As far as London guide books go, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies has to be one of the more usual.
Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, published from 1757 to 1795, was an annual directory of prostitutes working in Georgian London. A small pocketbook, it was printed and published in Covent Garden, and sold for two shillings and sixpence. A contemporary report of 1791 estimates its circulation at about 8,000 copies annually.
Throughout the author’s lifetime, his identity was kept secret. There was a ‘Jack Harris’ around who worked at the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern in the main Covent Garden piazza. According to writer Hallie Rubenhold, he 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 Samuel Derrick. The linen draper from Dublin arrived in London hoping to build a successful career as an actor, but ended up getting himself into serious levels of debt. To escape a prison sentence, the idea for Harris’s List was born. His work was an immediate sensation, and the only literary triumph he would ever to enjoy.
Covent Garden and most of London 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 waylay passengers in the broad daylight, and above all, foreigners.” They rose in numbers through the 18th century, according to estimates by magistrates to reach over 50,000 by the 1790s.
Specific items of clothing identified prostitutes in London 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 largely 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 men at the time found paying money for sex entirely 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.
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 public house where rooms were set aside for women to entertain clients. These were ordinary pub rooms, rather than bedchambers, although some were decorated with pornographic tiles or hangings.
Samuel Derrick was likely to have come across the list of 400 names of ‘votaries of Venus’ which Harris had amassed. The book, kept inside his jacket pocket, described where the women could be found, as well as information about physical appearances, particular services and biographical details.
Although pimps kept some type of list, Harris’s, through its sheer volume, trumped all of them. Rubenhold, wrote. ‘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 to use his name. It is estimated he sold 8,000 copies annually.
Until his death in 1769, Derrick was the sole editor. His successors are unknown, but what we know is that it became tired and, after several attempts to attempts to revive it, Harris’s List met its end in 1795.
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.
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