The “Poor-Whores Petition” and The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668

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You can’t read as much about prostitution as I do without coming across mention of the Shrove Tuesday Riots. They’re little more than a footnote now, but for years they were the terror of every working girl in greater London. Apprentices turned up in droves to participate in the “sport” of whore-bashing, which EJ Burford assures us was an ancient tradition.

Wait, what?

The Riots

For many years* in London, it was an annual tradition for the local apprentices to attack prostitutes and forcibly tear down brothels on Shrove Tuesday. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many years, as these riots were so commonplace they were rarely mentioned unless the property damage was particularly notable.

The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668 were notable for a few reasons. They lasted for several days, involved thousands of people, and the damage was so extensive that eight apprentices were actually hanged for it. When two of Elizabeth Cresswell’s brothels were destroyed, she sponsored a satirical pamphlet beseeching Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s then-mistress, to intercede on their behalf to protect them and their property from future attacks.

Samuel Pepys describes it in his diary entry from March 25th, 1668:

The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall.

The official reason for the riots was a general displeasure at the decadence of the Charles II’s court and disapproval at the immorality of London as a whole.

But was that it? Let’s take a closer look.

Apprentices

By 1660, it is estimated that there were 20,000 apprentices working in London. The whole city only had about 105,000 people at this point. Boys were apprenticed around age eleven, and would remain that way until about age twenty-four. During this thirteen-year period—almost half of the average lifespan—they worked without pay under masters obliged to monitor their behavior and see to their moral instruction as well as their vocational training. They were frequently beaten and relied on their masters for all of their basic necessities, including food, clothing, and shelter. They were forbidden from fornication, marriage, visiting taverns, or displaying immoral behavior such as violence or drunkenness.

In spite of the outrageously strict guidelines they had to agree to, London’s apprentices were notoriously rowdy. It’s not difficult to see why. One fifth of London’s total population and almost half of its men were essentially indentured servants forced to endure beatings and work long hours with no pay, little rest, and no accepted outlet for their energy short of attending church once a week. They were energetic, hormonal, and their systematic repression was so well established and legislated that it was an unquestioned aspect of society. Indeed, London’s commerce was largely dependent on the free labor provided by these boys in the name of training them in what amounted to one of history’s longest, most thankless internships.

However, guidelines are written not because everyone follows them, but because people don’t. London’s apprentices were not the models of sober, moral industry they were meant to be.

According to Peter Ackroyd, apprentices were known for heavy drinking, overindulgence, laziness, and starting fights with servants, foreigners, prostitutes, and random passersby. Additionally, they frequently rioted after football matches they attended in Cheapside (yes, really), proving once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In addition to the annual Shrove Tuesday Riots during which apprentices assaulted prostitutes, looted, and physically pulled down brothels, they rioted over food shortages, out of drunkenness, or because of xenophobia. During the May Day riots of 1517, apprentices, artisans, and children looted the houses of foreigners in the city. In June of 1595 alone, apprentices rioted twelve times against the Lord Mayor over inflated food prices.

Apprentices were overworked, underfed, often abused, and rarely paid. Not only were they not allowed to visit prostitutes, but they couldn’t afford them. When business suffered, they were the first to be sacked, so they did not even have the security of a steady job. With no money to spend and no way to vent their frustrations, it’s no wonder they were so prone to fighting and crime. Many apprentices were executed at Tyburn for crimes from petty theft to even murder.

1280px-William_Hogarth_-_Industry_and_Idleness,_Plate_9;_The_Idle_'Prentice_betrayed_and_taken_in_a_Night-Cellar_with_his_Accomplice

In this plate from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, we can see an apprentice has turned to highway robbery and is betrayed to the law by a prostitute

Prostitutes

Of London’s 105,000 people, an estimated 3,600 were female prostitutes working from their own premises. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider the female population was only about 50,000 people, and a large number of them were children. The average person didn’t live to see their forties, and the vast majority of people in London were under thirty. This figure also does not include streetwalkers, casual prostitutes, or those operating primarily in the alleys and parks, of which there were many. It would not be an outrageous estimate to suggest that as many as thirty percent London’s women were employed as prostitutes in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Even with this generous estimate, apprentices would have outnumbered them at least two- or three-to-one.

Apprentices were badly behaved and prostitutes were frequently blamed for it. In his Industry and Idleness series, Hogarth uses a prostitute as shorthand for the apprentice’s depravity (above). Prostitutes were to be resisted at all costs: when apprentices assaulted the women, it was accepted, if not seen as completely justified. By tacitly encouraging vice with their very presence, what else could poor, impressionable boys do but resist with violent force?

When apprentice Thomas Savage was hanged at Tyburn in 1668 for murdering a fellow servant, he used his “last dying confession” to lay his fall from grace at the feet of a lewd woman:

“The first sin…was Sabbath breaking, thereby I got acquaintance with bad company, and so went to the alehouse and to the bawdy house: there I was perswaded to rob my master and also murder this poor innocent creature, for which I come to this shameful end.”

That escalated quickly.

While it’s not impossible to believe a woman could have persuaded Savage to rob his master, there’s no motive to wish her would-be paramour a murderer. It’s far more likely the unnamed woman was a convenient excuse. Prostitutes were seen as particularly toxic to apprentices and servants—a kind of gateway drug into all manner of immorality—so accusations of any misdeeds on their part would have gone unquestioned.

