The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital by Dan Cruickshank - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

The Harlots’ Progress

The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital


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After the Great Fire in 1666, speculative building became one of London’s main economic activities and, according to Dan Cruickshank, what kept the building trade going was the sex industry. The glories of Georgian London were made possible by the vigorous activities of common prostitutes, classy courtesans, bawds, procuresses, pimps, mollies, bullies, bunters, owners of bagnios and brothels, tavern keepers, libertines, and even the landlords of ordinary London houses. The design of the standard London house allowed independent access to many rooms. Did the design emerge in response to the need for more bawdyhouses? Given the estimate of the Universal Daily Register in 1786 that one-sixth of the population of London were ‘Rakes or Whores’, and Cruickshank’s calculation that ‘a staggering’ one woman in five was in the industry, it starts to seem possible if not probable.

That prostitution was rife in eighteenth-century London is well-known: Boswell’s London Journal of 1762–3 gives us vivid glimpses of streetwalkers and Boswell’s way with them. Successful courtesans like Fanny Murray wrote their memoirs. Histories and ballads celebrated characters like Sally Salisbury, the toast of the town in 1720,

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