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Authors: Catharine Arnold

The Sexual History of London

BOOK: The Sexual History of London
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This book is dedicated to my husband, Mark Adams,
and to my great friend Ronald Frame. Thank you
for your love, understanding and patience.


When it comes to sex, London has always had a bit of a reputation. One scrap of manuscript, dating from 1058, shows a young woman of Southwark, seated on a clapped-out mule, her hair falling over her shoulders. She is exciting the attention of travellers on the highways by means of her indiscreet clothing, and holding a little gilt rod in her hand, to indicate her profession. This is the first picture of a prostitute actively soliciting on the streets of London, and it gives some indication of the state of affairs even then. Of course, this early version of the permissive society had its critics. One Richard of Devizes, a monk, condemned the capital in 1180. ‘I do not at all like that city,' he wrote

all sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens. Each race brings its own vices and its own customs to the city. No one lives in it without falling into some sort of crimes. Every quarter of it abounds in great obscenities…Whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find in that one city. Do not associate with the crowds of pimps; do not mingle with the throngs in the eating-houses; avoid the dice and gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will meet with more braggarts there than in all France; the number of parasites is infinite…jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evil-doers, do not live in London.

From smooth-skinned lads and pretty boys to dancing girls and beggars, these are the very characters I set out to conjure back to life in these pages; from the Roman slave girls left shivering on the docks at Bankside to their Victorian counterparts cruising Piccadilly and the Ratcliffe Highway; from the pampered page boys of the Elizabethan court to the telegraph boys blackmailing their rich homosexual lovers in the Cleveland Street scandal; from
grandes horizontales
Anne Boleyn and Nell Gwyn to party girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies and the notorious Cynthia Payne; and from rakish aristocrats such as the Earl of Rochester, author of some of the most obscene poetry ever written, to persecuted homosexual pioneers Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. The thread which links this chequered history of a motley crew is one which links us all: sex. And it was ever thus. London is driven by desire, requited and unrequited. From time immemorial, commerce, industry, art and sport have all run on sex and the sometimes elusive promise of fulfilment. Paris is the city of Love but London is the city of Lust, a peculiar combination of our Anglo-Saxon ribaldry and British reticence; only a Scotsman (Lord Alfred Douglas) could have devised the description of ‘the love that dare not speak its name' for homosexuality (it would have been shouted from the rooftops in other nations); only a British audience would have taken the repressed self-denial of
Brief Encounter
to its collective bosom; and only Britain could have produced that most bawdy of bawds, Cynthia Payne, or Mandy Rice-Davies, creator of an inspired put-down when an elderly aristocrat denied having met her, let alone availed himself of her services: ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?'

While Henry VIII's knights jousted for the favours of a court lady, today's Premiership footballers are held up as supreme specimens of the athletic male body, competing for the attentions of their beautiful celebrity female counterparts; while Victorian crowds once gathered in Hyde Park to watch top courtesans such as ‘Skittles' Walters, mistress of the Prince of Wales, clad in a tightly cut riding habit, put her horse through its paces, so a century later tabloid readers dropped their marmalade reading about the exploits of Christine Keeler and Lord Boothby (not, I hasten to add, with each other). Philip Larkin might have observed that ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me),' but London had been swinging long before the ‘Chatterley' ban was lifted – right back to Roman times.

My journey begins in Roman London, and follows the fate of the slave girls trafficked to service the soldiers who descended on ‘Londinium' for rest and relaxation. What was life like for these creatures, huddled on the docks in chains? And how did Londinium become the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire, with its bath houses, theatres, circuses and brothels? What were the scenes on feast days and holy days, when scores of Londoners thronged the streets in raucous festivities, parading alongside models of giant phalluses, while orgies took place in full public view?

Such images of decadence were eventually removed when the Romans left for good, and London temporarily disintegrated into a string of villages along the banks of the Thames. But prostitution was back in business under the Normans, with the Conqueror himself, William, making a decent income from the properties he rented out to bawds. This was with the connivance of the Church: St Mary Overie, a nunnery in Southwark, became a celebrated brothel, presided over by the Bishop of Winchester.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, centred on the maze of streets around Cock's Lane, Maiden Lane and the intriguingly named ‘Gropecunt Lane'. Many women plied their trade in these narrow streets, such as the memorable Alice Strumpette and the delightful Clarice la Claterballock.

