Societies of virtue
The campaign against prostitution was much more successful, in all sorts of ways. Some godly magistrates waged war on sin more or less single-handedly, in the spirit of earlier Puritan magistrates. The mayor of Deal in 1703, Thomas Powell, plastered his town with royal proclamations against vice and went around personally admonishing and punishing swearers, Sabbath-breakers, and other offenders against decency. ‘I took up a common prostitute, whose conduct was very offensive,’ he wrote in his diary,
brought her to the whipping-post – being about mid-market, where was present some hundreds of people – I caused her to have twelve lashes; and at every third lash I parleyed with her and bid her tell all the women of the like calling wheresoever she came that the Mayor of Deal would serve them as he had served her, if they came to Deal and committed such wicked deeds as she had done.
In most places, however, moral reformers banded together to form dedicated societies for the prosecution of public drunkards, swearers, gamblers, Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, and fornicators.1
By the early eighteenth century, scores of such societies for reformation of manners had been founded across the British Isles, the North American colonies, and continental Europe. There were rural and county-wide associations in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Kent, Monmouthshire, Staffordshire, Pembrokeshire, and the Isle of Wight; they also existed in many small towns, including Alnwick, Bangor, Tamworth, Kendal, Carlisle, Kidderminster, Lyme Regis, Shepton Mallet, and Longbridge Deverill in Wiltshire (where there was a society of ‘zealous and able’ elderly people). But they were most prominent in larger cities, where vice and disorder were most prevalent. By 1699 societies for reformation were at work in Coventry, Chester, Gloucester, Hull, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, and Shrewsbury; others were active or in prospect at
Bristol, Derby, Canterbury, Leeds, Norwich, Northampton, Portsmouth, Reading, Wigan, Warrington, and York; and outside England in Dublin, Edinburgh, Boston, Jamaica, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark.2
London was the movement’s birthplace and its centre.3 Here the primary target was sexual licence. One of its earliest leaders was the Reverend Dr Thomas Tenison, a man entirely unafraid of adultery and fornication. In 1687, he had attended Nell Gwyn on her deathbed and encouraged her penitence. After the revolution, he preached before the queen against lust and uncleanness, reproved the new king for keeping a mistress, and, when made Archbishop of Canterbury, became a tireless promoter of moral reform. It was also Tenison who, as rector of St Martin in the Fields in the West End, had first encouraged the campaign against vice. Soon after the coronation of William and Mary, in the summer of 1689, his parish mounted a petition against local bawdy houses; a few weeks later, a group of local magistrates began to clear the neighbourhood of prostitutes. In the City, the new Whig Lord Mayor likewise cracked down on the ‘most dissolute and infamous practice, for men and women in the evening to wander about the streets and impudently solicit others to wickedness’. Shortly after these initiatives in the City and the West End, a group of churchwardens, constables, and other householders in the East End (‘the Tower Hamlets’) combined together to form a society specifically for ‘the suppression of publick bawdy-houses’. They resolved to raise money amongst themselves; to employ lawyers to prosecute all keepers and frequenters of brothels; and to organize a network of local ‘stewards’, who would supervise the police officers of their neighbourhood and organize the collection and disbursement of money. Within a few months, hoping to inspire others, they published a manifesto.4
By 1700 there were well over a dozen different groups in the capital with the object of prosecuting vice. Nevertheless, the original Tower Hamlets society dominated the campaign against prostitution, expanding and reorganizing itself into the main, city-wide organization for detecting ‘houses of lewdness and bawdry and persons that haunt them, in order to their legal prosecution, conviction and punishment.’ It was also the first to publish an annual account of its achievements. Every year from 1694 to 1707, until the numbers grew too large, the society produced a ‘Black Roll’ or ‘Black List’, which displayed, in exact alphabetical order, the name and crime of every sexual offender it had brought to justice over the past twelve months. Thousands of these papers were distributed and posted up, as a warning to sinners and an inspiration to their enemies, far beyond the capital itself.5
The new campaign against unchastity concentrated primarily on street-walking and brothel-keeping: these were the crimes whose unchecked prevalence in London seemed particularly aggravating. As one magistrate explained, ‘vice when it is private and retired is not attended with those provoking circumstances, as when it revels in your streets, and in your markets, and bids defiance to God and religion, in the face of open day.’ Of all sexual crimes, moreover, prostitution seemed the one whose effects were most pernicious. The spread of venereal disease slaughtered innocent wives and families by the thousands; the plague of bawdy houses destroyed the peace and livelihood of honest citizens. It was here that impudent harlots
