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Covent Garden - the Wild Side

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By the middle of the 18th century Covent Garden was no longer a fashionable area to live but was rapidly becoming the new centre of entertainment. The arrival of the Theatres coupled with the popularity of the market produced a remarkable class.

In the Coffee-houses and taverns 'the chimney-sweeper, the pick-pocket, and maudlin peer, were often to be seen in the same seat together'.

The old homes of the wealthy were now converted into gambling dens and turkish baths or stews. 'One would imagine that all the prostitutes in the Kingdom had picked upon that blessed neighbourhood for a general rendez-vous, for here are lewd women enough to fill a mighty colony'.

Any visitor to Georgian London could purchase a Who's Who of London Prostitutes. Harris's New Atlantis or Henry's List of Covent Garden Ladies gave the names, addresses and 'the several qualifications for which they are remarkable' such as the girl with 'scarce a tooth in her head but incomparable fine legs'.



Next Theatre in Georgian Covent Garden




Bow City Runners

London in the early 18th century was gripped by a wave of unprecedented lawlessness. Since the time of Henry VIII a few 'Informing Constables' had been employed by the City, but the majority of the policing was undertaken by unofficial 'Thief-Takers' who often proved more corrupt than the people they were purportedly bringing to justice. Many gangs of Thief-Takers perfected systems for faking crimes and framing innocent people so as to receive the reward money. These were the mafia of the London Underworld and their leader - the self-styled 'Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland' - Jonathan Wild.

Wild began his illustrious career here in Macklin Street, then known as Lewkenor's Lane, as a humble prostitutes bully, where he learned the skills of the Thief-Takers from the nearby Mr Gilbert Thomas's Prison-House. Wild left in 1713 to pursue his increasingly succesful career from a small brandy shop opposite St Giles' Church at Cripplegate where he was closer to the Coiners of Old Street. But Covent Garden remained embedded in a spiral of ever-increasing lawlessness.

In 1740 a Magistrates Court was established in Bow Lane to keep order in the heart of Covent Garden and 9 years later the author Henry Fielding was appointed as magistrate. Fielding established a group of reliable Thief-Takers which later came to be known as the Bow Street Runners and were the inspiration for a London-wide Police force. Having surveyed the poverty around him Fielding attributed 'the Growing Evil' rather to 'a general luxury among the lower people' and blamed their success rate on 'the immense number of Lanes, Alleys, Courts and Bye-places which appears as a vast Wood or Forest, in which a Thief may harbour with as great security, as wild Beasts do in the Desarts of Africa or Arabia'.

Fielding also cited the new social evil of Gin-drinking, with which you could now get 'drunk for a penny and dead drunk for twopence'. Henry's successor, his blind half-brother John, blamed also the time-honoured scapegoat of immigration of which he said 'There are certainly a much greater number of Jews and Irish than can possibly gain subsistence by honest means'. But whatever the cause, crime was on the increase and despite the introduction of the Bow Street Runners it was observed in 1765 that 'London is guarded at night by old men chosen from the dregs of the people who have no other arms but a lantern and a pole, crying the hour every time the clock strikes... and whom it is the custom of young rakes to beat and use ill when they come reeling out of the taverns where they have passed the night'