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  • Writer's pictureAllison Compton

A Lady on the Town: A Case Study of Sex Work in 18th-Century London

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Image credit: A Rake's Progress, plate 3 by William Hogarth

The life of courtesan Fanny Murray (1729-78) is an interesting case study to provide insight into the sex industry in eighteenth-century London. By using Memoirs of the Celebrated F[anny] M[urray] (1759) as a guide, I will analyze Murray’s background, entry into the sex trade, how social and legal shaped her experiences in the industry, and her exit from sex wor"k. The Memoirs are considered part of the genre of ‘prostitute narratives’ that became popular during the era. Although historians do need to treat the Memoirs with some incredulity, I will compare it with the broad facts of other ‘prostitute narratives, the writings of eighteenth-century moral reformers, modern historical interpretations, and archival research to discover how commonplace and unique her experiences were compared to the general trends historians know about the sex trade in the eighteenth century.[1]

In many ways, this work portrays Murray’s introduction into the sex industry as fairly typical. She was from a poor background and also an orphan. While there are speculation and discrepancies among the Memoirs and public records about her age when she began working in the sex trade, the consensus is that she was younger than average, possibly thirteen or fourteen years old. Moral reformers debated the reasons why people entered the sex trade. They gave reasons that ranged from the lower-classes desire for money, fame, fine clothing and material goods, an overabundance of lust combined with overly permissive parenting, some even claimed bored middle-class women were participating in sex work for ‘a thrill’ or to earn independent income. However, most women (including Murray) entered the trade spurred by economic need.[2] Murray experienced abandonment by her first two keepers and the deception and harsh treatment of bawds while in the industry, but she was able to rise above a life of street-walking and low-paying brothels to become one of the highest paid courtesans of her day.[3] Not all women were so fortunate, the poorest sex workers of the age did not leave much in the way of written evidence about their biography,

their experiences in the industry, and their thoughts and feelings about their day-to-day lives.

However, contemporary moral reformers emptied inkwell after inkwell debating the circumstances that brought teenage girls and young women into the industry, what their status as sex workers implies about their character, and how to help the women whom they viewed as simultaneous victims of economic circumstance and polluters of the morals (and bodies) of the nation’s men. The men who enforced the law were even unsure what to do about sex workers as the industry expanded in the city of London. Murray never did come into much contact with the judicial system. There is no record that she was ever arrested for selling sex during her lifetime. It was only when she ran up substantial debts that she became embroiled in legal troubles. Murray also did not end up dying from venereal disease as much reformer literature and visual media predicted would be the ultimate fate of the sex worker. She exited the sex industry at the age of twenty-nine and settled into marriage with the actor David Ross. Although the public continued to be fascinated by her, the Memoirs were published two years after her retirement from the sex trade and marriage to Ross.

Murray, and other famous courtesans of the eighteenth-century, skirted the edges of social propriety of the era. They were praised as performing a social necessity by the erotic libertine/rake literature of the period and simultaneously seen as objects of consternation and degradation by (mostly) middle-class moral reformers. Murray’s life demonstrates London society’s complex social and legal attitudes toward sexuality and the sex trade in the eighteenth century. Murray is a case study in these attitudes, a demonstration of the extraordinary highs and lows a woman could experience in the London sex trade, and provides evidence of the intense interest in sexuality, both indulging in it and controlling it that abounded in the eighteenth century.

The Extent of Sex Work in London

Every day during the eighteenth century, people flooded into the city of London in search of employment opportunities provided by a rapidly industrializing metropolis. The responsibility placed on teenage girls and young women to contribute financially to the rickety budget of their family, to earn money for their own dowry, or the death or desertion of a parent might require them to strike out on their own to find employment.[4] Females would have had limited employable skills and few opportunities open to them in this era, and most worked in occupations related to textile manufacturing, as a seamstress, dress-maker, lace-maker, milliners, haberdasher, or in domestic service.[5] Textiles and domestic service could be unpredictable industries, leaving these women liable to the vicissitudes of the financial success of the operation where they worked. Generally, females were only laxly monitored if they moved to the city without any other family members or connections.[6] Due to the anonymity of the city and their newly found independence, sex work became an increasingly convenient way to augment lost income during periodic times of unemployment that plagued these industries.[7]

The exact number of individuals in the sex industry in the eighteenth century is extremely difficult to quantify. There were many statistics proposed by moral reformers, politicians, and law enforcement officials at the time—and by many historians since then. Lower estimates place the number at 3,000 sex workers operating in London in 1758; moral reformer Patrick Colquhoun’s study placed it as high as 50,000 by 1800, which would mean that one in five reproductive age women in London were engaged in the sex trade.[8, 9,10] While the estimates vary widely, there are two conclusions one can take from the numbers even while questioning their quantitative accuracy: first, that people perceived the numbers of sex workers were increasing. Dan Cruickshank asserts that selling sex was a £20 million per year industry and was expanding rapidly across all areas of London during the century; second, that those who wrote about the sex industry saw it as a major social issue, one that frequently raised anxieties around gender norms and class hierarchy.[11, 12]

