world designed and run by men for men made their dream impossible to fulfil.

Mary followed the publication of Mary: A Fiction, with works on the education of children. Her own experience of motherhood forcing her to reconsider her views on women and children.

Through her association with her friend and publisher Joseph Johnson, she met Thomas Paine, the writer of The Rights of Man. Paine who would become one of the great influencers of the both the French Revolution and the development of the American state opposed the idea of hereditary government and the belief that dictatorial government is necessary, because of man’s corrupt nature. She also met her future husband and one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement William Godwin through Johnson. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, they were both disappointed in each other. Godwin had come to hear Paine, but Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject.

It was after she left Dolben Street in 1791 that she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). There is no doubt that her time at Dolben Street, Southwark was the furnace of her intellectual development, and was the site of her most intensely creative years.

For more information on Wollstonecraft see:



[1] George Street was formed circa 1776 and the houses on either side were completed and tenanted by 1780 when the street name first occurs in the sewer rate books. It was built across the open fields shown as “tenter grounds” on Rocque’s maps, on part of what became known as Brown’s Estate. The formation of George Street was part of the rapid development of the area which followed the erection of Blackfriars Bridge. The street was renamed Dolben Street in 1911 in honour of John Dolben (1625–86), Archbishop of York, who in 1671, when Bishop of Rochester, officiated at the consecration of Christ Church. Throughout the period that these houses are shown in the rate books and directories they have been occupied by small tradesmen, chandlers, bakers, etc., and by artisans.

Southwark was the location of several London prisons, including those of the Crown or Prerogative Courts, the Marshalsea and King’s Bench prisons, those of the local manors’ courts, e.g., Borough Compter, The Clink and the Surrey county gaol originally housed at the White Lion Inn (also informally called the Borough Gaol) and eventually at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

One local family of note, was the Harvards. John Harvard went to the local parish free school of St Saviour’s and on to Cambridge University. He migrated to the Massachusetts Colony and left his library and the residue of his will to the new college there, named after him as its first benefactor. Harvard University maintains a link, having paid for a memorial chapel within Southwark Cathedral (his family’s parish church).

Sources:The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft By Claire Tomalin, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination by Barbara Taylor,  & Wikipedia

My own novel, Sinclair takes place in Southwark and Beverley.

Julia Herdman is a novelist. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 on Kindle

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Byron’s Daughters – A Tale of Three Sisters

Madame Staël – A woman who abored all that was tyrannical, cynical, or passionless

White’s Chocolate House

White’s Chocolate House

Think of the words ‘white’ and ‘chocolate’ and the images that come to mind are those of the ‘The Milky Bar Kid’ or that luxury white chocolate flecked with fine black vanilla seeds but White’s and chocolate in the 18th century meant something entirely different; gambling.

The impetus for London’s chocolate craze came from France, introduced as an ‘excellent west indian drink’ in the mid 17th century. A decade later pamphlets proclaimed the miraculous, panacean qualities of the new drink, saying that it would boost fertility, cure consumption, alleviate indigestion and reverse ageing: with a mere lick, it was said, it would ‘make old women young and fresh and create new motions of the flesh’.

Unlike in Paris and Madrid, chocolate drinking was not confined to the social elite in London however it was never as popular as coffee with its enlivening caffeine boost.. It was only around St James’s Square that a cluster of super-elite self-styled ‘chocolate houses’ flourished. The principal chocolate houses were Ozinda’s and White’s, both on St James’s Street, and the Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall.As befitted their location their interiors were a cut above the wooden, workmanlike interiors of the City coffeehouses, boasting sofas, polished tables, dandyish waiters and, at least in Ozinda’s case, a collection of valuable paintings for the customers to admire. In fact Ozinda’s comfortable surroundings became a hot bed of Jacobite intrigue. On one occasion in 1715, Jacobite supporters were arrested there and taken off to Newgate prison.

White’s started life at 4 Chesterfield Street, off Curzon Street in Mayfair, in 1693; owned by an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bianco. It was later re-named Mrs. White’s Chocolate House with a side line in tickets for the King’s Theatre and Royal Drury Lane Theatre White’s quickly made the transition from cafe into an exclusive club. It was notorious as a gambling house; those who frequented it were known as “the gamesters of White’s.” The club gained a reputation for both its exclusivity and the often raffish behaviour of its members. Jonathan Swift referred to White’s as the “bane of half the English nobility.” In 1778 it moved to 37–38 St James’s Street and was from 1783 the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, while the Whigs’ club Brooks’s was just down the road.

White’s had such a terrible reputation Hogarth depicted its inner gambling room as ‘Hell’, in the sixth episode of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. The place is on fire but no one seems to notice. It is a picture of greed and despair so far removed from the images of chocolate we have today.

Illustration: Meissen Chocolate Cup and Saucer.

Julia Herdman is a novelist. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

Also available on:

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