Detail from William Hogarth’s etching Before (1736)

The whores and mores of Hanoverian London

The (not so) gentlemen of 18th-century London were a libidinous lot


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A character in François Rabelais’ Pantagruel, when discussing the expense of rebuilding the city walls of 16th-century Paris, suggests a novel solution: why not take a cheap and widely available material, namely pudenda, “arranged in good architectural symmetry, and construct the city boundaries from that? Judging by Julie Peakman’s book, much the same view prevailed in 18th-century London. 

If Renaissance Paris can provide enough material to satisfy the most prurient of readers, then Peakman’s account of Hanoverian London takes the Ann Summers, bunny-eared, crown. Sandwiched between the Glorious and French Revolutions, hers is a forensic tale of the sexual activities of Londoners as they enjoyed flagellation, mutual masturbation, “eyelid licking” (sic), full sex (as Alan Partridge would put it) and the pox with a coterie of handmaidens from lowly street-walkers to the most powdered and perfumed of courtesans. 

Libertine London: Sex in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis, Julie Peakman (Reaktion, £25)

The (not so) gentlemen of 18th-century London were a libidinous lot, portrayed by Peakman gossiping about the best conquests in town and merrily leafing through catalogues of local whores. These catalogues were detailed, as the singling out of 19-year-old Nancy Carter’s bosom in the Covent Garden Magazine of 1773 demonstrates: “The two hemispheres of delight, which incessantly pout to be pressed, are white, firm and plump.” The young prostitute is described as if a sound horse: “rather short, but with a most agreeable countenance, a fine pair of amorous eyes, which express the strongest passion, a pretty mouth and a very good set of teeth”.

Naturally, the reader is encouraged to disapprove of these priapic purchasers of sex and the plight of these objectified women: “men were to blame — male authors, doctors, legal representatives, judges and vicars, all those who made up the legal, medical, economic and social systems,” Peakman writes. Some women, specifically the “chaste single or faithfully married”, come under fire for “slutshaming” and their “lack of empathy for those who more freely engaged in sexual activities”

Peakman’s tone is sententious, but the subject of sexual mores has always been catnip to satirists. Ned Ward, author of the scandal sheets that made up the London Spy, who made a living from keeping his ear to the ground in the grubbier parts of the city, provides much of the colour in her early chapters. Ward’s satirical tour of notorious London clubs and brothels took no prisoners. He evidently relished sending up the “snuffling Stallions”, the “no-nosers” whose noses were lost to syphilis and the “unfortunate whoremasters” at their dancing clubs — or “Buttock balls”

Nor did he restrict himself to the heterosexual community. Indeed, Ward went out of his way to condemn the participants of “mollie clubs”, as male gay gathering spots were then known. His description of the mock birthing ceremonies that purportedly took place there, with men dressed in cushion-stuffed nighties gurning and groaning until eventually issuing a wooden baby ready for baptism is arresting, not least because these performances were said to be followed by a lavish feast, after which the attendees would proceed to “take infamous Liberties with each other”. 

Peakman lays out the vices of the age in vivid detail, supplemented with illustrations that leave little to the imagination. Contemporary cartoons show gruesome old men pursuing buxom women into bedrooms whilst shoving coins into their hands or eagerly having their bare bottoms spanked with a birch by muscular, half-naked Aphrodites. Flagellation, we learn, was a common remedy for flaccidity — the 18th-century version of Viagra. 

One of the paradoxes of the era is how fine the line was between the successful husband-hunter and the slut

Peakman’s subject matter ranges from streetwalkers to royal mistresses; rape trials to adultery; contemporary fashions to venereal disease via a colourful cast of priests, hacks, prostitutes, mistresses, adulterers, pimps, bawds, johns, quacks, murderers and thieves. Conjuring up a caricature of the rakish gentleman, Peakman uses the idea of the libertine to reign over this motley rogues’ gallery and point to the sexual double-standard where women were widely condemned for freely having (but not necessarily enjoying) sex, but men weren’t. Plus ça change

She encourages readers to deplore the dominant climate of misogyny in her choice of subject matter. But this is about as productive as Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress: it describes and shocks, but does not give us any answers. As Paul Langford put it so eloquently, “Hogarth had no desire to spoil his market by making his satire too pointed. Nor did he have any very constructive view to offer. The public were left to deplore and to buy.” Sex, in print form, sells. 

The obsession with female sexual morality in this era had everything to do with the rising middle class and the inheritance of property. Yet an exclusive focus on misogyny as the root of all evil and as a purported tool of historical analysis, will not reveal this. 

Peakman emphasises the sexual double standards of the age, but does not explore them. One area that would have rewarded investigation is the evident contrast between the middle-class women groomed for the marriage market and trained in the arts of coquetry and the prostitutes teaching each other how to catch their game. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the era is how fine the line was between perceptions of the successful husband-hunter and the slut.

“She was simply another poor woman who had been thrown like garbage into London’s cesspool by an uncaring society,” intones Peakman on the plight of one hapless figure. This focus on victimhood and misogyny is very 21st-century, and readers have come to expect it to loom large in contemporary gender history. But we also come to expect an insistence on the power of female agency against all the odds. Double standards abound. 

When Peakman gets to the inevitable stage in her book where she celebrates her champions, there is a moment of deep irony. In describing how some women were able to game the system, she observes that “women had their own ruses”. they “fought back using their wit, guile, cleverness, brashness or whatever they had within themselves that taught them how to survive in a man’s world”. This observation is extraordinarily similar to what Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about the specific talents of women in his 1762 book on children’s education, Emile:

“Nature wants [women] to think, to judge, to love, to know, to cultivate their minds as well as their looks. These are the weapons nature gives them to take the place of the strength they lack and to direct ours … Presence of mind, incisiveness and subtle observations are the science of women; cleverness at taking advantage of them is their talent.” 

Perhaps Peakman is more aligned with 18th-century values than she thinks.

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