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Following on from the previous ‘Provision for Pleasure’ post, time to take a look at what constituted ‘safe sex’ with regards to Georgian London’s Booming Sex Industry.

While ‘withdrawal’ was an age-old, albeit often unreliable method, interruption was hardly in the ethos of those bent on seeking pleasure and who had their heart (and their nether regions) set on a sexual encounter without the bounds of propriety.  However, for those with a measure of foresight, there were contraceptive choices available in the eighteenth century, though they were often costly and there was no guarantee of reliability either. But this did nothing to diminish the thriving customer base enjoyed by ‘Mrs Phillips’ who was the proprietress of The Green Canister, in Half Moon Street (now Bedford Street) in Covent Garden. Astutely located, at the time Covent Garden – or ‘the great square of Venus’ – was the prime location for Georgian London’s sex trade, and during her time as a courtesan, Phillips had clearly learned, as well as ‘turned’ a trick or two. Handbills printed to advertise her wares were given out to prospective customers in the street by link boys, keen to earn a few extra pennies, and amongst the most popular items touted were ‘preservatives’, or, more widely speaking, condoms.

Seen primarily as a means of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, in 1776 one London advertiser described condoms as “implements of safety which secure the health of my customers”, and while there was no guarantee as to the effectiveness of 18th century condoms as a contraceptive, Casanova, best known as one of the most famous lovers in history, was one of the first reported as using ‘assurance caps’ to prevent impregnating his mistresses.


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Early quality control – Casanova would often blow up a condom before use to test for holes (left) while in the caricature (right) a woman in a ‘condom warehouse’ is seen blowing up a condom to make sure that it is not damaged.


In the 18th century, condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, though the standard length on offer was between seven and eight inches, secured with a coloured ribbon tied around the base.  Made from either linen or ‘skin’ (sheep’s intestine) condoms could be used several times and men had only to wash them after each use.  Sold at pubs, barber shops, apothecary (chemist) shops and open-air markets, condoms were also sometimes available at the theatre –  it was after all the populous theatre scene in and around Covent Garden which promised a steady supply of potential sexual clients, either emerging during the intermission or seeking further entertainment after the show was over.

One firm proponent of condoms or ‘armour’ as he called them was James Boswell, whose London Journal is a richly informative source of information on sex in the eighteenth century; Boswell enthusiastically pursued a libertine lifestyle:

“At the bottom of the Haymarket I picked up a strong, jolly young damsel, and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and then in armour complete did I engage her upon this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much.”

In addition to condoms, outlets such The Green Canister would also have carried variations of the contraceptive sponge, a piece of natural sponge or linen with a length of ribbon stitched to it. Soaked in a dilute solution of lemon juice, or more commonly vinegar, this was a barrier method incorporating a supposed natural spermicide and favoured by prostitutes, but also employed by ‘ordinary’ women, especially those desirous of a break from childbearing.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, women were also known to utilise half a squeezed lemon as a kind of cervical cap; mention here again of the legendary lothario Casanova who took the credit for ‘inventing’ this barrier method, though there’s significant evidence to suggest that his claim on this astringent idea was not the first.  For thousands of years, women have inserted fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various objects and mixtures into their vagina in an attempt to prevent conception, with vaginal douches also used after intercourse as a contraceptive measure from at least the 1600’s.

Of course, there was one guaranteed sure-fire method of contraception universally available in the 18th century, still an option today, and one which was absolutely free – Abstinence!  But then where’s the fun in that?!

James Gillray, 'Fashionable Contrasts', 1792





Any dictionary definition will tell you that a ‘bawd’ is a woman who is in charge of, or keeps a brothel, yet despite the unscrupulous associations with such a profession, in Georgian London the ruthless exploitation of the rich market for sex spawned some of the eighteenth century’s most salaciously successful sexual entrepreneurs, who as well as amassing a great deal of money also gained a measure of celebrity through their notoriety into the bargain.

