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)

A history of Bedlam, the world’s most notorious asylum

The Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam as it is more commonly known, is Europe’s oldest extant psychiatric hospital and has operated continuously for over 600 years. It was founded in London in 1247 during the reign of Henry III, as the priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlehem. Bethlem was not actually intended as a hospital, much less as a specialist institution for the insane, but rather as a house for the poor and a centre for the collection of alms to support the Crusader Church. However, the crown seized Bethlem in the 1370s and it became an increasingly secular institution staffed by crown appointees.

The first definitive record of the presence of the insane in Bethlem is from the details of a visitation of the Charity Commissioners in 1403. This recorded that among other patients there were six male inmates who were “mente capti”, a Latin term indicating insanity. The visitation also noted the presence of four pairs of manacles, eleven chains, six locks and two pairs of stocks, presumably used to restrain the most violent inmates. In c.1450 the Mayor of London described Bedlam as a “place [where may] be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man”. Little is known of the treatment of the insane for much of the medieval period, though mechanical restraint, a meagre diet and solitary confinement are likely to have been common practices. The name “Bedlam” developed in the 14th century as a corruption of “Bethlem”, or “Bethlehem”.

Plan of the medieval Bethlem hospital
Plan of the medieval Bethlem hospital

By 1600, Bethlem was co-owned by the crown and the City of London, and run by a board of governors. The change in management doesn’t seem to have benefited the hospital’s inmates; conditions in 16th- and 17th-century Bedlam were appalling. Bethlem had been built over a sewer which served both the hospital and the surrounding area, and as it regularly blocked, waste of all kinds would seep into the building. The 1598 visitation by the Governors had observed that the hospital was “filthely kept”, and a later inspection found inmates actually starving. Under the leadership of the aptly-named Helkiah Crooke, who was dismissed in 1632 on grounds of absenteeism and embezzlement, charitable goods and foodstuffs were stolen by the steward and either personally consumed or sold on to patients. Those without the resources to trade with the steward often went hungry. It was at approximately this time that the word “Bedlam” seems to entered everyday speech to signify a state of madness and chaos.

The admittance of public visitors as a means of raising hospital income may have been allowed since the late 16th century; certainly there are 17th century accounts which describe the “Swarms of People” which descended on Bethlem during public holidays in order to amuse themselves by watching the mad inmates. The number of visitors seeking entertainment rose in the 18th century, becoming one of Bedlam’s most notorious characteristics. Visiting was defended by some commentators as a form of moral instruction, as it illustrated the dangers of immorality and vice which could, in popular belief, lead to madness. As one spectator commented, “[there is no] better lesson [to] be taught us in any part of the globe than in this school of misery…From so humbling a sight we may learn to moderate our pride, and to keep those passions within bounds, which if too much indulged, would drive reason from her seat, and level us with the wretches of this unhappy mansion”.

Figures representing Melancholia and Mania, at the entrance to Bedlam
Figures representing Melancholia and Mania, at the entrance to Bedlam

All well and good, but for the vast majority, Bedlam was simply a titillating source of cheap amusement which provided what historian Roy Porter describes as the “frisson of the freak show”. An 18th century observer recorded how on one occasion, “a hundred people at least [were] . . . suffered unattended to run rioting up and down the wards, making sport and diversion of the miserable inhabitants, [some of whom were] provoked by the insults of this holiday mob into furies of rage”. Unrestricted public access continued until 1770, after which time visitors required a ticket signed by a governor of the hospital. As distasteful as it was to have crowds flocking to make fun of the mentally ill, some historians have speculated that the lack of public oversight after 1770 allowed for more flagrant abuses.

Being such an infamous institution, Bedlam did not lack for attention in the public, literary and artistic spheres. Jonathan Swift memorably quipped, where better to recruit the nation’s politicians than Bedlam, since the inmates could not be any more insane than the ones in power! Bedlam provided a wonderfully melodramatic backdrop to literary texts, as in Eliza Haywood’s 1725 play The distress’d orphan or, Love in a mad-house. Haywood describes how “the rattling of Chains, the Shrieks of those severely treated by their barbarous Keepers, mingled with Curses, Oaths, and the most blasphemous Imprecations, did from one quarter of the House shock…tormented Ears while from another, Howlings like that of Dogs, Shoutings, Roarings, Prayers, Preaching, Curses, Singing, Crying, promiscuously join’d to make a Chaos of the most horrible Confusion”. Perhaps the most famous depiction of Bedlam is the final painting in Hogarth’s cycle The Rake’s Progress (1723-25). Driven mad by debauchery (probably an effect of syphilis), the cycle’s protagonist Tom Rakewell presents a sorry sight, sprawled on the floor of a dank cell in Bedlam. He is surrounded by other lunatics, one of whom thinks he is a king, another a bishop; wealthy visitors laugh at the wretched scene.

Bedlam, as depicted in the final scene in Hogarth's cycle A Rake's Progress (1723-25)
Bedlam, as depicted in the final scene in Hogarth’s cycle A Rake’s Progress (1723-25)

Bedlam’s medical regime – such as it was – was at best useless, at worst actively injurious to the mental health of the inmates. Mental illness was completely misunderstood at the time. Epileptics and people with learning difficulties and dementia were classed in the same group as people suffering from paranoia, schizophrenia and depression. Following Greek and Roman philosophy, it was believed that ailments were generally caused by an imbalance of the four humours; too much black bile, for instance, was thought to lead to depression. Consequently, a depletive medical system held sway in Europe until the 19th century.

