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Lord Byron, 1788–1824

Lord Byron, 1788–1824

By Elizabeth McQuillan

The lords, lairds, nobles and wealthy libertines of 18th-century Scotland, supplemented by a few customs officials and smugglers with gold coin, had ample opportunity to have their fancy tickled in the East Neuk of Fife.

Anstruther was home to the Beggar’s Benison – or The Most Ancient and Puissant order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, to give it the full title – a gentlemen’s sex club which opened in 1732. This was a place where the chaps could play in Merryland, “merry” being the popular euphemism for sex at that time.

Sex was obviously on offer, with veiled dancing girls and game strumpet doing the 18th-century equivalent of a lap dance with “extras”. Lewd and libidinous behaviour was positively encouraged – young ladies, for example, were paid to position themselves naked for examination.

For all the lusty goings-on, in a climate where masturbation was considered morally questionable, this particular activity seemed to be enjoyed and the club’s members embraced their, erm, members in a big way.

“The novice was ‘prepared’ in a closet… [by three other Members] … causing him to propel his penis until full erection,” writes history professor David Stevenson in The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals. “He then came out of the closet, a fanfare being provided by ‘four puffs of the Breath Horn’, and placed his genitals on the Testing-Platter, which was covered with a folded white napkin. The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice penis to penis.’

After some pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, booze-quaffing from phallus-engraved drinking vessels and the reading of seemingly titillating verse from the Song of Solomon, the initiated were blessed with the words: “May Prick nor Purse ne’er Fail You”.

But these chaps apparently enjoyed wanton “frigging” as a two-fingered salute to the Establishment, and considered it representative of intellectual enlightenment. Some might postulate, however, that they just enjoyed getting their bits out.

A snuffbox gifted to the club by honorary member George IV is said to have contained pubic hair from his mistress. Perhaps they used it for fly-tying.

Having said that, the Wig Club in Edinburgh, founded in 1775, also had a fixation with pubic hair. The wig, after which the club was named, was reputedly woven from the pubic hair of courtesans and had been in the Moray family for three generations. Nice. The elected president even got to wear the fabulous pubic relic at meetings.

According to Old and New Edinburgh (Volume 5), the Wig Club members “generally drank twopenny ale, on which it was possible to get intoxicated for the value of a groat, and ate a coarse kind of loaf, called Soutar’s clod, which, with penny pies of high reputation in those days, were furnished by a shop near Forrester’s Wynd, and known as the Baijen Hole.”

There was also some quite explicit literature on the go during this time of Scottish enlightenment. Fanny Hill, written in the 1700s by John Cleland – son to the Commissioner of Customs in Scotland – was a lusty piece of erotica that covered all manner of sexual encounters, including homosexuality and prostitution.

Shocking for its time, the book had its first public reading at the Beggar’s Benison. It was likely well received. Cleland, clearly libertine in his thinking, was arrested and the book removed from sale.

The libertine code by which Rabbie Burns lived his life is well recorded, and Lord Byron (the son of an Aberdeenshire heiress) famously liked to put it about a bit, fill his senses, and had lovers wherever he went.

He started with a shocking affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, then Lady Oxford and sundry others. He hung out with poets and writers in Switzerland and Venice, and made love to the beautiful women he met.

Byron was very close to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and is said to have had an incestuous relationship with her. He was considered to have been fairly liberated, and – having ticked off adultery, incest and sodomy – didn’t have much left on his “to do” list.

Our very own Doctor of Love, sexologist James Graham, was born in Edinburgh in 1745. He raised a few eyebrows and skirt hems in his time. Having dropped out of medical school, Graham travelled in America and Europe learning about electricity, magnetism and other “new sciences”.

On his return to the UK, he set up practice sequentially in London, Bristol and Bath, and advertised his skills in Effluvia, Vapours and Applications aetherial, magnetic or electric. He offered lectures and advice on sexual health, positioning and all baby-making matters.

Graham also advocated very specific care of the male genitalia for best results, which included washing with very cold water which would “lock the cock and secure all for the next rencontre”. This would also much improve the testicular condition: “certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf’s bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet!”

