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London’s Sex Industry and the Stage in the Long 18th Century

December 2 @ 13:00 - 15:00

When the Puritan Protectorate ended in 1660, London’s sex industry grew wildly public and was linked to both theatres and the underworld. Charles II lifted the ban on theatre-going, and by 1700 London was sex-capital of Europe. This walk starts with the stage at a time when all actresses were assumed to be prostitutes and theatres a place for clients to find them. We pass through areas where street-walkers and bawdy houses were closely linked with playhouses. We hear about bawds who kept the houses and women who worked in them, including Edgworth Bess, Nell Gywn and Sally Salisbury. We hear about homosexual Molly Houses as well as Jelly Houses, Coffee Houses and Bagnios. Links between corrupt government officials and criminals formed the plot of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, with its cast of thief-takers, highwaymen, pickpockets and sex workers who met in flash houses where they spoke a secret language. The unscrupulous Society for the Reform of Manners tried to close down vice, but things began to change when Social Reformers said women selling sex were victims needing rescue. The walk starts in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and passes through Covent Garden and surrounding streets like Drury Lane, where ordinary folks lived who sold sex – orange women, flower girls and patrons of dance halls. The underworld called this red-light area the Hundreds of Drury.

Laura Agustin has been an historian of prostitution and commercial sex for decades and brings an anthropological calm to the study of these currently hot topics.