While much has been written about the seamy underbelly of 18th century London, particularly with regard to prostitution, this was nevertheless a lucrative aspect of the city’s ingrained climate of organised crime; those convicted of whoring, especially those who operated from the streets, regularly picked the pockets of the men they picked up, and often operated in league with other pickpockets, acting as a distracting decoy.

In most cases, theft rather than sex was the main object of the trade of prostitution.


While this profitable sideline to prostitution provided an additional livelihood, albeit criminal, for many, the real fortunes were those made by the notorious madams and procuresses who operated in ‘sin city’ during the reigns of the Hanoverians.  While they may have occupied a dubious place in society, even though some transacted business from beneath an obscuring veil of stylish respectability, these enterprising women capitalised on sexual demand, fulfilling the ‘Provision for Pleasure’ with a plentiful supply of prostitutes of both sexes.   Operating from the ‘disorderly houses’ proliferating in the vicinity of Covent Garden, or ‘the great square of Venus’ as it was otherwise known, this was the prime location for London’s sex trade, and astutely placed to take full advantage of the populous theatre scene which promised a steady supply of potential clients either emerging during the intermission or seeking further entertainment after the show was over.


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Covent Garden or ‘the great square of Venus’ as it was otherwise known.


Though contemporary denunciations of moral laxity and societal perversion sounded loud, the literary and illustrative treatments of the likes of Moll King, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and Hogarth’s portrayals of Betty Careless were certainly emblematic of the brothel-keepers profession, and appealed to a public hungry for depictions drawn from the racier side of life.  Then as now, sex sells, and there was also a profit to be made from the real-life stories of the likes of Jane  Douglas, ‘The Empress of the Bawds’, not to mention the sales of ‘sexual directories’ such as ‘The Wandering Whore’.  Published during the Restoration period, this was a precursor to the scandalous and eminently successful ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies’ , listing the sexual attributes and services offered by numerous ‘light-skirts’ and the streets where prostitutes might be found, as well as the locations of the Garden’s prime brothels from which many practiced ‘the oldest profession’.


Frontispiece and title page of 1773 edition of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies


Of the services on offer from the ‘Ladies’ featured in Harris’s List, naturally you got what you paid for, and sometimes an unwelcome extra in the form of a venereal disease; this was, after all, an age ravaged by syphilis.  For the less discerning gent  a ‘ threepenny upright’, that is to say, an encounter out in the open with a lowly streetwalker, might suffice, while for clients seeking a little more discretion a visit to a ‘bawdy house’ or a ‘bagnio’ (a bathhouse which  doubled as brothel) would fit the bill.  Of course, depending on the kind of ‘house’ kept, these establishments ranged from the functional to the opulent, reflecting the ‘amusements’ on offer therein.  At the King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, managed by the shrewd Moll King, sexual services were offered alongside the hot beverages, both served from the time the taverns shut until dawn, while the higher-end establishments, run by the likes of Elizabeth Dennison, were well known for “supplying the best ‘pieces’ in the Garden”.  Further up the scale, Charlotte Hayes considered one of the most desirable ‘women of the town’ was the owner of some of the city’s most luxurious brothels in and around King’s Place in St James’s.  Yet whether they be ‘Haymarket ware’, the term for a low-class prostitute, or a demanding courtesan, the goal was a common one – they were in it to make money.  And in this respect, much has been made of the economic contribution that the extent of prostitution had on the City’s prosperity, not only shaping eighteenth-century London but mooted as the financial bedrock of the City’s future development.

With estimates of as many as one in five young women engaged in prostitution at the time, this may well be plausible.  Certainly, this was an exploitative age.  For the thousands of girls who flocked to London each year seeking their fortunes, conversely, there were those lying in wait, keen to appropriate their naive willingness, as depicted in the opening scene of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress.



In the first of Hogarth’s series of engravings, The Harlot’s Progress, the protagonist, Moll Hackabout, has arrived in London’s Cheapside and is being inspected by the pox-ridden Elizabeth Needham, a notorious procuress and brothel-keeper, who wants to secure Moll for prostitution – a fresh face and the promise of virginity meant that a higher price could be demanded from an eager client.


