James Boswell (1740-1795) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was the firstborn son of the Scottish advocate and judge, Alexander Boswell. He was heir to the Auchinleck estate in Ayrshire, and inherited it in 1782.
Upon reaching adulthood he had many struggles with his father, as they were both quite different in temperament. James suffered from “melancholy” and was prone to depression, often being affected by his frequent emotional swings. His father wanted him to begin a career in law, but Boswell much preferred literary pursuits and the company of theatre people and authors. After running away on a brief jaunt to London in 1760, James managed to gain his father’s approval to spend a year in London. Boswell’s plan was to obtain a commission in the Guards so that he would not have to study law, which would mean he would still have some means to independent income. His father reluctantly consented to this idea.
On this second trip to London (1762-1763), aged 22, Boswell kept a journal detailing the people he met with and the activities and conversations he was involved in. Reading his journal gives a good day-to-day idea of what life was like for a gentleman bachelor, living in London, who had a very modest allowance of 200 pounds a year.
One of the things that fascinated me most about this journal is the excerpts that relate to the obtaining of sexual favours from prostitutes. I had initially thought that a person would probably avoid writing down these types of activities, particularly because Boswell did allow his close friends to read his journal. However, it does paint an interesting picture of what occurred in this type of scene in London at this time, as well as some of the prevalent attitudes regarding prostitution. It is estimated that one in five women were prostitutes in eighteenth century London.
Below I have inserted excerpts of his journal which relate to these escapades. The first entry is written six days after his arrival in London.
25th November, 1762
I had now been sometime in town without female sport. I determined to have nothing to do with Whores as my health was of great consequence to me. I went to a Girl, with whom I had an intrigue at Edinburgh but my affection cooling, I had left her. I knew she was come up [to London]. I waited on her and tried to obtain my former favours; but in vain. She would by no means listen. I was realy unhappy for want of women. I thought it hard to be in such a place without them. I picked up a girl in the Strand and went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said If I ever took a Girl’s Maidenhead, I would make her squeak. I gave her a shilling; and had command enough of myself to go without touching her. I afterwards trembled at the danger I had escaped. I resolved to wait chearfully, till I got some safe girl or was liked by some woman of fashion.
Boswell had contracted venereal disease on his previous visit to London, and had endured much pain as a result. He has determined that they only way he would participate in intercourse with a prostitute is with “armour”, or a “cundum”. This was a prophylactic sheath made of animal membrane. It was reusable, and was tied at the open end with a ribbon, but had to be moistened with water before use. It was not designed as a contraceptive, but as a shield against contracting venereal disease. Boswell considers “women of fashion” or genteel girls to be safe from disease.
4th December, 1762
At night, Erskine and I stroled thro’ the streets and St. James’s Park. We were accosted there, by several Ladies of the town. Erskine was very humourous, and said some very wild things to them. There was one in a red cloak of a good buxom person and comely face whom I marked as a future peice, in case of exigency.
From the 14th December to the 20th January, Boswell obtains a mistress who was “a handsome Actress of the Convent-Garden Theatre”. He calls her Louisa in his journal. They participate in intercourse without “armour” on several occasions, and then Boswell ends the affair when he discovers that he has another bout of venereal disease. In the eighteenth century, venereal disease was considered cured when the symptoms went away, often after treatment with various mercurial medicines. In fact, venereal disease actually lay dormant in the body. From the 21st January through to the 27th January, he remains at his quarters, too ill to go out.
25th March, 1763
As I was coming home this night I felt carnal inclinations raging thro’ my frame. I determined to gratify them. I went to St. James’s Park and like Sir John Brute, picked up a Whore. For the first time did I engage in Armour which I found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young shropshire Girl only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker. Poor being. She has a sad time of it!
Boswell has purchased a “cundum” since his first encounter with a prostitute on 25th November, when he asked her if she had one and she didn’t. According to The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), by Captain Francis Grose, these were said to be invented by a Colonel Cundum. And just in case you were unsure where to purchase them, the dictionary informs you that “these machines were long prepared, and sold by a matron of the name of Phillips, at the green canister in Half-moon-street, in the Strand.”
31st March, 1763
At night I stroled into the Park and took the first Whore I met, whom I without many words copulated with free from danger, being safely sheeth’d. She was ugly and lean and her breath smelt of spirits. I never asked her name. When it was done she slunk off. I had a low opinion of this gross practice and resolved to do it no more.
Boswell often remarks after these sexual episodes, that he feels bad about them and then “resolved to do it no more”. At one stage, he even makes a promise to his close friend, William Temple, that he will not engage in “low debauchery” any more, but these promises are often short-lived.
9 April, 1763
…then came to the Park and in armorial guise performed concubinage with a strong plump good-humoured girl, called Nanny Baker.
13 April, 1763
I should have mentioned last night that I met with a monstrous big Whore in the Strand, whom I had a great curiosity to lubricate as the saying is. I went into a tavern with her, where she displayed to be all the parts of her enormous carcase; But I found that her Avarice was a large as her A_; for she would by no means take what I offered her. I therefore, with all coolness pulled the bell and discharged the reckoning, to her no small surprise and mortification, who would fain have provoked me to talk harshly to her, and so make a disturbance.
I was so much in lewd humour, that I felt myself restless, and took a little girl into a Court; but wanted vigour: So I went home resolved against low, street debauchery.
10 May, 1763
At the bottom of the Hay-market I picked up a strong jolly young damsel, and taking her under the Arm I conducted her to Westminster-Bridge, and then in armour compleat did I engage her upon this noble Edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much. Yet after the brutish appetite was sated I could not but despise myself for being so closely united with such a low Wretch.
17 May, 1763
…so I sallied the Streets and just at the bottom of our own, I picked up a fresh agreable young Girl called Alice Gibbs. We went down a lane to a snug place; and I took out my armour, but she begged that I might not put it on, as the sport was much pleasanter without it; and as she was quite safe. I was so rash as to trust her, and had a very agreable congress.
19 May, 1763
I then sallied forth to the Piazzas in a rich flow of animal spirits, and burning with fierce desire. I met two very pretty Girls, who asked me to take them with me. “My Dear Girls,” said I – “I am a poor fellow. I can give you no money. But if you chuse to have a glass of wine and my company, and let us be gay and obliging to each other, without money, I am your Man.” They agreed with great good humour. So back to the Shakespear I went. “Waiter” said I, “I have got here a couple of human beings, I don’t know how they’ll do.” “I’ll look, your honour” (cried he) and with inimitable effrontery stared them in the face, and then cried they’ll do very well. What said I, are they good fellow-creature? bring them up, then. We were shown into a good room and had a bottle of Sherry before us in a minute. I surveyed my Seraglio and found them both good subjects for amourous play. I toyed with them, and drank about and sung “Youth’s the season” and thought myself Captain Macheath: and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their Seniority. I was quite raised, as the phrase is. Thought I was in a London Tavern, the Shakespear’s head, enjoying high debauchery, after my sober winter. I parted with my Ladies politely and came home in a glow of spirits.
The following excerpt takes places as part of the festivities on the King’s birthday. “It was the King’s Birth-night and I resolved to be a Blackguard and to see all that was to be seen.” Boswell dresses himself in a disguise, that of a lower class of person, and goes out for some fun around the town.
4 June, 1763
I went to the park, picked up a low Brimstone, called myself a Barber, and agreed with her for Sixpence, went to the bottom of the park, arm in arm, ann dipped my machine* in the Canal, and performed most manfully.
*Here, the “machine” is his “armour”, which needs to be moistened with water before use.
In the Strand, I picked up a profligate wretch and gave her sixpence. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her; and volens nolens** pushed her up against the Wall. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel of more Whores and Soldiers came to her relief. “Brother Soldiers (said I) should not a halfpay Officer r-g-r for sixpence? And here has she used me so and so.” I got them on my side and abused her in blackguard stile, and then left them.
**Volens nolens – Latin for “whether she would or not”
At Whitehall I picked up another girl to whom I called myself a highwayman, and told her I had no Money; and begged she would trust me. But she would not.
18th June, 1763
At night I took a street-walker into privy Garden, and indulged sensuality. The wretch picked my pocket of my handkerchief; and then swore that she had not. When I got home, I was shocked to think that I had been intimately united with a low abandoned perjured pilfering creature. I determined to do so no more; but if the Cyprian fury should seize me to participate my amorous flame with a genteel Girl.
On 16th May 1763, James Boswell met Dr Samuel Johnson, the writer of the famous Dictionary (and many other publications). As time went on, Boswell spent more and more time with Johnson, often copying down large segments of their conversation in his journal. Boswell held a great admiration and regard for the older gentleman, and they became quite good friends. Later, in 1791, Boswell would write a biography of Johnson, entitled Life of Samuel Johnson.
16th July, 1763
Since my being honoured with the friendship of Mr Johnson, I have more seriously considered the dutys of Morality and Religion, and the dignity of Human Nature. I have considered that promiscuous concubinage is certainly wrong. It is contributing one’s share towards bringing confusion and misery into Society; and it is a transgression of the Laws of the Allmighty Creator who has ordained Marriage for the mutual comfort of the Sexes, and the Procreation and right educating of Children. Sure it is, that if all the men and women in Britain were merely to consult Animal gratification, Society would be a most shocking scene; Nay it would soon cease altogether. Notwithstanding of the Reflections, I have stooped to mean profligacy even yesterday. However, I am now resolved to guard against it.
28th July, 1763
As we [Boswell and Johnson] walk’d along the strand tonight, arm in arm, a Woman of the town came enticingly near us. “No” (said Mr Johnson) “No, my Girl, it won’t do.” We then talked of the unhappy situation of these wretches, and how much more misery than happiness, upon the whole, is produced by irregular love.
3rd August, 1763
I should have mentioned that on Monday night [two days earlier], coming up the Strand, I was tapp’d on the shoulder by a fine fresh lass. I went home with her. She was an Officer’s daughter, and born at Gibratar. I could not resist indulging myself with the enjoyment of her. Surely, in such a Situation, when the Woman is allready abandoned, the crime must be alleviated, tho’ in strict morality, illicite love is allways wrong.
This is the final entry related to this topic in his journal. It appears that, whilst Boswell has come to believe theoretically that prostitution is very bad for the health of Society, he struggles to behave in a way that is consistent with that belief.
Having been unsuccessful at obtaining a commission in the Guards, Boswell submits to his father’s wishes and consents to study law. As part of this, Boswell persuades his father that he should begin his study during a Grand Tour of Europe, before he comes home to take up this profession. He leaves London for Utrecht, Netherlands, on the 5th of August, 1763.
Sources and Relevant Links
Boswell’s London Journal (1762-1763) – buy on Amazon
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Francis Grose (1785) – free e-book on Google Books
The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital, by Dan Cruikshank (2010) – buy on Amazon