Licence to Snoop


The Rose Tavern, Covent Garden, scene 3 from The Rake’s Progress, c 1734, William Hogarth (1697-1764)

I am a detective at heart invoking my snoop licence.  For me, genealogy doesn’t stop with a name, it’s the story behind it.

I recently went to the British Library to view a book so ‘hot’, I had to sit in the Rare Manuscripts Reading Room under the nose of the librarian.    They weren’t supervising me because it was 1841 porn, or that it was written anonymously (no guesses why). It’s because only a handful of these,um, directories survive worldwide

The first half was pretty bland.  The anonymous debauchee lists the swishest places a gentleman of the town could drink, gamble, play  billiards and cards, meet a girl and have an undisturbed smooch in a private box at the theatre.  The author didn’t mean a smooch; this was not that kind of book.     He also named places to avoid.  You know the type; hangouts raided by the police, dives where you’re stabbed in the back (literally), or punched in the stomach for a few pennies in your purse…

But then our anonymous friend arrived at the jaw droppingly libellous nitty gritty.  Names.  Addresses.  Descriptions; one with blonde hair, another pretty teeth. Explanations of how these ladies of the night had achieved fallen woman status – and to whom. Her former lovers and sexual history was, like the louche etchings, fully exposed. Yes, some names were pseudonyms; Dorset Suke, alias Sukey, alias Mrs Birkett, alias Mrs Fairlie originally from Poole, Dorset.

Me, knowing me, as soon as I got home, I had to refer to the 1841 census and check them out.

He had named a Madame de Landau and Madame Dentiche both running brothels in Bury Street, St James; Madame Dentiche  concealed the nature of her calling  by  carrying on the business of milliner and dressmaker.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find them – after all, they worked under nom de camisoles but blow me down with the proverbial plume – some were there!  Who could guess an anonymous connoisseur of courtesans and a census bureaucrat would expose these scarlet women 160 years later?   E Dentiche, aged 30; Celine Dentiche, 25, and a 50 year old mistranscribed female Dentiche, all dressmakers, resided in Bury Street, St James, in 1841 (HO107, 736/4 F22, P38).

However, Victorian enumerators were prissy chaps and never in their wildest dreams would they call a lady a ‘prostitute’ unless she was in the workhouse, prison or police station jail.  Reading between the lines, the clues are unmistakeable.

Look again, and spot Madam de Tour (aged 35) with Emily du Tour (15, a teacher – yeah right), Caroline Sutton (15, and ditto), all foreign born living in Somerset Street with three 15 year old female servants.   However, be careful where you hurl aspersions because three or four doors down is dressmaker, Madam Wohlegmuth (45) with two younger Wohlegmuths, Maria and Agatha.  Ten years later, they are revealed as respectable high class dressmakers from Paris at posh 57 New Bond Street (HO 107, 1475, F429, page 12).

Photographing the 1841 directory was a no-no so I’ve resorted to wikicommons and Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress (1732-36) and yes, it’s an anachronism 100 years too early.  But that, folks, is your problem not mine.


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