The Sexual History of London

by Catharine Arnold

12 January 2012

If Paris is the city of love, then London is the city of lust. From the bath houses of Roman Londinium to the sexual underground of the 20th century and beyond, this is an entertaining, vibrant chronicle of London and sex through the ages.
A Rake’s Progress III: The Rake at the Rose-Tavern (partial), William Hogarth, (1697-1764). Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London/The Bridgeman Art Library. 
cover art

The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City---Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages

Catharine Arnold

(St. Martin's)
US: Dec 2011

Excerpted from the Introduction from The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages by Catharine Arnold. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

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 horizontals 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 favors 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, centered 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 in1660 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 horizontals, 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.

Catharine Arnold read English at Girton College, Cambridge, and holds a further degree in psychology. A journalist, academic, and popular historian, her previous books include Necropolis: London and Its Dead and Bedlam: London and Its Mad.

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