Was syphilis rampant in Regency-area London? Probably, yes

Kate’s initial objection to the match concerns Anthony’s objectionable personality – and rumors of his licentious past. With the prevalence of syphilis at the time in mind, Miss Sharma is rather well justified in rejecting her sister’s match on the basis of the Viscount’s libertine history. As a titillating montage at the beginning of the first episode reminds us, Anthony regularly employed sex workers to help him blow off a little steam at the end of the day.

Brothels and other forms of sex work were prolific across England during this time, commonly referred to as “the great social evil”. Brothels which catered to higher members of society were generally run by women to the west of London, whereas the bawdy-houses of the East End tended to be run by men.

Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton, who historically, probably had syphilis.Credit:Liam Daniel/Netflix

By the mid-18th century, it was estimated 50 per cent of London’s brothels were operated by women. Brothel Madams were generally considered to be more tactful when it came to dealings with clients; frequenting these establishments was something that Lords (and, in some rare cases, Ladies) would regularly do, yet not something that should be spoken of in polite society.

As may well be expected, the spread of syphilis and the popularity of these establishments were not entirely unconnected. Admission records of London’s hospitals and workhouse infirmaries show the disease was particularly rife among young, impoverished, mostly unmarried women, who used commercial sex to financially support themselves.

With no effective treatment available for the Pox, those afflicted were often prescribed mercury as a treatment (which, with the privilege of our modern worldview, we know to be just as detrimental – if not worse – than untreated syphilis). This led to the popular saying from the period, “A night with Venus, and a lifetime with mercury.”

For this reason, it was common for members of high society, such as Anthony Bridgerton, to have a more exclusive arrangement with a chosen mistress (or mistresses). This arrangement allowed lords to minimize their risk of infection without forfeiting this favored pastime.

The Martyrdom of Mercury (1709) depicts patients being treated for syphilis in an 18th-century hospital.

The Martyrdom of Mercury (1709) depicts patients being treated for syphilis in an 18th-century hospital.Credit:University of Cambridge

It wasn’t just a cure for STIs that was lacking, but also preventative methods. While condoms did exist, they were not anywhere near as widely accessible, encouraged, or effective as we know them today.

One of the major proprietors of condoms within London (particularly for sex workers) was the infamous Mrs Phillips, who held a shop in Leicester Square. These were made of sheep and goat gut, pickled, and fashioned by hand on glass molds by Mrs Phillips herself.

While certainly better than nothing, the material by which these condoms were made meant that they were generally prone to breaking (and certainly not a sexy addition to any licentious affairs).

Loading

It would not be until the 1910s that the first effective treatment for syphilis was discovered through the development of the drug, Salvarsan. Until this stage, mercury remained the primary treatment for the disease. By the 1940s, a safe and accessible cure was established with the production of penicillin.

While Bridgerton is not limited by the often strangulating bounds of historical accuracy, it is rather fascinating to consider the dirtier environmental factors that did impact this world of balls and fine fabrics.

Esme Louise James, Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Melbourne. This article is republished from The Conversation.

Leave a Comment