allure and tempt our sons and servants to debauchery, and consequently to embezzle and steal from us, to maintain their strumpets. Here ’tis that hirelings consume their wages, that should pay debts to tradesmen, and buy bread for children, thereby families are beggared and parishes much impoverished. Here ’tis that bodies are poxed and pockets are picked of considerable sums, the revenge of which injuries hath frequently occasioned quarrellings, fightings, bloodshed. . . routs, riots and uproars, to the great disturbance and dis – quietment of Their Majesties peaceable subjects.6
Yet the methods used against street-walkers, brothel-keepers and their clients also recalled the traditional means and ends of sexual policing. Although reprobates were flogged, carted, and set to hard labour, attempts were made to redeem less hardened offenders by reproving them, reasoning privately with them about their way of life, and distributing admonitory literature to them. The innovative use of the press to name and shame sexual offenders followed similar principles. There were also persistent hopes of reviving church discipline, even in London. The Tower Hamlets society proposed that in every parish the minister should appoint secret inspectors to spy on those
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3. The Eleventh Black List (1706), giving the names and offences of all 830
men and women punished over the previous year by the Tower Hamlets
society for reformation of manners.
persons ‘most known or suspected’ of debauchery. Each Sunday he would then ‘in the presence of the congregation, cause the names and crimes to be distinctly read’, excluding them from communion ‘till they purge themselves by open confession, and visible tokens of repentance’. This was exactly what happened in Scotland, and in 1708 Queen Anne commanded every English presbytery and parish henceforth to do likewise, and ‘nominate fit persons. . . to take notice of vice and immorality, and to [report] and prosecute those guilty thereof’, in cooperation with secular justice. The ultimate prospect was a society in which the immoral were ‘shunned by all but the unclean herd of the vicious and profane, forced to hide away in dark corners, and in continual fear of being discovered’.7
The immediate impact of the campaign was considerable. In 1693, the first year in which the Tower Hamlets society was fully active across the metropolis, it prosecuted several hundred men and women for promiscuity. It also managed to impose heavy fines and public whippings on almost thirty brothel-keepers in the City, a spectacular increase over Restoration levels of prosecution. All this reflected considerable support for the campaign – not just from the bench of magistrates but also from ordinary citizens, who assisted in many prosecutions, served on trial juries, and, as grand jurors, repeatedly demanded the further punishment of brothels and street-walkers.8
These high levels of activity were maintained for many years. Between 1700 and 1710 well over a thousand prosecutions of sexual offenders were brought by the societies almost every year. Between 1715 and 1725 the figures were even greater, at times approaching two thousand convictions annually. The consequences were particularly visible in the City, the symbolic heart of the campaign and the capital, as it was of the nation. Within a few years, both street-walking and brothel-keeping were much less in evidence. By 1709, the societies’ account of proceedings against bawdy houses proudly proclaimed that they had uncovered ‘but one within the City’; a few years later that there had been ‘none within the City’. Even towards the very end of the campaign, the City appears to have been kept relatively free of overt vice.9
The consequence of their zeal was that the societies soon became responsible for the bulk of sexual policing in the capital. In 1693, the
4. A man and woman caught in flagrante by the night watch during a routine raid (a mid eighteenth-century version of a composition dating
from the 1710s).
campaign had claimed credit for roughly a quarter of all such prosecutions, most having been brought in conventional fashion by local officers and private individuals. Within a decade the proportions had been more than reversed: by 1703, 85 per cent of all sexual convictions were due to the societies. The same was true of the prosecution of sodomites, which from the later 1690s was largely down to the societies. The campaign thus began by supplementing the existing levels of sexual policing, but ended by more or less taking over the task completely.10
Yet even as they came to dominate judicial activity against immorality, the societies faced mounting difficulties. The most intractable problem was simply the unceasing expansion of the metropolis. Set against this backdrop, even the seemingly impressive trend of convictions for prostitution takes on a different complexion. The ever greater number of harlots punished each year could not begin to match the overall increase in sexual vice. Just as the campaign appeared to be going from strength to strength, it had begun to be overwhelmed by its task.