Henry VIII issued an edict to close the stews in 1546, in a desperate attempt to halt the progress of syphilis, but even the king was powerless to stop London's sex trade, which prospered as the newly opened theatres set up business on the Bankside and patrons of the Globe and the Rose flocked to brothels with names such as Ye Boar's Hedde or The Cardinal's Cap.

Out in the streets, Tudor London was described by one visitor as ‘a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a hell for horses', where young women enjoyed considerable freedom, parading around in tight-fitting gowns with deep cleavages, some even displaying their nipples, tipped with rouge for the purpose. Such freedom came at a price, however: women faced brutal punishment if arrested for prostitution, whipped at the cart's arse before being imprisoned in Bridewell, the terrifying house of correction. Not that this was enough to deter them; an ambitious whore who could stay the course and keep her head even while giving head, as the song goes, stood to make a fortune. One such was Donna Hollandia, redoubtable madam of Holland's Leaguer, the best brothel in London. But while copulation thrived in the laissez-faire days of James I, London's sex trade suffered under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. Theatres were closed, maypoles axed and adulterers even faced the death penalty. It is scarcely surprising that the restoration of the monarch in 1660 met with unconfined joy, and London, under the licentious Charles II, erupted into one giant party.

Charles II's reign saw the return of the theatres and, for the first time, the rise of the actress, personified by Nell Gwyn, who blazed a career path from orange girl to mistress of the king. Nell is one of the
grandes horizontales,
bad girls made good, whose lives are celebrated in this book. Others, now forgotten, also feature, such as Priss Fotheringham, a Scottish jailbird whose astonishing
pièce de résistance
meant she died a wealthy woman. And there is an account of a certain ‘Mr Hammond' who operated ‘Prick Office' over by Smithfield Market.

As London developed, the sex trade moved Up West, first to Covent Garden, ‘The Garden of Venus', where whores cruised the coffee houses and, according to one author, there were enough depraved women to form a colony. The fortunes of two representative characters illustrate this dramatic period in the history of sex: Hogarth's Moll Hackabout, a dreadful warning to young women, and Fanny Hill, Cleland's cheerful libertine, who breathlessly narrates her sexual odyssey with women as well as men. There is also a detour to examine the wilder shores of love: not merely the ‘molly houses' or homosexual brothels which operated under threat of death, but the cross-dressers, the fans of flagellation, the lesbians and even one case of auto-erotic asphyxiation. This chapter would not be complete without a visit to the Hellfire Club; nor could this book have omitted to mention the notorious rake, roué and future Chancellor of the Exchequer, Francis Dashwood – even though the majority of sins were committed outside London.

While the popular image of the Victorian era is of a tight-lipped, buttoned-up, repressive society, the fact is that, in the shadowy underworld of nineteenth-century London, prostitution, in all its forms, had become one of the most successful industries in this entrepreneurial culture. As London's sex trade moved further West, into the Haymarket and Piccadilly, prostitutes of all types, male and female, high class and low, were drawn like moths to the statue of Eros and the bright lights of the West End. Here you could glimpse the elite corps of kept women posing in the supper clubs and scouting for new aristocratic lovers, the pale and lovely shopgirls turning a trick to keep themselves in bonnets while wasting away with tuberculosis; and the desperate park women, disfigured by disease, paid by their sisters to keep out of sight and go away.

