When I was researching wanton women (and men) for my release party, I set out to write a post on London rent boys and the molly brothels of Georgian England. I will do that at some point, but I was distracted by a reference. Shiny fact, shiny fact… and there went I, chasing off at a tangent.
The research articles I found talked about the coffee houses and private rooms that provided a safe haven for those with same sex attraction to meet and socialise. A heavy on the door checked that only members and their guests could enter, keeping patrons safe from spies. And when acting on same sex attraction could attract the death penalty, such security was essential.
And here’s my shiny fact. One of the uses to which such safe havens were put, said several of my sources, was as a place to bring lovers hired for the night: rent boys, they said, and soldiers.
Well. Who could resist such a clue? Not I, certainly. A bit more investigation, and I found that quite a number of soldiers supplemented their income by hiring themselves out – a fact well known at the time. And yesterday I discovered a reference to a Victorian gentleman from Venice, and his soldier friend. The quote that follows is from Prostitution, an article by Judith Flanders.
A diary tells on one such meeting, its author an Englishman living in Venice, but visiting London in the late 1840s. He cruised regularly: ‘Fine. Tried my luck once more. I sat in the Park; but so shy that I cd make [illegible] nothing.’ ‘Fun & Folly…Saw J.B. We went up to Albany St.’ Later he filled in the scanty details of his meeting with ‘J.B.’, a trooper named Jack Brand: ‘I saw you in all your beauty, smiling as your gallant charger reared & pranced…And then in the [sentry] Box I spoke to you, & after Parade we met for five minutes, & you told me your name’ That evening, ‘at the Arch at Hyde Park Corner met my poor Boy,’ where they rented a room. The story continued, a casual commercial pick-up transforming into a relationship. But after only a few months Brand died of cholera, leaving his grieving lover behind.
To my mind, the either/or nature of the question is not appealing. Maybe uniforms were flashy because armies are conservative institutions and uniforms harked back to a time when being a peacock in dress was a sign of wealth and power, not a subtle hint about sexual preferences.
However, by the Regency era, dress uniforms and court dress were the last bastion of extreme fashion for those who liked a surplus of flash and glitter.
So today’s post is dedicated to uniforms and those within them for whom a visit with a friend to a friendly coffee house may have been a useful way to earn an extra coin or two.