Harris’s List, or, a catalogue of London prostitutes from 1789

Prostitution was endemic in Georgian London, with thousands of prostitutes plying their trade from private lodgings, brothels, theatres, taverns and street corners. As such, there was a wide choice for Londoners who went in search of the pleasures of the flesh. However, with so many ladies of the night, how was the discerning man supposed to know which of them was worth favouring with his custom? In 1759, a man named Samuel Derrick came to the rescue by publishing the first of many editions of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a pocket-sized book that listed and reviewed a selection of London prostitutes.

Entries for the 1789 edition which I found online follow a clear structure. They begin with each woman’s name and address, followed by a short piece of original verse, a description of the woman’s character and appearance, any sexual specialities, and the price which an interested gentleman might expect to pay. Some entries also contain potted histories of the prostitute, which tend to explain her profession as the result of either a) tragic seduction and abandonment; or b) a lustful nature which could be satisfied by no other career.

1773-frontispiece-title-page

The language in Harris’s List is a curious mixture of the poetic and the prosaic. Sometimes the descriptions are florid: ‘…[her] fountain of delight is elegantly shaded by a light-coloured thicket, the half pouting lips lovingly embrace the ruby tip that through the pleasing grove invites his coral headed friend; her thighs are of the most tempting softness, and white as Alpian snow…’. At other times the author is curiously fond of nautical metaphors; of Miss Devonshire, the author writes that ‘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’.

Both Derrick and later editors of the publication take care to mention prostitutes with specialities or particular abilities. So the reader is informed that a Mrs Salter, who hailed from the West Country, ‘tho’ little in every respect…possesses a mouth that will swallow the largest morsel’. Miss M-k-y had a talent for copulating on any available surface: ‘tables, chairs, carpets, standing, sitting, any how, so the end is immediately accomplished, which on her side is performed with unparalleled dexterity’. For those who savoured the taste of the exotic, Miss T-m-s (Thomas?) of Soho was a ‘lewd’ woman of the ‘mule [mulatto] breed’; hence the customer ‘that love[s] a true copper bottomed frigate, and can spare a few guineas, will think himself happy on board’. Miss Charlotte Collins of Oxford Street was burdened with ‘indifferent teeth’ and small breasts, but thanks to her previous employment as a milkmaid, ‘is said to have…a delicate hand at stroaking’. Meanwhile, one woman in Drury Lane, though ‘very impudent and very ugly’, was apparently a favourite with old men and used ‘more birch rods in a week than Westminster School in a twelvemonth’. The description of another prostitute’s particular abilities is worth quoting in full:

‘Known in this quarter for her immense sized breasts, which she alternately makes use of with the rest of her parts, to indulge those who are particularly fond of a certain amusement. She is what you may call, at all; backwards and forwards, all are equal to her, posteriors not excepted, nay indeed, by her own account she has most pleasure in the latter. Very fit for a foreign Macaroni – entrance at the front door tolerably reasonable, but nothing less than two pound for the back way’.

harriss-list-or-cupids-london-directory-by-richard-newton-1794
A punter carrying ‘Harris’s List’ visits a brothel

The 1789 list contains a number of rather amusing anecdotes. A story is related about the lover of one Miss Gr-t, who had an unusual sexual predilection:

‘A certain merchant, near Leadenhall street, visits her constantly every Saturday forenoon…No sooner does Miss G. see Mr. B–– enter, than she orders the necessary implements for the washing of foul linen, such as a kettle of hot water, soap dish, wash-tub and the like. These being produced, with the maid’s dirty bed gown, which he puts on, having first stript off his coat, and tuck’d up his shirt sleeves, he sets to work, and in a few seconds, gets up to the elbows in suds. After thus amusing himself till he is nearly out of breath, he wipes his hands, changes his cloaths, presents her with two guineas, makes his obeisance, and retires. Half the ladies of pleasure, would be ladies of pleasure, indeed, if they could meet with such handy culls, who not only pay them well for doing nothing, but save them the expence of a washer woman.’

The author then mocks the pious efforts of a Methodist preacher who made regular visits to a Bond Street prostitute:

‘[The prostitute] has, however, lately met with a very good friend in a methodist preacher, who admires her for the sentimental part of her character, and he often reads to her pious discourses, upon the torments of hell, for a whole evening, and leaves her a guinea that, they may have some weight with her. The guinea, doubtless has considerable weight with her, he being too pious to give her light money, but as to his pious discourses, they fly off with the inflammable matter they consist of, like an air balloon, and leave not a wreck behind’.

