There is a valuable place in the world for "popular histories". Books that get the non-specialist reader interested in a particular topic, era, or person by presenting information about it in an informal "sound-bite" fashion, and especially by focusing on images or claims that will catch the imagination.
The problem comes when those sound-bites part ways with the documentable facts and yet are passed along from hand to hand as "historic truth." (Internet memes aren't the origin of this problem.) Once a factoid has taken off across the fields of the audience, wild and free on its own, it can be extremely difficult to track it back to its inspiration. It's much harder to prove a negative than a positive. If the factoid did have a documentary basis, it may be possible to establish the actual truth and show how it was stretched to make a better story. But if the factoid came entirely from someone's imagination (or from misunderstanding the historic context, or from a string of "what-ifs" and "probablys") then it can take a lot of work to demonstrate the underlying lack of substance. And if the factoid took off precisely because it captured the popular imagination, then the audience you're trying to convince of its lack of substance may be actively hostile to your project.
This is what I face in trying to establish the historic facts and sources behind Burford's offhand claim that there were houses of ill repute in 18th century London that catered to women having sex with women.
(Go follow the link at the end of the entry to the "Charlemagne's Cheese" article. It will demonstrate all these problems a lot more clearly.)
Burford, E.J. 1986. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons - London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Robert Hale, London. ISBN 0-7090-2629-3
A salacious popular history of the Covent Garden neighborhood in the 18th century.
A footnote in Rizzo 1994 (chapter 4) about some friends of Elizabeth Chudleigh being known (or perhaps rumored) to frequent a lesbian bordello in London certainly caught my attention and curiosity, even though Rizzo noted that there was no solid citation given for the information. Such is the speed of book delivery (plus the two weeks it took me to get through Rizzo) that I now have the source of that footnote in hand. So as a brief appetizer before plunging into the next scheduled book, here’s what the source has to say. [Narrator: it was not a brief appetizer.]
Burford’s book is a popular-oriented tour through the “scandalous” aspects of the Covent Garden district in the 18th century, particularly focusing on sex and alcohol. The book has three pages of bibliography, mostly 18th century primary sources, and an extensive index. It isn’t footnoted in a scholarly way, but sources for particular chapters are given more generally.
The vast majority of the sexual content is focused on heterosexual interests, of course, though there are a dozen index entries relating to male homosexuality, some of them covering multiple pages. I’m not interested in reading though the whole book, so I’m going to focus on the three index entries under “lesbians”, plus cross-references to the women mentioned by name in those discussions.
In chapter 7 (The Places of Resort, discussing various specific taverns with significant reputations), the discussion of the Rose Tavern makes a passing reference to how all sexual appetites were welcome at the Rose including: “homosexuals and lesbians (the latter’s activity called ‘the Game of Flats’)…” No specific source is given for this information, but the tag for that phrase in this blog will turn up several known sources from the 18th century.
In chapter 11 (The Heyday, which is sort of a hodgepodge of anecdotes from the mid century), after a discussion of an attack on a well-known “molly house” (a gathering place for male homosexuals), the discussion segues into:
“Lesbianism is seldom mentioned. It was colloquially known as ‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street. The best-known practitioners were Lady Caroline Harrington and her friend Elizabeth ‘the Pollard’ Ashe. It was regarded as an aberration – indeed, it was not even a misdemeanour.”
There are no references to primary sources in this section that would appear to be relevant to this passage, however the listing of specific names and locations provides a thread to follow.
Finishing up the index listings for “lesbians”, we have in chapter 12 (The Theatrical Connection, discussing the overlap between actresses, courtesans, and noting both licit and illicit intersections with the aristocracy) a second mention of Ashe and Harrington. Once again, there is no reference to a specific primary source in this section of the chapter that would appear to give a clue to the story’s origins, though what appears to be a verbatim quotation from some source might provide a thread. [Note: further research determines that the quote describing Ashe is from Hester Thrale Piozzi, although her diaries are not listed in the bibliography for this book.]
