16 September 2008

Women: Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies

By Anita Davison

In Georgian England, for a man about town to enlist the services of a prostitute was an accepted part of life. London in1797 contained a total of 50,000 'Ladies of the Night,' which was around one in ten of the total female population. Covent Garden theatres were built with 'retiring rooms' connected to the boxes in order for the entertainment of clients while they enjoyed an evening out at the theatre. Even the vocabulary used to describe them was colourful.

-- Prostitutes who waited outside theatres for the plays to finish were called 'spells.'
-- Lower class streetwalkers were 'flash mollishers.'
-- Covent Garden Ague was a term for venereal disease.
-- Covent Garden Nun was another name for a prostitute.
-- Covent Garden Abbess was a bawd (madam) most of whom started out as whores themselves.

Between the years of 1757 and 1795, a publication was produced each Christmas entitled Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. This book was handwritten to begin with, but soon went into print and sold a quarter of a million copies during the thirty eight years it was produced. The List, priced at two shillings and sixpence, was a catalogue of around eighty up-market prostitutes. It included biographical details of each lady, together with a description of her appearance, personality and her sexual specialties, together with their charges.

Jack Got Safe into Port with His Prize
The name "Harris' referred to a Jack Harris, the head waiter at the Shakespeare's Head, a Covent Garden tavern frequented by sea captains and the directors of the East India Company. Harris christened himself the "Pimp General of All England," but in 1757, he was in Newgate prison for debt. He gave an impoverished, heavy drinking Irish poet by the name of Samuel Derrick, permission to use his name for the book.

A 'common whore' could be purchased in London for a shilling, perhaps two or three shillings to enjoy her company in a bedroom in a local tavern or lodging house. The average wage at the time was around a pound a week, and two pounds was a fairly large sum of money. With some of the ladies on Harris's Lists charging a guinea a time, the lists represented the top end of the market.

Jack Oakham Throwing Out a Signal for an Engagement
An account of one young woman from the 1773 edition reads:
Miss M__tague is a well-shaped girl, about twenty-three, good-natured and said to be thoroughly experienced in the whole art and mysterie of Venus's tactics and as soon reduce a perpendicular to less than the curve of a parabola. She is rather generous and you may sometimes find your way in there free of expence.
From the 1780 edition, the entry for a Miss B____rn. of No. l8 Old Compton Street, Soho:
This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianofort, sings, dances, and is mistress of every Maneuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance, which ever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds.
The list also alerted its readers to those women who were best avoided, a Pol Forestor was reported as having "breath worse than a Welch bagpipe" and warned against the "contaminated carcase" of a certain Miss Young from the Turk's Head Bagnio. And warning them off Miss Robinson, at the Jelly Shops, "a slim and genteel made girl--but rather too flat."

A review of one resident of Drury Lane reads, "Very impudent and very ugly; chiefly a dealer with old fellows. It is reported that she uses more birch rods in a week than Westminster school in a twelvemonth."

And another:
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 Mrs. Crosby of 24 George Street, for example, "being particularly attached to the sons of Neptune," (sailors) had married an elderly sea captain. When he died he left her a small annuity. This was enough to keep her off the streets, but not enough to live on--so she worked as a part-time prostitute. Harris's List says, "Mrs. Crosby could be contacted at home during the day or in the theatre at night. She has dark hair flowing in ringlets down her back, languishing grey eyes and a tolerable complexion." She charged one guinea (£1.05).

Men of War Bound for the Port of Pleasure
Of a Mrs. Grafton of Wapping, her "...best customers are sea officers, who she particularly liked, as they do not stay long at home, and always return fraught with love and presents." At 40 years old, the lady "...could give more pleasure than a dozen girls half her age. Her price was 5 shillings (25p). Most naval officers could afford that, as a day's pay for most captains in this period was about 20 shillings (£1.00).

Harris often used nautical terminology when describing the charms of the women. Miss Devonshire of Queen Ann Street had "...fair complexion, cerulean eyes and fine teeth," and "...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."

The mood turned against such 'immorality' when a Mr. Aitken was convicted at the Kings Bench for the offence of publishing Harris's List in November 1795, which hereafter went out of print.

A copy of the 1790 edition was sold for £5,170 at auction in March 2008.