Sex Ed, the Aspiring Swell, and the Night Guide

* The following is a post by Sarah Bull, the newest member of our Floating Academy collective. Sarah is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge *

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a project about Victorian commerce in works on sexual health. This has gotten me thinking a lot lately about what counted then—and what counts now—as a medical publication. I’ve mainly been looking at how works on topics like reproductive anatomy and physiology, venereal disease, contraception and pregnancy, and sexual desire were put into print, advertised and disseminated to readers. However, I’m discovering more and more that information about sexual health reached Victorian readers in a wider variety of forms, often through books and pamphlets that we would not consider “medical” at all.


Fig 1: Frontispiece and title page from A Peep Into the Holy Land or, The Sinks of London Laid Open! (London: John Duncombe and Co., c. 1831 or 1833. Image from Adam Matthew Digital collection London Low Life.

One of the most compelling of these forms, at least, for me, is the “night guide” or “fast guide,” a genre that flourished on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1840s and 1850s. These guidebooks to the Victorian city are best known for providing readers with the addresses of urban brothels and assignation houses, reviews of different prostitutes’ services, and even (in one case) details about where male prostitutes worked and how they signalled to potential clients. In some ways, then, night guides were the successors of earlier works like the long-running eighteenth-century series Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, which provided information about London’s ladies of the night to “a discerning middle-class audience”.

However, night guides offered their readers a lot more than advice about where to buy sex. As Phillip Howell has argued, they acted as conduct books for young men who were new to the city, and for those who had been sheltered in its more genteel quarters. Although they valorise a virile, sexually aggressive form of urban masculinity, these guides were not written for ‘swells’ themselves. Rather, they were aimed at readers anxious about navigating the urban environment, and about how to perform masculinity within it. Many include dictionaries, which translate ‘flash patter’ and cockney slang, and all offer advice on how to comport oneself during a night on the town: how to dress and carry yourself, how to speak to locals in a rough pub, how to avoid a fight, where and how to gamble, how to protect your wallet from pick-pockets and thieves—and how to cure the inevitable hangover.


Fig. 2: First page from the flash dictionary in The Swell’s Night Guide; or, a Peep Through the Great Metropolis (London: H. Smith [William Dugdale], 1849. Image from Adam Matthew Digital collection London Low Life.

Night guides also advised readers about how to protect themselves from venereal diseases—and what to do when they did contract one. Some of this advice is pretty vague and unscientific. The New Sprees of London; or, A Guide to all the Flash Cribs of the Metropolis (1844), for example, simply instructs readers to steer clear of certain neighbourhoods, and to leave if, on inspection, they find that a prostitute’s bed linen is soiled. Other guides, however, provided readers with a real sex education. For instance, Hints to Men About Town; or, Waterfordania (c. 1850) includes two detailed chapters on the reproductive organs and the symptoms of gonorrhoea and syphilis in both men and women. It also discusses how these infections can be prevented and treated, and urges readers to contact the ‘author’ if they find themselves in need of further advice.

An eye to profit was certainly one motive for including such information. It made it more likely that readers would buy French letters (condoms) from the night guides’ publishers, who often advertised them for sale in the end-papers. It probably persuaded some men to send away for expensive tonics and salves from practitioners who worked with some of these publishers, too. But these works also performed a valuable service by situating writing about sexual health within a context that was useful to these readers. Much of the text on anatomy and venereal disease in works like Hints to Young Men was plagiarized from other sources—sources written not for ordinary men about town, but for medical practitioners. Night guides take ownership of this knowledge for the aspiring swell, using it not to warn him against indulging in the city’s pleasures, but to make it safer.

For more information about night guides, check out Hoskell’s article and the British Library’s online exhibition about one of the guides in their collection, The New Swell’s Night Guide (c. 1847).


Fig. 3: Advertisement for French letters in The Man of Pleasure’s Pocket-Book For 1850 (London: William Ward, 1850). Image from Adam Matthew Digital collection London Low Life.