Graham even invented a Celestial Bed, which had all manner of electrical gadgetry, magnets, mirrors, perfumed gases – as well as a pair of turtledoves within the domed structure.

The device was specifically angled for maximum penetration and was linked to organ pipes (of the musical variety) that would play a celestial tune as the couple banged away. The harder a couple went at it, the greater the intensity of the music.

Graham must have been getting something right, as he had a following of aristocrats and female admirers – including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – and wealthy couples paid handsomely to have a session on the bed to make babies.

Suffering with a Messiah Complex, in debt and committed to an asylum for a time (he took to wandering around naked but for clods of earth about his person), Graham died without receiving medical-establishment endorsement for his techniques.

Little can be found about his actual electrical appliances, though some were phallic in shape and one might guess that he came up with the precursor to the modern vibrator. However, you don’t need to be a qualified medic to figure out that the application of high voltage would be better suited to raising Frankenstein’s monster than genital stimulation.

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Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850–1894 <em>Picture: Ana Quiroga</em>

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850–1894 Picture: Ana Quiroga

Come the spring, what more could a television audience ask for than to sit down midweek and ogle the BBC’s new costume drama? The Crimson Petal and the White, adapted from the book by Scottish-based author Michel Faber, details the trials and tribulations of a Victorian prostitute known as Sugar.

As is almost always the case in 19th century depictions of prostitution, the novel is set in London, a place that appears to have – at least in literature – exclusivity when it comes to bordellos and whores. Even Robert Louis Stevenson set his novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London, as if to confirm that vice could never stalk the presbyterian streets of Scotland.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and you can find houses of ill-repute, streetwalkers and harlots out and about and soliciting for business in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh from pretty much around the time that man appears. Stevenson himself frequented the most sordid of brothels whilst he was meant to be studying law at Edinburgh University, and it can’t be too much of a stretch to suggest his inspiration for Hyde was born in those dingy backrooms off the Royal Mile.

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Surprisingly little has been written about prostitution in Scotland, but what small glimpses there are reveal that it has always been an entrenched problem. In the 17th century there was an acknowledged need for a new jail, eventually built on Regent’s Road in Edinburgh, to imprison the ever-growing criminal population. The 1829 book Modern Athens reveals that Edinburgh had “become, as it were, the common receptacle for the strolling poor, lazy beggars, idle vagrants and common prostitutes”.

In Glasgow, right up to the 19th century and beyond, the Fair holidays, with their street tables and penny theatres, led to an abundance of cheap entertainment, too much alcohol and – inevitably – prostitution. The Fair, which had begun as a religious festival in the 15th century, was by then “reduced to a day or two celebrated in blind drunkenness”.

During the plays, young women cavorted in cutty-sarks, in their own inimitable version of Tam o’ Shanter. Another theatre-owner was even less subtle, using a prostitute to perform “unspeakable acts” as a way of drawing the crowds. A newspaper at the time suggested that there were upwards of 200 brothels in the East End of Glasgow.

According to the modern historian Judith Walkowitz, a British city would have on average one prostitute per 36 inhabitants. This eventually led across the United Kingdom to an outcry for something to be done to stop this “Great Social Evil”. By the middle of the 19th century, the UK government was compelled to introduce the Contagious Diseases Acts 1866–1869 to address the problem of the spread of venereal diseases. At that time, it was thought that one in three men in the British Army needed treatment for VD.

Glasgow opted not to enforce this Act, having decided to tackle the problem earlier. There, the Glasgow Police Act of 1843 had improved things enormously with Alexander McCall, the city’s chief constable, writing that before the Act “you could scarcely walk any distance without some woman putting herself in your way or getting hold of you”.

After the passing of the Act, McCall concluded that “you will not find a city in which there is less of that upon the public streets, or less temptation in a general way to lead young people astray than you find in Glasgow.”

