PEG PLUNKETT (MRS. LEESON) (C. 1740-1797)
VICE-QUEEN OF GEORGIAN DUBLIN
Christmas 1794 was a distinctly uncomfortable time for a large number of the well-to-do men who frequented Georgian Dublin. The word was out that Mrs. Leeson, long regarded as the city’s foremost courtesan and brothel queen, was preparing her memoirs for publication. Her past conquests included a former Viceroy, innumerable peers, a large numbers of the city’s judicial, political and mercantile elite and several senior army officers and eminent clergymen.
Panic swelled as the prospect of being named and shamed by the beautiful Margaret ‘Peg’ Plunkett, aka “Mrs. Leeson”, in a manner that brings to mind the ongoing Ashley Madison scandal which broke in July when hackers published details relating to a staggering 37 million email accounts who had allegedly signed up to a Canada-based service promoting extra-marital affairs.
While many of the accounts in the Ashley Madison scandal now appear to have been phoney accounts created in-house to draw in more users, there was nothing phoney about Peg Plunkett or her remarkable memoirs. Her rise and fall through the murky underworld of Georgian Dublin is skilfully chronicled in a new biography, rather meanly titled ‘Peg Plunkett – Memoirs of an Irish Whore’, by 18th century “culture and sexuality” historian Julie Peakman.
Peg was always sketchy about dates, particularly the year of her birth but Ms. Peakman has convincingly pinned it to about 1742. She grew up in ‘a handsome property’ at Corbetstown, Co. Westmeath, midway between Delvin and Mullingar, where her Catholic farmer parents had a whopping 22 children, of whom only eight survived to adulthood. When Peg’s mother succumbed to spotted fever, her inept father handed the property over to her penny-pinching brother Christopher. A bully with a ‘tyrannic temper’, Christopher horsewhipped his younger sisters and prohibited them from marrying lest he have to cough up for a dowry.
Peg escaped to the home of a sister whose husband Mr Smith ran a malt house and brewery in Tullamore. However, when Mr Smith attempted to match the vivacious teenager up with a ‘perriwigged grocer’ with ‘the countenance of a baboon’, she eloped to Kilbeggan with a ‘most engaging’ young man. The runaways were caught and Peg was sent back to her brother who beat her up so badly that she was confined to bed for three months.
She then went to live with a sister who ran a China shop on Arran Street in Dublin, during which time a family friend called Mr Dardis ‘snatch’d the glorious, golden opportunity’ of her virginity, ‘yet how could I call him seducer, when I met the seduction half way’. The romance resulted in an illegitimate girl but Peg was violently disowned by her family, shortly before Dardis also vanished.
On ‘the verge of perishing’, as she put it, she resorted to her womanly charms. Her first lover was Abbey Street wine merchant Thomas Caulfield, a kinsman of Lord Charlemont, who ‘slipped two guineas into my bosom’ and arranged for her to move to quarters ‘more convenient’ to his own. A son was born shortly before Caulfield also abandoned her to marry a Miss Hawkesworth.
She next took up with ‘an Englishman’ called Leeson who had ‘an excellent house, and beautiful demesne’ in County Kildare. This is believed to be Joseph Leeson, son and heir of the 1st Earl of Milltown, who commissioned the stately mansion at Russborough during the 1740s. He set her up with an apartment on Ranelagh Road but grew increasingly possessive. Their relationship collapsed when a spy hired by Leeson reported that the moment he left the house, Peg opened the doors to let other lovers in. Bizarrely the spy, named by Peg as a Mr. Van Nost, is identified by both Julie Peakman and Mary Lyons, editor of ‘The Memoirs of Mrs Leeson, Madam’, as the sculptor of the George II statue on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. It would be interesting to know how closely Van Nost was connected to the art-loving Leeson family.
Hurled out by Leeson, she spent three years with a Mr. Lawless, a relation of the Countess of Clonmel, with whom had five children. They gradually tired of each others’ incessant affairs but the loss of all five children, one by one, must have been an insurmountable tragedy. Astonishingly not one of the nine children Peg eventually bore managed to survive childhood.
By 1763 she had a new lover in the form of Captain Benjamin Mathews, an officer lately returned from America, who espied her strolling past the window of Daly’s Coffee-house on Dame Street. She also became acquainted with Kitty Netterville, known as Kitty-cut-a-dash, the foremost courtesan in Dublin, whom she met at the Curragh races.
