Monday, 5 November 2012

Behind the Sun: Prostitution in Friday Woolfe's London

What I'm Reading: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin; The Mystery of Mercy Close, by Marian Keyes; Toby's Room, by Pat Barker; Rush of Blood, by Mark Billingham; Nine Days, by Toni Jordan; the last five books in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series; and Bad Characters; sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force, by Peter Stanley.

My new book, Behind the Sun, was released last week in New Zealand, and is due out here in Australia on December 1. Last night I did a live phone interview about it with a New Zealand radio station. Often, by the time I'm doing interviews for a book, I've forgotten half of what's in it because I will have written it up to a year earlier, but with Behind the Sun that isn't an issue because I've just finished the second book in the quartet, Girl of Shadows, which has the same characters and continues the story arc that spans the whole series.

There are four central characters: Friday Woolfe, Harrie(t) Clarke, Sarah Morgan and Rachel Winter, all aged 17 and under and all transported from London to New South Wales in 1829. In this blog I'll introduce you to Friday.

In 1828, when Behind the Sun begins, Friday is 17 years old, and at five feet six inches quite tall for a woman of that era (the average height was around five feet two). She has a strong build, wild copper hair and amateur tattoos on her arms - hearts and anchors, etc. She's tough, reasonably pleasant-natured, streetwise, foul-mouthed and drinks too much gin. She is also a prostitute - specifically a streetwalker.

Her 'beat' is the streets surrounding Covent Garden, an area notorious for prostitutes in the 18th and 19th centuries until around the 1830s and '40s when the 'trade' drifted towards Haymarket in the West End. Prostitutes abounded in London, however, particularly also in the East End and around the docks, and while prostitution was not illegal, operating an actual brothel was.


Covent Garden Market, circa 1820, by William Henry Prior (1812-1882).
Wood engraving on paper, 1870s, later hand-coloured. 

19th century London definitely had a heirarchy when it came to prostitutes. At the top were the courtesans who serviced a single wealthy benefactor. Often these benefactors provided accommodation, clothing and an allowance in exchange for exclusive access and the right to squire those women in public. Below them, the heirarchy split into those who either walked the streets or operated from brothels. 
In the 1820s, the better quality streetwalkers took their customers back to the smart and very expensive apartments they rented around Drury Lane and Bow Street, near Covent Garden. Beneath them were the women who serviced their cullies (customers) in far more basic rooms rented by the hour. Friday is one of these. At the bottom of the streetwalker ladder were the women who worked in alleyways for a shilling a turn, or, most wretched of all, in the open for little more than sixpence.
Some prostitutes worked in truly elegant brothels that charged an exclusive and well-heeled clientele the earth, while others slaved miserably in thoroughly undiscerning and unhygienic bawdyhouses. Some enterprising women banded together, sharing the costs of food, clothes and rent, to operate unofficial brothels around Covent Garden, until the watch (police) broke them up and moved them on, while a large number of individual and probably 'part-time' prostitutes worked out of their own homes.
Friday makes plenty of money working the street, and has her own reasons for not wanting to work in a brothel. She has no fancy man (pimp), and doesn't run with a crew. She has friends, but no family in London. When she's arrested late in 1828, it is not for prostitution. It's also her third arrest, and she knows that this time she's very likely 'for the boat'.
Watch for an introduction to Harrie Clarke next time.



  1. Wow, that's fascinating about the hierarchy of prostitutes. The things you learn :)

  2. I know, Kez. Clearly there was more to it than just flashing a well-turned ankle.


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