An equally striking effect of the campaign for reformation was that even the prosecution of common whores and brothel-keepers became controversial. In 1700 no one thought that such criminals were beyond punishment, and the reform societies were able to proceed vigorously against them. Yet though in the short term their tactics were remark­ably successful, they also created growing opposition.

The most common criticism faced by reformers after 1688 was not that moral policing was wrong, but that its practice was unfair. It was evident that only the poor suffered for their vices, critics objected, whilst the rich escaped punishment. This was an old problem, one that advocates of sexual discipline had always acknowledged and fought against. In fact, they had traditionally urged, it was more important to punish vice in high places than in low. What matter thy eminence and grandeur, asked a Jacobean preacher, ‘shall this protect thee in evil, shall it challenge any immunity, or privilege to sin?’ On the contrary, ‘the greater men are in place, the more distasteful and foul are their voluptuous actions’, and the more they deserved to be punished. At the end of the seventeenth century it remained axiomatic that ‘the quality of the persons aggravates the crime’, and that the punishing of one exalted criminal did more good, by example and influence, ‘than of twenty meaner ones’. Merely to punish ‘little sinners’ but not ‘the whore-master of quality’ was hence ineffective, offensive to God, and distasteful to the world.1 Sporadic efforts were made at the outset of the campaign to put these principles into practice.2

As time went on, however, most activists were content to settle for less. Whoredom and the like, acknowledged a clergyman in 1697, were patently ‘not the vices only of servants, but masters; not of meaner people only, but of your equals and superiors’. In principle, moreover, all were equally culpable, ‘for what is an offence against the law of God and the land in one man, is so in another’. All the same, he advised reformers, ‘where it would be likely to do more hurt than good, I think you may forbear. . . sometimes the best rebuke that can be given some great men and superiors, is to let them see what is the just and deserved punishment of their own faults, by the punishment of inferiors, for the same things which they know themselves to be guilty of’. It was this attitude that provoked Daniel Defoe in 1698 to one of his earliest publications. A national reformation of manners was ‘absolutely necessary’, he complained, yet ‘the partiality of this reforming rigor makes the real work impossible’. It was unreasonable and unjust to pursue commoners but to leave unpunished the gentry and magistracy, whose bad example was the real cause of English degeneracy. A decade later, whilst living in Scotland, Defoe withdrew for similar reasons from the main Edinburgh society for reformation, which had chosen to ignore the exposure of one of its leading mem­bers as a notorious adulterer. No real reformation, he warned bitterly, could ever be accomplished on such a hypocritical basis.3

Yet in the eighteenth century precisely such social selectivity came to be robustly defended. It was only proper, argued a bishop in 1731, that the reforming societies confined themselves to the lower orders, ‘upon whose industry and virtue the strength and the riches of the nation so much depend’. Persons of superior rank could be left to their consciences and to higher judgement. All sexual indecency was to be condemned, agreed Sir John Fielding in 1763, but worst of all were ‘low, and common bawdy-houses, where vice is rendered cheap, and consequently within the reach of the common people, who are the very stamina of the constitution’. It was more important to regu­late ‘public’ behaviour, argued the Society for the Suppression of Vice a few decades later, than to police the ‘private’ conduct of the upper classes. Even though by 1800 denunciations of aristocratic depravity had become even more trenchant than they had been a century earlier, it had also come to be widely accepted that judicial campaigns had their limits. It was now the exception, rather than the expectation, that any society ‘for the suppression of public lewdness’ should pur­sue offenders of all ranks.4

This shift of principle helps explain why, in the course of the eight­eenth century, the criticism of sexual regulation as inequitable became ever sharper, more vociferous, and more widely held. By the end of the century the social basis of policing was also obviously much narrower and more partial. Particularly contentious was the growing reliance on informers, who could claim part of the fine levied on any offender.

This had not previously been a feature of moral policing, but had a long and contentious history in other spheres. Already in the early seventeenth century, it had been widely felt that common informers acted ‘for malice or private ends and never for love of justice’, whilst in the reigns of Charles II and James II their growing use against dis­senters became particularly controversial, as it allowed venal and unscrupulous people to profit from denouncing sincere Christians. In London between 1682 and 1686, at the high point of the state’s per­secution of nonconformists, thousands of men and women were arrested, fined, and imprisoned for their spiritual views. Yet this was not a sign of grass-roots enthusiasm for the strict enforcement of reli­gious uniformity. Most of these people, left in peace by their Anglican neighbours, were instead targeted by gangs of cynical, mercenary informers.5[6]

When, just a few years later, the campaign for moral reform employed the same methods, it therefore struggled to overcome a bar­rage of doubt and hostility. Even its backers needed constant reassurance that informing was now God’s work, ‘however scandal­ous, and infamous, that term hath appeared in these late days, whilst some have been agents for the devil, and made it their design to ruin men, and enrich themselves’. Though informers against immorality were not supposed to accept reward money, the whiff of venality was impossible to shake off. ‘It must indeed be confessed,’ the societies themselves acknowledged in 1709, ‘that there have been some base and wicked persons. . . who have extorted money from offenders, and sometimes from honest men.’ Informers against vice were hon­ourable men, agreed the Bishop of London in 1724, and if ‘an ill-designing person shall sometimes mix with them, and carry on his own private interest under colour of suppressing vice and profane­ness, this is not to be wonder’d at’. Most observers, though, were less forgiving. The suppressing of debauchery was certainly, wrote the journalist Edward Ward, ‘a most commendable undertaking’. But the whole thing was falling ‘under a great disreputation’ by relying on greedy informers, ‘who live by filthy means, like flies upon a t[ur]d’. Even ostensible supporters of sexual policing were increasingly disil­lusioned by the grubby methods, and concerned that its entire foundation seemed to be biased and corrupt. The project had begun with excellent intentions, noted Jonathan Swift, but had degenerated into no more than ‘a trade to enrich little knavish inform­ers of the meanest rank, such as common constables, and broken shopkeepers’.6

