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on 22 October 2009
Dan Cruickshank really gets under the skin of the true eighteenth-century in this wonderful volume which follows similar approaches to the other key book on eighteenth-century Britain: Derek Jarrett's England in the Age of Hogarth. As I read his wonderfully shaped text, I couldn't stop thinking about the monologue speech delivered by the character Sarah Millwood - the impressive angry feminist heroine of George Lillo's hit play The London Merchant (1731) - on stages across Westminster and England throughout the eighteenth century.

It's about time, frankly, that a historian as esteemed as Cruickshank has(since Jarrett) finally tried to view
London in the 18th century through the same eyes of William Hogarth. Unfortunately, the tendency of conservative English historians to regard this period through the eyes of the monarchy and their abusive aristocrat friends wearing ridiculous wigs, frilly lace handkerchiefs and carrying snuff boxes still persists. London at this time really was not the way it is too often presented by bad BBC period dramas.

Thankfully Cruickshank takes a drastically different approach. As we read we feel like he might be writing about aspects of our own lives. Words like "sentimentality" (which normally dominate books about this period) barely appear here. The shocking and tough working lives of those most poverty stricken citizens of London including its prostitutes confront us with vigour, together with the shameful abuses of their masters. The women who worked as prostitutes and who gave up so much for the benefit of our city today have in this volume now found a monument they deserve as some of our most poverty stricken heroines.

I would have preferred it if Cruickshank had used the term "the Long Eighteenth-Century" instead of "Georgian London". This loathsome habit of historians naming whole periods of British history after the redundant names of useless, lazy and (as in the case of George III) completely mad monarchs is embarrassing for the majority of British citizens and does little to market excellent books like this one to the Americans. (It also leads to the omission of monarchs who contributed a great deal to England's development of democracy, like Queen Anne.) Mark Howell
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VINE VOICEon 4 August 2010
The period of English history from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to the death of George 1V in 1830 can quite properly be called the age of the libertine. Society, particularly the aristocracy, followed a lifestyle of sexual activity which was captured in the poems of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, during the reign of Charles the Second and John Wilkes, the cross-eyed rabble rouser, during the time of George the Third. Thus, when Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked jurors in the 1960 trial of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, whether the novel was something "you would wish your wife or servants to read" he was not only out of touch with his own time, he showed remarkable ignorance of England's soical past. Not only were the four letter words to which Griffith-Jones objected far from new, they formed an integral part of popular expression in the Georgian society which Dan Cruickshank describes brilliantly in this superbly researched book.

The tendency to emphasise the relevance of sex to everyday life is not a modern invention. In the eighteenth century it was the talk of the town (in London at least) and in terms which would be bleeped out on modern television. Although the Georgians censored some words, these were usually the names of people, whose identity was nonetheless obvious from the initials used. What was not censorsed was the open misbehaviour of the aristocracy for whom marriage was a social act which did not serve to restrict their avaricous or sexual demands and dalliances. Many of these were carried out behind closed doors involving a combination of sexual fantasy and role play shortened only by the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. Nor was illicit sex confined to the upper classes. Samuel Welch, the high constable of Holborn, ascribed the problem of prostitution "to the irreligion, idleness, almost total want of morals and dissoluteness of manners of the common people." He discovered bawdy houses set up everywhere with group or threesome sex widely practiced and cross dressing far from uncommon. The content of porn sites on the internet is not just a contemporary record of one aspect of the sex industry it is simply repetition of what occured over two centuries ago with very little addition.

Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies was a regular publication providing details of expensive prostitutes from an area notorious for paid sex. In the 1788 edition of the List a Miss Corbett was reported as having a fixed rule about price. "She always measures a gentleman's maypole by a standard of nine inches and expects a guinea for every inch it is short of full measure." Apparently she made a fortune!!! Running a bawdy house was not cheap. A contemporary observer suggested there were different economic levels of sex from prostitutes who earned up to £30 a week from their homes, to the chancers who picked up the theatre trade and the cheap girls who made less than a £1 and often exchanged sex in return for drink. As the average weekly wage of a tradesman or cleric was no more than a pound a week some females had rich pickings. It has been estimated that the 80,000 London prostitutes in the late eighteenth century created an annual income of eight million pounds per annum, although it was not shared equally between the participants.

