Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies was a directory of prostitutes including their addresses and rates which was published yearly between 1757 and 1795, principally examining the upper end of the market. While it was far from being the first catalogue of London prostitutes, it became one of the most notorious and was certainly the longest running. The first version of Harris’s List was probably authored by the struggling poet, hack writer and actor Samuel Derrick. The ‘Harris’ of its title was an infamous pimp, Jack Harris (or John Harrison), who operated from the Shakespear’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden and kept a handwritten compendium of names and addresses on which the first printed List was probably based.1 The list became an enormously successful franchise, surviving Derrick’s death in 1769 and passing through a series of hands disguised behind the pseudonym H. Ranger.
For modern readers, Harris’s List is a deeply uncomfortable text. The few surviving copies serve as records of a side of eighteenth-century London which we would often rather avoid thinking about, encoding as it does the systematic physical and commercial exploitation of a significant proportion of the city’s female inhabitants by their socially and economically privileged male peers. Harris’s List affects to be light and congenial, but its implications are anything but.
Prostitution was endemic in eighteenth-century London. In 1800, Patrick Colquhoun, a statistician and one of the pioneers of modern policing, estimated that London contained around 50,000 women who worked as prostitutes, many of whom ‘[i]n the present unhappy state of things […] seem to have no alternative, but to become the miserable instruments of promoting and practising that species of seduction and immorality, of which they themselves were the victims’:
1. Of the class of Well Educated women it is earnestly hoped the number does not exceed 2,000
2. Of the class composed of persons above the rank of Menial Servants perhaps 3,000
3. Of the class who may have been employed as Menial Servants, or seduced in very early life, it is conjectured in all parts of the town, including Wapping, and the streets adjoining the River, there may not be less, who live wholly by Prostitution, than 20,000
4. Of those indifferent ranks in Society, who live partly by Prostitution, including the multitudes of low females, who cohabit with labourers and others without matrimony, there may be in all, in the Metropolis, about 25,0002
Colquhoun was not sanguine on the possibilities of eliminating prostitution altogether, contending that ‘[t]o prevent its existence, even to a considerable extent, in so great a Metropolis as London, is as impossible as to resist the torrent of the tides.’ However, he also contended that ‘it is at the same time an evil which may not only be lessened, but rendered less noxious and dangerous to the peace and good order of society: it may be stript of its indecency, and also of a considerable portion of the danger attached to it, to the youth of both sexes.’3 In seeking to regulate prostitution and ameliorate the evils it caused, Colquhoun represented an aspect of the wave of social reform which also led to the suppression of Harris’s List in 1795. The list’s last proprietor, John Roach, was successfully prosecuted at the behest of the Proclamation Society, which had been founded in 1787 to attempt to enforce George III’s Royal Proclamation For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.
As the eighteenth century became the nineteenth, many aspects of urban life which had seemed relatively unexceptionable or had been tacitly encouraged by previous generations were being reconsidered. Earlier in the eighteenth century, Harris’s List was seen more as a pragmatic amenity for young, wealthy men than as an immoral publication, as the German historian Johann Wilhelm Archenholz discovered:
A young unmarried Englishman, with a large fortune, spends but a small share of it on his common expences; the greatest part is destined to his pleasures, that is to say, to the ladies. A tavern-keeper, in Drury-lane, prints every year an account of the women of the town, entitled, Harris’s List of Covent-garden Ladies. In it, the most exact description is given of their names, their lodgings, their faces, their manners, their talents, and even their tricks. It must of course happen, that there will sometimes be a little degree of partiality in these details: however, notwithstanding this, eight thousand copied are sold annually.4
Much of Archenholtz’s account of prostitution, which comprises a considerable portion of his Picture of England, wavers into sympathy with those who paid two shillings and sixpence for numbers of the List, focusing principally on the more privileged end of the oldest profession and stressing probity, comfort and affluence:
In the parish of Mary-le-bone only, which is the largest and best peopled in the capital, thirty thousand ladies of pleasure reside, of whom seventeen hundred are reckoned to be house-keepers. These live very well, and without ever being disturbed by the magistrates. They are indeed so much their own mistresses, that if a justice of the peace attempted to trouble them in their apartments, they might turn him out of doors; for as they pay the same taxes as the other parishioners, they are consequently entitled to the same privileges.
Their apartments are elegantly, and sometimes magnificently furnished; they keep several servants, and some have their own carriages. Many of them have annuities paid them by their seducers, and others settlements into which they have surprised their lovers in the moment of intoxication. The testimony of these women, even of the lowest of them, is always received as evidence in the courts of justice. All this generally gives them a certain dignity of conduct, which can scarcely be reconciled with their profession.
The higher classes of these females are uncommonly honest; you may entrust them with a purse crammed with gold, without running any risk whatever. They can never be prevailed upon to grant favours to the lover of one of their companions, even if they are sure that the circumstance will be kept a profound secret. One of my friends made a proposal of this kind, and was refused; he redoubled his presents his caresses, but in vain: “I am, sir,” says she, “an unhappy female, obliged to live by this dishonourable profession; and Heaven is my witness, that I am in want of money; but I will never consent to have any connection with the acquaintance of my friend. If you were an Englishman, I might not be so difficult; but as you are a foreigner, I cannot. What opinion would you have of us, if I were to gratify your wishes?” Not satisfied with the excuse, he ridiculed her delicacy, and tempted her with more money; but, notwithstanding her poverty, she persisted in her refusal, and all this from national pride.5
Only at a few moments does Archenholtz stray from the relatively lavish and expensive world of exclusive bagnios and the ‘rich abbesses’ of King’s Place to confront the desperate circumstances of less fortunate victims of the sex trade: ‘I have beheld with a surprise, mingled with terror, girls from eight to nine years old make a proffer of their charms; and such is the corruption of the human heart, that even they have their lovers. Towards midnight, when the young women have disappeared, and the streets become deserted, then 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, with these female monsters.’6 Like Harris’s List, Archenholtz is most comfortable with a vision of the prostitute as a willing and welcoming partner, a woman of accomplishments and parts, available but not abused. It is certainly the case that some women willingly entered the sex trade and profited handsomely by doing so; it is also the case, as Archenholtz contends, that prostitutes were by no means universally socially ostracised. In accentuating and romanticising positives, though, both Harris’s List and Archenholtz dwell as much on what they wanted the experience of prostitution to be as on what it actually was.