The Backgrounds of Sex Workers

Through his archival research, the findings of which he lays out in Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London, historian Tony Henderson found that when suspected sex workers were questioned by a magistrate about their social origins most “were from the poorest sections of the community and “acquired few skills growing up that would allow them to escape poverty.” [13] Around 88% of the sample were either orphaned, had only one living parent, or were deserted by their parents.[14] Fanny Murray, a woman who rose from humble circumstances to be one of the most well-paid and well-known courtesans of the eighteenth century was from such a background. She was born in Bath in 1757 to a musician father and his wife. According to the Memoirs, she was the only surviving child of triplets and both of her parents died by the time she turned twelve years old.[15, 16] After which, Murray eked out an existence selling nosegays and Bath rings to aristocrats and the well-to-do who took the waters in Bath. [17, 18] This is how she met John Spencer, a Member of Parliament and notorious rake, who is considered to be her first seducer.[19]

Entry into the Sex Trade

Most ‘prostitute narratives’ of the age similarly begin in this manner: a young, naive female (most sex workers were between the ages of sixteen to thirty) succumbs to the seduction of a suitor, or perhaps a lascivious employer or his son.[20, 21] A teenage girl might even be tempted into sex work by a bawd with the promises of an independent income and a better life.[22] Murray’s biography does vary slightly from the common narrative because she might have been engaged in sex work from as young as thirteen years old, which is much younger than the average of approximately eighteen years for entering the trade.[23, 24] Her youth points out one of the major dangers moral reformers touted about sex trade—the sale of ‘maidenheads.’[25] There is shocking archival evidence of girls as young as twelve in the sex industry and ‘virgin sales’ no doubt did occur.[26] Although from the evidence of historians who have scoured records, this appears to be more of a fear-mongering tactic by moral reformers than an actual widespread practice in the sex industry.[27] Murray’s story also differs from the common narrative because her seducer was an aristocrat who turned her off “after a few weeks enjoyment” and not a suitor of her own class who promised her marriage and then reneged.[28] After Spencer, Murray quickly found herself a new keeper, Richard Nash.[29] Under his tutelage, Murray became more acquainted with the manners, conversation, fashion, and lifestyle of aristocrats. Her time with him probably helped her improve her limited education, refine her “rough edges” and “rusticity,” and prepared her for life as a highly paid courtesan to the rich and powerful.[30] After a nearly year-long relationship, Nash decided to end things with Murray, or she may have decided to leave and headed to London in April 1744.[31]

When Murray arrived in London at the age of fifteen, she was hoping for a fresh start and “had her eye on matrimony.”[32] However, the Memoirs outline a very quintessential story for young women who had recently moved to the “degenerate heart of the nation.”[33] According to the Memoirs, Murray took lodgings at a boarding house run by one Mrs. Sorting who, unknown to Murray, was a bawd. It was Mrs. Sorting who recruited Murray into the London sex industry. Public opinion in the eighteenth-century “found bawds and procurers of girls for the sex trade particularly loathsome.”[34] Bawds were said to manipulate young girls and used unscrupulous means to lure or trick them into sex work because of their dire economic circumstances. Attitudes toward sex work varied by social class. Moral reformers (mostly from the burgeoning middle-class) could sometimes muster compassion for the plight of poorer sex workers and believed people entered the sex industry out of pure economic need.[35] Others had no sympathy for sex workers’ economic situation and thought the industry was a scourge on the nation, threatening the morals and health of men and women alike as well as the economic standing of the nation as a whole.[36]

The middle- and upper-classes were far more likely to view sex workers as degenerates in need of moral re-education.[37] The working-class did not appear to judge sex workers too harshly and simply viewed the industry as a way to earn a living.[38] There’s evidence that most working-class women were not entirely ashamed when they turned to sex work to earn money. Given that a sex worker could earn far more money than her ‘honest’ working-class counterparts (female or male), entering the sex trade may have seemed a much more lucrative path, despite its risks.[39] The Memoirs appear to confirm this because Murray does not seem to have been tricked by Mrs. Sorting, and she seems to have entered the brothel of her own volition as a rational choice to her economic plight.[40] As her bawd, Mrs. Sorting had Murray set up in Haymarket, gave her use of a “waiting-job carriage,” and provided money “for clothes she might want.”[41] Bawds used the tactic of encouraging young women to borrow “a large sum [of money] to make up” which would bind the girl to them until they could pay it off.[42] Apparently, this was an exploitative practice that moral reformers pointed out to show the sneakiness and amorality of bawds.