The lecherous, hypocritical reformer thus became an instantly rec­ognizable figure of ridicule in early eighteenth-century drama. In Mary Pix’s farce The Different Widows (1703), the reformer Mr Drawle is a canting fool whose wife despises him. When discovered under a bed with a young woman, he is forced to confess ‘that many times, when I have rebuk’d the wicked, my self have been tempted’ – so that many a ‘pretty white transgressor’ had ended up in his bed, rather than in bridewell. George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple (1700) featured an elderly alderman, Mr Smuggler, who boasts of his exertions against vice even as he intrigues with the disreputable Madam Lurewell. The moment she appears to give way, he reveals the truth: ‘I am an old fornicator, I’m not half so religious as I seem to be. You little rogue, why I’m disguis’d as I am, our sanctity is all outside, all hypocrisy.’ In another play, the archetypal ‘scourge to public lewd­ness’ is a deputy alderman, Mr Driver, who admits that ‘privately I love a wench myself’, and that his society for reformation blackmails whores and pickpockets.7

Such mockery followed in a long literary tradition of portraying Puritans and other zealots as dissembling and misguided. In the eight­eenth century it gained in force and currency because the ethical objections it raised had become increasingly plausible. Not only did moral reformers openly discriminate against poorer sinners, but as time went on they ever more overtly embraced the use of mercenary agents, even of unscrupulous tactics. It was pointless not to descend to this level, argued the propagandists of the Vice Society in 1804, for ‘the rat is only to be hunted to his hole by the ferret, and iniquity can

YOU Friends ro Reformation, <
Give Ear to my Relation, 1
For 1 (hall now declare Sir, 1
Before you arc aware Siry
The matter very plain.

Tlic ШЛПГТ very plain
A Gofpd Culhion thumper,

Who dearly lov’d a Bumper,

And fomething clfc befide Sir,

If he is not helv’d Sir.

This was a holv Guide Sir. #

For the Diffenting Train.

And (or to tell you rruiv,

HisFIcih was fo unruly
He cou’d not for his Lite Sir,

Pals bv the Draper’s Wife Sir,

The Spirit was (o faint.

The Spirit was fo faint.

This Jolly hand feme ^eeber.

As he did overtake her.

She made his Mouth to Water, •
And thought long to be at her,

Such Sin is no great matter,

Accounted by a Setmt.

(Says he) ■tjfrtttjCrtstur*,

Tier cbtrmm/r hdnJfcmt Ftrtert,

Неї fit me еЯія Fire
Tie kmv wbec I dtfirt,

Tbtn if m berm re Live.

Quoth (he, if that’s your Notion,

To Preach up fuch Devotion,

Such hopeful Guides as you Sir,

Will half the World undo fir,

» They came to her Afliftancr,

) As (hedid make Rcfiftancc,
і Againftthe Fritjt and Devil,

: The A&orsof all Evil,

1 Who were fo grand uncivil,,

To tempt a Saint to fin.

£ The Parfon then confounded,
у To fee himfclf furrounded,

■ With Mob and (hirdy Watch-men,
% Whofc Bufinefs ’tis to catch Men,
In lctidnds with a Punk,

In Jeudnefs with a Punk.

$ He made fomc faint Excufo,

And all to hide Abufes, *

Г In taking up the Linen, # ^

? Againft the Saints Opinion,
і Within her fott Dominion,

Alledging lie was Drunk.

But tho’he feigned reeling,

They made him pav for reeling,
And Lugg’d him to a Prifon,

To bring him to his Rcafon,
Which he had loft before,
Which he had loft before.

The Perfn ftill more eager,

Than lnftiul Turk oi Neger, J

Took up her lower Garment, ^

And (aid there was no harm in’t, *
According tothe Texti J

Fo – more Wifcr,

Than any dull adv tier, A ‘ j

L*-v.’r Pi’medfo: & Рлі


only be tracked to its burrows, by beings like itself’. The consequence was that many critics saw little moral distinction any more between prostitutes and those who policed them. ‘A modern reformer of vice,’ sneered Ward in 1700, was ‘a man most commonly of a very scandal­ous necessity who has no way left, but, pimp-like, to live upon other people’s debaucheries. Every night he goes to bed he prays heartily that the world may grow more wicked, for one and the same interest serves him and the devil.’ More than a hundred years later, Sydney Smith attacked the Vice Society in identical terms. ‘Men, whose trade is rat-catching, love to catch rats; the bug destroyer seizes on his bug with delight; and the suppresser is gratified by finding his vice. The last soon becomes a mere tradesman like the others; none of them moralize, or lament that their respective evils should exist in the world.’8