The precise nature of Harris’s List is still the subject of scholarly debate. In her analysis of the surviving run, Elizabeth Denlinger contends that they ‘combined appeals to the imagination of the sedentary reader and directions to the male walker of the streets […] The market strategy of their rhetoric demands that the lists be read in at least two ways, for they have a double structure: names, addresses, and prices all point to their practical use, while the lush descriptions of women also function as soft-core pornography.’7 She goes on to state that ‘[i]n entry after entry, images of willing prostitutes were produced. This varied display of women to satisfy the “great itch,” an inexhaustible plenitude of female sexual generosity and attractiveness, is a fundamental aspect of the sphere to which Harris’s List offered British men a carte d’entrée.’8 As well as being a practical guide, then, Harris’s List also served as a means of reinforcing a particular vision of male hetrosexuality, as a lexicon for the libertine world and as a register of masculine wants which were generally winked at, even if they might be the subject of official disapproval.
At present, this site maps the full texts of the entries for the 1788 list as closely as possible to the locations given. As the map shows, by the late 1780s, the types of prostitution which the List surveyed were no longer centred principally on Covent Garden, with the greatest concentration of addresses being at the southwest corner of the area now commonly known as Fitzrovia, west of Tottenham Court Road and immediately north of Oxford Street. The List acknowledged this at the time, concurring with Archenholtz in calling ‘Mary bone’ – the parish within which these streets fell – ‘the now grand paradise of love’.9. The map also shows a considerable number of addresses in Soho, as well as smaller clusters in Covent Garden itself and in St James’s, near George III’s palace and the Prince of Wales’ Carlton House. Several of the girls operating near St James’s are described as being employed by Mrs O’Kelly (or Charlotte Kelly, formerly Charlotte Hayes), one of the most successful abbesses of the upmarket brothels and previously both a subject and a financial beneficiary of Harris’s List.10 List entries largely stick to a strict formula: a name (with vowels dashed out, although these are usually very straightforward to deduce), an address (usually a specific house, although occasionally a less exact location), a snippet of verse, a description of the lady’s particular attractions and character, and her expected price. At times, the author evidently wearied of this process: the entry for Charlotte Cotton begins, ‘How happy would it be for the author of this anniversary publication, could he procure a friend to new christen the features, that the reader might with less fatigue go through this heap of tautology’.11 At other points, though, the pen portraits are sharper and more interesting, drawing on classical allusions, employing outrageous double entendres, deploying artful smut or providing surprising insights into the lives of the women whom the list seeks to account for.
Harris’s List is problematic as a historical source both in terms of its disturbing contents and in terms of its accuracy and status. The extent to which it was fictionalised is unclear and its nature as a book written (presumably) by men for male use means that its accounts of prostitution fail to provide much space for the voices of the women upon whom it gazes. At times it is genuinely funny, at times uncomfortably so at the expense of its subjects, at times it becomes tedious or horrific, and at times, as its accounts pile up, its formulae become deeply disheartening. It is a text which encourages readers to skate along surfaces, to dip in to the world of eighteenth-century prostitution, but as its entries process, the implications of their numbers and the reductiveness of its author’s outlook become more and more apparent. The List set out to be a sparkling record, ‘able to suit every constitution, and every pocket, every whim and fancy that the most extravagant sensualist can desire’. The 1788 volume concludes by stating that its author is ‘particularly happy to think that what was formerly seen in the eyes of our world a disgrace, is now considered pleasing, delightful, and honourable.’12 Unfortunately, we largely lack the testimonies of the women whose accounts would show the full extent to which this facetious sunniness is delusional. Nevertheless, while much of Harris’s List says more about the contours of eighteenth-century libertine desire than the bald realities, amidst the list’s parades of Castalian springs, Venetian mounts and Cyprian groves, there are moments of specificity and possibility which offer chances to learn about the true conditions of its subjects and about the London worlds in which they were immured.
- A plausible and interesting interpretation of the events leading to the establishment of Harris’s List is given in Hallie Rubenhold, The Covent Garden Ladies: Pimp General Jack and the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List (Stroud: Tempus, 2005).
- Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis; containing a detail of the various crimes and misdemeanors by which public and private property and security are, at present, injured and endangered: and suggesting remedies for their prevention (London: Joseph Mawman, 1800), pp. 335, 340.
- Colquhoun, pp. 337-8.
- Johann Wilhelm Archenholz, A Picture of England (Dublin: P. Byrne, 1790), p. 197.
- Archenholtz, pp. 188-90.
- Archenholtz, p. 193.
- Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger, ‘The Garment and the Man: Masculine Desire in Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1764-1793’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 11.3 (2002), 357-394 (p. 358).
- Denlinger, p. 360.
- Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies: or, Man of Pleasure’s Kalender, For the YEAR, 1788 (London: Printed for H. Ranger, 1788), p. 13.
- Rubenhold gives a detailed account of Charlotte Hayes. Further information can be found in The Celebrated Memoirs of Dennis O’Kelly, Esq. (London: C. Stalker, 1788), available on Google Books.
- Harris’s List (1788), p. 115.
- Harris’s List (1788), pp. 14, 146