An Act for the Better Preventing of Thefts and Robberies, and for Regulating Places of Publick Entertainment, and Punishing Persons Keeping Disorderly Houses
London: Thomas Baskett and the Assigns of Robert Baskett, 1752. First edition. 25 George II, Chapter 3. Measuring 300 x 185mm and collating complete: , 727-734. A copy in Fine condition, fresh and unmarked, of a legal act licensing citizens of London to report on brothel employees and owners for a bounty; ESTC reports only 3 surviving copies in libraries, with the present being the only example on the market.
[Together with] An Act for Making Perpetual An Act...for the Better Preventing of Thefts and Robberies... London: Thomas Baskett and the Assigns of Robert Baskett, 1755. First edition. 28 George II, Chapter 19. Measuring 300 x 195mm and collating complete: , 431-435, [1, blank]. A Fine copy without toning or wear, of a scarce Act making the 1752 "Disorderly Houses Act" perpetual. ESTC reports only 3 institutionally preserved copies (of these, 1 in North America); and this is the only copy on the market.
Strictly speaking, the sex trade was not illegal in Britain; and the women and queer people engaged in sex work or operating brothels could only be regulated or prosecuted through policies regarding contagious diseases, disorderly conduct, or public indecency. By the mid-eighteenth century, conservative social and religious forces sought to develop the concept of the "underworld" in the public imagination, with "a crucial role being played by the press and the police in changing constructions...and shaping contemporary responses to 'crime'" (Shoemaker). Certainly a sufficient amount of crime existed within the city; and as depictions of violence or disorder were disseminated in print, the concept emerged of crime as a social problem solvable only when citizens contributed to identifying and combatting it. The so-called Disorderly Houses Act of 1752 participated in this. Positioning the activities of brothels as dangers to public peace and the moral public order, the Act encouraged individual citizens to observe and report on any illegal or incriminating business being conducted by sex workers or their clientele, making provisions for such citizens to be paid for any evidence presented. By 1755, the Disorderly Houses Act was extended in perpetuity, leaving members of the sex trade in permanent opposition to the neighbors (and even potentially the clientele) who might report on their activities and threaten their livelihoods.
It should be noted that London's sex trade continued to operate at its height during this period, with the infamous Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies beginning publication in 1757. Sex workers' racial and economic backgrounds, and their gender identities, were diverse; and contemporary estimates posited "that out of a London population of 675,000, the capital was home to just over 3,000 prostitutes" (Rubenhold). Attempts to curb a lucrative trade -- one in which women and queer people could find community and income -- spoke to a patriarchal desire to limit these individuals' prospects beyond the sanctioned marriage economy. The struggle to accomplish this, however, was born out of how widely varied sex workers themselves were, and how they defied definition. "While a number of full time prostitutes came from the poorest of the poor...others were born into financially comfortable sex-trade families"; still others used sex work as "a seasonal occupation to which they turned as a stop-gap between periods of employment" (Rubenhold). So-called moral reformers faced frustration in their efforts to curb sex workers' activities; but still, their work, buoyed by the contributions of everyday people, could cause real harm not only to sex workers, but also to systematically marginalized people who might also be accused. (Item #4919)