The Secret History of Georgian London

Hallie Rubenhold enjoys a gripping read on how the wages of sin shaped the capital 

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Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Dan Cruickshank
Publisher: Random House
Price (RRP): £25

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Throughout the 18th century it was widely believed that one woman in five was involved in London’s sex trade. Indeed, as Dan Cruickshank sets out in his richly informative book The Secret History of Georgian London, the sex industry was so vast and pervasive that it helped to create the capital city, both in the literal and figurative sense.

Georgian London was an expanding place, filled with merchants, property speculators and traders of all rank and description. Many of these people made their fortunes off the back of investment in the sex trade; a sector that was growing as rapidly as the urban population was increasing. The demand for entertainment and pleasure saw the creation of numerous brothels and taverns, while many of the newly built neighbourhoods, such as Marylebone and Bloomsbury, found their spacious townhouses filling with those who made livings as prostitutes, pimps and bawds. 

There were exceptional profits to be made on the flesh market and Dan Cruickshank provides stories of some of the more notable winners; highly paid courtesans such as Lavinia Fenton, Kitty Fisher and Mrs Abington, as well as bawds such as Charlotte Hayes who was allegedly worth £20,000 at the time of her ‘retirement’ and Moll King, who went on to become a property owner in Hampstead. 

But, as Cruickshank points out, “the sex trade did more than just help fund the construction of the city, it created a rich new subdivision of society”: yet another strata of wealthy middle-class consumers and patrons. In fact, the great flowering of art, literature and the theatre during this period would not have been entirely possible without some involvement in and inspiration from the sex industry. Prostitution subsidised the theatres, while some of the 18th century’s most accomplished artists, William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, used ‘harlots’ as their subject matter. 

The Georgian capital may have come to define itself by its thriving cultural life, but this cultural life was shaped to a significant extent by the wages of sin. This truth sat rather uncomfortably with an increasingly moral middle class, who by the 19th century had done their best to rewrite London’s sordid history.  

Cruickshank does an outstanding job of identifying many instances of this moral white-washing. Most notably he questions the long-held belief that Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital accepted only children of respectable women who had been “seduced and deluded”, rather than women openly engaged in prostitution. 

This is a monumental work which leaves no stone unturned in its quest to create a full and brutally honest picture of the lives of Georgian London’s dispossessed. In telling this fascinating story, Dan Cruickshank has examined a variety of material, from architecture, artefacts and art, to statistics and personal accounts of life. The result is a broad panorama and a compelling thesis which can be considered a commendable contribution to scholarship, as well as a gripping read.  

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Hallie Rubenhold is the author of Lady Worsley’s Whim (Vintage, 2009) and The Covent Garden Ladies (Tempus, 2005)