The real Harlots: Hallie Rubenhold on Covent Garden’s courtesans

In 1757, Samuel Derrick, a penniless and homeless poet, created The Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a compendium of information about London’s prostitutes. Historian Hallie Rubenhold, author of a book investigating the handbook of the '18th-century pimp', found it revealed much about the situation of the courtesans of the Georgian period…

The Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (Public Domain)

It has often been claimed that the story of history’s underclass is a difficult one to tell as so few details of the lives of these individuals have been documented. However, in the second half of the 18th century, one astute observer left a remarkable and colourful record of London’s working women. In 1757, Samuel Derrick, a penniless and homeless poet, created The Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a compendium of information about London’s prostitutes. Designed as a necessary accessory for the Georgian “man of pleasure”, the guidebook became an annual publication for the next 38 years. For 2s 6d, men like James Boswell could purchase this small leather-bound volume and read about the physical appearances and personal histories of London’s “votaries of Venus”.

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Designed as a necessary accessory for the Georgian 'man of pleasure', the guidebook became an annual publication for the next 38 years

As its name suggests, The Harris’s List was not entirely the invention of Samuel Derrick. For several years prior to its publication it existed in handwritten form as the sole possession of the self-proclaimed “Pimp-General of all England”, Jack Harris. Harris (whose real name was John Harrison) served as the head waiter at Covent Garden’s emporium of drink and sin, the Shakespear’s Head Tavern. Having gained a reputation for “making introductions” between patrons and ladies of the town, Harris fell back on the tradition of documenting his business by maintaining a ledger of prostitutes. As Covent Garden, with its theatres, bath houses, taverns, and coffee houses, was considered to be London’s centre of entertainment, Harris and his “ladies” did a booming trade. At the height of his dominion, in the late 1750s, it was rumoured that Harris’s handwritten list bulged with no less than 400 names. The head waiter of the Shakespear’s Head had also grown wealthy by his well-managed enterprise, claiming to have earned, “four or five thousand pounds in a half dozen years”; roughly £500,000 by today’s standards.

Hugh Skinner and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Harlots'
Hugh Skinner and Jessica Brown Findlay in ‘Harlots’, now available on BBC iPlayer. (Image by Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Fortunes to be made from flesh

While prostitution and the “procuring of women” was illegal in 18th-century London, the law made few significant attempts to apprehend men like Jack Harris, its primary perpetrators. Sex was a profitable industry for the capital’s brothel-keepers, pimps, procuresses and courtesans, many of whom, like Moll King, the keeper of Tom King’s Coffee House, were able to retire to a comfortable existence with a fortune of thousands. It was natural, therefore, that those who found themselves in financial need often looked to the flesh trade for assistance.

Harlots
Sex was a profitable industry in 18th century London, as shown in ‘Harlots’. (Image by Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Samuel Derrick was in just such a position when he alighted upon the idea of creating his own version of Harris’s list. Born into a family of Dublin linen drapers in 1724, Derrick had always fostered ambitions of becoming “a poet of the first rank”. This was never to be. Derrick set out for London around 1751 and attempted to establish himself, trying his hand as both a dramatist and actor. Although he managed to secure a meagre living as a literary translator and a Grub Street author, Sam chose to squander his money on the pleasures of Covent Garden. While his literary friends like Tobias Smollet occasionally offered him shelter and “slipt a guinea into his hand” at the worst of times Derrick was forced to sleep rough on the streets of London. In 1757 the author’s irresponsible spending finally got the better of him. Unable to pay his bills he was apprehended by the bailiffs and imprisoned in a “sponging house”, a privately operated lock-up for debtors. It was from these confines that Derrick concocted a money-spinning scheme designed to regain him his liberty.

The Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies became an instant sensation. It has been suggested that approximately 8,000 copies of it were sold yearly

Years of merry-making in the company of London’s prostitutes meant that Derrick knew the women of Covent Garden as well as Jack Harris. His version of The Harris’s List is not merely a record of those whose services were available, but a witty and journalistic chronicle of the area’s female characters. As a publication, its intention was to entertain Covent Garden’s regular crowd of “bucks and bloods” as much as it was to advertise the women listed within it. Derrick’s hastily scribbled manuscript was snapped up by the elusive Fleet Street publisher of obscenity, H Ranger, who was said to have paid “a handsome sum” for it, which “thereby secured Derrick his freedom”.

The Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies became an instant sensation. It has been suggested that approximately 8,000 copies of it were sold yearly, though it is likely that these numbers are slightly exaggerated. Nevertheless, its production became an enduring enterprise. After Sam Derrick’s death in 1769, The List continued to appear on booksellers’ shelves, though the names of its ensuing editors are unknown. Increasingly, its succeeding authors were not as interested in documenting the area’s colourful personalities as they were in creating bawdy advertisements for the listees. By the time the publication was stamped out in 1795, the work was little more than a guidebook of names and addresses featuring reprinted stories from earlier editions.


Listen: Hallie Rubenhold discusses the little-known life stories of Jack the Ripper’s five victims on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


A snapshot of the Georgian woman’s lot

Today, only a handful of The Harris’s Lists (those from 1761, 1764, 1773, 1774, 1779, 1788–90 and 1793) remain in public collections. When examined alongside additional material from the period, such as diaries, newspaper articles and popular literature, they assist in painting a picture of the lives of poor and lower-middle class Georgian women.

In 1758, shortly after the first edition of The Harris’s List came into print, the magistrate and moral reformer Saunders Welch estimated that of a population of 675,000, London was home to approximately 3,000 prostitutes. Although Welch suggested that the majority of these women came from a class of “industrious poor”, a level just above the truly impoverished, there is much to suggest that their backgrounds were more wide-ranging than this. Among those names that appear on The Harris’s Lists are those who had previously worked as trained milliners, glove makers and seamstresses, in addition to domestic servants, shop-keepers, actresses, singers and married women. Women are often described as being literate or “having received a tolerable education”.

