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How Victorians used to roll in the Haymarket...

Published: 13 November 2020 at 12:50

Front cover of London's West End

New history of London details the ‘Wild West’ beginnings of the West End

The Victorians are known for the industrial revolution and major developments in transport and communication, but a new book credits them with advances in an altogether different field – the sex industry.

In his book London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914 (Oxford University Press), Rohan McWilliam, Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), quickly debunks the myth that the Victorian era was an age of sexual repression.

The first ever history of London’s West End details how it was the Haymarket, rather than Soho, that was at the centre of London’s flourishing sex industry in the nineteenth century, with the thoroughfare famous at the time for its prostitution and titillating "poses plastiques".

Professor McWilliam’s book details how some of the venues attracted some very famous faces. At the top of the Haymarket is the Trocadero building, until recently an entertainment complex. In the high Victorian period this was the site of the Argyll Rooms dance hall, notorious for scandalous behaviour.

On the face of it, the establishment offered male aristocrats the opportunity to dance polkas before a large orchestra and gamble at the Argyll's casino, but it also hosted a large number of prostitutes who congregated in its galleries to entice the young upper class gentlemen.

Professor McWilliam, a former President of the British Association for Victorian Studies, explained:

“The nineteenth century West End resembled the Wild West in many ways – it certainly wasn’t the prim and proper world that people assume today. Reformers complained that the moral core of Britain was being ripped apart by the scenes enacted each night on the Haymarket.  

“Amongst the men who sometimes visited the Argyll were Charles Dickens and the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who would turn up and find what he called 'stunners': models who he could draw. On one occasion Prime Minister William Gladstone showed up in an attempt to rescue fallen women.”


During this period, the Haymarket was awash with nightclubs where men could drink champagne, smoke cigars and consort with prostitutes.  Most prominent of these venues was Kate Hamilton's on Panton Street, just off the Haymarket.  Hamilton’s club opened at midnight and the doorman would only admit men likely to spend the equivalent of £450 in today’s prices.

When the police raided the premises in 1862, 55 prostitutes were discovered on the premises.  During his research McWilliam also discovered that Hamilton ran a brothel on the other side of the Haymarket, under the name Kate Franks.

The Haymarket provided adult entertainment for all tastes, and one of the more unusual offerings was hosted by the Walhalla, a building which is now the Empire cinema in Leicester Square.

In the mid-nineteenth century it housed the Victorian equivalent of striptease.  Respectable gentlemen, and even ladies, would visit the Walhalla to watch models re-enact classical paintings in what was known as “poses plastiques”.  Many of these paintings featured nudity, with representations of Lady Godiva particularly popular.

Professor McWilliam explained:

“Models employed flesh-coloured stockings to give the allure of nudity. Why was this not seen as obscene? It was argued that it was an artistic experience and therefore suitable as entertainment for all. The Victorian view of nudity and sexuality was certainly far more complex than we thought.”


Elsewhere in the book Professor McWilliam describes how a poor Swiss immigrant brought ice cream to the masses, chronicles the birth of music hall in a small street off Covent Garden, and explains how Harry Gordon Selfridge spotted the possibilities for a department store on what was then thought to be the “wrong side” of Oxford Street.

London's West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914 by Rohan McWilliam is available now from Oxford University Press, price £30.