For each of the Bishopsgate Institute x Guildhall performances, the artists use our collections to research their chosen topics. Here we provide details on the materials that Sexquisite took inspiration from.
Each term we hand our Great Hall over to a university music or drama department, giving performers a free hand to respond to this atmospheric setting. The takeover process begins with a research session in our library, during which Interpretation Manager Michelle Johansen works with the performers to identify connections between their creative practice and our special collections.
This term, Guildhall School of Music & Drama are putting on three exciting events responding to different areas of our collections. The first Guildhall X event on Saturday 14 May is a cabaret show of multidisciplinary performances presented by Sexquisite. “Impurity!” is inspired by the materials we hold on the history of transactional sex in the city. Michelle Johansen takes us on a research journey through some of these materials.
“to prevent the INNOCENT from being seduced”
Our journey starts with a slim volume by the critic and biographer Samuel Johnson, published almost three hundred years ago. In collaboration with law-maker and local politician Saunders Welch, Johnson drew up a plan which proposed to “remove the Nuisance of Common Prostitutes from the STREETS of this METROPOLIS to prevent the INNOCENT from being seduced.”
Johnson’s work reflected a growing concern with the visible presence of female sex workers in the mid-eighteenth-century city. It also alerts us to the limitations of print sources dealing with our subject, which were usually written to criticise or reduce the practice of transactional sex in London and beyond. Up to the mid-twentieth century, the emphasis was on the moral or medical aspects of the topic. Those directly involved in the buying or selling of sex mostly remained silent.
“addicted to secret prostitution”
The next stop on our research trip is a detailed account of sex work in early Victorian London which not only provided useful comparative studies of the position in Paris and New York but also suggested transactional sex was more widespread than expected. The author saw “licentiousness” everywhere in the metropolis and maintained that women involved in "seemingly respectable" trades by day (shop work, tailoring, cleaning) were likely moonlighting as sex workers by night.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Prostitution in London was its preoccupation with the bodily dangers associated with sex work. The volume included five chapters on sexually transmitted diseases, as well as series of plates that illustrated the effects of disease on the male sexual organs. The well-being of the male client was prioritised over the health of the female sex worker.
 Samuel Johnson and Saunders Welch A proposal to render effectual a plan to remove the nuisance of common prostitutes from the streets of this metropolis (1758), London Collection
 Michael Ryan Prostitution in London (1839), p.174, London Collection
“opinions on the Contagious Diseases Acts”
This gender imbalance is also evident in our next research stop, which takes in multiple items produced during the course of a single campaign. The Contagious Diseases Act (1864) was introduced to halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases within the armed forces in garrison towns. Under the terms of the act, women suspected of being prostitutes might be arrested and subjected to intrusive medical checks.
Any woman found to be infected was confined to a lock-up hospital until declared free of disease. Her male clients were subjected to no scrutiny at all. The inequality of this approach caused outrage, particularly among the Victorian radicals and freethinkers whose political campaigns are archived in our special collections.
Among these collections are pamphlets and leaflets setting out the views of men and women involved in pressure groups such as the Association for Promoting the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Act, the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights, and the British Committee of the Federation for the Abolition of the State Regulation of Vice.
The debates around the 1864 Act provided insight into mid-Victorian attitudes to sex work, as well as information on its character and prevalence. And inevitably, the name of Josephine Butler was ever-present. It was Butler’s impressive grassroots movement against the heavy-handed implementation of the original act that eventually led to its repeal in 1886.
 This is the title of a leaflet held in HOWELL EPHEMERA/26 (1870-1897); see also Howell Collection Pamphlet Box 3. Here you will find the arguments for and against the Act, its subsequent extensions, and eventual repeal.
 See, for example, “English and Continental Laws and Regulations Concerning Prostitution” (1870), a 70-page pamphlet which usefully compares the position in England with that of its European neighbours, including Belgium and France.
“the rules of the game for working girls”
As there so many items relating to sex work in our collections, spanning centuries, we were unable to cover everything. Some studies on our library shelves that we were unable to delve into at length were those that examined “immorality” in the modern city, among them Tempted London (1888), Moral Evil in London (1925), and the Cloven Hoof (1932). Also, regretfully, we do not have time to get stuck into boxes stuffed full of late-twentieth-century sex workers’ advertising cards, with their intriguing use of coded language to convey a message to potential clients. We do, though, look at personal testimonies, including Marthe Watts’ frank account of life as a high-class sex worker in post-war London and Paris The Men in my Life (1960).
Finally, we come to our last research stop-off, which is the archive of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP).
ECP was established as a self-help network in 1975 to advocate for the rights of sex workers across Britain. The organisation created accessible, free resources that shared practical information on key matters such as the law and prostitution, and how to stay safe in hostile environments.
The ECP archive documents the group’s activism across almost half a century, and it makes it absolutely plain that a seismic shift has taken place in views and attitudes from the start of our research journey to its end point. Sex workers now have a voice and are empowered to use it to fight for their rights in ways that previous generations involved in “the oldest profession” could hardly have imagined possible.
To find out more about how sex workers in London and beyond have been viewed and treated by the police, the media, and society since the mid-eighteenth century, visit our researchers’ area or search our library and archives catalogue online to explore the materials described in this news story.