While she worked in Mrs. Sorting’s brothel, Murray met a young man named Harry, a merchant’s son, and the Memoirs state that their romance (and their reputed plans to marry) came to a halt when his father found out his son’s intended was a woman of “infamous character.”[43] As a consolation, Mrs. Sorting introduced Murray “to a gentleman worth forty thousand pounds,” telling her she could “command his whole fortune” if she wished.[44] Murray’s “virtue was not much shocked” at the prospect and she agreed to entertain him that evening.[45] Murray was given a “gold snuff box, and two twenty pound notes in it” as recompense.[46] The high compensation Murray received from her evening with Mr. F was not typical. According to Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies, the listings charged approximately 2 guineas per liaison, so a relatively stable sex worker could earn £400 per year on average.[47] This means caution is needed here in accepting the anecdote in the Memoirs as wholesale truth. Citing this enormous sum may have been a way for the Memoirs to exaggerate Murray’s value after she was connected with a high-class establishment such as those common in the Marylebone, Green Park, and St. James areas of London.[48] The bawds who ran these establishments kept them opulently furnished, supplied with fresh food, and employed the most beautiful and charismatic sex workers they could find to provide “a haven of unbridled fantasy” for the crème de la crème of the London elite.[49]

No amount of money could make up for Murray’s slight repulsion of Mr. F![50] He became jealous when she took on other clients, and after a blowout row with Mr. F where he “upbraided [Murray’s] inconstancy [and] Murray professed her innocence,” Mrs. Sorting threw her out of the brothel and “became her declared enemy.”[51, 52] Being “obliged to quit the house,” Murray had to earn her keep as a streetwalker.[53] The Memoirs insinuate that Murray was contemplating suicide in light of her situation.[54] She had lost her lodgings and source of support and was about to be “put in gaol for debt” when her new landlady recommended that she go to see a bawd she knew operating from a common brothel in St. Paul’s near the Old Bailey.[55, 56]

In the early modern period, St. Paul’s (along with Drury Lane, Fleet Street, St. Giles, Seven Dials, and Whitechapel) was one of London’s poorest areas and had a high population of “the lowliest streetwalkers” and the seediest brothels in the city.[57] At this point, a historian should be critical of this account. While there might be a grain of truth to Murray’s biography, it is remarkably similar to most ‘prostitute narratives’ of the day and there are many archetypical details throughout.[58] The truth behind the stories of recruitment into the sex trade could become “embellished over time” and be used to suit the agenda of moral reformers.[59] Most ‘prostitute narratives’ serve as a moral lesson that, once a young woman was seduced, it was a slippery slope into the sex trade.[60] One can discern the tropes of Murray’s biography throughout the storyline in A Harlot's Progress, six paintings created by William Hogarth created in 1732.

A Harlot's Progress, plate 1: Moll Hackabout arrives in London, with a sewing kit visible in her belongings, clearly intending to try and make a living by her needle. A bawd, Mother Needham, offers her kindness and a place to stay, intending to manipulate her into the sex trade.[61]

Print based on a painting by Henry Robert Morlan, depicting Murray as an innocent country girl, similar to Moll Hackabout.[62]

Sex Worker and Client Experience

After understanding the economic realities females faced that acted as a catalyst for their entry into the sex trade, a portrait of their experience lived experience is necessary to compare it to Fanny Murray’s.Unfortunately, not many primary sources written by women about their own experiences and thoughts about their day-to-day experiences have been left to posterity, more than likely due to poor women’s lack of literacy skills in the era.[63] However, there are plenty of novels, literature written by moral reformers, and newspaper articles recording the thoughts of middle- and upper-class men about the industry.

While its incredibly problematic that almost all literature about sex work was written by men, historians can glean a substantial amount of information from these sources. One can deduce that a sex workers’ income, and therefore her lot in life, depended on several factors: the neighbourhood where she lived, her physical attractiveness, her reputed skills, and the sexual act requested from the client.[64] Females who had no options turned to sex work and had to “court alike the beastly drunkard [and] the nauseating rake![65] In poorer areas of town, sex workers commonly walked the streets in pairs soliciting customers and would frequently “Seize a Man by the Elbow, and make insolent Demands of Wine and Treats before they let him go.[66, 67, 68] Due to the high level of competition in cramped neighbourhoods, one had to stand out to get the attention of men, and soliciting was “a boisterous and noisy affair” filled with “course language, insults [when a man refused to become a client], and profligate behaviour.”[69] Sex workers and clients used dark alleyways, green parks, or lodging houses to transact their business.[70] Sex workers would frequently “hold court” in public houses, drink with the male patrons, attract clients, and use their back rooms for liaisons.[71] Bagnios (public bathhouses), such as Haddocks in Covent Garden, developed a reputation also became a popular site for sex work.[72] Haddocks set up rooms with beds for sex workers to conduct their liaisons and even have overnight stays with meals.[73] All of this activity stimulated the London economy.[74]

Rake narratives and literature such as Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies were written to arouse men and inform them of best places to carouse and “go whoring.” Despite the somewhat “carnavalesque” descriptions of parts of a sex worker’s life, the trade had an undeniably dark and dehumanizing side. According to the Memoirs, Murray earned £5 10s 6d per week during the period when she plied her trade on the streets but she kept only a paltry “sixpence in pocket” after paying her bawd for her food, lodging, and clothing (far cry from the 2 guineas per liaison some women would earn.)[75] Drunkenness and violence were especially common in the life of a street-walking sex worker. Many of the girls, and their lowly-paid clients, turned to drink to cope with their lives and sex workers had to frequently put up with blows from each other (when they fought over clients and territory) as well as from their male clients or ‘bullies.’ Bullies were usually men paid by brothel-keepers as protection for the sex workers, to enforce payment from clients, keep our the police, and even keep the girls ‘in line’ with the brothels rules and prevent them from leaving.[76] One contemporary commentator lamented that “black eyes might be seen on a great many prostitutes.”[77] Also, poor females were also most at risk for contracting venereal diseases or bearing the financial strain of an unwanted pregnancy. While condoms had been available since the last seventeenth century, they were expensive and out of the price range for regular use.[78] Common sex workers generally resorted to sexual acts that did not involve intersourse, and used vaginal douches, abortifacient herbs, and other more dangerous methods to end a pregnancy.[79]

