Thursday, August 5, 2010

Women At Sea: On Ratcliffe Highway

Sailors and women of loose morals seem to go together in the popular imagination if not always in "real life". Of course there have been, are and will be happily married seamen, gay sailors and the celibate upon the waves. Generally speaking though, when we think of sailors on leave we think of a picture much like Thomas Rowlandson's "Sea Stores". The officer clearly negotiating best price (note the "jaunty" turn of the dirk at his waist), while the lady next to him stands silent with a smile and an upturned palm, waiting for his prize money before she and her friend promise anything.

Rowlandson is famous for pictures like this one not only because he was an astute observer of seaside life both in London and in Plymouth. There is also the fact that by the time Rowlandson was producing his work (the late 1700s and into the 19th century) the Royal Navy was setting the tone for just about everything seagoing in Europe. The scene above, dated around 1803, could have happened in Wapping, Brest, La Rochelle, Gibraltar, Port Mahon, Naples, New York or New Orleans. And the officer could just as easily be a pirate or privateer.

But what about the ladies themselves? The lens of Victorian moralizing has turned them into soiled doves, broken by some first encounter with a cad - probably a seaman himself - and from then on forced to ply the filthy trade of fallen women since the time of Magdalene. The problem with that scenario is the complete denial of these people as individuals, some of whom certainly chose to step out with sailing men and make their way. For the purpose of this post, we will keep to Rowlandson's backyard. The history is so vivid and interesting that it would be a shame to gloss over all the characters in the many ports of call known to navies and privateers. Whores, it seems, are destined for many a post here at Triple P.

Initial documentation of professional ladies hanging out near the docks of London turns up in the Medieval period. Even though it was illegal, the "stew girls" who usually lived near the city's gates would wander down to the Thames in their distinctive yellow wimples and pick up incoming sailors with the promise of a bath. The ladies were rounded up and kicked out of town occasionally but, since nature abhors a vacuum, more took their place seemingly overnight.

By the time of Elizabeth I the brothels, still at that point known as stews, had moved closer to the the river. These began to be pushed more and more toward the East End and the ladies in question were the favorites of the crews of sea dogs John Hawkins, Francis Drake and their ilk. The story goes that Drake himself had a favorite, kept in a cozy nest not far from the theatre district, who may have gone by the colorful name of Scarlet Jane possibly because of her red hair.

The punch houses that kept bawdy women were firmly established along Ratcliffe Highway by the mid-1600s. Here, the actual stories of individuals began to pour out like the tide. One of note was Damaris Page, whose name alone must have made her interesting. Pepys called Page "... the great bawd of seamen" and her colorful career spanned two marriages, prostitution, motherhood and brothel ownership. She kept a house in Ratcliffe for ordinary seaman and another in Rosemary Lane for naval officers and successful privateers. She was charged with bigamy after her second marriage but the case was dismissed. When she was charged with the murder of one of her girls, things got sticky. Damaris was found guilty of killing the woman while trying to abort an unwanted fetus with a fork; she was sentenced to hang. Page plead her belly and, found to be pregnant, she gave birth in jail. She was released from Newgate three years later. Damaris returned to the work of a madam and died in comfortable circumstances in 1669, still in her house on Ratcliffe Highway.

Many girls, rather than actually marrying, were simply considered the spouses of one or more sailors who turned over their prize money to their "wife" when they returned home from sea. The ladies often had small townhouses along the wharves and some may have had as many as three or four "husbands". Though Victorian writers frequently tell us that the men knew nothing of each other and the women had to keep up a precarious juggling act to ensure their ignorance, it seems, generally speaking, that was not the case. In contrast, there is documentation of ladies having more than one "husband" at home at any given time and no one being particularly put out by the arrangement.

By the 1750s, there was a place for more discrete connections to be made between sailors and women. Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies gave men of the sea, usually officers judging from the prices listed, a literal directory of belles to choose from. The language of the advertisements often had a sea going flare. For instance, Miss Devonshire (perhaps a nom-de-guerre used as a nod to the famous Duchess?) is listed in 1788 as "... fair of complexion with cerulean eyes... fine teeth and a good figure". The listing goes on to euphemistically say that "... she is brave, that she is ever ready for an engagement, cares not how soon she comes to close quarters and loves to fight yard arm and yard arm, and be briskly boarded." Nothing is left to the imagination; we are told the lady's pubic hair is light brown and her price is 5 shillings.

Of course there were always the women who would entice sailors away from an ale house and steal anything not attached to the man's body without providing the promised sex. These were the storied ladies so often sung about in chanties wherein it was all a woman's fault that a poor lad had to return to the sea with nothing in his pockets but his hands. They were also the frequent focus of Victorian reformers, described as filthy, debauched and drunk.

Whatever the woman's condition, be she a simple "bawd" or a widow advertising on Harris's list to make ends meet, all of them were people who contributed in their own way to the life and livelihoods of seamen. More on this subject in the future. For now, Huzzah! for the ladies.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And Huzzah for the ladies indeed!

I think that a lot of people like to think that before the 1960's and the so called "sexual revolution" that people's attitude's towards sex were very puritanical and repressed (and certainly they were in certain places).

But generally speaking, in Europe and most of the rest of the "old world" (and in certain parts of the new world, such as New Orleans) people's attitudes were much more open and accepting of these sorts of "arrangements", as of course you already know, Pirate Queen.

So anyway, thanks for illuminating us on this fascinating and fun subject.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Absolutely true. The real problem, at least in the "English speaking world", is the Puritanical/Victorian barrier that we, as modern people, have to get through to reach an understanding of our ancestors' actual attitudes.

Another reason I'm thankful to be French...