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.

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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’.

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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)

On being over-fond of animals

I was recently rather amused by a chapter in an 18th-century advice manual for women, entitled ‘On being over-fond of animals’. This anti-pet diatribe comes from a 1756 publication called The Wife, which also features charmingly-named chapters such as ‘The danger of living in the same house with any Relation of the Husband’s’, ‘Sleeping in different Beds’, and ‘The great indiscretion of taking too much notice of the unmeaning, or transient gallantries of a Husband’.

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‘On being over-fond of animals’ rails against what the author sees as the excessive fondness of well-to-do women for their pets.

‘Among all the various foibles of which the softer sex are but too justly accus’d, I know of none more preposterous than the immoderate fondness shewn to monkeys, dogs, and other animals; – creatures which were not made to be caress’d, and have no higher claim from nature than barely not to be abus’d or mercilessly treated.

‘Yet the privileges, the immunities, the indulgences which they enjoy under some mistresses, are such as are far from being granted to servants of the human species – a monkey may tear to pieces a fine brussels [lace] head-dress, and be prais’d for his wit, while the poor chamber-maid has a slap on the face, is call’d oaf, awkward monster, and a thousand such like names, if not turn’d out of door [fired], only for having stuck a pin awry, or misplacing a curl’.

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‘Henrietta Child’ – Francis Cotes (1726-70)

Not least among the pet-owning woman’s enormities is the fact that her pet will prevent her from fulfilling the wifely duty of listening to her husband:

‘But in how odd a light must the husband of that woman appear, who, while he is entertaining her perhaps on some important affairs, instead of answering him, is all the time playing with her lap-dog, and after he has been talking for half an hour altogether, cries out, ‘What did you say, my dear – I protest I did not hear you’ – on which he is oblig’d to repeat all he has been speaking, and ’tis very likely with as little success as before’.

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‘Portrait of a lady with her dog’ – Francois Hubert Drouais (1727-75)

Worst of all, the author disapproves of a pet sharing the marital bed, recounting an anecdote which implies that a wife’s insistence on co-sleeping with a beloved pet will inevitably lead to adultery on the part of the husband.

‘…he made many remonstrances to his lady on the inconvenience of lying three in a bed; but all he could urge on that subject was ineffectual, she would not consent to be separated one moment from her dear [dog]; on which he resolved to sleep in another chamber, and accordingly did so, where, ’tis more than whisper’d, he prevail’d on the chamber-maid to supply her lady’s place’.

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‘Lady Mary Fox’ – Pompeo Batoni (1767)

Further reading

Anon., The Wife (1756)

How to find a Georgian heiress

Marriages for money, although they had been criticised on moral and practical grounds for centuries, were still very common in eighteenth-century European society, particularly among the wealthy and landed classes. Even in Jane Austen’s supposedly romantic novels, money is always a consideration when deciding whom to marry, to the point that some of her characters contract entirely loveless matches in order to escape the horrors of penurious spinsterhood.

Mercenary marriages were, however, bound to continue so long as ladies were financially dependent on men and so long as gentlemen, idle or otherwise, felt that their present income was not enough to fulfill their social ambitions. Marrying a wealthy woman was simply one of the easiest ways for cash-strapped gentlemen to indulge their expensive tastes, given that in almost all cases the wife’s money would become her husband’s to spend as he wished. This matrimonial strategy was particularly necessary for the younger sons of peers and landowners, as they were often financially short-changed by the inheritance system which favoured older brothers. Marrying an heiress might have seemed more palatable than a career in the law, the military or the Church, which were the standard options for men in their position.

Yet how were men supposed to work out how much money a potential wife really had? There was, after all, no point in wasting time and effort courting a lady who might turn out to have little or nothing to her name. Word of mouth on this matter could be unreliable. In fact, the plots of not a few contemporary novels turn on the realisation that a lady has less money than her suitor believed, thus placing the match in jeopardy (see, for instance, Catherine and the younger Tilney brother in Austen’s Northanger Abbey).

William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à la Mode. Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the bankrupt son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.
William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à la Mode. Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the bankrupt son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.

But lo! help was at hand to save fortune-hunting men from confusion and misery, in the shape of a 1742 pamphlet entitled A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory. Compiled by a Mr B. M–n (who, tellingly, signs himself as “a younger brother”), its purpose is made abundantly clear in the prefatory address ‘To all Widowers and Batchelors’:

“There are undeniably several Widowers, but many more Batchelors in the perplexed Situation [of finding a wife]; some want Acquaintance among the Ladies, others want Introduction; and hence it is that the poor Maidens themselves often sympathise; for I make no Manner of doubt, but Numbers are willing to meet either Widower or Batchelor half Way; now could any Method have been found more expedient to remove these Stumbling-blocks in the Road to Fortune and Matrimony than the following? […]

“Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice, and a fine Collection of Ladies; – Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next [publication] may be a new Sett. I heartily wish you all Success”.

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This handy document is essentially a list of the wealthiest women in Britain, listing their names, places of abode, reputed fortunes and the amount they had in the stocks. The main body of the text is charmingly divided into ‘widows’ and ‘spinsters’, the latter category covering young unmarried women as well as old ladies. Many distinguished family names are to be seen in the lists – Byron, Cecil, Cavendish, Howard, Seymour, Walpole, Grosvenor and Curzon, among others. Even the Prime Minister’s daughter, Maria Walpole, is listed; her address is given as Downing Street, and her reputed fortune as £80,000 (circa £7,000,000 in today’s money).

Most fortunes in this list are in the thousands to tens of thousands of pounds, with the exception of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, to whom the author assigns a reputed fortune of ‘Millions’ – an absolutely staggering amount of money at the time. Incidentally, this would have been referring to the first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who was 82 years old at the time this pamphlet was published. Not a conquest for the fainthearted, then.

In the case of there being more than one daughter, aristocratic sisters are listed separately. For commoners, the author merely inserts the number of sisters beside the family name to indicate that an address contains multiple marital targets. Thus we see the Misses Mabbott of Ormond Street, who had £15,000 apiece, listed simply as ‘Mabbott (2)’. Picking a family with many daughters might increase the odds of finding a beauty among them, but these young ladies were also less attractive to fortune-hunters as the parental inheritance was generally spread more thinly. Witness for instance the eight Misses Barker of Chiswick, or the seven Corbett sisters living in Mayfair, each of whom had the misfortune to come with only £5,000, as opposed to some of their contemporaries with tens of thousands of pounds. Indeed, having a large number of daughters posed quite a financial problem for all but the wealthiest parents, as each young lady was expected to provide a dowry and perhaps be entitled to some inheritance upon the deaths of her dear mamma and papa. Their families often got little in return, unless they managed to contract politically or socially useful alliances.

One might think, faced with all this, that A master-key is a cynical, even callous production, aiming shamelessly at the financial and emotional exploitation of women. While this is true, its author was at least more honest about the sordid material concerns which lay behind many contemporary marriages than the many sentimental novels of the time.

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Further Reading

B. M-n, A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory (1742)