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.


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’.

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’.


‘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’.

‘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’.

‘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’.

‘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”.


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.


Further Reading

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

How to hire women: a guide from 1943

It’s often said that World War Two was liberating for women in Britain and North America because the shortage of manpower allowed them to take on work traditionally performed by men. Whilst this is true to an extent, it shouldn’t be assumed that the prevailing views of gender roles and characteristics, which put men and women into very different spheres, just disappeared. During, before and after the war, women in the workplace were often seen as ‘different’ and consequently patronised. We can clearly see this in a guide published in the July 1943 issue of Transportation magazine, which provides advice for male employers on how to manage their female employees. You can find blurry scans of the original article here, but I have copied out the entire text and added several photographs which show American women at work from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, women who were quite possibly treated in the way the article suggests.


There’s no longer any question whether transit companies should hire women for jobs formerly held by men. The draft and manpower shortage has settled that point. The important things now are to select the most efficient women available and how to use them to the best advantage. Here are eleven helpful tips on the subject from Western Properties:

1. Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard and deal with the public efficiently.
A clerk in Washington D.C., January 1943
A clerk in Washington D.C., January 1943
2. When you have to use older women, try to get ones who have worked outside the home at some time in their lives. Older women who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting themselves and are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy. It’s always well to impress upon older women the importance of friendliness and courtesy.
3. General experience indicates that “husky” girls – those who are just a little on the heavy side – are more even tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.
4. Retain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination – one covering female conditions. This step not only protects the property against the possibilities of lawsuit, but reveals whether the employee-to-be has any female weaknesses which would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job.
The 32B Secretary Treasurer's office in 1937, New York
The 32B Secretary Treasurer’s office in 1937, New York
5. Stress at the outset the importance of time, the fact that a minute or two lost here and there makes serious inroads on schedules. Until this point is gotten across, service is likely to be slowed up.

6. Give the female employees a definite day-long schedule of duties so that they’ll keep busy without bothering the management for instructions every few minutes. Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack initiative in finding work themselves.
7. Whenever possible, let the inside employee change from one job to another at some point during the day. Women are inclined to be less nervous and happier with change.
8. Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.
Female office workers, 1951
Female office workers, 1951
9. Be tactful when issuing instructions or in making criticism. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman – it breaks her spirit and cuts off her efficiency.
10. Be reasonably considerate about using strong language around women. Even though a girl’s husband or father may swear vociferously,  she’ll grow to dislike a place of a business where she hears too much of this.
11. Get enough size variety in operator’s uniforms so that each girl can have a proper fit. This point can’t be stressed too much in keeping women happy.

Etiquette advice from 1679

Continuing on from 17th century romantic compliments, here is some advice from 1679 on how not to behave in public. The book, The Refin’d Courtier, or, A Correction of several Indecencies crept into Civil Conversation, criticises the foul manners of some of the author’s high-born contemporaries. It provides an interesting insight into the social etiquette of Restoration Britain, showing that much of what was socially prohibited then is still thought bad manners today.

On bodily effusions

*It is an uncomely thing…after you have blown your Nose, to open and look upon, and rub your Handkerchief, as if a Pearl or a Rubie were dropt unto it, or some precious Liquor distill’d from the Brain
* The Ears are offended by gnashing and grating the Teeth, and by breaking wind, and by snorting and snuffing up the nose
* Nor does it consist with good manners, to prepare for the easing of Nature in publick view, or to truss up our Clothes before others when we return from performing that office
On table manners
*Tis an unmannerly trick to wet your fore-finger in your mouth, and to print it in the Salt-cellar, and then to lick the salt that sticks to it
*Neither is it a cleanly Fashion for any to put his Nose towards a glass of Wine which another is about to drink, or to smell to that which is laid upon his neighbour’s Trencher
If music be the food of love…
*We ought industriously to refrain from singing, especially if the voice be immusical…or if we are not desir’d to shew our skill…commonly those who have no sweetness at all, but make a noise as harsh as a Mandrake, are readiest to transgress in this kind

Further Reading

17th-century courting advice

A Lady and Two Gentlemen - Johannes Vermeer, 1659. The lady blushes at something the gentleman next to her has said, while the unlucky suitor sits despondently in the corner.
A Lady and Two Gentlemen – Johannes Vermeer, 1659

The internet is awash with relationship advice. Just searching for ‘chat-up lines’ brings up over a million results, revealing scores of people wondering how to impress the stranger across the room with charming, witty and suggestive opening gambits. Most of these lines are of dubious quality at best and I’m not sure how many people actually use them seriously, but they can claim to be part of a long tradition. For example, hopeful lovers in the 17th century could turn to one of the many ‘books of compliments’ for collections of one-liners which covered a multitude of potential romantic situations. These books usually included lists of flowery compliments, phrases to stop unwelcome advances, expressions for ending a liasion, and insults to use in response to a rejection. Here is a selection of some of the best. I have kept the original spellings.

