Dodgy historical numbers

Been reading a history of Georgian London. Which insists that the sex trade was vast. One of his numbers is that it was worth £20 million a year in the money of the time.

Hmm. OK, so these aren’t quite the right figures but nominal GDP for the whole country was £430 million in 1830. And 16 million people, and Georgian (ie, 50 years earlier) London was 1 million.

So these aren’t the right numbers to be using but they’re indicative. And London was obviously wealthier than many rural areas etc.

Yet, by these numbers we get to London’s GDP being some £25 million nominal. And I don’t think that any of us is going to believe that the sex trade was 80% of London’s economy really.

He reaches his numbers by arguing that each tart had four punters a week, there were 50k tarts and they charged £2 per go.

It’s that £2 I’m sure is wrong. Top end of the market maybe but back then the bulk of the market would be around where it is now. Three or four hour’s wages (£30 to £40 perhaps) of the average punter for a jump. Or, in the money of that time, a few pence.

36 thoughts on “Dodgy historical numbers”

  1. According to friends of mine in the law enforcement arena, you can get a shag for a cigarette if you pick the right girl at the right time. Certainly a fiver is plenty. it doesn’t bear thinking about.

  2. @Interested
    Sounds like some of your friends in the law enforcement arena have a fine sense of humour.
    Tim’s about on the money.

  3. Average income for a farm labourer in Jane Austen’s England was £20 per year.

    His £2 figure is clearly wrong.

  4. Jack the Ripper’s victims have been dramatised as struggling to get the 6d together for a shared flop, so unless rates fell dramatically from Georgian to Victorian it’s palpable nonsense.

    What were maids getting in those days, a few quid a year? Even getting one up the duff wouldn’t have cost you two quid I’d have thought.

  5. Also although there were indeed high-class prostitutes, wouldn’t a lot of it have been low-cost work around the docks?

    Looks like he’s taken a total number of workers and the top rate and multiplied one by the other.

  6. Lovely quote (from the book, not from Ritchie):

    This, however, is not so much a matter of fact, as a matter of taste — a word which has caused more useless expense in London and its vicinity, than would have formed a handsome sinking-fund for the payment of the national debt.

  7. “Looks like he’s taken a total number of workers and the top rate and multiplied one by the other.”
    Oh, that’s standard practice when reporting on the industry. As is the presumption the poor lassies are being forced into the work against their will. One contention not exactly supporting the other.

  8. Aha. According to Wikipedia, “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies” (published 1757 to 1795, so just the period we are looking at), prices “range from five shillings to five pounds”.

    Now £2 is roughly in the middle of that range, but would the distribution have been sufficiently even for £2 to be a mean? I don’t have a copy so cannot tell.

    Also it only lists around 150 West End workers, so is presumably weighted towards the upper end of the scale; I’d have thought the East End and docks would have been cheaper.

  9. 50,000 tarts in London is the 1806 estimate by economic statistician Patrick Colquhoun, so could well be right.

    But again, the high number tends to suggest that the high rate is wrong; that’s 5% of the population working as prostitutes, so they can’t be relying just on the very wealthy for customers.

  10. I’m most astonished by the contention that a tart would see just four punters a week. Even Anne Widdecombe would have done better than that.

    I suspect four an hour would have been pushing things, but four a night was pretty normal even for the higher-class workers.

  11. Dave, a lot of the 18th century tarts were part-time or occasional workers; that’s the only way they got the numbers up to 50,000.

  12. Numbers of Bad Things are always inflated, and estimates of prostitutes always are; because the Prohibitionists always want to create an impression of a plague of the Bad Thing that only their ideas can solve. See, for instance the current imaginary epidemic of excessive drinking for another example, or, another public health issue, the inflated African AIDS statistics.

    A quick look at the internet suggests that round here currently an escort charges about £150-200 to turn up.

  13. Ah, hang on, the 50,000 figure is dodgy in itself. Colquhoun’s estimate includes “the multitudes of low females who cohabit with labourers and others without matrimony”. Applying the tart’s hourly rate to them isn’t going to work.

  14. I’m most astonished by the contention that a tart would see just four punters a week. Even Anne Widdecombe would have done better than that.

    I think this is the key guide that he’s talking out of his arse about a figure of £2 a go, because as soon as you start putting realistic numbers of punters into the equation the amount spent on tarts exceeds the UK’s GDP at that time.

