Women became prostitutes for a variety of reasons: women who had nowhere to turn to after the death of a husband might begin to sell her wares; young girls just come to town could be tricked into joining a bawdy house; children as young as eight years old were sometimes sold into prostitution. London was considered the most depraved city of the age.
As there was a class system for all English people, there was also a hierarchy for whoring. On the bottom most rung was the common streetwalker, also called a “two-penny bunter,” who did her business up against a building or fence but out in the public, albeit dark, street. Next up the ladder was the harlot who worked from rented rooms or a lower-class bawdy house (run by a bawd or female procuress). If a woman were very comely, she might find herself in a higher-class establishment (like the House of Pleasure in my series), often called a “nunnery” (shades of Shakespeare’s Hamlet!), where a woman would be taught manners, how to speak properly, and how to give men the most pleasure possible. The highest place a courtesan could aspire to was the patronage of a nobleman who would keep her in style until he grew tired of her, at which point she would move on to the next wealthy “protector.”
Although some women made fortunes at their trade—it is estimated that prostitutes of at least the middling sort could earn over 400 pounds a year—most women who fell into this life most often lived hard lives (save for the highest valued courtesans), dying in their early thirties usually of venereal diseases such as gonorrhea or syphilis.
Changes did not begin to occur in London’s tolerance for such vices until the early 19th century, when street lights were installed (banishing the dark alleys) and the beginnings of the modern day police force began to patrol the streets and take their responsibilities seriously. By the Victorian era, prostitution had severely diminished as middle-class morality was enforced more stringently. Georgian debauchery had met its match in Queen Victoria.