Contracting a venereal disease is also a common trope of the prostitute narrative.[80] The Memoirs claim that after Murray began working at the brothel in St. Pauls an “infection soon overtook” her and she had to spend “her small stock [of money] on [surgical] fees.”[81] Although there is no solid evidence Murray did contract a venereal disease such as “gonorrhea or the pox (syphilis) other than the high probability she did at home point in her career.”[82] The Lock Hospital, which opened in 1747, was set up as a lying in hospital for preganant sex workers or as a treatment centre for venereal disease.[83] The Lock Hosptial reflected not only a legitimate need for medical care but the pervasive attitude of society about sex workers as spreaders of disease and even moral contamination.[84] There is evidence from the records of the hospital that Murray became a regular donor and supported its work.[85] Again, not incontrovertible historical evidence, but enough to suggest Murray may have understood the need for an institution such as the Lock Hospital, possibly from personal experience.

A Harlot’s Progress, plate 3: Moll has contracted a venereal disease, she is no longer working in Mother Needham’s brothel and she is living in Drury Land, heading for a rapid downward spiral of degeneration.[86]

A Harlot’s Progress, plate 4: Moll has been sent to Bridewell Prison. She is out of place in her fine attire (a commentary on sex worker’s vanity perhaps.) The warden’s wife seems to covet Moll’s dress, perhaps in anticipation of robbing her or laying claim to it upon her death.[87]

The Memoirs state that Murray recovered from her illness and managed to escape the bawdy house, having “sequestered the amount of [7] guineas...leaving behind her whatever clothes her landlady [bawd] might lay claim to.” [88, 89] She then rented some lodgings in St. James. Having a much more fashionable address, clothing to “go upon the town,” and the ability to mimic the manners and “tasteful dress” of the upper class and offering “elegant companionship” was essential to Murray in winning John Montagu (the 4th Earl of Sandwich) as her keeper in 1745.[90] This is where the class anxieties of eighteenth-century Londoners come into play. Moral reformers warned against the vain and envious heart of the sex worker. She dressed above her station and was able to attract the attention of aristocratic men, and this was a threat to the established social order.[91] Murray’s relationship with Sandwich was indeed “a great coup” in establishing her reputation as a sought-after courtesan for the upper class elite.[92] Around this time, Murray was making a name for herself, she began attending Sir Francis Dashwood’s Divan Club to provide female entertainment, and “poets, painters, and engravers began to exercise their arts upon her.”[93, 94] The Divan Club even commissioned Adriaen Carpentiers to paint Murray’s portrait (below) in 1745.[95] Murray was not the only high-earning courtesan to have her portrait painted in this way. Sir Joshua Reynolds, a notable and celebrated English painter, is known to have created portraits of courtesans Kitty Fisher, Nelly O'Brien, and Emily Warren.[96] Murray was even immortalized in poetry, and in certain circles she became the subject of many well-known lewd jokes.[97, 98]

Portrait of Fanny Murray by Adriaen Carpentiers, 1745.

By the time Murray was eighteen years old, she had a box at the opera, her own private carriage, and she began to attract richer clients—one of them being Richard Atkins, the 6th Baronet of Clapham.[99, 100, 101] It was the goal of women in the sex trade to land a keeper such as Atkins. He set up Murray munificently: paying her rent, for the refurbishment of her home, for clothing, and he gave her a “handsome allowance.”[102] To all accounts, Atkins was quite generous and gentlemanly to Murray, but she did not make the relationship easy for him.[103] Along with her ample charisma and charm, she could be “impetuous,” “petulant,” and “ungovernable.”[104] She has also been described as” the dominant force in their relationship,” demonstrating that sex work could also be a route to some measure of independence for women.[105] Despite their issues, Murray and Atkins showed signs of homemaking together and “there was even talk of a wedding.”[106] There are many examples of courtesans who became mistresses to men of high society—and in an astounding feat of social mobility—a rare few even became the wives of these prominent men.[107] It would not work out this way for Murray, she and Atkins never did marry, probably due to Atkins’s father’s disapproval and her refusal to fully extricate herself from the sex trade while he was her keeper.[108, 109]

A Harlot's Progress, plate 2: Moll is in the thick of the sex trade and is experiencing more independence than most women of her day were allowed. She is entertaining her client (possibly her keeper), while her chosen paramour sneaks past. Showing the “inconstancy” of sex workers and insinuating a lack of morals and sexual propriety according to the standards of the day, even though Moll has a keeper, she continued to have clients and lovers.[110]

