By Jack Lynch
Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies; or, New Atlantis for the Year 1761: To Which Is Annexed, The Ghost of Moll King; or, A Night at Derry’s; Harris’s List of Covent-GardenLadies; or, Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar, for the Year 1773: Containing an Exact Description of the Most Celebrated Ladies of Pleasure Who Frequent Covent-Garden, and Other Parts of This Metropolis; Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies; or, Man of Pleasure’s Kalender, for the Year, 1788: Containing the Histories and Some Curious Anecdotes of the Most Celebrated Ladies Now on the Town, or in Keeping, and Also Many of Their Keepers.
It’s a common enough problem: you’re a young buck newly arrived in the big city, you’re eager to find a prostitute, but you don’t know where to start — you don’t want to be ripped off and you don’t want to come down with a disease.
Enter Jack Harris, the “Pimp General of All England,” with his eminently useful reference book: a guide to London’s strumpets, their specialties, and their fees. Even though prostitution was illegal, both the author and the users would have taken comfort in the fact that there was no organized law enforcement to do anything about it.
Harris’s List wasn’t the first such book; there had been examples in England through the Restoration, like the Wandering Whore, which appeared in five issues in 1660–61, and A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks & Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-Friends, Kind Women and Other of the Linnen-Lifting Tribe (1691), which wins my award for the most inventive title.
But Harris’s List lasted from 1757 to 1795, and was quite the publishing phenomenon.
(Only a few copies from a few years survive; most of the books were apparently read until they fell apart, and never made it into libraries.) The actual author of the List in the early days may have been Samuel Derrick, though details are sketchy, and someone must have taken over from him after his death in 1769.
Whoever was responsible for it, Harris’s List was a remarkable reference, a guide to all the well-known prostitutes of London. Some come off pretty well. “Miss Kitty W-ll-s, alias D---e,” for instance, is praised:
“This lady was born of English parents, at Brussels; speaks very good French, has a natural gaiety of temper, genteel in her deportment and behaviour. ... She is much indebted both to beauty and fortune; to the former for a very lovely skin, beautiful eyes, of a dark brown, fine carnation in her cheeks, a lovely pair of pouting lips, fine teeth, an agreeable forehead, and dark brown hair. Some pretend to say she is too lusty, but ’tis not our province to determine in these matters.”
But “Miss Tamer G-rd-n” fares less well. True, “She has a fine round face” and “a pleasing figure” — but “here her qualifications cease, for in the rites of Venus she is as cold as a Dutch woman.” And poor Miss A—ms gets it even worse:
“Come forward, thou dear, drowsy, gin-drinking, suff-taking Miss A—ms: what in the name of wonder could influence you to leave a profession in which you was bred, for one to which you do not appear to have the least pretensions. I must own, I cannot say what hidden charms you may possess. Don’t you think those arms and hands of yours had better stuck [sic] to their original calling, cleaning of grates, scrubbing of floors, and keeping a house neat and clean, than drinking arrack-punch, getting drunk, and setting up for a fine lady? But soft; we are finding fault with the wrong person; ’tis your admirers who are to blame, that are so blind not to distinguish between the girl of beauty and merit, and a drunken snuffy drab.”
We learn that Miss A—ms “is rather under the middle size, fair hair, gray eyes, tolerable good skin, pock-marked a little, and may easily be known by the quantity of Scotch snuff she takes, particularly when she is in liquor. ... Her breath, from drinking, has acquired a very disagreeable smell: how her friend reconciles this, we cannot say.”
Those who want to know more can get a readable selection of entries in Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, ed. Hallie Rubenhold (Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2005). Or you can read a very smart article by friend Liz: Elizabeth C. Denlinger, “The Garment and the Man: Masculine Desire in Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1764–1793,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 3 (2002): 357–94.
(Jack Lynch is English professor at Rutgers University in Newark and author of a pile of books, both scholarly and popular. This article was first published in his blog “You Could Look It Up”. It is presented here by permission of the author.)