Diary… Sex work in 17th Century London

I think I might have a minor obsession with Priss Fotheringham.

Priss was a sex worker around here back in the 17th Century.

“The Wandering Whore” operated on the corner of Whitecross Street at its junction with Old Street.

High on the wall, out of sight to all but window cleaners and giants, is a blue plaque commemorating her 53 years of existence.

Her story is tantalising, as you might imagine. It would make a great TV drama.

She married her pimp, left him for a sword sharpener and, with two coworkers, tried to form a Guild of Prostitutes.

She had a daughter, Sarah, and was, says one account, a “cat-eyed gypsy, pleasing to the eye”.

One of the reasons her story will never make it to the small screen is her specialist gift for the art of “chucking”.

Here is how Wiki describes the “novelty sex act”, dating back to ancient Rome”:

“She would stand on her head naked with her legs apart and have customers throw coins into her ‘commodity’ (a common metaphor at the time for the vagina.)

Her commodity, it was said, could hold up to 16 half-crowns.

The Wiki account continues… “On some occasions wine was also poured into her commodity. She performed chucking several times a day…”

“As Fotheringham aged, she trained new talent to perform chucking, notably the Dutch prostitute known as ‘Mrs Cupid’.

“Although Mrs Cupid used Rhenish wine during her act, Fotheringham would only use the best Sack wine as it smarted less.”

When she wasn’t getting arrested for being a strumpet and a bawd, Priss was a brothel-keeper.

In 1652 she got banged up in Newgate Prison when she was spotted…

“…sitting between two Dutchmen with her breasts naked to the waist and without stockings, drinking and singing in a very uncivil manner.”

My interest in Priss Fotheringham is not solely in the lurid details of her working life, fascinating as they are.

She was born in Scotland in 1615, came to England and lived here through the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell and into the Restoration of the monarchy and Charles II.

She was a professional and moral rule breaker during Cromwell’s strict rule and into the sloppier reign of Charles 2.

I love the contrasts that throws up and the questions it begs about life and society in London 400 years ago.

◾Read yesterday’s Whatever… diary