Riots, a hanging offence, selling wives and the sex trade

Exactly what it says on the tin. David’s been poking around in the London underworld – the 18th century London underworld.


London calling. David here.

A little five-minute job tonight. A bonus ‘cast. Just because I feel like it. 

Thought we’d have a quick wander through the groves of London’s underworld past. 

And present. On the Central Line earlier this week there was one of those public address announcements. “Attention ladies and gentlemen. This is to warn you there’s a pickpocket operating on the platforms and in the carriages of the Central Line tonight. Mind your belongings. Be extra vigilant.”

I thought, must be tough being a pickpocket these days. Security cameras and public address systems and super-fast police response times thanks to radio communications. Different story back in the 18th century. We learn from a first-hand 1774 account that “Pickpockets make no scruple to knock people down with bludgeons at eight o’clock in the night in the Piazza in Covent Garden. They come in large bodies armed with cuteaux [knives] and attack whole parties of people coming from the coffee-houses and theatres.”

Covent Garden was the centre of the sex trade in 18th century London. And many prostitutes had a sideline in picking pockets. Rifling the pockets of drunken or beaten up clients was of course child’s play. Child’s play that was a hanging offence. But the threat of the gallows wasn’t much of a deterrent because juries refused to convict. They weren’t going to have somebody swing because they’d helped themselves to a rich fop’s watch or a nobleman’s wife’s silk handkerchief. In 1796 the authorities gave up the ghost on hanging as a deterrent. Picking a pocket then – if you were convicted – got you a one-way ticket to Botany Bay. Transportation as it was called.

And if we can just stay with the distaff gender for a minute… Distaff, it’s an old word meaning of or concerning women. A distaff was a long, cleft stick that holds flax for spinning – which was regarded as women’s work. Anyway, if we’re watching the law do its thing in 18th century London we learn that in 1754 there was a so-called Marriages Act passed. And what do you know, before said Act was passed wives were regarded as one of the husband’s chattels. That meant that they were sometimes sold or auctioned in the marketplace in Covent Garden. They’d have a noose around their neck. Their hands would be tied behind their back. And picture the little scene that indicated a deal had been struck. The buyer and seller – both men of course – would spit on their hands, clasp hands firmly and shout the price – the going rate would be between five and ten shillings.  

Let’s end with a riot. 

The Marriages Act was passed in 1754. 

This year, 2021, is the 270th anniversary of the passing of the act regulating the Commencement of the Year. The Commencement of the Year Act oversaw the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. Catholic European countries had made the switch 170 years earlier. No way Britain was going to buy into that. Might be a Catholic plot. It’s a distant echo but inevitably it brings to mind the Brexit loathing of the EU, of Brussels. But consider what it must have been like to cross the Channel in those years. You leave England on the 4th of October, you get to France a few hours later and it’s October 15th. WTF.

Anyway, our riot. When this country did finally come to its senses and make the switch there were riots in Covent Garden and Westminster. Angry mobs shouting “Give us back our 11 days.”

And on that note, Good night from London. 

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