Book review: City of Sin: London and Its Vices by Catharine Arnold

Anyone who thought that the sexual shenanigans of the 21st century were very much a product of our liberal and emancipated age should consider the warning of 12th century monk Richard of Devizes.

Monday, 20th June 2011, 8:44 am

No one lives in London, he wrote, ‘without falling into some sort of crimes. Every quarter of it abounds in great obscenities’.

Catharine Arnold’s entertaining and colourful journey through centuries of sex and debauchery in London proves that if Paris is the city of love, then our capital must be the city of lust.

In the third book of her fascinating London trilogy, Arnold examines the city’s relationship with vice through the ages. From the bath houses and brothels of Roman Londinium to the stews and Molly houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, London has always traded in the currency of sex.

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Whether pornographic publishers on Fleet Street, or fancy courtesans parading in Haymarket, its streets have long been witness to outlandish sexual behaviour.

As early as the second century AD, London was notorious for its raucous festivities and disorderly houses, and a scrap of manuscript dating from 1058 shows a young woman of Southwark seated on a clapped-out mule and exciting fellow travellers with her ‘indiscreet clothing’ and ‘little gilt rod’ in her hand to indicate her profession.

In later years, her Victorian counterparts would cruise Piccadilly and the Ratcliffe Highway, telegraph boys would blackmail their rich homosexual lovers in the Cleveland Street scandal and party girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies would cause political mayhem.

London, it seems, is driven by desire, both requited and unrequited. From time immemorial, commerce, industry, art and sport have all run on ‘sex’ and the sometimes elusive promise of fulfilment.

Arnold’s history of London vice begins in Roman London where slave girls were trafficked to service soldiers taking in some rest and relaxation in the city’s bath houses, theatres, circuses and brothels.

Prostitution was also very much in business under the Normans and in medieval London, many women, including the memorable Alice Strumpette, plied their trade on the city’s narrow streets.

In 1546, Henry VIII issued an edict to close the ‘stews’ in a desperate attempt to halt the progress of syphilis, but even the king was powerless to stop London’s sex trade which prospered in the new theatres on the Bankside.

And in the shadowy underworld of Victorian London, prostitution became one of the most successful industries in an entrepreneurial culture with over 50,000 women and boys working the streets in the 1850s.

From sexual exuberance to moral panic, the city has seen the pendulum swing from Puritanism to hedonism and back again.

With chapters also looking at the sexual underground of the 20th century and beyond, this is a fascinating and vibrant chronicle of London at its most raw and ribald.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)