Vic Keegan’s Lost London 119: George Wilkins – brothel-keeper, playwright, thug

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 119: George Wilkins – brothel-keeper, playwright, thug

Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell was the most notorious road in Tudor and Stuart London, a place where violence, drunkenness and prostitution were rife. There was a brothel, thinly disguised as a pub, around its junction with Cowcross Street (pictured). It was run by a highly discreditable fellow called George Wilkins, a violent man who was regularly in and out of prison for a variety of offences, including kicking a pregnant woman and stamping on others.

He and his pub would be of no interest at all, except for one thing: he wrote a play with William Shakespeare. 

The play in question was Pericles, first performed in 1608. Wilkins is thought to have written most of the first two acts, and the brothel scenes would reflect much of his first-hand experience. It was not his first play. He wrote The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, based on a real-life murder trial, which was performed with some success at the Globe Theatre in 1606, and he briefly collaborated with some other minor Jacobean playwrights. 

Theatres at that time had a close link with prostitutes, who frequently plied their trade both outside them and inside. Given this, it is not surprising that Shakespeare became acquainted with Wilkins, who also had links with the Mountjoy family, whose house in Silver Street, Cripplegate, Shakespeare lodged in for a couple of years. Both Shakespeare and Wilkins were witnesses in the legal case Belott v Mountjoy in 1612.

Wilkins died in 1618, two years after Shakespeare, an unlamented rogue with a talent he never fulfilled.

The rest of Vic Keegan’s Lost London series can be found here. His latest volume of poetry can be bought here.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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