Thursday, 31 March 2011


Rather than dealing with crimes such as rape or theft, the Societies for the Reformation of Manners dealt with the sins which they believed were the root cause of all criminal activity, such as swearing and Sabbath-breaking. The appearance of Sir John Gonson in Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress indicates the prominence and strength of their campaigns against disorderly houses, yet also undermines the zealousness and alleged 'benevolence' of their work. The Societies may have been successful in regards to numbers of arrests and convictions, but I would argue that they provided more of a short term means of keeping control whilst the general perspective and ideas about sexuality, crime and prostitution gradually changed around them.

Works Cited:

Bindman, D. (1997) Hogarth and His Times. London: Cambridge University Press.

Hurl-Eamon, J. (2004) ‘Policing Male Heterosexuality: The Reformation of Manners Societies' Campaign against the Brothels in Westminster, 1690-1720’ Journal of Social History, Vol. 37: pp. 1017-1035

Trumbach, R. (1998) Sex and the Gender Revolution. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Wheatley, H. B. (1909) Hogarth's London. London: Constable and Company Ltd. (last accessed: 31 March 2011)

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Opposition to the Societies

'A Reforming Constable', 1765. © Westminster Archives Centre.

"Punishing vices in the poor, which are daily practis'd by the rich, seems to me to be setting our Constitution with the wrong end upward, and making men criminals because they want money." (Daniel Defoe, 1704: quoted by Wheatley in Hogarth's London, 1909.)

This was Defoe's criticism of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, which seems to echo a general concern with the organisations; Trumbach has asserted that, in the majority of cases, "reforming activity was directed primarily at those lower on the social scale"(1998, p.91), and as a result the societies were often accused of hypocrisy; above is a satirical pamphlet which demonstrates the hypocratic view of the reformers. There is dispute among historians over the impact of the arrests of prostitutes' clients by the society; Trumbach estimates “at least six hundred men arrested for being with a prostitute in the three London jurisdictions...[between] 1720-1729”(1998, p.156), the vast majority being of middling social status. In terms of impact, Jennine Hurl-Eamon would argue that Trumbach has underplayed the significance of these arrests, and that “by calling for the arrest of middle-class men...the societies were clearly policing their own class as well as the poor”(Policing Male Heterosexuality, 2004, p.2). She argues that these arrests reflected the newer notion that men, particularly men of higher social standing, should have control over their sexuality. This overturns the early-modern sense that men were the victims of feminine sexual predators. She asserts that, at the time of the campaign, “prostitutes themselves were more often considered to be helpless victims, rather than the seductive predators of earlier times.”(2004, p.3) This is reflected in A Harlot's Progress by the treatment of Moll Hackabout; as the viewer follows her journey from innocence to corruption, influenced by characters such as the notorious Mother Needham, her character is often portrayed to be a victim of unfortunate circumstances.

Plate 1: Young Moll approached by the bawd 'Mother Needham'.

It could therefore be argued that A Harlot's Progress shows the Societies in a disapproving light for the harsh punishments inflicted by Gonson on the 'helpless victim' Moll Hackabout. But the unpopularity of the reforming societies stretched to more than just an artistic level; they recieved opposition from below, (hinted at by the stick drawing in Plate 4), and also from the middle classes for disrupting their debauchery; informers were frequently attacked on the streets. Hurl-Eamon argues that, as well as indicating disapproval, “the violence against the campaigns also shows the very real curb they represented to men’s activity”(2004, p.3), suggesting that the campaigns made a strong impact on the behaviour and attitudes of men in the early eighteenth century. However, I would argue that although the punishments may have acted as a preventative for immoral behaviour in public, the scorn and widespread disrespect for the societies indicates that they had little real influence on the attitudes of contemporaries.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Hogarth's 'Modern Moral Subjects'

'Boys Peeping at Nature'

The subscription ticket for A Harlot's Progress, 'Boys Peeping at Nature', is indicative of Hogarth's own intentions for his work. The series is the first example of the new genre of painting he called his 'Modern Moral Subjects', which characteristically satirised the manners of the day. The image features a Satyr attempting to 'peep at nature', a suggestion of base subject matter, however he is fended off implying that decency will be maintained.

By deviating in this way from traditional art subjects of the time, Hogarth established himself as a 'history painter'. Due to advancements in printing he was able to mass produce the series as a subscription to the public; it was immediately popular, particularly as 'conversation pieces' to the wealthy. David Bindman asserts: "It was taken for granted in Hogarth's own time...that his prints gave a picture of the age in which he lived."(Hogarth and His Times, 1997, p.24) However, it is clear from the existence of symbolism and satire in the images that they cannot be relied upon as a 'mirror' of the past.