The most common treatment in this system was blood-letting, but patients at Bedlam were also subject to forcibly induced vomiting, scarification and purgation. Such was the violence of the standard medical course that patients were regularly discharged or refused admission if they were deemed unfit to survive the physical onslaught. Alexander Cruden, a writer who was briefly incarcerated in Bedlam, said bitterly of the physicians there: “but is there so great Merit and Dexterity in being a mad Doctor? The common Prescriptions of a Bethlemitical Doctor are a Purge and a Vomit, and a Vomit and a Purge over again, and sometimes a Bleeding, which is no great mystery”.

Applying leeches, ready for blood-letting (C18). A common treatment in pre-modern European medicine
Applying leeches, ready for blood-letting (C18). A common treatment in pre-modern European medicine

The years 1814 and 1815 proved a turning point in Bedlam’s history. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker philanthropist and leading advocate of lunacy reform, visited several times during 1814 with the aim of inspecting conditions. Fearing bad publicity, Bedlam personnel tried to keep Wakefield out, but he eventually gained entry in the company of an MP and a governor of the hospital. He found that inmates were not classified in any logical manner, as both highly disturbed and quiescent patients were mixed together indiscriminately. Patients were chained to the wall, sometimes with thick iron rings around their necks; it was said that “chains are universally submitted for the strait-waistcoat”. In 1818 a former Bedlam inmate, Urbane Metcalf, described the case of a man named Popplestone, “whose leg rotted off as he was chained up for such a lengthy period that the metal cut into his flesh”. There was also the infamous case of the American marine, James Norris, whose intestines burst after being confined in chains for over a decade.

Wakefield and others revealed how keepers at Bedlam could be brutal and even sadistic towards their mentally ill charges. Wakefield recounted an incident in which “a man arose naked from his bed, and had deliberately and quietly walked a few paces from his cell door along the gallery; he was instantly seized by the keepers. thrown into his bed, and leg-locked, without enquiry or observation”. Metcalf reported an alleged case of murder: “Fowler [a patient], was one morning put in the bath by Blackburn [a keeper], who ordered a patient then bathing, to hold him down; he did so, and the consequence was the death of Fowler, and though this was known to the officers it was hushed up”. Metcalf also described a how a keeper named Davis, a “cruel, unjust and drunken man…for many years as keeper secretly practised the greatest cruelties to those under his care”.

368px-James_Norris,_Bethlem_Patient,_1815.jpg. norris was American marine imprisoned in Bedlam since 1800
James Norris, the American marine whose intestines burst as a result of over 10 years of being chained up

Notwithstanding the prevailing idea that women were weak and fragile vessels who needed tender protection, female patients at Bedlam were not treated particularly gently. Wakefield describes his visit to the womens’ section as follows: “each [inmate was] chained by one arm or leg to the wall…The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only… One female thus chained, was an object remarkably striking; she mentioned her maiden and married names, and stated that she had been a teacher of languages…The Committee can hardly imagine a human being in a more degraded and brutalizing situation than that in which I found this female, who held a coherent conversation with us, and was of course fully sensible of the mental and bodily condition of those wretched beings [also incarcerated there]”. Sexual assault by male keepers was a problem faced by many women at Bedlam. John Haslam, author of the 1815 Report from the Committee on Madhouses, alleged that “some years ago, a female patient had been impregnated twice, during the time she was in the Hospital; at one time she miscarried; and the person who was proved to have had connexion with her, being a keeper, was accordingly discharged”.

Following Wakefield’s revelations, Thomas Monro, Bedlam’s principal physician, resigned after being accused of “wanting in humanity” towards his patients. Wakefield’s testimony, combined with reports about patient maltreatment at other asylums helped prompt a campaign for national lunacy reform, resulting in the establishment of a House of Commons Select Committee on Madhouses in 1815. This examined the conditions under which the insane were confined in county asylums, private madhouses, charitable asylums and in the lunatic wards of Poor Law workhouses.

Gradually, attitudes to madness changed across the medical profession and more widely in society. The emphasis increasingly shifted from the external control of the insane through physical restraint and coercion, to their moral management whereby a system of punishment and reward would encourage self-discipline. Bedlam itself became a more humane place under the influence of William Hood, who became chief medical superintendent in 1853. A further House of Commons Select Committee on the Operations of the Lunacy Laws, which met in 1877, heard the testimony of Sir James Coxe, who echoed society’s changing attitudes towards madhouses: “I think it is a very hard case for a man to be locked up in an asylum and kept there; you may call it anything you like, but it is a prison.” It was, however, not until 1890 that the status of lunatics was changed, by parliamentary legislation, from prisoners to patients.

 

Coffee-houses of London

Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital’s intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.

When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that “all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’ Coffee-house”.

 

17th-century London coffee-house
17th-century London coffee-house

Literature
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the ‘Wits’, gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a “very witty and pleasant discourse” at Will’s, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II’s latest mistress, he doesn’t say.  After Dryden’s death, Will’s began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that “this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game”.

With Will’s now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button’s Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope’s satirical poem “The Rape of the Lock” was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button’s. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button’s status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion’s head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion’s mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.

 

An illustration of the lion's head letterbox at Button's Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
An illustration of the lion’s head letterbox at Button’s Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
Trio of notables at Button's Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730
Trio of notables at Button’s Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730


Science

Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.

Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London’s coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd’s Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd’s continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd’s, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London.

Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House
Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House

Politics
The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: “I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’ Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve”.

 

Sociability
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White’s Chocolate House. White’s was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White’s the “bane of half the English nobility”, referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member’s club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.

 

Eccentricity
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt’s Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth’s father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.
White's Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, 1735
White’s Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, 1735

I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.