Despite Murray’s “meteoric rise,” and her position as a kept mistress to an aristocratic man, she had enough business sense not only to rely solely on one man alone and drew clients/lovers from the lower classes to keep up an independent income. [111, 112] She continued to have dalliances with ragamuffins and well-known scoundrels such as James MacLaine, Captain Plaistow, Robert Tracy, and Edward Strode. Captain Jasper, a young naval officer, “ruined himself...bankrolling Murray’s profligate and intemperate lifestyle.”[113, 114, 115, 116, 117] Murray was spending exorbitant sums on drink, gambling, and keeping up with the latest clothing trends.[118] She was even becoming something of a fashion icon, with even well-bred ladies copying her style.[119] She truly captured the imagination of London. Murray became “the reigning toast,...the standard of female dress, and the object of every man’s desire,” and she revelled in the large sums of money she could command from aristocratic clients.[120, 121] There was even a rumor in the London papers that she was part of a group of ladies that attended a masquerade ball at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford with Prince William Augustus in 1748.[122]

Murray would have been in great demand to attend these masquerades as a high-end courtesan.[123] Masquerades were wildly popular and an “established feature of London’s public leisure culture” and “well-represented in English visual print culture” since the 1720s.[124] These events had developed a dubious reputation and they were widely criticized for their immorality as moral reformers caught on to their close connection with sex work.[125] Social commentators railed against masquerades because they encouraged female vanity and the display of their bodies and sexuality, “which was incompatible with female virtue.”[126] Even more worrisome, they feared innocent young girls were “being debauched and ruined” at these events because bawds and sex workers frequently used masquerades as an opportunity to search for new recruits and clients.[127] Reformers also bristled at the fact that sex workers at these events dressed above their station and appropriated upper-class clothing. It would not have been difficult for a sex worker to trick a middle- or upper-class man into believing she was a respectable woman. Masquerades were portrayed not as an “innocent revelry” but as a dangerous, heady mix of alcohol consumption, high-stakes gaming, sexual impropriety, and the blurring of lines between social classes.[128, 129]

There is class tension surrounding masqueades and the sex industry in general which needs to be addressed. The upper-classes of London society wanted what these young women (most of whom were minors from a poor background) had to sell—their bodies. However, sex workers were simultaneously seen as “objects of disgust and objects of lust” and “armoured both alarm and desire” within society.[130, 131] For the females involved in the sex industry the agonizing choice of selling one of their only assets, their sexuality, to provide for themselves and obtain some measure of independence meant they had to accept the ”emotional death,” physical risks, and skirting the edges of the law that came with their work.[132]

Legal Attitudes Toward Sex Work

Legal attitudes towards human sexuality are frequently a barometer of the social and economic forces occuring within a society; and this is very evident in the way the English justice system treated sex workers in the eighteenth century. English law at the time did not directly punish women who provided sex in exchange for money with that specific crime. Henderson even found that “not until 1822 was the world ‘prostitution’ used in the text of a public act.”[133] The only law that even resembles a direct arrest for sex work is “being found together in an indecent situation.”[134] An analysis of the Old Bailey records demonstrates that most sex workers were were most frequently arrested on charges of:

  • Idleness: If a woman was seen loitering around a neighbourhood and could not provide satisfactory proof of her employment status.[135, 136]

  • Theft: Many poor sex workers would steal money or items of value from their clients, but they were not charged with “prostitution.”[137]

  • Assault: Sex workers may be charged with this crime if they were violent towards clients, even in in self-defence. Sometimes the sex worker would be the aggressor and work together in tandem or with a “bully” to beat and rob a man of his belongings under the pretense of transacting a paid sexual liaison.[138]

  • Infanticide: 12% of females executed at Tyburn Prison between 1720-50 alone were charged with infanticide.p139]

  • Debt: The law did not look kindly on debtors in this period. Sex workers who ran up debts paying for rent and clothing beyond their means, or if bawds who set the law upon them for debt when they tried ot leave their brothels, were frequently arrested on this charge.[140]

The law was far more harsh when applied to male sex workers (‘mollies’) and their clients. They could be charged with ‘buggery’ or ’sodomitical intent‘ and were usually placed in the pillory and then the gaol as punishment, some might even be executed depending on the nature of the case.[141] The full force of the law also clamped down on bawdy or ‘disorderly’ houses.[142] Even with the force of this law, if a bawd could keep their house fairly subdued and discrete, the law did not bother them much.[143] High-end brothels catering to the most important members of the aristocracy (sometimes even royalty) were virtually left alone; they were not the target of the legislation.[144]

Murray’s biography holds true to these trends. She was never once arrested for any offence related to “prostitution” or selling sex during her entire life. Although Murray was earning several times the average wage for working-class people, she fell deeply into debt. Murray knew she was in trouble and she wrote a desperate letter to the son of her first lover, John Spencer, informing him that she was “now upon the very brink of ruin.”[145, 146] She had twice spent time in the sponging house and was about to be sent to Newgate Prison for debt.[147]

Exiting the Sex Trade

In the same letter to Spencer, Murray claimed she wanted to “quit that vicious path” of sex work, and Spencer magnanimously gave her an annuity of £160 if she promised to reform herself.[148] Spencer even went a step further and introduced Murray to the actor David Ross hoping the two might find each other agreeable as marriage partners. The two of them did marry in 1757.[149] According to the moral reformist literature of the day, this was not how a sex worker ended her days; once ruined, she drowned her sorrows in drink due to her diseased body and moral degeneration, and her exit from the sex trade was death. Hopefully if she prayed hard enough God would forgive her for her “polluted body...and more polluted soul.”[150]