For example, the dilapedated condition of Moll's apartment in Plate 3 indicates poverty as well as symbolising her crumbling morality. There is a witches' hat hanging from the wall, on which Gonson's eyes appear to be fixed, implying that prostitution is the work of the devil.

In Plate 4, the gaoler's wife and the servant from the previous scene are stealing from Moll with jeers and winks to the audience. There is an ironic sense to the image that in this so-called 'house of correction', the prisoners are clearly not being reformed.

There are obvious moral lessons imparted here by Hogarth which inevitably affect the objectivity of the source. Evidence of humour and hidden meanings in the images show that they were intended primarily to entertain an audience, not solely to provide an accurate representation of the time; Hogarth himself asserted: “My picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures are to exhibit a dumb show.”(Wheatley 1909, p.10) This affects the reliability of the series as historical evidence; however, as long as it is considered when analysing the source, the existence of a subtext adds value to a historian as an indication of contemporary attitudes.

Since she takes the place of the classical protagonist within the series, the harlot is whom the audience is asked to empathise with. In Plate 4 she is juxtaposed by her impressive dress within the miserable environment. Wheatley quotes a passage from the Grub Street Journal in 1730 to show this was not exaggerated; one prisoner was described: “beating hemp in a gown very richly laced with silver.”(1909, p.394) Moll's weary and far-away look could be intended to evoke sympathy from the audience; meanwhile, their eye is caught by what appears to be prisoners' graffiti, depicting Sir John Gonson hanging at the gallows:

Wheatley asserts that the inclusion of the drawing appears to be used as “a plea for the amelioration of the treatment of these unfortunates in the prisons.”(1909, p.394) This highlights a significant moral perspective, as Hogarth and his audience are siding with the criminals and opposing the authorities; this heavily indicates disapproval for the work of Gonson the Societies for the Reformation of Manners.

Hogarth's London

“The fury after licentious and luxurious pleasures is grown to so enormous a height, that it may be called the characteristic of the present age.” (Henry Fielding, 1749: quoted by H.B. Wheatley in Hogarth's London, 1909.)

When considering evidence of widespread crime and prostitution in the early eighteenth century, particularly in the worst affected areas of London, Fielding's exasperation is understandable. The below table from Randolph Trumbach's Sex and the Gender Revolution (1998) illustrates the scale of the situation in London's West End, 1720-29:

(Source: Greater London Records Office.)

Covent Garden, (the location of Hogarth's studio at the time of A Harlot's Progress), is shown to have held a total of 290 disorderly houses between these years; this is an overwhelming number, and heavily suggestive of crime and corruption. The system of policing in these areas was inadequate to control the problem, so the voluntary Societies for the Reformation of Manners formed in 1690 by middling-class men to police the areas which they felt had got out of control. A main objective of the Societies was to suppress 'bawdy houses', which they saw as a root cause of the city's vice as they housed all other forms of criminal.

Plate 3 of A Harlot's Progress depicts the climactic moment at which Moll is on the brink of arrest, signalling her imminent downfall. This could be argued as a recognition of the success of the Societies in their campaign of 1730 to suppress disorderly establishments; indeed, Rictor Norton (2011) argued that "Gonson's campaign was relatively successful in cleaning up the neighbourhood...and newspapers reported that several of the most notorious keepers of disorderly houses had packed up their belongings and fled secretly during the night." However, Hogarth's treatment and representations of Gonson and the series' heroine raises the question as to who he is asking the viewer to sympathise with; this could indicate a general opinion of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. To address this, we must first consider the didactic nature of Hogarth's work.

My Chosen Source

I will be exploring the representation of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, as shown in William Hogarth's episodic engravings A Harlot's Progress (1732), produced following the society's campaign against 'disorderly houses' in 1730. The series, which follows the life of a harlot from youthful innocence to her premature death, can be viewed as a whole on the Tate Britain website here; however, I will be focusing on Plates 3 & 4 of the 6 which feature the Magistrate of Westminster Sir John Gonson, overseer of the campaign and, as a result of this, nicknamed by his contemporaries 'the harlot-hunting justice'.

Scene 3 depicts the moment at which the fictional 'Moll Hackabout' faces arrest by Gonson and three armed bailiffs who are entering on the right of the picture; her occupation is suggested by the prominence of her bed and the posture of her cat. The character's name is possibly derived from Kate Hackabout, a streetwalker arrested by Gonson in August 1730.

In scene 4, Moll beats hemp in Bridewell Prison. On the far right of the image, towards the back of the building, is a stick drawing of a hanged man with the initials 'Sir J G' above, another reference to Gonson.

I aim to explore Hogarth's representation of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, the value of the source to historians, and how it can be said to illuminate widespread disapproval of their work. I will also attempt to demonstrate how this shows the little impact the Societies had upon long-term attitudes and social values, despite the zealousness of their work which eventually rendered them generally unpopular.