Gillray, ‘Launching a frigate’: a brothel madam promotes her newest and youngest employee

But alas, a few women were unfortunate enough to be the victims of full-blown character assassinations by the publication’s editor. The 19-year-old Miss Montague is condemned as ‘too fat to be genteel, too short to be elegant, too brown to be handsome, and the tout ensemble, too plain for any gentleman to risk more than a guinea for a nocturnal exhibition’. Pol Forestor had ‘breath worse than a Welsh bagpipe’ and Miss Young was the unfortunate possessor of a ‘contaminated carcass’. Of one Mrs E, the author says scathingly, ‘[it] must be allowed she is very fair, and tout ensemble, a very good piece, at a proper distance from the fireside; but, like wax work, which she resembles, it is dangerous to place her too near it, she is of such a melting disposition’. In other words, she concealed her ugliness with the poisonous makeup so popular with 18th-century ladies.

For all its entertainment value today, Harris’s List is a problematic document. There is little mention of the dark side of 18th-century prostitution – poverty, shame, venereal disease, criminality – although it is clear from the text that most prostitutes had a serious alcohol problem. Moreover, did the author truly believe that most prostitutes plied their trade out of a pure love of sex? The author describes cheerful, lusty women who were only too eager to participate in a mutual feast of sensual delight. This myth was of course a palliative to men’s consciences; how much easier to justify their forbidden trysts if the prostitutes were to thought to enjoy their job! I suspect that the eponymous narrator of Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) had a better handle on the situation when she said that a prostitute ‘thinks of no pleasure but the money’.

by James Gillray, published by William Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 9 February 1779
Gillray captures the real misery of a prostitute’s existence in “The Whore’s Last Shift”

Further reading

Anon., Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (1789 edn)

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Sir Thomas Lawrence and the Romantic portrait

By the time of his death in 1830, Thomas Lawrence was the most sought-after and celebrated English portraitist of his age. He had painted everyone who was anyone, establishing his own distinct artistic style, and has been labelled in retrospect the visual chronicler of the Regency.

For such a supremely successful artist, however, Lawrence came from humble beginnings, being the son of a West Country innkeeper. Fortunately as it turned out, he grew up learning most of the accomplishments necessary to fit in with English nobility; namely, boxing, dancing, fencing, billiards, and a little Latin and French. When Lawrence’s father went bankrupt in 1779, the family moved to Bath, where Lawrence found a congenial atmosphere for developing his artistic talents. He was soon supporting his parents by producing small pastel portraits, such as the one below, of local notables. Lawrence’s affability, charm and talent endeared him to Bath’s residents and visitors alike, and he received commissions from the aristocracy and encouragement from other artists.

At the age of 17, Lawrence moved to London where he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the premier portraitists of the day. Although Lawrence soon dropped out of the school at the Royal Academy of Arts, he managed to exhibit several works at the Academy, earning him his first royal commission, a portrait of Queen Charlotte. Although the finished portrait was not favoured by its subject, it found critical success at a public exhibition. Also shown at the 1790 exhibition was Lawrence’s portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, which was declared by the press to be ‘completely Elizabeth Farren: arch, spirited, elegant and engaging’.

One of Lawrence’s early pastel portraits. Done as a boy, it obviously lacks the sophistication of his later works.
Lawrence’s celebrated early portrait of Elizabeth Farren

Over the ensuing years, Lawrence went from success to success. In 1791, Lawrence was named ‘painter-in-ordinary to his majesty’ by George III, and he found in the Prince Regent a longstanding and generous patron. Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and commissioned to travel Europe in order to paint the allied leaders for what would become the Waterloo Chamber series, housed in Windsor Castle. His illustrious sitters included Emperor Francis I of Austria, Tsar Alexander, the King of Prussia, and a young Napoleon II.

Back in London, Lawrence was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1820. This was the highest formal academic honour an artist could receive at the time. Yet for reasons which still elude Lawrence’s biographers, Lawrence spent his whole life deeply in debt. This despite the fact that he worked hard, earned the best commissions, and does not seem to have been an extravagant man. He despaired of his situation, complaining that ‘I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me’. It seems likely that Lawrence’s money went on generous presents to family and his extensive collection of Old Masters, along with his apparent inability to keep accounts.

Like most portraitists of his age, Lawrence strove to flatter his patrons. He made the aristocracy of late Georgian Britain appear uniformly beautiful, elegant and fascinating. He even managed to mould the corpulent Prince Regent into a sort of byronic hero in his sketch for a bust portrait.

