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the final embrace

After her release from the sponging house, Peg set about writing a third volume of her memoirs. She was extremely organised, consulting the eighteenth century's equivalent of the Golden Pages, contacting all those who might be interested in her book before was even printed.

I was determined to send my proposals everywhere; and accordingly thro' the medium of the Penny-post, enclosed them to every creature whose name I found in Wilson's Directory and Watson's Almanack; and from numbers received very handsome subscriptions:

However, life never ran smoothly for Peg. Once she stopped wielding her sexual power she became vulnerable. She met with callousness and kindness and her encounters seemed to veer between the two. The first cruelty occurred one evening during a walk in Stephen's Green, when

on my return, to my utter mortification and surprise, found a deserted unprotected girl I had hired to go of errands for me, had carried off all my clothes, with a small tea-chest, in which I had upwards of thirty guineas [approx €9,500 today] being the full amount of the subscriptions I had received from friends, to whom I had enclosed my proposals, this was a severe blow I was by no means prepared for.

But then a kindness! Soon after, she received a letter from the Earl of Bristol with fifty pounds [€9,000 approx today] enclosed. Sixteen years earlier he had spent the night in her bed but had forgotten to bring any money. He had promised to pay her at a later date, and with perfect timing, this later date had now arrived.

The Earl of Bristol

Another evening she was assailed by highwaymen by the ruins of Baggotrath Castle (roughly where the Waterloo pub is on Baggot Street today). Luckily, the footpads were interrupted by a couple of her former clients who were passing. They chased the villains away and Mr Daly, manager of the Theatre Royal, held a benefit gig to help her to replenish her losses.

I find myself wondering if a servant girl or highway man would have dared to steal from Peg in her heyday: Peg would have had connections with all of Dublin and as such enjoyed a certain protection. But this new, quieter Peg was invisible and without power. It is interesting that the new vulnerable Peg suffered injustice, yet it was the affection and respect of those from her past life that rescued her. Perhaps the wages of Peg's sins were kinder than the bible suggests.

Or perhaps not. A further, far worse assault was to come.

One evening Peg and a friend, Margaret Collins, decided to visit a woman in Drumcondra. They chose to walk, which Google maps tells me would take about 40 minutes. They could have crossed over the recently built Carlisle Bridge, strolled up Sackville Street, passed the Lying In hospital and Pleasure Gardens and turned onto Drumcondra Lane. They had a pleasant visit with their friend (a former paramour of the Prince of Wales) and as they were returning home they were attacked by five men. They were dragged into a nearby field, raped and robbed.

Mrs. Collins, who in her rage thrust her scissors, into one of the villains' bellies at the very moment he was enjoying her, after they severally satiated their brutal appetites, they left us as I said before, stripped to our shifts, carrying off even our shoes and stockings, and indeed was it not for one of them, who had less ferocity than the others, they would have taken away our very shifts;—in this wretched situation we were obliged to return to Mrs. H——, who kindly procured for us shoes and stockings, with two old plaid cloaks; and in this miserable plight we arrived at our lodgings, very much cut and bruised, at about two o'clock in the morning

The tale gets sadder still.

Both women discovered they had been infected with syphilis. They consulted an apothecary, Mr Brady, who advised a course of mercurial salivation. This was not good. A typical mercury treatment is described as follows :

“A patient undergoing the treatment was secluded in a hot, stuffy room, and rubbed vigorously with the mercury ointment several times a day. The massaging was done near a hot fire, which the sufferer was then left next to in order to sweat. This process went on for a week to a month or more, and would later be repeated if the disease persisted. 1 [1]

Mercury treatments had terrible side effects causing nerve damage, kidney failure, severe mouth ulcers and loss of teeth, Peg and Mrs Collins were treated for the best part of three months. It wasted their bodies and depleted their savings. They were reduced to skeletons and evicted from their lodgings as they could no longer afford the rent. The moved to a more lowly establishment on Fownes Street.

Fownes Street

Peggy and I took possession of our new apartments; where we lived in extreme want and misery, enduring both cold and hunger, and entirely indebted to our hospitable landlady for our support:—poor Peggy Collins soon recovered strength, but as for my part, I became weaker and weaker every day

Peg died in the early hours of 22nd of March 1797. She died in pain and penury.

Throughout her life she sought money and status. Not for glory, but for survival. Women traded autonomy for male protection. Most chose the institution of marriage but Peg was pushed out of the marriage market by her brother withholding her dowry. She tried living with various men in a common law situation but after a while, she discovered she was better off going it it alone.

There is no doubt that she enjoyed incredible success, she played to her natural inclinations and relished many of her encounters, but it must have been tiring to continually buck the system. I wonder did she create a persona of Peg, the madam in order to survive in a man's world.

I believe Peg was looking for love. Given a different break she might have enjoyed a happy marriage, had children (who survived) and relished in grandchildren. She experienced lots of love in her life - some good, some bad, some romantic, some platonic - but rarely a love that was uplifting and healthy. Sadly, many of us don't.

For my last illustration, I have chosen to portray Peg in a loving embrace. (I actually borrowed the pose from the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey). I wished to show that her struggle is now at an end. Death, her ultimate escort, carries her carefully and lovingly to a place where she can finally rest.

Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele

Peg is buried in St James church yard. There is no longer a record of the whereabouts of her grave. In fact there is not much record of her person at all in Dublin's history. Is this because she was involved in the sex trade?

When she is mentioned it is often with a laugh, it's as if we are embarrassed by a sexual woman. One obituary says she was a courtesan for thirty years. Another writes: "She figured for a long time in the bon ton -and absolutely made the fashion. It was her practice to confine her favours to a temporary husband. In this state she lived with several gentleman in the style of fashionable elegance"2 . She charged for sex for about ten years of her life - the rest of the time she was living with men in a common law situation. These days we would not class this as whoring.

I don't think her story is one of selling sex. Yes she did sell sex. But she did it spectacularly - and that's her story: one of a woman who overcame the odds. One of a woman who assessed the situation and used her abilities to survive. She was creative, courageous, flamboyant, and tenacious. She was loyal, kind and at times rather vulgar. Leaving out the vulgarity, these are all admirable traits. If she was alive today she would be a superstar, a CEO or a politician.

I now have nine illustrations of Peg's story. I'd love to use them to highlight her story and that of Irish women at her time. I have a few ideas of how I might accomplish this and I would really appreciate your feedback. In my next post I will share my thoughts and include a little questionnaire. Will you help me give Peg the limelight she deserves?

  1. Beck, S. (1997). Syphilis: the great pox. In K. Kiple (Ed.), Plague, Pox & Pestilence: Disease in History (pp. 110-115). London: Weidenfeld Nicolson.

  2. Dublin Evening Post, May 1797

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