London’s pleasure gardens had a reputation for sex and scandal, despite their proprietors’ efforts to ensure that the gardens were respectable. They were designed as places to have a good time – which, depending on your definition, might include amorous adventures – and the figure of the female prostitute became inextricably associated with the pleasure gardens; especially Vauxhall.
Prostitution was widespread and highly visible in 18-century London. Estimates vary of the numbers of women (and the small number of men) engaged in prostitution, but the figure is likely to be in the region of 30-50,000. In a city whose population approached one million as the century drew to a close, this figure implies that almost ten percent of women were involved in some way.
Why so many? In a time when ‘respectable’ women would not engage in sex outside marriage, unmarried men of all social classes found it far easier to pay for their pleasure. There were few options open to women who had to make their own financially – the vast majority of professions and skilled jobs were shut to them, and the occupations which they could undertake, such as millinery or street vending, were so low paid that prostitution was the only viable means of supplementing their income. In crude economic terms, there was both supply and demand.
Vauxhall Gardens was an attractive place for both prostitutes and clients alike. Alcohol lowered the inhibitions, and the music and lighting gave the place an air of romantic fantasy. There were plenty of discreet nooks where the deed could be done, out of sight of more respectable patrons – indeed, any woman walking alone in the Dark Walks, in the north-eastern corner of the garden, was assumed to be a prostitute seeking a client.
A visit to the gardens was also a chance to dress up in fashionable finery, allowing women to display their charms to advantage; and the frequent masquerade parties meant that disguise and intrigue were possible. It was a common complaint of 18th-century men that prostitutes and servants dressed too well, so that it was impossible to distinguish them from proper ladies.
The French traveller Jean-Pierre Grosley, who visited London in 1772, remarked that ‘the waiting women of ladies of the first quality, and of the middling gentry, attend their ladies in the streets and in the public walks, in such a dress, that, if the mistress be not known, it is no easy matter to distinguish her from her maid.’ Prostitutes who worked for a brothel were able to dress especially well because the brothel would provide them with fashionable clothing; placing the women in debt and forcing her to continue working there until the debt was paid off, which could take many years.
The figure of the prostitute was so closely associated with Vauxhall Gardens, that she became a stereotype in prints and novels that used the garden as a setting. Exposed to violence, poverty, and disease, the lives of most eighteenth-century women working in prostitution must have been hard ones. A few, with good luck and a strategic approach, managed to ascend to dizzy heights, as the mistresses and even wives of wealthy men, as actresses and writers. Vauxhall was the backdrop to their lives and careers, its glamour perhaps softening the hardship which so many of these women must have endured.
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