Elizabeth Needham (died 3 May 1731), also known as Mother Needham, was an English procuress and brothel-keeper in 18th-century London; she has been identified as the bawd greeting Moll Hackabout in the first plate of William Hogarth’s series of satirical etchings, A Harlot’s Progress. Although she was notorious in London at the time, little is recorded of her life, and no genuine portraits of her survive. Her house was the most exclusive in London, and her customers came from the highest strata of fashionable society, but she eventually ran foul of the moral reformers of the day and died as a result of the severe treatment she received after being sentenced to stand in the pillory.
Little is known of Elizabeth’s early life except that she was selling oranges in the street by the age of 14. She was considered so “handsome and charming” that she earned sufficient money from her rich admirers to set herself up as a high-class procuress in about 1710, and became renowned in London as the keeper of a brothel in Park Place, St. James. Said to still be attractive in middle age, Hogarth described her as a “handsome old Procuress … well dressed in silk”, but mentions “patches on her face”, and in his illustration her face is seen to be pock-marked. She was reportedly ruthless with the girls and women who worked for her, forcing them to hire their dresses from her at exorbitant rates. If they were unable to pay, she would force them to take more customers or have them committed to debtors’ prison, a scheme John Cleland’s heroine falls prey to in Fanny Hill (1748). Once they were too old or too ill to attract customers, she would throw them out.
Elizabeth procured her prostitutes from many sources, including the houses of other brothel-keepers, the “Bails” in Covent Garden where homeless girls would sleep rough, Tom King’s Coffee House, and, it appears, from auctions, but, as depicted in Hogarth’s picture, she particularly targeted girls and women fresh from the country. The essayist Richard Steele found her pitching to a newly arrived girl when he went to meet a wagon bringing him items from the countryside. He described her as “artful”, and it seems that she was friendly and engaging with her potential employees, revealing her vicious character only when they were under her roof. In his mock-heroic narrative poem The Dunciad (1728), Alexander Pope warns not to “lard your words with Mother Needham’s style”. Pope mentions her once more at the end of his poem, in reference to her foul mouth, and again, along with other notorious madams of the day, in the last verses of his Coronation Epistle (which were suppressed in editions of the poem from 1769 until 1954):
For Want of you, we spend our random Wit on
The first we find with Needham, Brooks, or Briton.
Chief among Mother Needham’s customers were Francis Charteris and his cousin the Duke of Wharton; Charteris is lounging in the doorway behind Needham in Hogarth’s picture. Ronald Paulson, a specialist in 18th-century art and culture, has suggested that the model for Moll Hackabout in Hogarth’s first scene is Ann Bond, who was recruited by Elizabeth and raped by Charteris.
The pre-eminent prostitute of the day was Sally SalisburySally Salisbury (c.1692 – 1724) was a prostitute in early 18th-century London, celebrated for her beauty and wit. She achieved notoriety after stabbing one of her aristocratic clients. , who had been recruited at the age of fifteen by Mother Wisebourne, keeper of one of the most exclusive and expensive brothels of the time. Following Mother Wisebourne’s death in 1719, Sally joined Mother Needham’s household, bringing with her a clientele from the highest ranks of society. She also brought fame to the house by involving another of her girls in the theft of the Earl of Cardigan’s clothes. The two women had accompanied him to Newmarket, where he became drunk, and after putting him to bed at an inn they stole his clothes and jewellery and returned to London. The earl treated the matter as a joke.
Arrest, conviction and death
In late 1730 Sir John Gonson, a magistrate and fervent supporter of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, began conducting raids on brothels all over London. By early 1731 he had arrived at St James, where some residents of Park Place reported “a Notorious Disorderly House in that Neighbourhood”. In truth, Needham’s house was hardly unknown, having served the upper echelons of society for years, but she was arrested by Gonson and committed to the Gate House by Justice Railton.
Elizabeth was convicted of keeping a disorderly house, fined one shilling, and ordered to stand in the pillory on 30 April 1731. Perhaps because of her connections, she was allowed to lie face down in front of the pillory, and a number of guards were paid to protect her. But she nevertheless received such a pelting that it was thought likely she would die before her punishment was completed. The crowds that had gathered to see her were so large that one boy fell on an iron fencing rail while trying to get a better look and was killed.
Elizabeth was taken from the pillory alive, but died on 3 May 1731, after expressing great fear at having to stand in the pillory again after the punishment she had received the first time. Her demise was celebrated in a mocking rhyme:
Ye Ladies of Drury, now weep
Your voices in howling now raise
For Old Mother Needham’s laid deep
And bitter will be all your Days.
She who drest you in Sattins so fine
Who trained you up for the Game
Who Bail, on occasion would find
And keep you from Dolly[a] and Shame
Now is laid low in her Grave…
- “Doll” was a term for the beating of hemp in prison, so to be saved from Dolly meant to avoid imprisonment.