Over the course of the 1760s and early 1770s, Peg superseded Kitty to become the leading courtesan, essentially sleeping with very rich men who fed, clothed, housed and entertained her in return.[i]
During the mid-1770s she opened her own brothel on Drogheda Street, along with fellow-courtesan Sally Hayes. They hand-picked the most alluring beauties they could find and prospered until November 1779 when their plushly decorated house was destroyed by a gang of Trinity College thugs called the Pinking-Dandies. The gang leader Richard Crosbie would later find fame as Ireland’s first aeronaut. Peg, heavily pregnant again, was badly assaulted and miscarried in consequence.
A short stint in London followed, during which time she managed to insult the young Prince of Wales by refusing to pull her horse into the roadside to let his carriage pass by.
She then returned to Dublin with renewed vigour and set up a new brothel in Wood Street, to the east of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, complete with a fine garden, which became the place to go during the age of Grattan’s Parliament. In the age of duelling and masquerades, not to mention the aristocratic heads rolling from the guillotines in France, Peg Plunkett was, as she put it, ‘at the very zenith of my glory, the reigning vice queen of the Paphian Goddess’.
Many of her ‘girls’ were also courtesans and she made sure they were always splendidly turned out with diamonds, dresses, servants and carriages. Peg herself caused a sensation when she became the first woman in Dublin to sport a bell-hoop; ladies of society quickly followed her lead and dressed themselves and their daughters in the same style.[ii]
Much of her success was based on appearance. Hence, while she did not particularly like champagne, she still asked for it whenever her clients offered her a drink. For their part, she ensured her men were fed upon fresh oysters and steamed asparagus, well-known aphrodisiacs.
In 1784, she relocated to a finely furnished establishment at Pitt Street on the site of the present-day Westbury Hotel where her most influential lover was the claret-loving Viceroy, Charles Manners, the Duke of Rutland. He was fated to die in Dublin in 1787, aged 33, and is recalled by the Rutland Memorial on Merrion Square West. The memorial says he died of fever; other sources suggest liver disease.
Among those who came a-bowing to the Duke and his mistress were Kitty Netterville, Peg’s former rival, and Richard Crosbie, the man who destroyed her first brothel. Realising the importance of having ones name in the papers, Peg was careful to be seen shaking hands with Crosbie shortly before he made his pioneering balloon ascent into the skies above Ranelagh Gardens in 1785.
Peg was on the quayside to wave Buck Whaley adieu as he set off on his challenge bet to Jerusalem. She was also a guest at John Magee’s La Bra Pleasure pig-racing and freak show at Fiat Hill, Ranelagh.
Showing her keen sense of humour, the press also noted her presence at the Hughes masquerade ball on College Green dressed as Artemis, goddess of chastity.
Her mischievous side was also reflected when she tried in vain to persuade the compilers of Wilson’s Directory to include her as a school mistress on the basis that she taught her students ‘the mysteries of life’.
Her personal fortune was briefly boosted in about 1788 when, having married Viscount Avonmore’s feckless second son Barry Yelverton, she conceded to the unimpressed father’s request to dissolve it in return for 500 guineas.
In 1789 she went on holiday to Killarney with a client called Mr. Purcell. This transpired to be her last era of happiness. When she returned, her brothel was still preeminent, with clients including David La Touche, Governor of the Bank of Ireland, and Robert Emmet’s father-in-law John Philpot Curran, although she ejected the Earl of Westmorland, the ‘despicable’ Viceroy, for having treated his wife so disgracefully.[iii]
A new era of lawlessness was upon the city. Clients and girls alike were consistently fleecing her. In 1792 she decided to call it a day, sold the Pitt Street house and moved to a newly built house off the Rock Road in Blackrock. She simultaneously announced her intention of living ‘a sober and godly life’.[iv]
On the basis that gentlemen always pay their debts, her intention was to simply cash in on the large number of IOUs and promissory notes she had racked up during the preceding decades. For such a worldly-wise woman, such a retirement plan was astoundingly naïve.
The major and predictable hiccup was that her debtors, or most of them, failed to pay. Now that she no longer ran a brothel, they did not feel inclined to take her request seriously. The fact she had seemingly reformed and rejected her past life as a madam further fuelled their disinterest.
With both her looks and money rapidly fading, Peg acceded to a friends suggestion that she publish her memoirs. As well as bringing in badly needed cash, the very prospect of Dublin’s best-known courtesan and brothel-keeper going public with her story would surely make some of her debtors come clean.
