J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Original Mount Whoredom

A year ago, Charles Swift at The City Record and Boston News-Letter and I exchanged posts about “Mount Whoredom,” the name documents and maps from around the Revolution gave to a hill that real-estate developers in the early republic renamed “Mount Vernon.” (Of course, saying “whoredom” over and over produced the first spike in Boston 1775’s page views.)

At this month’s Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife I met Christopher Lenney, author of Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England. In that book he wrote:

Mount Whoredom, as the west summit of Beacon Hill was called until 1823, likely derives from a hill in London that bore the same name for the same reason. This designation...may have been military slang: the London Mount Whoredom (so mapped in 1745) was a place of soldiers’ resort near the Royal Artillery headquarters in Woolwich.
Chris based that statement on a literary description of a London map, but hadn’t found the actual map.

Putting Google to work brought me to an online map that includes the detail above. The “Mount Whoredom” label curls around a dark structure below the L in “Woolwich.” Chris tells me that Lt. Thomas Hyde Page (1746–1821), who put the same name on his 1777 map of Boston, was familiar with Woolwich because he’d been first cadet at the Royal Artillery training school there.

That British link makes me rethink the origin and meaning of the label. British officers seem to have taken pleasure in referring to “Mount Whoredom” and “Whoredom Hill” in letters from Boston in mid-1775. I thought that meant they enjoyed pointing out the hypocrisy of an old Puritan town having such a site. But what if British officers had brought that term with them during the French & Indian War, in the 1768-70 occupation, or in 1774?

On the other hand, American officers used the same term in military planning in early 1776. Were they simply adopting the enemy’s label for a fortified place? Or had the “Mount Whoredom” label been in circulation for years before? I haven’t found it in local sources, but it’s not the sort of term Bostonians would have put in print. And the area could have been the town’s center for prostitution without being formally labeled “Mount Whoredom.”

I should also lay out the steps I followed to find this image.

1) Search Google Books for “Woolwich” and “whoredom.” That brought up a 1931 issue of Archaeologia Cantiana, the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society, which says “Woolwich [was] a little riverside town, cut off from Charlton by open tracts with such interesting names as Hanging Wood, Sand Wharf, and Mount Whoredom.” The snippet view adds the information that that description is based on “John Rocque’s fascinating map of the environs of London in 1741-5.”

2) Search Google for “John Rocque” and “London.” That brings up many reproductions of Rocque’s 1745 map of the capital. This was one of the best. However, after using Google Maps’ modern view, I realized that Woolwich wasn’t on that map. It’s further downstream on the Thames. So books that referred to a 1745 London map lead down a false path.

3) Search Google again for “John Rocque” and “Woolwich.” That brought me to ideal-homes.org.uk. That sounds like a real estate broker, but it’s actually a historical examination of “the origins and significance of suburbia as revealed through the history of South London,” created by the University of Greenwich. And it provides an online view of Rocque’s 1746 map of Woolwich, which must be what the Kent journal and Chris’s source were referring to.

4) Overlook the crucial label on that Woolwich map, spend another half-hour trying to find more London and Woolwich maps, get frustrated, go back to the Kent journal to review the other sites it mentions, find them on the Woolwich map, and finally spot “Mount Whoredom.” (This last step is optional.)

7 comments:

Charles Swift said...

Not only was Woolwich the site of the Royal Artillery training school, but it was also an important shipbuilding site and figures prominently in Samuel Pepys's diary. Henry VIII had "Harry Grace a Dieu" built at the Woolwich yard, and the "Sovereign of the Seas" was built there during the time of Charles I . These were the largest ships of their times and it explains the presence of the large ropeyard seen on the map.

EHT said...

Very interesting. I appreciate the time and effort you spent on this as I often go those types of forays myself, but isn't it nice to have things right at your fingertips to research?

J. L. Bell said...

I didn't think it was possible for me to get less physical exercise, but Google Books has managed that!

Anonymous said...

Justice Samuel Sewall (of the Salem witch trials) refers to Mount Whoredom in his diary August 1715. In "Judge Sewall's Apology," author Richard Francis explains that while on watch duty Sewall and his party found a party of revelers at Mount Whoredom "playing ninepins in the middle of the night and sent them packing, giving the innkeeper a telling off as they did so." (p. 308)

A New England Gentleman

J. L. Bell said...

Excellent citation! So we know that Boston had a “Mount-Whoredom” as early as 1715. It was probably, though not necessarily, the same hill that was labeled with that name in the late 1700s.

I don’t think the British military had a big presence in Boston that early, so that looks bad for the theory that the name was transferred from London to Boston. Indeed, the earliest use now seems to be on this side of the Atlantic, though I suspect the label in London might go back earlier.

Perhaps many towns in the British Empire had “Mount Whoredoms.”

Themarko said...

I found this 1775 Map of Boston by the British Army that has Mount Whoredom clearly marked.

http://www.bostonbyfoot.org/docs/maps/boston-1722.pdf

J. L. Bell said...

There's no question the Mount Whoredom label was in use by both armies during the siege. And British gentlemen seem to have been more quick to use it than locals, probably because it reflected poorly on Boston. But how far back did the label go, and what relationship did it have to the similar landmark in London? Were there lots of Mount Whoredoms all around the British Empire?