    A bell curve with a peek in the “shilling range” with a few dozens of high class whores earning above £1 a time as outliers sounds more likely.

  15. London population 1 million, 500,000 women, 50,000 of them prostitutes. 10% of London’s women on the game? That doesn’t seem plausible to me.

  16. BiJ, see my quote above – the original contemporary estimate only got to 50,000 by including unmarried cohabitees.

    But levels of genuine prostitution apparently were very high, including servant girls commonly turning to temporary prostitution during gaps in employment.

  17. @ ian
    If you wish to do research on your area, is a good resource because it’s compiled from user data rather than provider. Latter’s always much of a muchness because you’re likely only accessing top end ads but those will have a certain degree of bait in them.

  18. £2 a go? Like others, I doubt it. James Boswell, a frequenter of tarts in the Haymarket, lived in Downing Street on an annual allowance of £50-£60 in about 1760, according to his diaries. Granted, he whinged about the supposedly stingy allowance but the fact is, he was a young man about town of the leisured classes. And he couldn’t have afforded £2 a go, if his diaries are accurate.

  19. Back in those days it was very hard to categorise. Gold digger, tart, prositute, slapper?

    Nowadays it’s so much easier, yet another reason to give thanks to the EU.

  20. Yes, I think the assumptions made regarding prostitute’s income are extremely dubious and it seems odd that the calculation is based on income from prostitution and doesn’t take into account other common sidelines, like pick-pocketing.

    In any case, there’s a very interesting essay on prostitution in Georgian England here which, if nothing else, gives a pretty clear view of the context in which the sex trade operated at the time –

  21. You can look at it from the point of view of the punter’s income, but look at it from the other end, too: a girl with four clients a week charging two quid a pop makes four hundred a year. If the average farm labourer hauled in the grand total of twenty, four hundred a year for the *average* prostitute sounds just a touch on the high side.

  22. It’s extremely difficult to gauge the high end, because the top courtesans have always been able to charge a king’s ransom from a few really ardent (and wealthy) suitors; however, they represent only a tiny fraction, which stretches away below them in income like a pyramid. Looking at the bottom end would probably be more illuminating, and that’s always been roughly two hours pay for a common laborer. Note that there are fewer of these bargain sex workers in every period of history than prohibitionists would like to believe, but it still gives us a “floor” even if we can’t see the “ceiling”. The average in every historical period has been toward the high end of whatever class the whore would otherwise occupy; in other words, working-class girls who cater to working-class men tend to bring in an annual income at the top of the working-class range; middle-class girls who cater to middle-class men tend to bring in an annual income at the top of the middle-class range, etc.

  23. Alan Moore’s book From Hell about Jack the Ripper (1890s) refers to a “thruppeny upright” which is exactly what it sounds like. Mind you that is very much at the lower end of the trade but I suspect far more common than the £2 estimate. That is 160 times lower so you taking that fact that is a later era into account you could probably divide that £20 mill by 20-50.

  24. “What were maids getting in those days, a few quid a year?” – my Mum tells me that her mum had a skivvy, her name was Irene and she got board and ten shillings at christmas. AFAIK there were plenty of young girls “in service” getting next to no money at all for their toils.

  25. “Three or four hour’s wages (£30 to £40 perhaps) of the average punter for a jump” , said it before on here, I doubt you’d get anything you would want for 40 quid.

  26. I suppose that the modern way to contact a prostitute is via web cam, dunno how much they charge.

  27. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Sorry to ride my hobby horse, but once again we see someone falling victim to his utter inability to do order-of-magnitude calculations. The £2 a go figure is so thoroughly ridiculous as to call into question everything else in the book. Twenty years ago the local toms were only charging fifteen times that in the Bradford area where I used to live (not that I was a patron, I hasten to add, but one gets to know these things). Sure, these were ropy old street slappers but still.

  28. Of course, the readership here being either old farts or well educated gentlemen we have no difficulty with antediluvian monetary units, guinea, half-a-crown, bob, tanner, tuppence, farthing etc. Maybe Tim’s author simply lacks our erudition?

  29. I doubt you’d get anything you would want for 40 quid.

    You might get something you didn’t want, followed by an embarrassing trip to a clinic, though.

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