The demand for such memoirs was widespread, feeding a growing appetite for racy, sensational literature. They were also popular among wealthy women when either they or their spinster daughters were being courted by seemingly upstanding gentlemen whose names might well appear in such a record.[v]
The first two volumes were published in 1795, earning Peg £500, with a suitably teasing title: ‘Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Leeson, Written by Herself, and Interspersed with Several Interesting and Amusing Anecdotes, of Some of the Most Striking Characters of Great Britain and Ireland’. [vi]
In fact, these two volumes were relatively tame. As she put it, those looking for ‘some nice tit bits, and delicious morsels of scandal’ would be disappointed because she had been ‘careful not to pen a single line or use a single expression that can excited a blush on the most refined and delicate cheek’. However, she did include an unveiled threat. ‘I shall in my next volumes, lay before the public a list of all who are in debt to me, with the sum, and how long owing.’
Although Peg’s memoirs sold well, the money did not come in quick enough. To her horror, she was arrested by bailiffs in the winter of 1794-95 and lodged in a ‘sponging house’ or private debtors prison in Angel Court, off Beresford Street, run by her ex-lover Captain Benjamin Mathews. (Trivia boffins might like to know such places inspired the term ‘sponger’).
She remained in Angel Court for a prolonged period, presumed to be several months or more, until a friend called O’Falvey raised funds to clear her debts.
Despite being treated well by the Matthews, the incarceration took its toll; her companion Betsy Edmonds actually died in the prison and Peg grew so pale and wan that when Mr. Purcell visited, he could barely recognize her.
Aided by O’Falvey, she found lodgings on Clarendon Street where she completed her third volume of memoirs within three months of leaving the sponging house. Her income was almost non-existent, save the paltry £30 a year she received from Charles Fleetwood, the solicitor who had rented her Blackrock house for a fraction of its true worth.
At Christmas 1796 she and a friend were walking through Drumcondra at dusk when they were attacked and raped by a gang of five men. Both women contracted venereal disease, which, as Peg downgraded to lodgings in Temple Bar, developed into a fatal fever. She died at Fownes Street on 22 March 1797 and was buried at St. James’s Churchyard by the Guinness Brewery.
Published posthumously, the third volume of her memoirs were much the juiciest and named many past clients such as Waddell Cunningham, MP for Carrickfergus, who she rather brilliantly described as ‘that ungrateful old letcher, who while his amiable wife lay barren by his side, for forty-five years and more, made a shift to knock triplets out of his kitchen maid’.
With details such as this, many of those who were not yet named must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when it emerged that the late Mrs. Leeson had started work on a fourth volume.
Julie Peakman, ‘Peg Plunkett – Memoirs of an Irish Whore’ (Quercus, 2015).
Mary Lyons (editor), ‘The Memoirs of Mrs. Leeson, Madam’ (Lilliput, 1995).
[i] As a courtesan in her own right, she soon eclipsed Kitty Netterville, while her establishment predominated over less well regarded rivals such as Mrs Anne Judge, Biddy Orde (Great Britain [now Parnell] St, beside the New Rotunda Gardens), Mrs Brooks (Trinity St) and Peg’s friend Moll Hall (Johnson’s Court, off Grafton St).
[ii] Peg was a regular attendee at the Theatre Royal at which she made sure she surrounded herself by her girls looking like belles of the ball.
[iii] Perhaps there was a hint of political motivation here as Peg, baptised, a Catholic, supported attempts to repeal penal legislation against Catholics.
[iv] Lyons, p. x.
[v] Her memoirs would not be the first expose of Irish brothel-habitués. Published in the 1770s, ‘Abstracts from the companion to the grave’ and ‘Dublin: a satirical essay’ both listed prostitutes and clients by name. Irish society was also on high alert because Buck Whaley, the notorious rake, had also been commissioned to write his memoirs although ultimately his recollections must have disappointed anyone seeking juicy gossip.
[vi] Their publication coincided with a general drive to sort out Dublin’s prostitution crisis. This was spearheaded by John Magee, proprietor of the Dublin Evening Post, whose offices on College Green were centre stage for the lower level, gin-swilling street-walker category of prostitutes, famed for their lewd and obscene behaviour. Magee proposed a regulated district modelled, believed it or not, on one administered by Papal officials in Rome.