The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London

harrisPeople think I’m obsessed with syphilis, and maybe I am. But it’s only because of my recent indoctrination into 18th-century history by aficionados of the period, such as Lucy Inglis, Adrian Teal and Rob Lucas.  I can’t read 10 pages of a medical casebook without coming across a reference to lues venerea. By the end of the century, London was literally crawling with the pox.

And it’s no surprise. Sexual promiscuity was as much a part of Georgian England as were powdered wigs and opium. For a few pennies, a gentleman could pick up Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar—a pocket guide to London’s prostitutes published annually starting in 1771—and peruse it as he might do a fine wine list.

For three guineas, a man could partake in the pleasures provided by Miss L—st—r at No. 6 Union Street, whose ‘neighbouring hills [are] full ripe for manual pressure, firm, and elastic, and heave at every touch.’ [1] If three guineas were too much, one could always spend a third of that for a night with Miss H—ll—nd at No. 2 York Street, who, ‘tho’ only seventeen and short, is very fat and corpulent…a luscious treat to the voluptuary.’ [2]  And for those who fancied a woman ‘rather above the common height’, they could visit Miss S—ms at No. 82 Queen Ann’s Street East, who frequently attracted lovers of a ‘diminutive size’ who loved ‘surmounting such a fine, tall woman.’ [3]

L0033923 A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroomThe guidebook wasn’t all slap and tickle, though. Hidden within these pages were warnings about the dangers of sleeping with diseased prostitutes.  Military men were cautioned against Matilda Johnson, since ‘it is thought by some experienced officers, that her citadel is in danger, on account of a quantity of fiery combustible matter which is lodged in the covered way.’ Some warnings were not so subtle (or hilarious). The guidebook alerts its readers to Miss Young, who had ‘very lately had the folly and wickedness to leave a certain hospital, before the cure for a certain distemper which she had was completed.’ The book ominously adds that she has ‘thrown her contaminated carcass on the town again.’ [4]

Yes, syphilis was ubiquitous in 18th-century London. Aside from abstaining or entering into a monogamous relationship with a healthy partner, there was very little one could do to protect oneself from the pox. Condoms, though available during this period, were rarely employed. When used, they were frequently reused multiple times, defeating their purpose as safeguards against contamination.

SyphilisThat said, the telltale signs of the disease could often be seen on those suffering from the pox, allowing the astute observer to steer clear of infected persons. In this wax moulage (left) by the talented artist, Nicole Antebi, you can see the effects of the disease on the face and mouth. Blemishes such as these came to be associated with prostitution. Georgian women went to great lengths to cover these marks with ‘beauty spots’ made of fine black velvet, or mouse skin.

Those who suffered from the pox often turned to surgeons for help. Before the discovery of penicillin, syphilis was an incurable (and ultimately fatal) disease. The longer it went on, the worse the symptoms became. In addition to unsightly skin ulcers like the ones mentioned above, sufferers could experience paralysis, blindness, dementia and ‘saddle nose‘, a grotesque deformity which occurs when the bridge of the nose caves into the face.

L0034508 A patient suffering from the adverse effects of mercury treatMany treatments involved the use of mercury, which could be administered in the form of calomel (mercury chloride), an ointment, a steam bath or pill. Unfortunately, the side effects could be as painful and terrifying as the disease itself (see illustration, right, of patient suffering from over-exposure to mercury). Many patients who underwent such treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage. In many cases, people died from mercury poisoning. Indeed, it’s hard to fault Miss Young for throwing her ‘contaminated carcass on the town again’ after refusing to continue treatment that most likely included mercury.

Prostitutes bore the brunt of it when it came to syphilis in Georgian London. Yet despite the dangers, women entered into the profession at an astonishing rate. An estimated 1 in 5 women were ‘Ladies of the Night’ during this period. Some entered the sex trade as young as 12 years of age; and many could expect to make as much as £400 per year. [5]

Still, the financial advantages of prostitution meant little if one contracted the deadly disease. The two syphilitic women mentioned above did not appear in later editions of Harris’s List. Their fates were sealed once their secrets had been exposed. No doubt countless other women suffered the same future after they became infected, losing not only their livelihoods, but also their lives to this dreadful epidemic.

Am I obsessed with syphilis? Yes. But for good reason!

1. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar for the Year (1788), p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 36
4. These two examples come from Harris’s List (1779); however, I originally found them in Wendy Moore’s excellent book, The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and The Birth of Modern Science (2005), p. 127.
5. These facts and figures can be found in Dan Cruickshank’s book, The Secret History of Georgian London (2010).

16 comments on “The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London

  1. […] advice from the 1650′s – 1870′s? An era where women used lead as make up and used mouse skin as ‘beauty spots’ to hide their syphilitic sores on their faces? No? Neither would I! I was just reading another […]

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    I’m never going anywhere near anyone, ever again.

  3. […] The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London […]

  4. Paul@hybels.com says:

    Being as syphillis is in my searches as of late. I thought of you

  5. […] Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has a wonderful post on Georgian prostitution and syphilis, which inspired me to dig up my research notebooks and uncover what nineteenth-century aurists […]

  6. […] A little book of London syphilitic whores made women put mouse skin on their faces […]

  7. […] A little book of London syphilitic whores made women put mouse skin on their faces […]

  8. jeanjames says:

    Great post I reblogged it on my site. It would appear VD gets around, even in Georgian London. I loved the pocket guide wit, but I couldn’t imagine having to put mouse skin on my face to cover up oozing sores…so gross.

  9. jeanjames says:

    Reblogged this on Nightingalechronicles.com and commented:
    The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice is one of my favorite blogs to read. The stories are a walk down the dark path of medical history, disease, and archaic treatments…I particularly liked this post and thought you might too. If you have some extra time, check out this blog!

  10. Marie Wittman says:

    It sort of sounds like the cautionary remark to soldiers refers to gonorrhea and not syphilis. But really the two diseases, with a whole host of others, were folded into one disease (venereal disease) into the early nineteenth century. I do not know the timeline in England, but in France the term syphilis was rarely used in medical literature. I came across only two treatises that used the French word for syphilis, and they were published at the end of the period, in the 1780s.

  11. Sheila Hillier says:

    In mid- seventeenth century London, the royal hospitals – St Bartholomews and St Thomas’ reconstituted their outlying leper hospitals as places for treatment of the ‘foul’ disease. See Kevin P Siena Venereal Disease Hospitals and the Urban Poor

    • Thanks for the tip, Sheila! I will check out his book!

      • Dear Both
        Interestingly, the Royal Hospitals record the intake of patients with the pox from their reconstitution following the death of Henry VIII (who had them closed as religious institutions) in the mid- sixteenth century. It would be fascinating to know whether and in what numbers ‘foul(e) patients’ were admitted before them but with the dissolution of the monasteries so often came the destruction of the records!
        Another very good point that Siena (and others) make is that ‘the pox’ is general term, like the later VD, that referred to syphilis, gonorrhea and all manner of ‘social diseases’. In a world before positive diagnosis through analytical test anyone who had a disease that resembled the pox ‘had’ the pox by default.
        Such an interesting topic, the ‘no nose club’ alone and the skeleton records of the period that show the ravages of tertiary syphilis on the human skull are subjects in themselves!
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  12. Shelly Still says:

    I do love a Monday where in between the drone and dross of work emails I spy one with the title ‘The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London‏’
    Fantastic blog! Thank you for sharing.

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