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)

Castle Ward, a house divided by marriage

Castle Ward, in Northern Ireland, is a remarkable building, though it is not known for architectural brilliance, opulent interiors, great artworks, or beautiful gardens. Instead, what strikes you when you visit Castle Ward is the overwhelming sense that the architect must have been deranged. This is because one half of the stone mansion is done up entirely in Georgian classical style, while the other half – right down to the furnishings – is constructed in eighteenth-century Gothic Revival style. One might suspect this to be some morbid joke on the part of the architect, or the wild frolic of some mad craftsman. However, the house’s dual aspect was in fact intentional and is, as far as I know, the only example of its kind.

Originally known as Carrick na Sheannagh and owned by the Earls of Kildare, Castle Ward had been the home of the Ward family since around 1570. The Wards were prominent Anglo-Irish gentry, elevated into the aristocracy when Bernard Ward was made 1st Viscount Bangor, in recognition of his political service. In 1747, Bernard married the widow Lady Ann Bligh and started building a new, grander edifice suitable for the dignity of his position.

However, Bernard ran into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in his quest to design the perfect house: namely, his wife. While Bernard favoured a cool and masculine classical style, Ann much preferred Georgian Gothic Revival, with its turrets, spires, fan vault ceilings and pseudo-medieval décor. It might be supposed that in the 18th century, the taste of the wife would have to be subservient to that of her husband; the building (along with the wife) was generally his property, after all. Clearly, however, Ann felt so strongly about the architecture and interior of the proposed house that Bernard was obliged to relent and allow her to have half the house built and decorated as she wished. Their subsequent joint efforts were mocked by the Bluestocking artist Mrs Delany, who visited in July 1762 and wrote in a letter that Bernard lacked taste and Ann was ‘so whimsical that I doubt her judgment’.

Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor
Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor
Ann, Viscountess Bangor
Ann, Viscountess Bangor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In her excellent book, Behind Closed Doors: At home in Georgian England, Amanda Vickery writes of the Wards and their house:

“…division was unmissable at Castle Ward in County Down in Ireland in the early 1760s, where marital disagreement over style resulted in clashing Gothic and classical wings. The Wards separated shortly after the building was completed – architectural incompatibility was prophetic.”

I suspect that Vickery is being tongue-in-cheek; notwithstanding their different architectural tastes, we don’t know whether Bernard and Ann were unhappy for a long time or whether the separation came on suddenly. Ann did stick around to bear her husband eight children, after all. In fact, some sources claim that Ann and Bernard never actually separated.

The entrance side of the building is done in Bernard’s preferred stern Palladian style, with columns supporting a triangular pediment. Ann was allowed to have the back of the house done up in the way she wanted, built in the Georgian Gothic style with pointed windows, spires, and even battlements.

Palladian exterior Irishdeltaforce

gothic exterior Ardfern

The interior followed a strict division along these lines, with the front half of the house decked out in Palladian/classical style, and the back half in Gothic Revival, covering everything from ceilings to bookcases to stairwells. On the one hand it is noteworthy that Ann was allowed to decorate half of the house entirely in her own style; on the other, it is telling that she was given the back of the house, with its private sitting rooms, while the reception rooms were all done in her husband’s preferred neoclassical style.

The following rooms are from Bernard’s side of the house, and follow a cool neoclassical theme in both decoration and architectural features.

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Entrance hallway
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Note the white and pale green colours, and the austere classical-style door frames

 

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Antique Greek bust amid classical columns

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palladian 3 Ardfern
Compare the austere ceiling stucco design with Ann’s ceilings, below

The following rooms, designed according to Ann’s taste, present a strong contrast. They are full of Gothic Revival decoration and furniture, and the overall effect is, in my opinion, much more domestic and warm. She must have found these rooms more comfortable to spend time in than the draughty neoclassical reception rooms favoured by her husband.

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Note the fanciful ceiling, the red chairs and wallpaper, and the use of wall sconces
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The window shape seems an odd mixture of the Gothic and the Oriental styles
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This fanciful ceiling design seems to combine ‘oriental’ aspects with the fan vaulting found in many Gothic cathedrals
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Gothic Revival-style cupboard
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The door which leads into the neoclassical half of the house
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Gothic-style fireplace

Interestingly, Ann’s architecture and furnishings somewhat resemble that of Strawberry Hill House, a Gothic Revival villa built from the 1740s-70s by author Horace Walpole. I don’t know for sure whether Ann was influenced by Walpole’s design, or just more generally by the Gothic Revival, but the similarities are striking.

Strawberry_Hill_House_May_2013_22 Jonathan Cardy
Compare the fan vault ceilings and the red wall colour
Strawberry_Hill_House_from_garden Chiswick Chap
Both houses feature battlements, vaguely Gothic-shaped windows, and little spires
Strawberry_Hill_House_May_2013_09 Jonathan Cardy
A door shaped like the one which divided Ann’s side of the house from her husband’s
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These Gothic Revival bookcases are reminiscent of Ann’s, though these are much lighter and more elegant