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)