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25 Sep 2020

Sex and scandal at Gladstone’s Land

Written by Anna Brereton, Visitor Services Manager, Gladstone’s Land
Black and white illustration showing a narrow 7 storey tenement building in the 19th century.
Gladstone’s Land and the Lawnmarket in the 19th century
It began with a visit from a psychic, who made a vague suggestion that 400 years ago sex workers would have worked from the tavern in the basement of Gladstone’s Land.

We relayed this information to some of our volunteers, who loved the idea that Gladstone’s Land could have a slightly seedy past! It was never quite dropped and speculation abounded at the Christmas party. We decided that we would have to put the rumour to rest one way or another, and so we set about researching sex work in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

One of our volunteers dropped off a copy of Ranger’s Impartial List of Ladies of Pleasure from 1775 (a descriptive list of sex workers operating in Edinburgh at the time) and we began to trawl through the listings.

We discovered that in the 17th and 18th centuries the majority of brothels and sex workers were operating on or around the Royal Mile. After the New Town was built, the industry expanded. The higher-class sex workers moved to the New Town and the rest remained in the Old Town.

The number of sex workers in Edinburgh increased over the centuries, but always remained at about 0.5% of the population. In 1650, around 25,000 people lived in Edinburgh and approximately 125 of these people were engaged in sex work. By 1840 this translated as 800 sex workers out of a population of 159,718.

So far, we’ve been unable to establish whether any organised sex work took place on the premises. But we can assume from various contemporary sources that money would have exchanged hands in the tavern for more casual sexual encounters.

Despite the fact that we couldn’t confirm the 17th century suggestion, we did manage to find some evidence from the 19th century. A report from 1858 describes the Lawnmarket as being a favourite haunt of local sex workers, using the premises of spirit dealers there to conduct their business. We know that Gladstone’s Land had a spirit shop in 1858, owned by William and Jane Ross. But perhaps the more likely candidate for accommodating sex workers was the previous tenant, Robert Hill, who had moved next door by 1858 and was in trouble with the law a few years later for selling alcohol for consumption on the premises.

(Research by Anna Brereton and Kate Stephenson)

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