When I wrote my post about the Master Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury, a number of readers mentioned Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. To my delight Google eBooks offers a link to the 1789 publication. The pocket-sized book, first published in 1757, remained popular for over 30 years with Lotharios looking for a light-o’-love. This annual sold for half a crown, the equivalent of about £15 today or the weekly room rent back in those days. Its author, identified for years as John Harris, was actually the drunken poet, Samuel Derrick, once described by James Boswell as “a little blackguard pimping dog”.*
The introduction to the 1789 publication (see below) provides a shameless rationale for the “votaries of love.” The writer ignored the fact that for most of these ladies life was hard and bitter.
Demand for these lists was so great that 8,000 copies of the first edition were printed. London’s prostitutes were identified by name, location, and their special charms. Here’s a description of Miss Devonshire of Queen Ann Street, who had ‘a fair complexion, cerulean eyes and fine teeth.:
many a man of war hath been her willing prisoner, and paid a proper ransom…she is so brave, that she is ever ready for an engagement, cares not how soon she comes to close quarters, and loves to fight yard arm and yard arm, and be briskly boarded. – Port Cities, London
The list was continued for another 15 years by others, but Ms Rubenhold says it became dull soft porn, lacking the wicked sparkle of Derrick’s days – such as the anecdote of Miss C, powdered and perfumed above and below to entertain a prince, who “was so much of an Englishman to despise all fictitious aids in that quarter and, turning up his nose at the … musk, which was quite offensive to him, he rang the bell and sent the servant for a red herring”.- Exposed: Filthy Poet Pimp Who Wrote the Georgian Gentleman’s Guide to Prostitution
The description below of a tall and elegant woman, written 20 years after Derrick’s death, is rather pedestrian and obviously lacks Derrick’s wit.
For most prostitutes eking out a living in the Georgian era life was a constant struggle against poverty, illness and danger.The Times reported in 1785 that every year 5000 street-walkers died in the city (Prostitution in Maritime London). Prostitutes also died from venereal disease and the effects of poverty once their charms waned. Many aged prematurely. Some girls began their life of sin when they were 10 or 12 , for virgins came at a premium.
Economics was the driving engine of the thriving whore business in London. One in five women made a living as a prostitute, a remarkable number. The young women and girls who chose prostitution as a living were undereducated and fit only to work in backbreaking, menial jobs. Most prostitutes were independent street-walkers and kept a majority of their wages. A London prostitute stood an excellent chance of earning more than £400 a year. Contrast this income to a housemaid’s earnings of £5 a year, and one can readily see why so many women were drawn to the trade. Forty per cent of prostitutes came from London, while 60% came from the countryside and Ireland. Pimps, bawds, and procuresses (aging former prostitutes) exploited young girls arriving from the country (shades of Fanny Hill). They could make a tidy sum of money, for the deflowering rights of a young virgin went for £150, or £11,000 in today’s sums. (Sin City: One in Five Women in 1700’s London Were Prostitutes.)
[Prostitutes] tended to gather in areas with looser police control; when the police became stricter in the City of London in the eighteenth century, the prostitutes gravitated toward the west and east ends of the city; when police control loosened in the early nineteenth century, they returned to the City. Prostitutes also tended to congregate in areas with cheap lodging houses and lots of men. St. Giles and St. James, home to many cheap boardinghouses, were popular with prostitutes in Westminster; the Docks, where many sailors disembarked, was popular on the east side of the city. – (Tony Henderson. Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830. London and New York: Longman, 1999. x + 226 pp. $29.20 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-26421-2; $106.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-582-26395-6. Reviewed by Kristen Robinson (Department of History, University of Kentucky)
The last Harris’s List was published in 1795, just as the perception of prostitution began to change. In the 18th century, “most prostitutes were seen as harlots who sought sex for pleasure. In the eighteenth century, however, prostitution was redefined as a condition stemming from economic need.” (Tony Henderson). As the 19th century progressed, the arrival of street lighting and methods of modern policing reformed London as a city of vice.
The dawn of the Victorian age and new attitudes to morality meant that prostitution gradually went underground. Streetwalking was made an imprisonable offence in the 1820s. – Sin City: One in Five Women in 1700’s London Were Prostitutes
More on the topic:
- *Exposed Filthy Georgian Pimp Who Wrote the Georgian Gentleman’s Guide to Prostitution
- As Lewd as Goats and Monkeys
- Prostitution in 17th-18th century English Ports
- The Green Canister: Mrs. Phillip’s Covent Garden Sex Shop
- Not So Nice Work: Prostitution in the 18th Century
- Prostitution in Maritime London