Backyard holidays: Whitecross Street, London EC1

Oh, the joys of travel without moving (very much)!

The Blue Plaque, high on the wall at the corner of Whitecross Street and Old Street, is a hushed reminder that this was once the workplace of women known as prostitutes.

The plaque tells us that former 17th-Century local resident Priss Fotheringham was ranked “the second best whore in the city”.

The statement begs two  questions…
1. Who was ranked the BEST whore in the city?
2. Who did the ranking?

Question 2 is too grim to think about too much. Priss was a well-know sex worker in 17th-Century London. You need only to have seen a few BBC costume dramas from the period to imagine a smelly cabal of dirty old men swigging port and scrawling out a ladies-of-the-night league table.

But their sordid calculations ended up in a publication titled ‘The Wandering Whore’, which suggests they could have been working for an anonymous “wandering” female boss who collected the performance rankings of sex-workers in much the same way that internet bots nowadays collect online data.

Question 1 is a piece of detective work. Priss, a “cat-eyed gypsy, pleasing to the eye”, was much in demand at the time. Her speciality was to perform the trick of “chucking” (details here, but not for the squeamish), she married a handsome sword sharpener, ran a successful brothel, tried to start a union of sex workers and was eventually sent to Newgate Prison for…

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

But who pushed Priss into second place in the prostitution pecking order? Best guesses all suggest Elizabeth Cresswell.

Cresswell operated in the same area as Priss, covering both Clerkenwell, St Bartholomew’s, plus areas of Shoreditch and St Leonards, but unlike Priss her clients included the court of King Charles II, and her employees included the the wives of soldiers and “gentlewomen who had supported the Cavalier cause during the English Civil War and had since fallen on hard times”.

It is these society connections, plus a talent for self-promotion, that probably made Cresswell London’s “best whore”.

Successful 17th-Century London sex-workers such as Fotheringham and Cresswell are sometimes used to illustrate how unmarried women “of common birth” could rise to a position of high status as independently wealthy citizens running substantial business enterprises.

This is true, but not the whole truth. For every Priss Fotheringham or Elizabeth Cresswell there were dozens of desperate women for whom sex work was not a choice but a necessity.

More backyard holidays.

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