Condoms, referred to as armour, made from sheep's gut and expensive to buy, were widely used by wealthy prostitutes and their clients as a defence against venereal disease and pregnancy. James Boswell recalls an incident in his London Journal in which he "picked up a fresh, agreeable young girl called Alice Gibbs. We went down a lane to a snug place and I took out my armour but she begged that I might not put it on, as the sport was much pleasanter without it and, as she was quite safe, I was so rash as to trust her and had a very agreeable congress." Whether his rash action led to a rash condition is not recorded. Other tete-a-tetes involved masquerade balls, auctions with sex provided for all tastes in heterosexual and homosexual activity. Penalties for the former offences could include transportation while the latter, along with bestiality, was subject to the death penalty.

Cruickshank does not rely on written records alone for his research but uses other material such as the art work of William Hogarth whose "A Harlot's Progress" and "A Rake's Progress" provided a pictorial view of contemporary society. The former was a series of six paintings showing a country girl setting out on her career, her life as a prostitute and her death from venereal disease. The latter traces the career of the son of a rich merchant who wastes his money on extravagant living, gambling and whores, eventually dying in Bedlam, a psychiatric hospital. The moral message was reinforced by Hogarth's "Marriage a-la-mode" - half a dozen paintings which satarised the attitudes of the aristocracy towards marriage which was dictated by status and money rather than mutual respect between the parties. What becomes very clear is the importance of the French Revolution in the breakdown of traditional social values and the utter deprivation and loss of dignity suffered by the poor who were also afflicted by widespread violence.

Cruickshank has written a magnificent piece of social history. His footnotes and bibliography demonstrate both the depth and width of his research. The Secret History of Georgian London deserves to become a classic. I'm sure it will which is why I've awarded it five stars and placed an order for my own copy.
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on 11 January 2010
I enjoyed reading this over the holidays. It is a real tour de force of the seamier side of life in Georgian London. It is full of vignettes and side trips into the lives of the famous and infamous as well as the lowly non-persons who populated London. We learn about high flying madams and successful prostitutes (Emma Harte - Lady Hamilton), Fanny Murray, etc, but also about the bullies and low life who helped establish them. I particularly enjoyed the very well researched and presented scenes from London courtrooms as Cruickshank tells of famous murders and examines the development and difficulties of 18th century British justice. We learnt about lots of very strange and weird folk like Dr James Graham of the Celestial Bed and his fascination with electricity learnt from Benjamin Franklin.

Initially I had the impression that the author wanted a tie-in with architecture and the social history of the underbelly of London. In this aspect I don't see that he made much of a strong case although we did learn about various charitable institutions catering for the children of harlots, the care of diseased streetwalkers and so forth. As someone involved in fundraising in my personal life, I found it fascinating to see how the Foundling Hospital and other great Georgian institutions were founded, funded and run. Not a great deal has changed!

I was glad that Cruickshank kept his focus on the lower orders here and did not try for a wider social history. By concetrating on such a tiny number of people, he made their impact seem large and important and caused me to re-think some of my perceptions of life in Georgian London.

I have some criticism, which to others may seem petty, but stopped this being a 5 star effort for me:

1. I could have done with a modern map of London to compare with the early ones

2. I would have appreciated the birth/death dates of the dramatis personae in the appendix if not the text

3. I felt there was a lack of summing up, of a conclusion, if you will, that drew all of the narrative and discussion together. Therefore the book seemed a review and not an essay for I am not sure what the author wanted us to come away with other than minute knowledge of London's seamier side of life.

4. The author refers to "the sex industry". Personally, I don't care for that terminology either then or now as it seems to somehow legitimise and almost romaticise a very sorry way of life. I certainly understand why women may have become involved in prostitution but I can't see it as an "industry".

5. I can see how the wages of sin shaped many aspects of life in Georgian London but I think it is stretching the argument that it physically shaped London. There were simply too few examples except for the aforementioned public buildings which, in the overall scheme, were very, very few.

I have copied the bibliography and already ordered a couple of books from it. A real tour de force but somehow not quite 5 stars for me.
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on 6 January 2014
How does one review a book like this?

