Courtesans in 18th Centruy London

18 June, 2021
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As with any profession, there were categories of prostitution, and the highest was the courtesan, which is the class of prostitute I will look at in today’s post.

Some courtesans were the kept mistresses of wealthy, often aristocratic men, and these ladies were at the very top of the profession. They would sleep only with the man who kept them rather than with a number of clients, and usually had their own household, which was often beautifully furnished. Some of these women effectively had a good deal of power in as far as they could influence the views of their male keepers, sometimes to an extraordinary extent, the most notable being the mistresses of the current monarch.

Women who rose from such low starts to such dizzy heights were incredibly rare, but those who did became extremely wealthy. A report published in 1782 stated that the top eight courtesans spent around £3,000 a year on ordinary expenses. To put this into some sort of perspective, a skilled tradesman at the time might earn around £50 a year.

Not all courtesans were the paid mistress of a sole nobleman, however. There were a number of West End courtesans who had a number of clients, but who lived in very luxurious apartments, and charged up to £50 a night for their services.

Some of these highly paid prostitutes (in London) were listed in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies which was started in the 1740s, was updated annually, and became extremely popular, selling over 8,000 copies a year. It listed a number of young ladies, some high-class, some middle-class prostitutes, along with their addresses and their particular talents. Early editions of the List included some of the women who went on to become high-class courtesans such as Kitty Fisher.

Of course even these women, at the top of the tree as it were, had an uncertain life. They were all extremely aware that as they grew older they were likely to be cast aside for a younger, prettier woman, and even while young and beautiful had to do everything to ensure that they did not displease their keeper – if they did he could abandon them, leaving them homeless, and in some cases penniless, as they did not legally own any of the luxurious clothes or jewellery they wore.

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