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Dan Cruickshank’s sex book

October 26, 2009
by the gentle author


There are few in Spitalfields that I hold in such high esteem as Dan Cruickshank, so it was an honour to be invited over to meet him in his beautiful eighteenth century house in Elder St last week. The remaining old houses in Spitalfields are just a tiny fragment of what stood here half a century ago, and if it were not for the visionary pioneering campaigns of Dan and his friends in the late seventies there might be none left today. They squatted empty houses to prevent them being bulldozed and once famously locked themselves inside the Board School in Spital Sq to stop its demolition. Dan has spent his life engaged with the history of Spitalfields and in doing so he has now become part of that history himself.

Meeting Dan for the first time is quite an overwhelming experience, because you immediately realise that this is a man with a vast number of stories to tell. Yet he wears his scholarship lightly and  it is tempered by an appealing levity and  self-deprecation, so I was mesmerised to listen as he spoke – quickly and almost in a breathless whisper – recounting stories of the history of the neighbourhood, one after another.

My visit was to learn about his new book, The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin shaped the Capital. It was a passion for the architecture that first led Dan to the Georgians, but this in turn led to a curiosity to know the lives of the people and their society of which these buildings are enigmatic remnants. While the architecture may be celebrated, Dan recognises it was not created out of aesthetic endeavour but as a money-making operation. Most of the houses around Spitalfields, including his own, were thrown up by developers – built quickly and cheaply without any intention that they might last beyond their original sixty year leases.

Dan’s first query was where was this money coming from and who was spending it? Following the money, he considered some of the great industries of London at this time, silk (in this neighbourhood), brewing, the ports and printing – before turning his mind to the service industries, and in particular the sex trade. For the past ten years, through comparing fiction and studying documentary evidence, he has sought the reality of the eighteenth century sex industry and low life.

Staggeringly, there were as many as fifty two thousand women working as prostitutes in London by the end of the eighteenth century, which is one in five women – creating an estimated turnover of twenty million pounds a year when the country’s entire annual tax revenue was only six million.

Dan’s research has uncovered many individual fascinating stories of these women. At a time when there were few opportunities for females of intelligence and spirit, without inherited wealth, the primary options to make money were being a servant or a washerwoman. Some passed through the sex industry to achieve independence as actresses, while others even lived and dressed as men. Yet in spite of the tens of thousands who fell victim to abuse and disease, they are also a few stories of  women who succeeded, escaping to riches and fame – inspiring personalities like the Duchess of Bolton (the original Polly Peachum in The Beggars’ Opera), Mrs Addington (great friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds) and the beloved Emma Hamilton.

You can learn more when Dan speaks at the Bishopsgate Institute this Thursday 29th October at 7:30pm.

I am hoping that my meeting with Dan Cruickshank was the beginning of a conversation that will enable me to recount to you many of his stories of the history of Spitalfields over the coming years.


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