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20/02/2014

The Life and Loves of Lucy Locket

Danielle shaw

Foreword

The following is an extract from a collection of biographies that document the lives of famous nursery rhyme characters that lived and worked in eighteenth-century Covent Garden. It is taken from the introduction of a section that discusses the protagonists of the nursery rhyme Lucy Locket.

 

Extract From the Life and Loves of Lucy Locket

In early June 1758, Justice John Fielding, the Blind Beak, sat in his Bow Street courtroom-cum-study and, against his better judgment, said yes. The Bow Street Runners, the makeshift police force that Fielding’s brother Henry established eight years previously, had come under scrutiny from the Government who were subsidizing their endeavours. The Government, in turn, were under enormous pressure from the Society For the Reformation of Manners who were on a renewed mission to suppress swearing, gambling, Sabbath breaking, immorality, and anything remotely lewd.[1] This movement had the backing of the aged King George II but also of John Fielding himself. Why then, was Fielding hard-pushed to grant his consent on a matter that was seemingly straightforward? The aim of the Runners was to keep tabs on the city of London’s burgeoning criminal ecology, but the Fieldings had failed in maintaining order and civility on their own doorstep. With their headquarters sandwiched between a tavern and a brothel, the Bow Street Runners were no strangers to trouble. Fielding himself was reputed to have known 3,000 criminals just by the sound of their voice, and yet he chose not to arrest those who lived and worked alongside him. Covent Garden was such a self-sufficient, independent community, that Fielding thought it prudent to keep his beak out. It was a place where rubbing shoulders with a vintner, who also happened to be the Piazza’s most violent housebreaker, could have resulted in more than just sour grapes. Each bagnio owner, each bawd, each theatre manager had a network of contacts that could match Parliament’s: you had to be careful of what you said and to whom you said it. The barman pouring your brandy is most likely friends with your neighbour, Mrs Goadby, who has most likely seen that spritely, young lass, Sally, who crosses the street from Mother Douglas’s and pays lengthy visits to your chambers every second Tuesday.

The investors of Magdalen House, a newly built charity to help reform repentant prostitutes, had also whispered in Parliament’s ear and Fielding had no option but to join in with the affront on manners and morals. [2]  If he did not agree, his stipend and reputation would be in jeopardy. So, as Fielding sat on his oak bench, with his eyes bandaged and his quill poised, he said yes, and signed his name. He, John Fielding magistrate and public persecutor of the people, with the aid of Saunders Welch, the High Constable of Holborn, would right the wrong that he and his late brother had so far overlooked. He would clean up Covent Garden, would raid the taverns and the brothels; would fill the Foundling Hospital with the children of fallen women; fill the prisons with the pimps and bawds that exploited prostitutes, and hand over all penitent prostitutes to Magdalen House.

Brothels, then, were of the greatest priority and Covent Garden had these in abundance: both men and women were available by the shilling and by the hour. [3] The Hummums, an infamous hotel-cum-bath house which marketed its fees and facilities in the Public Advertiser, was just one of over twenty-seven brothels that occupied the Piazza. [4] These establishments weren’t just for the working classes; titled men, and even women, travelled from afar in the hope of enjoying Covent Garden’s delights: the market, the theatre, the coffee shops, the taverns, and the brothels.[5] For Fielding and his force, the task at hand did not only threaten to impact their jobs but their very lives; their everyday, run-of-the-mill lives. Violent theft, highway robbery, rape and murder took place on their doorstep, and though Fielding had brought many offenders to justice, he had not tackled the houses of iniquity that housed and entertained these villains. With Fielding and his Bow Street Runners now directly engaging in the tumult, taking a trip to the local tavern, if they were not wary, may have meant that they were losing more than their sobriety.

One of the biggest-selling prints of the eighteenth century was a book in which the names, addresses, and particular skill-set of over four hundred London prostitutes were listed.[6] Magdalen House sought these women, but so did the men of Covent Garden. Jack Harris, the headwaiter at the Shakespear’s Head [sic], compiled this list, and it was Harris, the self-proclaimed pimp-master general, whom they wanted behind bars.

On a warm June evening, the magistrate and his men made their rounds across the Piazza first calling at a highly regarded bawdy house, Mother Douglas’, before moving next door to the Shakespear’s Head. Jack Harris and Jane Douglas were arrested and imprisoned, whilst the girls were rounded up and put in the compter until Magdalen House came knocking.[7]

Only six of the twenty-seven brothels remained untouched by Fielding and his Bow Street Runners, but one of the lowest, most despicable houses of ill-repute went about its business as usual, unaffected by the raids. Mrs Weatherby’s institution, the Ben Jonson’s Head, had a very unusual way of entertaining customers. The following is an account taken from the memoirs of William Hickey, an infamous eighteenth-century rake, demonstrating the measures of security that Weatherby (and her successor) installed to ensure her clientele were nothing but loyal, trusted patrons:

 

‘Upon ringing at a door, strongly secured with knobs of iron, a cut-throat-looking-rascal opened a small wicket, which was also secured with narrow iron bars, who in a hoarse and ferocious voice asked, ‘Who’s there?’ Being answered ‘Friends,’ we were cautiously admitted one at a time, and when the last had entered, the door was instantly closed and secured, not only by an immense lock and key, but a massy iron bolt and chain.’[8] [9]

 

It is not known if Elizabeth Weatherby struck a deal with Fielding, or if her security proved too canny for the raiders, or, if she was simply just lucky, but the bawd and her girls, and indeed her boys, were untouched (at least on paper) by the Justice’s hands. What is known is that the most prominent prostitute on the books, Lucy Cooper, was an acquaintance of John Fielding and his Bow Street colleagues. Moreover, Lucy’s greatest rival, Kitty Fisher, was also socially familiar with the Justice. She was another woman of the town who was, that very evening, around the corner in St Martin’s Lane, playing house on borrowed time. These names, Kitty Fisher and Lucy Cooper, are relatively unknown and yet it is very likely that during your childhood, you once recited verse of their tale:

‘Lucy Locket lost her pocket,/

Kitty Fisher found it./

Ne’er a penny was there in it,/

‘Cept the ribbon round it.’[10]

 

What follows is the story of the lives of two forgotten Covent Garden courtesans, who were not remembered by history: there are no history books about these ladies, but, instead, they became playground names through a well-known nursery rhyme. After two hundred and fifty years of anonymity, the story of Lucy Locket and Kitty Fisher can finally be told.

 


 

[1] The Society had been dismissed since 1738, when they faced widespread opposition for their actions regarding the 1736 Gin Act.

[2] Magdalen House was a charity founded by a group of philanthropists who believed, along with the Society for the Reformation of Manners, that fallen women could be restored if they were repentant, and given an education. In one noted sermon, the chaplain, William Dodd, stated, ‘Here, saved from the threatening storm, you may look back and contemplate your danger, the more to inspire you with gratitude and praise.’ Sermons were open to the public as well as the inmates, and provided just as much entertainment as a Punch and Judy production. Accessed 30/06/2013, <http://www.stgite.org.uk/magdalenhospital.html>

[3] Soliciting sex and the keeping of brothels was strictly illegal after 1752.

[4] The Hummums even features in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations though it had changed from bagnio to hotel. The Public Advertiser was Britain’s most widely read newspaper.

[5] There are several accounts of titled women visiting brothels, or hiring the services of a courtesan. Mrs Forbes of Brumpton is an example of sapphic and bisexual prostitution happening in Covent Garden. Her List entry is as follows: ‘…A female bedfellow can give more real joys than ever she experienced with the male part of the sex…’ Harris’s List…, (London: 1773)

[6] Harris’s List… was rumoured to have sold 8,000 copies a year.

[7] Harris was arrested, imprisoned, and fined two shillings and six pence.

[8] Ed., Quenell, Peter, Hickey, William, Memoirs of William Hickey, Hutchinson of London, (London: 1960) p. 48

[9] William Hickey was noted for his series of Covent Garden liaisons. Most famous was his affair with his governess, Nanny Harris, who later set up shop as a courtesan in Bow Street, near to where Lucy Cooper was then living.

[10] Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Characters of Kenwood: Kitty Fisher, http://www.mfah.org/blogs/inside-mfah/2012/characters-kenwood-kitty-fisher/ Accessed 27/05/2013

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