22 July is the feast day of St Mary Magdalen who was the patron saint of pharmacists, hairdressers, repentant sinners and reformed prostitutes. A strange concoction of – one would hope – unlinked ‘professions’.
During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were almost no career opportunities for women. Recently, I have been reading a fascinating publication entitled Madams, Bawds & Brothel-Keepers of London by Fergus Linnane, which details an intrepid and gifted group of females who scaled the heights of what was literally ‘a man’s world’ by becoming bawds. Taking what had been an activity which was on the borders of legality, they turned brothel-keeping into a major industry.
With increased records – court documents, newspapers, diaries, letters and more – we can now draw on a rich variety of sources to gain an insight into the lives of women. For example, Charlotte Walker…. a prostitute and pickpocket who had a long and eventful career in the St Giles area of London. Appearing twelve times to answer charges at the Old Bailey, her story is told on London Lives, including ‘fifteen arrests for felony … arrested for assault and for being disorderly … and once for being a vagrant’. Mary Clayton also wrote about The Life and Times of Charlotte Walker, Prostitute and Pickpocket in the London Journal (2008, Vol. 33, pp. 3-19) and it was certainly seem that she did not fit in the ‘reformed’ category of prostitutes. Heaven knows what St Mary Magdalen would have made of her….!