Eagerly anticipating the arrival of the rural coaches, these ‘bawds’, often women who had grown too old to make their own living from prostitution, would observe and select from the regular influx of country girls the most likely looking ‘raw materials’ for their trade.  And the ploy was a simple one: offering seemingly respectable work, once a false debt for lodgings and food had been run up, threats and violence were employed to ensnare the gullible innocents.  Seduced into a life of vice, which invariably turned out to be harsh, and short, their bodies, like those of the desperate homeless girls plucked from the streets of the city itself, were repeatedly sold for profit, callously exploited in feeding the appetite for paid for sex, which of course lined the mercenary Madam’s pocket…


In later ‘Provision for Pleasure‘ posts, I’ll be focusing on those ‘sexual entrepreneurs’ who managed to turn the infamy of brothel-keeping into a major industry, as well as delving into contraception, STD’s, fetishes, ‘Posture Girls’ and Molly Houses and some of the other salacious aspects of the Georgian sex industry.



Few writer’s works are as suffused with their native landscape as Thomas Hardy’s novels and poetry, and figuring large in the landscape of his mind, many of Hardy’s settings are inseparable from the places that inspired them, and indeed much of his appeal lies in his abstractions of Wessex, his revival of the ancient Saxon name for the southwestern counties of England which he described as ‘a partly-real, partly dream-country’.  

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) introduced the Wessex area setting (in the last edition of that novel Hardy reminds himself and his readers that it was in the pages of that book that he first made use of the ancient name of Wessex, described as ‘a merely realistic dream country’), and was to be the backdrop for all his major novels.   Though his reputation as a formidable writer was well established by the 1880’s, Hardy seems always to have placed poetry above fiction and regarded himself primarily as a poet, and indeed wrote poetry throughout his life.  However, for years circumstance dictated that he had to sell what he wrote to earn his living, Hardy forced to write fiction until such times as he was financially free to concentrate on verse,  his first collection of poetry not published until 1898.

Yet as well as drawing poetic inspiration from his ‘realistic dream country’ Hardy was also influenced by the changing seasons, and two of his poems conjuring up the imagery of the month of November seem an apt read at this time of year…

At Day-Close In November

The ten hours’ light is abating,
And a late bird flies across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
Give their black heads a toss.

Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time,
Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
And now they obscure the sky.

And the children who ramble through here
Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall trees grew here,
A time when none will be seen.


A Night In November

I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!




Burned at the Stake


Summer’s next book has now been released – Burned at the Stake: The Life and Death of Mary Channing.

In 1706 19-year-old Mary Channing was convicted of poisoning her husband and became the last woman to be burned at the stake in Dorset. Despite her impressive attempts to defend herself, the jury had taken only half an hour to find her guilty. Yet on pronouncement of the death sentence, Mary ‘pleaded her belly’ and thus postponed her execution until after she had given birth to her child in gaol.

When the day finally arrived, her execution was made into something of a county fair, with 10,000 spectators gathering to view the barbaric ordeal upon the floor of Dorchester’s ancient Roman amphitheatre, Maumbury Rings. Although the law extended an act of clemency allowing for Mary to be strangled to death before the fires were lit, there is evidence to suggest that she was, in fact, still alive when consigned to the flames. After the gory spectacle was complete, it was said ‘not one of those 10,000 people ever cared particularly for hot roast after that.’

More than 300 years after her dramatic demise, Mary’s fate still holds a macabre fascination, as it did for Thomas Hardy, who recorded some of the grislier details of her execution in his notebooks and used her as the inspiration for his poem, ‘The Mock Wife’. Yet while Mary Channing has been granted a kind of grim celebrity, as well as an established place in the annals of female murderers, a measure of compelling sympathy for her case is nonetheless another lasting aspect of her legacy.

Available now:

Pen & Sword Books


& from all good High Street booksellers!