The Harris's Lists
The Harris’s Lists “assist in painting a picture of the lives of poor and lower-middle class Georgian women”, says Hallie Rubenhold. (Image by Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Information gleaned from The Lists also provides an insight into these women’s daily existences, and in particular their living arrangements. As each woman’s listing is accompanied by her address, it is possible to gain a picture of the demographic distribution of prostitution across London’s west end. Prostitutes were not geographically confined to “red light districts” during the 18th century. Instead they lived cheek-by-jowl with their more respectable neighbours and businesses, not only in and around Covent Garden but in Soho, St James, Piccadilly, Mayfair, Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia and Marylebone. Rather than facing ostracism from within these communities, many trades-people let out lodgings to prostitutes. Sally Forman, for example lived “At a Chandler’s Shop, in Fleet Market”, while Sally Straton, could be found “at a Grocer’s in Little Wild Street”.

Information gleaned from The Lists also provides an insight into these women’s daily existences, and in particular their living arrangements

Similarly, not every prostitute worked out of a brothel. Many shared accommodation with fellow ladies of the town, like the notorious duo Miss Townsend and Miss Charlton of 12 Gress Street, who not only lived under the same roof but also shared the expenses of their own carriage. Others, like Becky Lefevre of Frith Street, who were fortunate enough to be placed in “high keeping” by a wealthy admirer, frequently let out spare rooms in their own houses to other members of “the sisterhood”.

As might be imagined, the experience of prostitution in Georgian London varied immensely. The Harris’s Lists contain an array of women’s stories, from that of the celebrated beauty Emily Coulthurst, who resided in splendour at Mrs Mitchell’s King’s Place “nunnery”, to the tragic Kitty Atchison who “more than once endeavored to extricate herself” from the grasp of her profession. The entries also reveal that the capital’s “legions of Venus” were a far from homogenous group. A surprisingly diverse population of continental and eastern European as well as American and West Indian women swelled its ranks. Some, like Madam Dafloz, came to London to escape from French revolutionaries. Others, like the Sells sisters, were the daughters of immigrants. It is their previously unheard tales that make The Harris’s Lists such a unique and fascinating set of documents.

A closer look at the ‘Ladies’ of Harris’s Lists

The following are extracts from later editions of the List, which was constantly updated to keep up with the changing fortunes of London’s ‘votaries of Venus’

Miss Wilkins

“What an angelic face! – but what a form!” This lady very lately resided in Princes Street, Bloomsbury, at a midwife’s. She is not above twenty, and has a very engaging countenance, with fine, dark, melting eyes, and very regular teeth. Her person does not entirely correspond; she is short and very crooked; but she has a certain latent charm that more than compensates for any deformity of body. In a word, take her all in all, she is a very good piece; and, if you can forget she is hunch-backed, she is a little Venus. (1773)

Mrs Horton, No 3, Beauclerc’s Buildings

“Ah! La jolie de petite Bourgeoise” Keeps a shop and sells gloves, garters, &c. and drives on a very capital trade, considering she has no shop-woman to assist her; her customers are but few, yet they are good ones, and always pay ready money; she is short and plump, has a good dark eye, and is full-breasted; her legs are remarkably well made, and she is reputed a most excellent bed-fellow. In trying on a glove she will create desire; and in selling her garters, she will commend that pattern which she wears herself, and will make no scruple of showing her legs; she has great good nature, and we do not recollect any woman who is better qualified as a shop-keeper; her age is twenty-six. (1779)

Lucy Bradley, Silver Street, Cheapside

Alow, square built lass, with a good complexion, void of art; her face is round, and her features regular; her hair is dark, and her eyes hazel. She lived as a nursery maid with a foreign practitioner of physic, near Soho, who took first possession of her, not without some force. She gets up small linen and works well with her needle; has some good sense, and honest principles. Necessity first compelled her to see company, and she seems conscious of its not being right. (1761)

‘The Abbesses’ of King’s Place

During the 18th century, King’s Place, a passage that ran between King’s Street and Pall Mall, was home to England’s most exclusive brothels or “nunneries”. It was patronised by the aristocracy and royalty. Prostitutes who plied their trade there included these two colourful figures:

Harriot Lewis

Born in Guinea, Harriott Lewis (or “Black Harriott”, as she was known) began life as a slave on a plantation of Captain William Lewis, who brought her to London as his mistress in 1766. The death of her lover left Harriott alone in the capital. With the help of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich, she opened a brothel on King’s Place. Her business prospered until 1778, when her servants robbed her. Unable to recover financially, Harriott was committed to debtor’s prison where she died shortly thereafter.

Charlotte Hayes

The daughter of courtesan and brothel keeper Elizabeth Ward, Charlotte was born into a life of prostitution in 1725. Called “Santa Charlotta of King’s Place”, she was renowned for her “unaffected charm” and honesty. It was these qualities that inspired Samuel Derrick (her one-time lover) to bequeath the profits of his List to her. Charlotte, however, was a calculating business-woman. Despite a period imprisoned for debt, by 1769 she and her partner Dennis O’Kelly had built an empire around horse racing and brothel-keeping said to be worth at least £40,000.

Hallie Rubenhold is the author of The Covent Garden Ladies; Pimp General Jack and the Extraordinary Story of the Harris’s List (Tempus, 2005) and edited The Harris’s List, 1793 (Tempus, Autumn 2005)

Harlots, a drama inspired by Rubenhold’s The Covent Garden Ladies, is streaming now on BBC iPlayer now. 

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This article was first published in the June 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine