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Life of a 17th Century Prostitute

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

Adult: street walker or whore standing outside a shop
Whore or street walker standing outside a shop

It was Rudyard Kipling, who first coined the phrase ‘the world’s oldest profession’ in his short story, On the City Wall (1898). The tale opens with the immortal line “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world”. Since then, the expression has fallen into common parlance as historical truth.

A 17th-century prostitute might have been a wretched streetwalker, marred by the tolls of venereal disease, alcoholism and physical abuse. The driving force behind most women selling their bodies was poverty especially if the woman was unmarried childless and unable to work. Government officials at the time considered her responsible for her own well-being and unwilling to help therefore, prostitution became the only option for lower-class women.

Historical investigations into early modern prostitution come from church and court records and these streetwalkers serviced as many men as possible and received payment solely for their participation in the sexual act. Some of these women plied their trade at fairs while others stationed themselves at the docks awaiting the arrival of willing sailors returning from sea.

A whore's let room in a tavern

Streetwalkers plying their trade at the lower end of the market often rented cheap rooms in slum lodging houses and endured filthy living conditions often confined in damp and miserable rooms. They were often mistreated by landlords who would often demand a large percentage of their earnings. Some lodging houses also operated as taverns, with the owner taking rent and a percentage of takings from as many prostitutes he could manage to squeeze into spare rooms. Other prostitutes called penny rent streetwalkers chose to hire a room for a few minutes or hours. Taking a room on this basis was often cheaper and meant that they didn’t have to live and work in the same place. Even worse off were women who not only picked up men on the streets but also carried out their transactions in the darkness of back alleys, streets and city parks.

A bruised and battered whore
Often violence was a part of the life of a whore

Streetwalkers ’ slang referred to the game while identifying one another members of the sisterhood. They had their own street vocabulary that was a mixture of criminal and vulgar slang many of whom were familiar with other sections of criminal society. They used terms like diving, foyling, and lifting to mean pickpocketing and stealing and likely customers were nicknamed rumpers and dicks.

‘Six-penny whoredom’ was a common phrase used at the time but half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence) seemed to be the set price by the 1690s. Once a woman was perceived as having started to lose her looks, it was usually only a matter of time before her days in the trade were numbered or, should an alternative not present itself, she was obliged to increasingly lower her price. Those streetwalkers reduced to offering brief gropes in back alleys for a few pennies were victims of a life ruled by fear, suffering.

Pregnancy was an occupational hazard and one that most prostitutes avoided at all costs. Remedies consisted of various mixtures of herbs and powders which could be used in a vaginal douche, available from an apothecary if they could afford it. These remedies were designed to bring on a miscarriage.

Frequent sexual activity meant prostitutes were vulnerable to contracting gonorrhoea and syphilis sufferers were given mercury in oral doses or had it applied directly to rashes, scabs and ulcers. Patients endured the pain and indignity of a mercury ointment being injected into their genitals, its side effects worse than the symptoms of the disease. Many prostitutes believed that urinating as much as possible prevented syphilis, gonorrhoea and even pregnancy.

Early modern women who engaged in prostitution were categorized and largely condemned by their society. Life was difficult and often they permanently balanced on the edge of destitution. Some were lucky enough to use the trade as a springboard for more financially rewarding ventures, such as becoming a long-term mistress of a brothel, but most left the profession more broken and desperate than they were when they started.

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three novels:

Skulduggery - The bleak Pennine moors of Yorkshire; a beautiful, harsh place, close to the sky, rugged and rough, no boundaries except the horizon, which in places, went on forever. Green pastures and wayward hills, the colours of ochre, brown and pink in the Spring. Green squares divided the land on one side of the lane, and on the other; sheep with thick wool and dark snouts dotted the hills and dales. The story, set on the Moors of West Yorkshire, follows wee Thomas and his family shortly after losing his father to consumption. Times were tough in 1603 and there were shenanigans and skulduggery committed by locals and outsiders alike. Queen Bess has died, and King James sits on the throne of England and Scotland. Thomas Rushworth is now the man of the house being the older of two boys. He is set to wed Agnes in an arranged marriage, but a true love story develops between them.

"A glorious read of a period well versed and presented with accuracy and authentic telling by an author who is as much engrossed in his prose as the reader he shares with...masterful and thoroughly enjoyable...5 stars." Adrian, Indibook reviewer.

''Skulduggery, a different treat for lovers of historical fiction, an exciting and mysterious romp through the moors of 17th century Yorkshire, more specifically Haworth and Keighley. The story is a well-painted image of how 'copyholders' or peasants would have lived at this time but that is only the backdrop to a suspenseful whodunit with romantic tones. Modern writers usually don't know what it was like to live in the past but Rushworth-Brown has done this with great skill in this accomplished, atmospheric and thoughtful novel."... Jen Summers

Red Winter Journey- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.

Reviewed in Australia on 17 October 2022*****Paul Rushworth-Brown’s Red Winter Journey is the story of a family surviving in the time of the English Civil War; however, the story goes much deeper than that and focuses on the love of a father for his son and his plight to rescue him. I usually do not like tales of war, but Rushworth-Brown has captured the essence of humanity with love, romance, fear and mystery in this engaging family saga. The twists and turns really threw me and, the ending? Mmmmm interesting.

"Dream of Courage- Soon to be released!

The much-anticipated story of the Rushworth family and their journey out of poverty. King Charles has been executed and England becomes a Republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Highwaymen, thief-takers, pirates and wool broggers tell the story in this mysterious and bone-chilling historical thriller.

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Jun 25, 2023
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