London’s Best-Selling Guide To Covent Garden Ladies Of The Night

By Debra Kelly on Friday, June 12, 2015
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“I can enjoy her while she’s kind; / But when she dances in the wind, / And shakes the wings and will not stay, / I puff the prostitute away: / The little or the much she gave is quietly resign’d: / Content with poverty, my soul I arm; / And virtue, though in rags, will keep me warm.” —John Dryden, “Imitation of Horace”

In A Nutshell

So, you’re a young man just arrived in 18th-century London, and you’re looking for a little fun. You don’t want to take up with the wrong girl, get ripped off, or catch some disease, right? Fortunately for you, there’s a guidebook available that’ll save you quite a bit of time in finding a wise investment. It was called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, and it gave all the details—including names, addresses, appearance, and specialties—of all Covent Garden’s top prostitutes. And it was a best seller.

The Whole Bushel

The “little black book” might be a rather overdone fictional trope, but from 1757 to 1795, there really was something of a little black book published in London. Unsurprisingly, it was a smash hit.

It was called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, and it wasn’t just a list of names. The book was a list of all the active and practicing Covent Garden prostitutes, and estimates suggest it sold about 8,000 copies every year. The public service guide wasn’t just to give men a way to find someone who was going to supply them with what they were looking for (and save them a lot of time), but it also provided information on who was a rip-off and who was carrying a disease of one variety or another.

At the time, most of London’s ladies of ill repute were to be found in Covent Garden and The Strand, surrounded by taverns, coffee houses, and theaters. It was rather usual for men to come to the area from outside for a night or weekend of pleasure.

For a long time, its authorship was up in the air. The original suspect was its namesake, the head waiter at one of the area’s most prominent taverns, the Shakespear’s Head. As head waiter in a pretty divey area, he was also the go-to guy for procuring some after-hours entertainment. He was the one that knew everyone, knew their tastes, their specialties, and where to find them.

He may have had the knowledge, but the actual author of the book was likely someone much more shady.

Samuel Derrick wanted to be a poet, but he was more well-known for his rather pungent odor. Occasional poet, occasional actor, one-time keeper of a mistress—he was, by all accounts, bad at all of it. But he had struck upon something of a gold mine with the idea of furnishing a guidebook to London’s ladies, and in each annual edition he describes around 150 women working up and down the strip.

And the contents of the book? They’re fairly epic.

For some of the more work-safe descriptions (among the plenty that aren’t), we have Miss J-ns-n, who is described as “not afraid of work, but will undergo a great deal of labour in the action.” Mrs. T-rb-t was described as having been in the “public way of life twelve months,” Mrs. Cr-sby has a tolerable complexion and also keeps a pretty lodger in her home, who you’d better not mention if you’d like to get on with her. Miss Fanny is talkative and “fond of obliging,” and Miss Betsy R-l-ns can “command a Paradise of bliss.”

While many of the women get favorable reviews, the author isn’t above telling the dirty truth on others. Miss A-ms is “a drunken snuffy drab,” and Miss Berry is “rotten, and her breath cadaverous.”

The guidebook sold for what’s about $24 today, and sadly (though not surprisingly) there aren’t that many surviving copies. Derrick, now credited with being the original author (he’s at least the most likely candidate) died in 1769, and production of the book continued after his death, although it was noted that the quality of the descriptions changed into something that was more along the lines of soft porn than a rather practical guide.

Harris’s List wasn’t the only such guidebook to be published, either. In 1691, a predecessor had hit the streets, called A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks & Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-Friends, Kind Women, and Other of the Linnen-Lifting Tribe.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
ILAB: Covent-Garden Ladies—Harris’s List & the Linen-Lifting Tribe
Historic UK: Harris’s List
Guardian: Exposed: filthy poet pimp who wrote the Georgian gentleman’s guide to prostitution
Project Gutenberg: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies