Today in London riotous history, 1763: sailors protest arrest of ‘disorderly women’, Whitechapel

“Four disorderly women being sent to Bridewell, a parcel of sailors assembled in Rosemary-lane, with an intent to rescue them; upon which a file of musqueteers was sent for from the Tower, and the sailors continuing obstinate in their purpose, the soldiers fired, when four were killed, and many mortally wounded, who died in a few days in hospital.”
(Annual Register, September 6th, 1763)

Disorderly women in the contemporary sources is usually a euphemism for prostitutes. Although sex for sale was obviously endemic across 18th century London, unlikely to be eradicated, magistrates made sporadic efforts to punish ‘immorality’. The women found or accused of selling their bodies were targetted, not usually the male ‘clients’, obviously, since it was the morals of women who needed the money that were blatantly in need of correction. Arrested ‘whores’ were generally fined, or could be sent to the Bridewell, the workhouse-cum-prison by the Thames near the mouth of the Fleet river, where the poor with no means of support, the ‘disorderly’ or immoral, and those breaking social boundaries were locked up. Here a vicious punishment regime had been designed to scourge moral laxity.

Since the women sent to the Bridewell were likely arrested for prostitution, and given that the crowd of sailors assembled in Rosemary Lane (what is now the western end of Cable Street in Whitechapel), were probably were nicked for soliciting or in raids on brothels around Wapping, Shadwell or Stepney. The ‘disorderly houses’ in these areas were frequented largely by sailors, many of who lodged in the East End close to the ports and riverside.

The local magistrates ran irregular campaigns to ‘clean up’ the area, which generally consisted of arresting prostitutes and trying to close brothels, though often with limited success.

There is also the possibility that magistrates (usually wealthy City worthies with property portfolios, sometimes including whorehouses) might also be targeting houses of ill-repute that weren’t paying rent to, or paying off, the right people. Using the magistracy (or lesser law enforcement offices such as City marshall or constable) to extort bawdyhouse keepers for protection money, or a licence to continue to operate, was endemic, and often blatant. Sometimes also officials tended to crack down heavier on brothels’ run by women not showing proper deference to male hierarchies (as in the earlier case of Holland’s Leaguer).

In 1759 one mass roundup of ‘street-walkers’ saw 60 women arrested in Shadwell, and another riot had taken place earlier in 1763, in March, when several ‘bawdyhouses’ were raided with arrests of prostitutes and sailors, and the women had been rescued as they were being marched off to prison:

“Search being made by the peace officers at the houses of ill fame about Tower-hill, several women of the town, and some sailors, were taken, and next morning carried before the justices for examination ; but intelligence being given to their shipmates, a large body of them assembled, and threatened the justices if they should proceed to commitment. The justices applied for a guard to the commanding officer at the Tower, and a few musqueteers been sent, they were found insufficient to intimidate the sailors, whose numbers increasing, a second and third reinforcement was demanded, and an engagement would certainly have ensued,, had it not been for the address of a sea officer, who, by fair words, called of two thirds of the sailors, just as the word was given to the soldiers to fire upon them; and dexterously conducting them to Tower-hill, there left them to disperse of themselves, which they accordingly did.
Upon this; the sailors that remained, being thereby weakened, presently withdrew, and the justices proceeded to business, and made out the mittimus of eight of the street-walkers ; but in the noon of the same day, as they going to Bridewell under a guard of a serjeant and twelve men, they were rescued in Chiswell-street by a fresh party, of sailors, who carried them off in triumph, after one man had been shot in the groin, and another wounded in the foot.”
(Annual Register, 20th March, 1763)

It’s not clear from the September 6th report, whether the arrested women were already being held in Bridewell, or were in some lockup before being transferred there. Gathering en masse to attempt to storm a local ‘cage’ or de-arrest the women while en route was one thing (as seems to have been successfully carried out in March); assaulting the Bridewell itself, it that was what was intended, quite ambitious. The success of the March rescue presumably gave the crowd hope that such action was possible.

The loyalty of sailors to womenfolk of the areas around the Thames port might be volatile and contradictory, with violence against women constant, and outbursts of male misogyny against brothels not infrequent.

On the face of it, however, the September 1763 incident indicates at least an element of solidarity between the precarious sea-going proletarian sailors and women of the area identified as ‘disorderly’ (whether prostitutes or not). How regular such resistance was isn’t clear, though the lives of sailors and women working (whether wholly or partly) as prostitutes were very much entwined in London’s East End.

Living (often temporarily lodging) packed together in these areas, 1000s of sailors or various origins – English, Irish, Portuguese, East Indian (lascars), Greek, Spanish, and from the late 18th century increasing numbers of africans. This cosmopolitan mix, in massively overcrowded streets, leavened by the poverty and hardship most sailors experienced, made for a sometimes turbulent atmosphere.

Sailors might enter into long or short-term relationships in more than one port, and by the nature of their work might be absent for weeks or months at a time. Whether settled or passing through, many sailors also frequented brothels; but also, brothels and lodging houses were not always distinct, and existing on the edge of legality prostitution tended to merge with other ways of surviving for women. Especially for those shacked up with sailors, whose own wages might not be available to their other halves while they were away, and were often paid in arrears, late or scanty at the best of times. Alehouses or taverns might also involve sex for sale, and the women who worked in them might make some money on the side selling their bodies. For the authorities all women living in one form or another with men they might not be married to, or living in houses where sex was sometimes sold, might be classed as prostitutes, and subjected to the moral repression that brought, when they could be identified and picked up. And all such buildings where sex was for sale might be labelled a brothel, whatever else it might also be used for. On the ground, distinctions were not clear cut. Poverty led to occasional or part-time whoredom; morals, as usual, didn’t pay the rent.

To put the 1763 ‘riot’ in context: the Seven Years War had just ended, so there was a sudden influx of discharged sailors from the navy in London. The end of wars has historically seen volatile times socially, with demobbed soldiers and sailors massing, sometimes recession and unemployment, often leading to unrest, riot, strike and turbulence. (1763-64 also saw revolts among soldiers in Britain’s North American colonies over attacks on their pay and conditions).

The whole decade was more than usually uproarious, especially in the East End, with silkweavers fighting for better wages and working conditions in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, riverside coalheavers erupting into strikes, sabotage of new machinery seen as causing unemployment.

Sailors were not only famous for fighting each other, but would also band together to fight the authorities, sometimes as collective bargaining, over wages & working conditions, resisting forced recruitment by pressgangs. Sometimes this took the form of directly expropriating the means of survival (as in the 1774 Greenwich sailors’ riot); only five years after the 1763 riot some sailors were joining Wapping & Shadwell coalheavers in the great ‘River Strike’.

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