The reign of Queen Victoria was the golden age of prostitution, with over 50,000 prostitutes working the streets of London in the 1850s. Drawing on interviews by the social reformers Henry Mayhew and Dr William Acton, I describe the fate of a representative handful of girls, lured to London by the promise of fame and fortune, ranging from the kept women who lived in solitary splendour in St John's Wood to the underpaid seamstresses and milliners who were driven into prostitution to supplement their meagre wages and for whom survival was a matter of ‘offer up your body or die'. And we'll meet the notorious ‘Walter', author of the explicit sexual memoir
My Secret Life
, one of the most bleakly honest accounts of male sexuality ever published. Other forms of sexuality were evident, too, such as the remarkable duo of Boulton and Park, a pair of transvestites who liked nothing better than to drag up and parade along Burlington Arcade pretending to be ‘laydies', and the writer Oscar Wilde, the sexual martyr who ended up in jail, not merely for being homosexual but for believing that he could outwit the British judiciary. I pay a visit to Holywell Street, now lost beneath Kingsway, but once the home of the Victorian pornography industry, patronized alike by depraved old roués and pleasurably shocked young ladies who pressed their faces to the windows the better to see the wares inside. And, more disturbingly, I describe the tragic consequences of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which, while protecting the innocent by raising the age of consent to sixteen, drove prostitutes off the streets but made them far more vulnerable, putting them at the mercy of killers such as Jack the Ripper.

Two world wars, which brought with them the prospect of imminent death, added a new dynamic to London's sexuality in the twentieth century, as thousands of military personnel descended on the city. While impending oblivion caused hitherto respectable types to seek out strange bedfellows, prostitutes such as Marthe Watts did their bit for the war effort: this redoubtable lady celebrated VE Night by taking home forty-nine clients.
Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began long before 1963, but Swinging London certainly got off to a good start with high-society scandals as that celebrated decade began, such as the Profumo Affair and the salacious revelations about Margaret, Duchess of Argyll's mysterious ‘headless' lover; then there were sexual intrigues such as Tory peer Lord Boothby's alleged affair with the infamous villain Ronnie Kray. Finally, I ask if human nature has changed so very much at all over the centuries, or are the latest stars in London's sexual firmament, such as ‘Belle de Jour', just the latest incarnations of some familiar old characters.

This is not, of course, the first book to investigate the sex life of London, and I would like to acknowledge inspiration in the form of E. J. Burford's entertaining and scholarly accounts, including
Bawds and Lodgings
The Orrible Synne.
On a slightly different note, I am also indebted to Nickie Roberts, whose revisionist
Whores in History
examines prostitution from the working girls' point of view and puts up a spirited defence of the prostitute's calling. I would also recommend Fergus Linnane's entertaining
London the Wicked City
; Ronald Pearsall's
The Worm in the Bud
, an absorbing study of sex in the Victorian era; and Matt Houlbrook's
Queer London, Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918–1957
, a masterful guide to homosexual London. Last but certainly not least there is Dan Cruikshank's recent
The Secret History of Georgian London
, a splendidly illustrated account of a lively period in London's sexual history.

My own interest in the compelling history of London and sex developed years ago, thanks to a liberal censorship policy in my parents' house, which meant I read anything I could get my teenage hands on, suitable or unsuitable alike, from
(a short-lived but cutting-edge glossy magazine). Books ranged from Steven Marcus's classic study of pornography,
The Other Victorians
, to Sir Richard Burton's translation of
The Arabian Nights
. Curiously, the only thing I read which really shocked me was the
issue of
magazine, provided courtesy of our student neighbours. Despite all that exposure to high-class ‘erotica', I found the cartoons quite disturbing.

My fascination with the sex trade increased when I first moved to London and the daily journey to and from my office took me through Soho. Every evening, I walked from New Oxford Street down through Berwick Street Market to catch the 14 bus to Fulham, past Raymond's Revue Bar and the fleshpots of the sex industry, intrigued by the tawdry neon and the flickering bead curtains, and the red telephone boxes stuffed with cards advertising every possible form and deviation of recreational sex. At night, I saw another aspect of London's sex life, in the sophisticated bars of Knightsbridge and Chelsea, where attractive young women were always in demand, as escorts, companions, confidantes. It was a fascinating world for a writer, and as a good listener I was always popular with the jaded businessmen who wanted a date for dinner and a sympathetic ear. And so, although I cannot flatter myself that I share all the experiences of the ‘smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers and sorceresses' that you are going to read about, I do feel amply qualified to offer you an introduction to London, city of sin.

BOOK: The Sexual History of London
3.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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