The_Whores'_Petition_(1668)The Poor-Whores Petition

It’s not difficult to see why London’s prostitutes were not overfond of apprentices. After the Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668—a particularly bad year—Elizabeth Cresswell took action. She was a successful madam, and while her brothels had survived both the Great Plague and the Great Fire two years before, they were destroyed by apprentices that year. Cresswell co-sponsored a pamphlet addressed to Charles II’s mistress, Lady Castlemaine, asking her to intercede on their behalf as the highest-ranking whore in the country. I have transcribed it here:

The Poor-Whores Petition.
To the most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of CASTLEMAINE, & c.
The Humble Petition of the Undone Company of poor distressed Whores, Bawds, Pimps, and Panders, & c.

Humbly showeth,

That Your Petitioners having been for a long time connived at, and countenanced in the practice of our Venerial pleasures (a Trade wherein your Ladyship hath great Experience, and for your diligence therein, have arrived to high and Eminent Advancement for these last years), But now, We, through the Rage and Malice of a Company of London-Apprentices, and other malicious and very bad persons, being mechanic, rude and ill-bred Boys, have sustained the loss of our habitations, Trades and Employments; And many of us, that have had foul play in the Court and Sports of Venus, being full of Ulcers, but were in a hopeful way of Recovery, have our Cures retarded through this Barbarous and Un-Venus-like Usage, and all of us exposed to very hard (shifts), being made uncapable of giving that Entertainment, as the Honour and Dignity of such persons as frequented our Houses doth call for, as your Ladyship y your won practice hath experimented the knowledge of.

We therefore being moved by the imminent danger now impending, and the great sense of our present suffering, do implore your Honour to improve your Interest, which (all know) is great, That some speedy relief may be afforded us, to prevent Our Utter Ruine and Undoing. And that such a sure Course may be taken with the Ringleaders and Abetters of these evil disposed persons, that a stop may be put unto them before they come to your Honours Pallace, and bring contempt upon your worshipping of Venus, the great Goddess whom we all adore.

Wherefore in our Devotion (your Honour being eminently concerned with us) We humbly judge it meet, that you procure the French, Irish, and English Hectors, being our approved Friends, to be our Guard, Aid, and Protectors, and to free us from these ill home bread slaves, that threaten your destruction as well as ours, that so your Ladyship may escape our present Calamity, Else we know not how soon it may be your Honours Own Case: for should your Eminency but once fall into these Rough hands, you may expect no more Favour then they have shewn unto us poor Inferior Whores.

Will your Eminency therefore be pleased to consider how highly it concerns You to restore us to our former practice with Honour, Freedom, and Safety For which we shall oblige ourselves by as many Oaths as you please, To Contribute to Your Ladyship, (as our Sisters do at Rome & Venice to his Holiness the Pope) that we may have your petition to the Exercise of all our Venerial pleasures. And we shall endeavor, as our bounden duty, the promoting of your Great Name, and the preservation of your Honour, Safety and Interest, with the hazard of our Lives, Fortunes, and HONESTY.

Needless to say, Lady Castlemaine did not take this well.

In case you skimmed it, there was some top-notch seventeenth century shade in that petition. Yes, London’s whores had suffered violence and the destruction of their property at the hands of several thousand frustrated apprentices with more testosterone than sense, but the petition was firmly tongue-in-cheek. It was a satire, and possibly written by Cresswell’s lover, Sir Thomas Player, an anti-Catholic MP who detested Lady Castlemaine.

He wasn’t the only one, it so happens. Castlemaine was Catholic in a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England, with many suspecting Charles II of being Catholic himself. Castlemaine was known to be Charles’ mistress, but her elevated status as a married countess did not make her less of a whore in the eyes of London’s working girls. You may have noticed a few digs in there about Catholicism and the Pope—these were not idle comments, but pointed sedition. The concern expressed that the apprentices might be coming for her next is not only an insult to Castlemaine, but to Whitehall as a whole—the biggest, most debauched brothel of them all.

Interestingly enough, the official reason for the apprentices’ rioting was anger over the decadence of Charles’ court and London in general; the petition does not refute this, but drives it home by addressing it to the king’s mistress. If we accept that the riots were political protest as opposed to natural frustration boiling over and that the petition was moral criticism rather than just an elaborate burn on Lady Castlemaine, it would seem the apprentices and the whores were in agreement with each other with regards to the shortcomings of the court.

Although Lady Castlemaine did not intercede on behalf of London’s prostitutes as requested, the damage was such that eight apprentices were executed for rioting. Rioting was akin to treason at this point, and the penalty was likewise severe, if infrequently carried out.

While these riots are a thing of the past, Shrove Tuesday is not the only Spring holiday that has resulted in exuberant violence and sexual assault. You consider Mardi Gras and now Holi in India, which has made the news this week for the extremes one school in Delhi has gone to to keep their female students from being groped and it makes you wonder if maybe sexual repression is not the healthiest policy.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography.
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Burford, E. J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100 – 1675
Pepys, Samuel. Diary entry for March 25th, 1668.
Picard, Liza. Restoration London.

Notes

The header image is not from this riot. It illustrates sailors rioting in a brothel some years later in The Strand. Madam Damaris Page, coincidentally co-sponsor of The Poor-Whores Petition, was said to have press ganged dock workers visiting her brothel into the navy, which made her understandably unpopular. 

*At least throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.