The Widow That Keeps the Cock Inn

The Widow That Keeps the Cock Inn. Sex Work, Broadside Ballad.
The Widow That Keeps the Cock Inn
Part parody, part advertisement, part anxiety expression, the ballad published by Elizabeth Hodges takes readers on a tour of London's sex trade
The Widow That Keeps the Cock Inn

[London]: E. Hodge's (from Pitts) Wholesale Toy & Marble Warehouse, [1846]. First edition. Broadside measuring 240 x 190mm and printed to recto only. A Fine example of this scarce and delicate piece, with a bit of creasing to the bottom corners and along the last line of text, the latter likely occurring during printing. Not recorded in Bodleian's Ballads Online, OCLC documents only 2 institutional copies (both with the British Library). It does not appear in the modern auction record, and this is the only example on the market.

The printer Elizabeth Hodges was active in London from 1844-1861, running her shop in London with a heavy focus on crime, execution, and ballad broadsides (Harvard Library Curiosity Collections). As the heir to one of the two major broadside rivals of the city -- her previous employer John Pitts, and James Catnach -- she "supplied wares to 'hawkers and the trade'" which included "ballads, parody, and occasional verse on subjects or events of topics interest" including the royal family, politics, crime, and law (UPenn Finding Aid EB8. B21202.830c). At a time when the sex trade was flourishing in the city, in and beyond the infamous Covent Garden, it is no surprise that profit could be made from a piece that in part satirized and in part advertised that labor, (given that all of the inns mentioned were operational at the time this broadside was released).

London's prominent sex trade certainly predates the nineteenth century; but it was during this century that there was a rapid increase in the number of people engaged in the sex trade. "Although London police reports recorded there to be approximately 8,600 prostitutes known to them, it has been suggested that the true number prostituting during this time was closer to 80,000" (Rogers). Sex work took on a variety of forms as well, making it difficult to document. For while some sex workers simply engaged occasionally to supplement their income, others worked more formally under the direction of a procurer or house madam. The diversity of style of work meant that "prostitution was even more widely destributed across London, with major centres throughout the West End but also in the East End. All over London, prostitution was closely associated with music halls, pleasure gardens, and fairgrounds as well as certain bars, restuarants, and inns" (Laite). It is this phenomenon that inspired the lyrics of the present ballad, which touts a variety of inns and affiliated sex workers that its narrator has explored while always emhasizing that the best of all is "the sweet widow, the dear little widow, I mean the sweet widow that keeps the Cock Inn."

The broadside plays on both the stereotype of the lascivious widow -- sexually knowledgeable and financially free without the legal or social governance of a husband -- as well as the "cock" pun that had become so common in English since the seventeenth century that nineteenth century Britons had begun calling the birds "roosters" commonly to avoid impolite language (OED). As much glee as the ballad takes in its rhyming tour of London's inns, it also serves as rather an advertisement of an extremely lucrative, largely women-run business. And it gestures to some anxiety about these women's independence from men both economically and sexually. In addition to "the active young widow, the spruce little widow, the prime little widow that keeps the Cock Inn," the broadside takes readers to "Bet at the Blossom and Poll of the Crown, Fat Dolly who owns the Red Heart...Kate of the Garter and Star of renown and Peggy who keeps the Skylark. Spruce Fan of the Eagle and Nan of the Bell, Pretty Jane of the Man drest in green...Nance at the Old Woman... and even Letty who graces the Old Load of Hay." Each of these women is noted for the place she owns or runs -- suggesting their financial stability and success. But while the others hold the narrator in only temporary sway, the unnamed widow who keeps the Cock Inn is the one who inspires fantasies of marriage for the narrator, who declares that if she would, "I'd marry the widow." This last stanza serves as a reminder of the mixed economy of sex work in the period. While some engaged in it as a long term and lucrative career, some used the work temporarily until "a better job or a husband came along" (Griffiths). Ultimately, we do not know on which side the widow sits.

As previously noted, the inns mentioned were all in operation at the time of the broadside's publication (the Blossom on Lawrence Lane closed in 1855, the Crown near King's Head served travelers until burning down in 1857, the Garter and Star in Richmond until a fire in 1888, for example). Further research could be done into the women mentioned and their relationships to the wider trade, among other business and social networks in London.
(Item #5024)

Price: $3,950