His claims are given greater credence when you investigate the records from Glasgow’s Lock Hospital, an asylum set up to specialise in the treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis, where the number of women treated for VD decreased over the years after the introduction of the Act.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, William Tait – whose 1840 book Magdalenism offered an in-depth study of prostitution in the capital city – estimated that £200,000 a year was spent on prostitution, and that there were at least 800 prostitutes at work in the city. He traced them to a number of different establishments, from: “Genteel houses of assignation” (of which there were three), licensed taverns (ten), ginger-beer shops (25) and brothels – which he rated from Genteel, second-rate, through to very low.

An illustrative example in Tait’s time of how the trade followed the customer is offered from 1839, when the Earl of Eglinton produced a massive mediaeval re-enactment event in Ayrshire. Over half the prostitutes in Edinburgh were said to have travelled west, many staying for months, and putting a great strain on the brothels they left behind.

It was not just in the bigger cities that the vice held its grip. In Dundee during the 19th century the dramatic rise in VD was said to mirror the increase in street- and brothel-run prostitution. At that time, prostitution was thought to be gravitating to the housing schemes on the outskirts of the city. In the Police Superintendent’s Annual Report from 1876, we see that 123 prostitutes were arrested for “loitering and importuning”.

Through the 19th century, there grew a greater understanding of the need to offer help as well as punishment for prostitutes. The Contagious Diseases Act did necessitate the examination of all known prostitutes, but was seen by a growing number of civil rights activists as an invasion of privacy. By the 20th century, there were numerous attempts to deal with the issue – with Edinburgh, for example, opting for a number of years for a tolerated red-light area.

Today it is estimated that globally the annual revenue generated by prostitution is over $100 billion. With such enormous sums, it is unlikely that this “festering sore on the body of society” (the Scotsman, 1959) will be dealt with any time soon.

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Annie Lennox at Holyrood yesterday

Annie Lennox at Holyrood yesterday

By John Knox
The Scots singer Annie Lennox has used a visit to the Scottish parliament to appeal to the men of Malawi to change their sexual ways and prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Lennox has just returned from a trip to Malawi where she visited several HIV-related projects being run by Scottish charities. “How do you get a man to use a condom?”, she was asked. “I don’t know all the answers,” she said. “But somehow we have to change the mindset of men in Malawi.

“Young male teachers are being sent out from college to teach in rural schools and many of them assume they can have sex with their pupils – and they don’t use condoms.”

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Lennox is a special envoy on HIV/AIDS for the Scottish branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Last month, she went on a fact-finding tour to Malawi and made a 26-minute film to show to MSPs and others to highlight the work being done by Scottish charities.

In the film, Lennox is seen visiting the Theatre for a Change project, which takes drama into colleges, army barracks and police stations to challenge men about their sexual behaviour.

She is also seen visiting a Waverley Care project in Blantyre (in southern Malawi), which helps women sex workers to escape from prostitution. A young woman tells her that she was persuaded to have sex with a priest and was then abandoned when she became pregnant. “If that happened to me,” Lennox said, “abandoned with a child, living in absolute poverty, I might become a sex worker too.

“But there is now less of a stigma about being HIV positive in Malawi. People are beginning to talk about it. And the voice of women is strengthening.”

Lennox told MSPs that one-third of maternal deaths in Malawi are caused by AIDS, while 20 per cent of children die under the age of five because of HIV-related issues, such as poverty and infection. She said there are 850,000 orphans in Malawi, most of whom have lost their parents due to AIDS.

Among the projects Annie Lennox visited were the Open Arms children’s home in Blantyre, a Big Issue homeless project, a Red Cross grannies club and a Mary’s Meals feeding station – where the film showed her stirring a large cauldron of “porridge”, a hot maize meal now provided to 420,000 children every day in Malawi.

“Mary’s Meals is such a wonderfully simple idea,” Lennox said. “It costs just £6.15 per child per year to provide a hot meal once a day, an incentive to come to school and be strong enough to learn. And it involves the whole community in cooking up the porridge.

“It’s a brilliant example of how the Scotland–Malawi partnership is working. We’ve got to keep this partnership going. Five years ago, we all came to Edinburgh to make a commitment to make poverty history. We’ve got to see that commitment through. This could be a beacon, a model, for partnership throughout the world.”

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