This book that I liked quite considerably tackled a very difficult topic, namely the seediness of Georgian London. It is true that the Georgian fronts to their house were magnificent, but it was what went on below stairs and out the back that was just as interesting and intriguing as the magniloquence of the front and the stately Squares, Circles and Crescents.

I do not agree that things like Foundling Hospitals are superfluous to a book such as this. They are a necessary part and parcel of the topic as they were developed as a product of apparent 'sin' if one can define such a term (Prostitution, often Child Prostitution) and one can see the relevance in pointing out both the hypocrisy of the times (including lock stock and barrel the likes of Pox Clinics and Homes for the by products of the Sex Industry of the day), and this is as important as a strict description of the range and nature of the Sex Industry at the time and its growth throughout the later 1700's and early 1800's.

I found this very interesting and easy to read, but did not find it waffled as some have said as a criticism. For example the way favourite prostitutes / courtesans were swapped and this was recorded, and indeed partners and indeed the wife swapping that went on is very interesting.

The chapters I liked were:

2. Ladies of the Town;

3. Mother Clap;

9. The Rakes Repose;

11. The Reception of the Distressed;

12. Vice Takes Centre Stage;

13. Muses, Goddesses and Painted Ladies;

(I mean I will now look a the pictures in the National Gallery in a wholly different light in future);

15. Visiting Venus' Parlour;

Make no bones about it this is great book and worth the read. It will also teach you stuff about Georgian England (and London in particular) you really would never have known about without making a specific attempt to learn it and I for one will always have it as prurient mantlepiece companion.
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on 23 December 2013
This book is a detailed history of sex in eighteenth and early nineteenth century London, where its commercial exploitation played a major part in the city's economy and even its architecture. Dan Cruickshank has here pulled together a vast amount of data, mostly in official records and literary pamphlets, which demonstrates the existence of an astonishing number of people involved in the sex industry, at a time when laws were struggling to keep pace with the rapidly changing social life in the expanding city. He has aimed to provide a broad-brush impression of life in the Capital, while including large numbers of illustrative cameos based on the many colourful characters who were active at the time. In particular, Cruickshank gives a wealth of detail on the generally subservient role of women, and many details concerning the notable females who managed to swim successfully against the tide of male oppression. It is a mighty book, with 568 pages of text supported by a further 85 of supporting notes and bibliographic data, and it will be valued as a source for those interested in understanding Georgian society, partly because it refuses to be coy about how people of both sexes enjoyed each other. Such aspects are by no means peripheral to an understanding of the times.
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on 8 November 2013
most unexpected account of London history. Loads of facts about sex industry of times in the city but also tons of data and thoughts about related subjects such as how sex industry influenced architecture of the city, medical services, care of orphan and abandoned children and so on. a book loaded with data, facts and insights. i would recommended it to everyone interested in history but also human psychology, trying to find answers of why sex services where (and still are) so popular and demanded, even more so in our/modern times.
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on 17 May 2011
Vast, rambling and repetitive, I actually found this hard work and I'm a big fan of anything Georgian.

The author's premise is that the Sex Industry shaped London but that idea soon seems to get lost as the author goes off on long digressions that have little to do with the subject. Why, for instance, are there 70 pages on the Foundling, Magdalen and Lock Hospitals when none of the buildings exist anymore? Why is there a chapter on the political shenanigans of John Wilkes? 20 pages on the supposed kidnap of Elizabeth Canning only for the author to admit that she probably made it up!? As for the appendices, apart from Doctor Graham, very little to do with the Sex Industry in London.

Okay, so these things were worth a mention but this book, for me, contained far too much waffle. A bit of editing and a shorter book would have been better though there are better books than this available on this subject. Check out Hallie Rubenhold's Covent Garden Ladies or Julie Peakman's Lascivious Bodies, both better books by far.
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on 23 August 2017
Bought for my Dad and he loved reading this book
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on 5 February 2016
A Fantastic book you should read if you like/love London Not to be missed. Many places I would not have visited if I had not read this book.
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VINE VOICEon 23 June 2015
It reads a bit like a cheap porn novel, thin on hard facts, bloated with "nudge, nudge, wink, wink". Gave up reading it after a few boring chapters.
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