As far as London guide books go, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies has to be one of the more usual. While most focus on popular tourist attractions such as St Paul’s Cathedral, London Zoo and the Science Museum, this one takes a different subject altogether. It was an 18th century bestseller (some 250,000 copies were sold), containing the names and attributes of many of the capital’s prostitutes.
During the author’s lifetime, his identity was kept secret. There was a ‘Jack Harris’ around at that time who some would have expected to have written the annual publication. He worked at the Shakespear’s Head Tavern in the north east corner of the main Covent Garden piazza and, according to writer Hallie Rubenhold, was “the self-proclaimed Pimp-General of All England” who “possessed one of the most intriguing items of pimp’s paraphernalia in London.”
But the real man behind the pen of Harris’s List for its most successful years was actually Samuel Derrick. The linen draper from Dublin had arrived in London hoping to build a successful career as an actor, but ended up getting himself into serious levels of debt and losing all his possessions.
And so in a bid to escape imprisonment, the idea for Harris’s List was born. “Unbeknownst to the impoverished hack, his lurid work was destined to become an instant sensation and the only literary triumph he was ever to enjoy,” wrote Rubenhold, who in recent years has re-published a fascinating collection of entries from the original guides. Fresh from leaving the debtors’ prison in 1757, Derrick began to start to write the guide.
Covent Garden – and London as a whole was – in the 18th century was lined with prostitutes. Samuel Welch, a Westminster magistrate said in 1758 that “Prostitutes swarm in the streets of this metropolis to such a degree” that it seemed “the whole town was one general stew.” An observer in the 1760s described how “Whole rows of them accost passengers in the broad day-light, and above all, foreigners.” They rose in numbers through the 18th century, according to estimates by magistrates to reach perhaps some 50,000 by the 1790s.
In January 1758, Robert Dodsley, a Pall Mall publisher, attempted to attract the poet Richard Berenger to London with the following words: “Come to Town, therefore, if not for our sakes at least for your own. The Piazzas of Covent Garden afford in January a better shelter than any Grove in Christendom; and what are your mossy banks and purling streams in the Country, to a sparkling bowl & a downy bed at the Hummums? Your Naiads, your dryads & your Hamadryads are enough to starve a man to death; but ye Nymphs or Drury you may be warm as your heart can wish – and warmer too: And will not these comfortable considerations invite you to Town?”
Prostitutes in London were typically identified by specific items of clothing, such as a red scarf and a skirt hitched to the left side. John Fielding, the Bow Street magistrate and social reformer, believed from the interviews he conducted that most street prostitutes were aged between 18 and 20, and predominantly came from London, Ireland and eastern England.
There were, however, variations in ages, as Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, the German diarist, noted. He said that after midnight “the old wretches, of fifty or sixty years of age, descend from their garrets, and attack the intoxicated passengers, who are often prevailed upon to satisfy their passions in the open street.” And the author even witnessed children attempting to prostitute themselves, writing “such is the corruption of the human heart, that even they have their lovers.”
Many at the time found paying money for sex perfectly acceptable, particularly amongst young men – “strangers to wedded love and domestic comforts, ranged at large on the common of prostitution.” This was the world where Harris’s List found no shortage of interested readers.
Drinking at the Shakespear, Derrick is likely to have come across handwritten list of 400 names of “votaries of Venus” that Harris had compiled. The ledger – kept inside his jacket pocket – described where the individual women could be found, as well as information about physical characteristics, specialised services and biographical details. “Although every pimp kept some type of handwritten list, Harris’s, through its sheer volume, trumped all of them,” wrote Rubenhold. “It gave him an incontestable monopoly over the area’s flesh trade and, within the span of six years, an income comparable to that of the first Lord of the Treasury.”
Derrick wanted to re-produce the success of Harris’s List, but fearing how the man would react he decided he would need to enter a partnership with him, so he paid him a fee (we don’t know how much) to use his name. That is was deemed a success – it is estimated to have sold 8,000 copies annually – could in part be put down to the detailed
descriptions. “Derrick may not have been a skilled poet, or even a talented actor, but his ability to observe and document the nuances of his world and the assorted characters who inhabited it was indisputable,” said Rubenhold.
Until his death in 1769, Derrick was the sole editor. His successors are largely unknown, but what we do know is that it became tired and, after several attempts to attempts to revive it, Harris’s List met its end in 1795. The publishers became a victim of moral reformers, with one James Roach being fined £100 and sentenced to a year in Newgate prison.
Rubenhold’s efforts in re-publishing the last ever issue (from 1793), alongside extracts from other years, as well as a useful commentary, should be commended. The author notes that morally-minded Victorians locked remaining copies of Harris’s List in drawers so they could not be found, while other books were destroyed.
Now Derrick’s words are back in print however and Rubenhold believes that the publication “still manages to maintain its allure,” adding: “The very concept of these books continues to fascinate, horrify and delight even the most world-weary twenty-first century reader, who, after flipping through its pages is often amazed to learn that there truly is nothing new under the sun.”
But where did Covent Garden’s prostitutes operate from? “Those who preferred to conduct their business inside had various options, one of which was to retire to a free-thinking public house where rooms were set aside for women to entertain clients,” wrote historian Lucy Inglis in Georgian London. “These were ordinary pub rooms, rather than bedchambers, although some were decorated with pornographic tiles or hangings.”
Alternatively, the women might choose to rent a room or building. “Covent Garden, much of which had started to be built at the same time as the creation of the piazza, was starting to fall into disrepair, particularly the area between the market and the Strand,” added Inglis. “Here, landlords did not bother to repair the housing; girls rented rooms simply to do business from…”. It was the women operating from these premises – and those who brought clients to their own homes – that featured in Harris’s List.
What becomes clear from reading through the pages of Harris’s List is that the entries for prostitutes stretch far beyond women in Covent Garden. Miss C—nway, for example, operated from number 50 Sloane Square. Aged 22, “she has so many enchanting graces, that they are quite irresistible.” In addition, “her education has been liberal; her conversation is easy and unaffected; her taste for literature would not disgrace the greatest genius of the age, and if we could pass over in silence her present mode of life, she has every qualification to render her an ornament to the female world.”
Then there was Mrs V—cent, who was aged around 30, in Wardour Street, Soho. It was said “her fine eyes cannot be looked upon without exciting all the thrilling emotions of desire in the soul of the beholder.” And in Chelsea, Miss S—wyn, a female who was “rather tall, but elegantly made with a most enchanting bosom, a fair complexion and excellent features, her mouth is small, but looks when closed like a rose when it begins to bud…”
For many people this is an uncomfortable subject as they associate it as the exploitation of women, but Derrick’s view was that it gave impoverished women an income. Reading Harris’s List today is a useful way of helping us understand 18th century London.