A Harlot's Progress, plate 5: Moll is seriously ill, two doctors debate her treatment, and a callous landlady riffles through her belongings. There is also a toddler in the scene who the viewer assumes to be Moll’s child.[151]

If a woman did want to leave the sex trade, the Magdalen Hospital was an option. However their goal was to admit “young and unhardened girls” or “seduced and abandoned women, not prostitutes.”[152] Women had to submit an application to the Magdalen Hospital and it was reviewed by the committee of the hospital.[153] The applicants admitted were on average seventeen to eighteen years old, could not be pregnant, had to be free of venereal disease, and had to demonstrate that she was truly repentant for engaging in the sex trade and wanted to turn around her life.[154, 155, 156] If she met these criteria, she might be admitted for a one to three year stay with the charity.[157] The goal of the Magdalen Hospital was not to encourage the dependance of the repentant seduced girl or sex worker, but to turn them over to their family, a responsible friend, or find them gainful employment as soon as they were considered reformed and release them with a guinea in their pocket.[158, 159] The institution was not meant to provide a long-term shelter for women, but it could help a woman leave the industry.

A Harlot's Progress, plate 6: Moll Hackabout has died. With the exception of Moll’s loyal maid, the people seem insincere. They are using Moll’s funeral to gossip and flirt, they seem as though they will not miss Moll once she is buried.[159]

A sex worker such as Murry was not suposed to end up married to a “convivial, easy-going, and handsome” man with a decent income.[160] To all accounts Murray and Ross had a companionate and (mostly) happy marriage, and even though Ross was not entirely faithful, Murray was reputed to have been a faultless wife to him until her death in 1778.[161] Murray’s exit from the sex trade flies in the face of the moralizing literature and demonstrates that some women were able to disentange themselves from the sex trade and live realtively ‘respectable’ lives afterwards. Although it should be mentioned that her success in the sex trade bolstered her reputation and may have been a boon as much as hindrance to finding a husband and settling into marital life.


Utilizing courtesan Fanny Murray as a case study demonstrates that urbanization and industrialization were important factors in the growth of sex work in London during the eighteenth century. Many impoverished teenage girls and young women left their families and went to the city in search of work. This increased the prevalence of sex work in London for two reasons: the anonymity and an upsurge in the number of desperate, poor individuals willing to sell their sexuality because of low wages and lack of employment opportunities. The sex industry became a huge money-making machine for the English economy, and men from the working-class all the way to the upper echelons of society participated in it.

Murray’s biography aligns with the trend that female sex workers were predominantly from a rural poor or urban working-class background. Individuals usually entered the sex trade during their teen years (between fifteen to eighteen years old), but Murray’s introduction into the life was reputedly significantly younger than average and she was seduced by an aristocrat. Murray’s experience in the sex industry ran the gamut from nightly streetwalking in the poorer areas of London to working in high-end brothels servicing the elite of English society—where the women would have led, by the standards of the day, quite comfortable lives. She was known to cavort with men of dubious character and also had wealthy aristocrats as her keepers. She experienced the industry from its highs and lows, from being one of its most vulnerable to one of its highest-paid courtesans. She was luckier than most of the poor women represented in the moral polemics of the age that represented precisely that vulnerability, but simultaneously judged females in exigent economic circumstances as sinners worthy of a fate of disease and death for daring to sell the only commodity they possessed that could provide a living wage.

Murray represents the conflicting feelings about sex workers in the eighteenth-century. London society thought of sex workers as disease-ridden sinners, victims of encroaching capitalism, and objects of lust. London became obsessed with Murray’s style and her feminine charms, while being scandalized at the details of her background and love affairs, her apparent independence, and her ability to hone her sexuality and commodify it to earn a living. These attitudes seem to be reflected in the legal mechanisms used to deal with sex work during this era, which were loose and vaguely defined. They seemed willing to punish ‘disorderly women,’ bawds who ran houses of ill repute, and homosexual encounters, but the law really only punished individual women when they transgressed the law in some other way: theft, assault, infanticide, or debt. Murray herself was only ever in trouble with the law when she ran up excessive debts. Eighteenth-century London is a riveting study in the simultaneous repressiveness and openness of its social and legal attitudes toward commercial sexuality.



1. The Memoirs were not written by Fanny Murray’s own hand, nor did the author involve her in the process of writing, and they were not provided to her for the confirmation of accuracy in details.

2. Dan Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital (London: Windmill Books, 2009), xiv, 36.; Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London (New York: Taylor and Francis, 1999), 362.; Laura Rosenthal, Nightwalkers: Prostitute Narratives from the Eighteenth Century (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2008), xxii.

3. Women who kept bawdy houses and recruited young women into the sex trade.

4. White, Queen of the Courtesans, xxiii, 21.

5. Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women, 28.