“One of the most bizarre actress-courtesans was Elizabeth Ashe, ‘a small pretty Creature…between a Woman and a Fairy’, daughter of Jon Ashe, one of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs – although she always claimed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Lord Rodney and the Princess Amelia. When very young she was often in Covent Garden mixing with the haut ton. In 1751 she married the scapegrace Edward Wortley-Montague but he left her a year later because of her promiscuity. Ten years later she married Captain Robert Falconer RN but before long she was carrying on a lesbian relationship with the equally profligate Lady Caroline ‘Polly’ Harrington (also a frequenter of Covent Garden ‘stews’). The friendship was broken when Miss Ashe became the mistress of Count Josef Franz Zavier Haszlang, Bavarian Envoy to London, who was very well liked in all circles in London Society as a pleasant, helpful and compassionate man Lady Harrington, one of the most powerful Society hostesses, claimed that ‘her character was demolished’ by her friends actions. Despite her two marriages, Elizabeth was always known as ‘Little Ashe’, and Horace Walpole nickname her ‘the Pollard Ashe’, observing that ‘she had had a large collection of amours’ before she died, still gay and happy, at the age of eighty-four.”
So now we have some cross-references to follow up in the index. Elizabeth Ashe only references the two items above.
Caroline Harrington, in addition to the two items above, cites in chapter 17 (The Nurseries of Naughtiness, discussing a shift in the types of attractions in Covent Garden in the later part of the century): “The other competition [i.e., for the traditional houses of prostitution] came from the marvelous concerts and balls given by Mrs Cornelys at her mansion in Soho Square, which royalty occasionally attended and where the most refined and elegant assignations could be made by such powerful ladies as the Countess of Harrington and her clique, who acted as unpaid procuresses.” So, no direct reference to f/f relations in this one. But Harrington being a countess, we may be able to find other information on her.
Frances Bradshaw was mentioned as running an “elegant” house (of prostitution) in Bow Street and she gets two additional mentions in the index. Frances née Herbert ca. 1760 was keeping ‘a very reputable brothel in Play-house Passage in Bow Street’, financed by a wealthy man she had been mistress of. But a Lord of the Admiralty named Thomas Bradshaw fell for her sufficiently to think about marrying her. It isn’t clear from the text that he actually did so, though she began using his surname from a few years before his death. But this mini-bio provides no repetition of the suggestion that her house’s clientele included female customers.
This leaves us with the only other named reference being “Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street”. The index entry for “Courage, Mrs.” adds the information “a house for lesbians” with one other citation besides the one we’ve already seen. This is also in Chapter7 (The Places of Resort) in the context of the courtesan/opera singer Caterina Ruini Galli who, having worked her way through several wealthy lovers who found they couldn’t support her extravagance, “the last heard of her was that she was gracing Mrs Courage’s well-known place of assignation in Suffolk Street off the Haymarket.” But there’s no mention here of f/f relations.
So what we have from Burford’s book are a couple of specific claims: that Countess Caroline Harrington had a sexual relationship with the courtesan-actress Elizabeth Ashe, and that at least two named houses of prostitution (Frances Bradshaw’s and Mother Courage’s) catered to lesbians. We have some quotations from primary sources about these women, but none of the quotes are specific about f/f relations. While I wouldn’t necessarily put “lesbian bordellos into the category of “extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof”, It would be nice to see something in the way of references to sources.
So rather than this being a little throw-away book summary to give me a breather this week, it’s turning into a deeper dive that will take a bit more time and research. Why do I care? Well, it’s a matter of Charlemagne’s cheese. See this article for what I mean by that. If you don’t know how you know something, you don’t actually know it. And if we don’t know how we “know” that there were lesbian bordellos in 18th century London, we don’t actually know that there were any. (Mind you, I do have at least one other contemporary claim on the topic, but we’ll get to that.) So I’ll link back here when I’ve gotten that deep dive into a bit more order. And chances are, this will turn into a podcast essay eventually.
Added 2020/10/06 - I've done some poking at possible sources for some of this information. If I find additional material of interet, I'll add more links.