How to compliment a woman
* Madam, you have vanquished me, I am an eternal prisoner to your beauty
* Fair creature, You are that rich Cabinet wherein Nature hath lockt up all her rarities
* Madam, if there be a Heaven to reward vertues, your name will be recorded in the Register of Saints
How to please a man
* Sir, I shall desire no greater glory of you, than new proofs of my Obedience
* Sir, you have the power to sway me as you please
* Sir, I yield myself to your direction, manage me at your pleasure
The Academy of Complements, 168? Note the scribble at the top, 'Edward Jones. his Booke'
The Academy of Complements, 1684
Note the scribble at the top, ‘Edward Jones. his Booke’
How to handle compliments
* Sir, leave your superfluous language, I am none of those Ladies that are enamoured with flattering acrosticks
* Madam, my language is as my Intentions, plain and real, he that makes use of golden words, does it only to gild over the corruptions of his soul
* Sir, your language is more dubious than the oracle at Delphi

How to respond to a rejection

* Coy mistress, once I loved you, but have learned more Wit now than to followe such a blind guide as Cupid
* Scornful girl, can you imagine I ever did intend to dote, especially on that small stock of beauty of yours, which serves only to convince me, you are not extreamly ugly
Some more unconventional lines
* Sir, your accomplishments speak you the Muses’ darling; you have suck’d the marrow of the Court
* Sir, the toyish conceites of your Youth are unfit for the testie cogitations of my age
* Madam, the perfume of your sweete breath informs me your Mother fed on Roses when she bred you
Cupid's Court of Salutations, 1687
Cupid’s Court of Salutations, 1687

Further Reading

John Gough, The Academy of Complements (1663)

Mrs Beeton’s Advertisements

Tucked in the row of cookery books in our dining room, we have an edition of Mrs Beeton’s Every-Day Cookery. Although it’s from 1923 and the sections on household management had been updated, the great bulk of the book is the same as it was when it was first published in 1861. To my knowledge we’ve never actually used the recipes, perhaps not surprisingly, since the measures are archaic and many of the ingredients seldom used today. Some of the dishes are also rather strange – I’m not sure that “stewed ox-palate” would go down very well at a dinner party.

However, I’ve always found the book a fascinating insight into what the average middle class family might have been eating 100-150 years ago. One of my favourite parts is the front- and back-matter, where advertisements for gelatine and beef tea jostle for space with promotions of new-fangled labour-saving devices and adverts for guidebooks and advice manuals. In this post, I have gathered together some of the most interesting advertisements. It’s interesting to see how unsubtle advertising used to be, to discern the influence of the British Empire on the circulation and promotion of material goods, and to note how contemporary concerns such as economical living and the use of natural foodstuffs were played upon, just as they are today.

Some food products have distinctly imperialist overtones:

Note the elaborate header, which portrays Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Australia all centred around England
Note the elaborate header, which portrays Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Australia all centred around England


Other advertisements promote different brands of the same product, each claiming superiority over the other by virtue of purity and taste:









Several of the food products advertised still exist today, though one or two have been put to unexpected uses:


Lemco has since been used as 'Lab Lemco' in a wide range of bacteriological growth media
Lemco has since been used as ‘Lab Lemco’ in a wide range of bacteriological growth media
Created by George IV's chef in 1824; legend has it that George IV liked it so much, he declared it was "A.1.". Now owned by Kraft Foods and sold as "A.1. steak sauce" in American supermarkets.
Created by George IV’s chef in 1824; legend has it that George IV liked it so much, he declared it was “A.1.”. Now owned by Kraft Foods and sold as “A.1. steak sauce” in American supermarkets.
The mincemeat range has disappeared, but "Golden Shred" marmalade remains popular
The mincemeat range has disappeared, but “Golden Shred” marmalade remains popular


Here are a few more typical examples with which to finish off:


An early – and unwieldy – vacuum cleaner
"Used at Queen Alexandra's Technical School, Sandringham"
“Used at Queen Alexandra’s Technical School, Sandringham”
"The most luscious tea in the world"
“The most luscious tea in the world”