6. Averill Earls et al, “Seduction, Prostitution, Bastardy, and Child Abandonment in Georgian London,” Dig: A History Podcast, podcast audio, March 31, 2019,

7. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 12-13.

8. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 27.

9. Ibid., 34.

10. Ibid., xi, 34.

11. Ibid., x.

12. Ibid., 164.

13. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 26.

14. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 27.

15. Anonymous, Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Fanny M[urray], Second Edition (London: S. Smith, 1759), 2.

16. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 57

17. A bouquet of flowers to disguise the scent of the sulphur in the water of the spas in Bath.

18. Souvenir rings.

19. Memoirs, 3.; White, Queen of the Courtesans, 64-6. White also points out that it is somewhat in dispute if Spencer was her original seducer.

20. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 17.

21. Earls et al, “Seduction, Prostitution, Bastardy, and Child Abandonment in Georgian London,”

22. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 7.

23. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 62.

24. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 43-5. John Fielding conducted a study of twenty-five sex workers rounded up from a bawdy house and found that the groups median age was 18.1 years and only three of the girls were twelve or thirteen years old. Also, an analysis of the trials at the Old Bailey of women arrested for theft, who were suspected sex workers between 1791-9 indicate that 34.6% were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-four. No female under sixteen was recorded.

25. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 66. People feared poor parents selling young girls to bawds for their “maidenhead” which was reputed could fetch 30 guineas when the average going rate was only 2 guineas.

26. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 52.

27. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 52-55.; White, Queen of the Courtesans, 65. There was a widespread belief that bawds bought, tricked, or abducted prepubescent girls to cater to the desire of men to have sex with virgins. This could act as a guarantee that the female was free of venereal disease. Mostly it might have been a tactic that bawds used to demand more money from their patrons. Bawds are known to have sold the “maidenhead” of the same young woman several times over.

28. Memoirs, 5.

29. Ibid., 6. Referred to as Mr. Easy in the Memoirs.

30. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 91, 98-9. Nash tried to improve her education and also arranged singing and dancing lessons for her.

31. Ibid., 108.

32. Memoirs, 67.

33. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 25.

34. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 8.

35. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, xiv, 41.; Henderson, Disorderly Women, 298.

36. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 463-508.

37. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 324-6.

38. Ibid., 33.

39. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, x. Depending on the trade, a skilled journeyman could expect to make £50 per year and a master craftsman possibly up to £200. A domestic servant would earn a meagre £5 per year.

40. Memoirs, 67.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., 80.

43. Ibid., 74-8.

44. Memoirs, 80.

45. Ibid., 81

46. Ibid., 82. Approximately £5,000 today.

47. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 36. compared to £5 per year in the textile industry.

48. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 164, 169.

49. Ibid., 51. Women such as Sally Salisbury and Kitty Fisher were some of the most famous courtesans in London, and would have worked out of establishments such as these.

50. Memoirs, 83.

51. Ibid., 85

52. Ibid., 87

53. Ibid., 88.

54. Memoirs, 90. The Memoirs quote Hamlet's “To be--or not to be” speech from Hamlet and claiming “with a poison prepared; upon the very brink of eternal perdition, her landlady entered...”; White supports this interpretation in Queen of the Courtesans,117.

55. Ibid., 91.

56. Memoirs, 92.

57. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 117.

58. Rosenthal, Nightwalkers and Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 41. come to the conclusion that ‘prostitute narratives’ and ‘prostitute biographies’ have common plot points and archetypes.

59. Earls et al., “Seduction, Prostitution, Bastardy, and Child Abandonment in Georgian London,”

60. Ibid. The meaning of seduction had a wider connotation in the eighteenth century than it does today. It could mean anything from a consensual romantic encounter to the coercive wearing down of a woman’s reluctance to have sexual relations—which was not considered rape at the time.

61. William Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress (RCIN 811512),” Royal Collection Trust, 1732, accessed September 15,; Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 7.

62. “Frances ('Fanny') Murray (née Rudman),” National Portrait Gallery, accessed September 15, 2020,

63. Jessica Steinberg, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Prostitution: Perceptions of Prostitutes and Prostitution in Eighteenth Century London,” (Ph.D diss., University of Ottawa, 2015), 75.

64. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 27-29. 6 d. 1 s. for an outdoor liaison, 18 d. to get a room/lodging, 3 d. for manual stimulation, a man might pay 2 s. 6 d. to lay with two women, up to 10 s. for a request for flagellation.

65. Memoirs, 88.

66. Drury Lane, Fleet Street, St. Giles, Seven Dials, Whitechapel.

67. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 28.

68. Ibid., 4.

69. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 3.

70. Ibid., 25.

71. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 203-14.

72. Ibid., 230.

73. Cruickshank, 216.

74. One of Cruickshank’s main arguments is that the sex industry was a driver of the economy in the eighteenth century and created jobs in the service establishments that were frequented by sex workers and their potential patrons.

75. Cruickshank, Secret History of Georgian London, 92-4.

76. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 23.

77. Cruickshank, Secret History of Georgian London, 179.

78. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 31. Condoms of this era were made from sheep's bladder or stomach.

79. Ibid., 32.

80. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 117-8.

81. Memoirs, 89. She even had to give up a dress as part of the payment.

82. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 154.

83. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 245.

84. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 245.

85. Ibid., 470. This view is not entirely unfounded. According to Cruickshank, by the second half of the century, 20-40% of sailors were infected with a venereal disease. Some women who were not in the sex industry were also recorded as patents, clearly contracting them from her husband’s, or even her own, extra-marital trysts.

86. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 178.

87. Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress (RCIN 811512),”; Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 12-7.

88. Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress (RCIN 811512),”; Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 17-9.

89. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 123. “Indictments taken from the Old Bailey Session Papers suggest that working girls were often little more than sex slaves until age or the final stages of disease released them from the clutches of their bawds.”

90. Memoirs, 97. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 9. It was a widely circulated story that bawds would take every piece of a girl’s clothing and provide her with new items; that way, if she ever ran away in the clothes she did not technically own, the bawd could set the law on her for theft.

91. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 125. Murray was still only sixteen and he was twenty-seven when she became his mistress

92. Steinberg, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Prostitution,” 127-84.

93. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 132.

94. Ibid., 135.

95. Memoirs, 96.

96. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 136.

97. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 336-66. Reynolds completed several paintings of famous courtesan Kitty Fisher.

98. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 147, 153. Examples: Horace Walpole's 1746 poem “The Beauties” and Jame Thompson’s “An Ode to Miss Fanny Murray” written in 1747.

99. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 245. Question: “Why is Fanny M[urray] like a Field of new Hay?” Answer: “Because she’s Ross’s about by Rakes.”

100. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 118-9.

101. Ibid., 129. For example, Joseph Yorke (who would be created 1st Baron Dover in 1788) and barrister Henry Gould (the first cousin of moral reformer Henry Fielding who was quite active in writing about the sex trade in London).

102. Ibid., 191. Atkins had inherited an estate of £6,000 (over £750,000 today) per year.

103. Ibid., 190.

104. Ibid., 195.

105. Ibid., 191.

106. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 192.

107. Ibid., 194.

108. Ibid., 188. A few examples being Lavinia Fenton, an actress (which was nearly synonymous with sex work at the time) married Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton; Sophia Dubochet married Thomas Noel Hill, 2nd Baron Berwick of Attingham; Harriet Powell married Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Seaforth; Nancy Parsons married and Charles Maynard, 2nd Viscount Maynard; and Elizabeth Armistead married the politician Charles James Fox.

109. Ibid., 199.

110. Memoirs, 200.

111. Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress (RCIN 811512),”; Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 10-11.

112. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 201.

113. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 203. 114. Memoirs, Chapter VII.; White, Queen of the Courtesans, 204.

115. Memoirs, Chapter XX.; White, Queen of the Courtesans, 203.

116. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 206.

117. Memoirs, 187.; White, Queen of the Courtesans, 208. She had a three-year-long affair with Strode.

118. Ibid., 157.

119. Ibid.

120. Ibid., 158.

121. Memoirs, 197.

122. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 157.

123. Ibid., 200.

124. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 394.

125. Carter, “The Female Proteus,” 63.

126. Ibid., 59. By 1750, a literary description of a masquerade without a reference to sex workers was almost unheard of.

127. Carter, “The Female Proteus,” 68.

128. Ibid., 67.

129. Ibid., 63.

130. Ibid., 68.

131. Cruickshank, Secret History of Georgian London, 2.

132. Ibid., 38.

133. Ibid., 214.

134. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 405.

135. Ibid., 24. The watchman, beadle, or constable would have to have caught a couple in the middle of a sexual act in a public place to apply this charge and it was not only applied to sex workers.

136. Ibid., 3, 19.

137. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 503. Moral reformers tried to have the Vagrancy Act of 1744 changed to better equip law enforcement in the curbing of street-walking sex workers.

138. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 33.

139. Ibid., 44.

140. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 247.

141. Batchelor and Megan Hiatt, ed., The Histories of Some of the Penitent in the Magdalen-House, as Supposed to be related by Themselves (London: Routledge, 2007), 63.

142. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 463.

143. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 290-343.

144. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 36-40.

145. Ibid., 494.

146. Ibid., 36.

147. Quoted in White, Queen of the Courtesans, 313.

148. Ibid., 311.

149. Ibid., 314.

150. Martin Madan, “An Account of the Triumphant Death of F.S. a Converted Prostitute,” (London: Z. Fowle, 1763), 4.

151. Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress (RCIN 811512),”; Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 20-2.

152. Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress (RCIN 811512),”; Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 20-2.

153. Nash, “Prostitution and Charity,” 619.

154. Ibid., 618.

155. Henderson, Disorderly Women, 17; Nash in “Prostitution and Charity,” 619. The range of ages spanned 15-21 years old for successful applicants to the Magdalen Hospital.

156. Nash, “Prostitution and Charity,” 618. If an applicant did have venereal diseases, she was rejected but recommended to the Locke Hospital for treatment.

157. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 312.

158. Nash, “Prostitution and Charity,” 622.

159. Lloyd, “Pleasure’s Golden Bait,” 64.

160. Nash, “Prostitution and Charity,” 625.

161. White, Queen of the Courtesans, 316.

162. Ibid., 26.

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