George, the Prince Regent

Yet even if Lawrence idealised his sitters, I love his portraits for their bold colours and outstanding vividness. His sitters’ gazes are often direct and piercing, and their whole figure radiates energy. I am especially drawn to Lawrence’s portraits of women, as their strong gazes, sparkling eyes and confident poise are quite different from the serene countenances of earlier 18th-century portraits, or from the dull sweetness of early Victorian female portraits. In this respect, Lawrence had the advantage of his time. Fashionable patrons, strongly influenced by Romanticism, wanted to be painted as windswept romantic figures full of life and passion. Lawrence’s genius came both from his technical talent and his ability to mould his sitters into figures which truly captured the Romantic spirit of the age.

Emily Mary Lamb
Sir John Moore
Lady Selina Meade
Sir Graham Moore
Lady Caroline Lamb
Mrs John Allnutt
Pope Pius VII
Marguerite, Countess of Blessington
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey
Lady Maria Conyngham
2nd Earl of Liverpool
Arthur Atherley

 

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An Oxford exam from 1884

Coming across a compilation of University of Oxford women’s exam papers from the 1870s and 80s was something of a treat for me. Having studied History and German at Oxford from 2011-2015, I was eager to find out how the exam papers from 130 years ago differed from those now. Imagine, then, my horror when I realised how many details of the examinations remained unchanged. Exams are still of the same duration (3 hours), they take place at the exact same time of year, and even at the exact same time of day (9:30-12:30, 14:30-17:30).

Worse still, some of the questions were eerily similar to those I answered on my own Finals papers. For instance, ‘Summarise Milton’s arguments against the censorship of the press. Which do you consider the most convincing, which the most rhetorically effective?’, and ‘Explain, by reference to this or any other of his prose writings, Milton’s idea of Liberty’ (funnily enough, I didn’t do especially well on that paper). However, I have to admit that the English to German translations in the 1884 paper are more difficult than those now, though there was no speaking exam as there is today.

In terms of difficulty of questions, they are something of a mixed bag. For the arts subjects there are rather a lot of factual questions alongside the argumentative essays which would be standard now. Questions such as the following are not uncommon: ‘Give the origin of the following suffixes’; ‘Write a short life of Pope Paul III; ‘What acquisitions of territory were made by France in 1643-1678?’ There are some very old-fashioned judgemental questions which particularly amused me, including the following from the English exam: ‘Are there (1) any signs of the immaturity of Shakespeare’s genius in Richard II; (2) any parts of Macbeth which seem so unworthy of Shakespeare as to justify a doubt as to their being genuine; (3) any traces of a failure of dramatic power in the Tempest?’.

Notwithstanding the shallowness of some of the questions, female students were expected to have a good grounding in all subjects, particularly for the First Examination (Prelims). For the first examination female candidates were expected to pass in English Composition, Arithmetic, Euclid, and any two of Latin, Greek, French, Italian or German. In the Second (Final) Examination for Honours candidates, women had more opportunity to specialise. They were required to sit exams in languages, as well as one of the following: ancient history; modern history; mathematics; physical science; logic and political economy (clearly the forerunner of PPE). Students could also offer themselves for examination in ‘Rudiments of Faith and Religion’, which basically meant comprehension questions on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – no aethistic or methodistical material could be allowed to pollute the firmly C of E university precincts!

The introduction in the 1880s of the ability to specialise in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology and geology reflects a wider trend in English universities. By the latter half of the 19th century, German universities had moved far ahead of their English counterparts in scientific research. Britain, as a Great Power, could not of course be left behind, so the traditional focus on theology, Classics, languages and history was widened to include the sciences. For a long time, however, sciences were not considered quite the thing; most upper-class students still read a traditional subject such as Classics.

The beautiful Radcliffe Camera, part of the University of Oxford’s central library

I must reiterate that this was a set of exam papers for women; sadly, I haven’t been able to find a men’s examination paper from the period to compare. I do wonder whether the questions would have been more challenging. However, the prologue to the 1884 women’s paper claims that ‘the standard of attainment both for Pass and Honours is the same as that required in the corresponding [male] Public Examinations of the University’. It was even promised that the women’s results would be published in the University Gazette, alongside the men. It is perhaps unlikely that Oxford would wish to dilute its academic prestige by offering exams which were seen as easy, even if they were only for women.

Students at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the first women's colleges in Oxford (late 19th century)
Students at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford (photo 1880s)

Further reading

University of Cambridge Women’s Examination Paper for 1871

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