Harris’s List: The 18th Century Guide Book to London’s Prostitutes

Aug 22, 2019 0 comments

For nearly four decades, from 1757 to 1795, an anonymous publisher in Covent Garden printed and published a small pocketbook-sized annual directory of prostitutes working in Georgian London. The crudely printed little booklet, which originally cost two shillings and sixpence each, carried a description of each lady, including her appearance, her personality, her sexual specialties and the price she charged.

Published under the title “Harris’s List of Covent Garden ladies”, or “Harris’s List” is short, this guidebook of venereal pleasure catalogued nearly one hundred and fifty up-market prostitutes—providing readers a titillating glimpse into an unfathomably large sex industry that even contemporaries struggled to quantify. Approximation of the size of the industry ranged from 6,000 women to over 50,000.

Harris’s List of Covent Garden ladies

Harris’s List was a sort of essential read for any gentlemen visiting London for pleasure, and many sought it out for this exact purpose. One copy acquired by Wellcome Library had crosses and house numbers scribbled in the margins in pencil suggesting the book was really used, and “not just flicked through for vicarious pleasure in an armchair.”

Indeed, Harris’s List served as much to guide as to titillate. The physical appearances and the sexual prowess of the women were described in such explicit detail that some historians suspect the book was entirely fiction and was supposed to be read as erotica. Others feel that the book was authentic, and although the names of the ladies throughout the book were disguised by replacing letters with dashes, these were real people at real addresses.

If a particular lady had serviced a famous man, the book was sure to mention it. In the 1764 edition of Harris’s List, a certain Miss Wilmot was said to have slept with King George III's brother, the Duke of York. Her entry contains a lurid description of the amorous encounter:

He gazed on her a while with eyes of transport and fondness, and gave her a world of kisses; at the close of which, in a pretended struggle, she contrived matters so artfully, that the bed-clothes having fallen off, her naked beauties lay exposed at full length. The snowy orbs on her breast, by their frequent rising and failing, beat Cupid's alarm-drum to storm instantly, in case an immediate surrender should be refused. The coral-lipped mouth of love seemed with kind movements to invite, nay, to provoke an attack; while her sighs, and eyes half-closed, denoted that no farther resistance was intended. What followed, may be better imagined than described; but if we may credit Miss W-lm-t's account, she never experienced a more extensive protrusion in any amorous conflict either before or since.

Most entries are shockingly salacious. The one for Miss L—the, of No. 12, Castle-street, Oxford-market, reads:

This lovely fountain of transport is nineteen years old, her stature tall, but quite genteel, her eyes are of a beautiful sloe black, and beam a torrent of delight at every potent glance; a sweet breath and good teeth; her breasts are in the fullest proportion and will rebound with the more grateful ardour to the hand's soft pressure; her yielding limbs, though beautiful when together, are still more ravishing when separated, her temper is affable and complaisant; an air of gaiety and tenderness breathe round her, unfortunately for this girl, the has received no education, she possesses none of those happy talents which improve and heighten so much amorous delights; her face however good, is destitute of expression, her manner rather vulgar, which mark out a low original. Half a guinea is the price of admission for any of our readers to enter such premises as will not cause a moment's regret.

Harris’s List of Covent Garden ladies

A page from Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. Photo credit: Wellcome Library

Another entry for Miss D--v--np--rt, of No 14, Lisle-street, Leicester fields, is accompanied by plenty of metaphor and vivid imagery:

Her teeth are remarkably fine; she is tall, and so well proportioned (when you examine her whole naked figure, which she will permit you to do, if you perform Cytherean Rites like an able priest) that she might be taken for a fourth Grace, or a breathing Animated Venus de Medicis.

In Miss W--lk--ns--n, of No. 10, Bull-and-Mouth Street, the book contains an unabashed description of her genitals:

Take a view of nature centrally; no folding lapel, no gaping orifice, no horrid gulph is here, but the loving lips tenderly kiss each other, and shelter from the cold a small but easily stretched passage, whose depth none but the blind boy has liberty to fathom; between the tempting lips the coral headed tip stands centinal, sheltered by a raven coloured-bush, and for one half guinea conduct the well erected friend safe into port.

Harris’s List was published anonymously, but modern research suggest that it was first compiled by one John Harrison, otherwise known as Jack Harris, who was a pimp and worked at Shakespear's Head Tavern in Covent Garden. Harris had extensive knowledge of prostitutes working in Covent Garden and beyond, as well as had access to rented rooms and premises for his clients' use. He kept a record of the women he pimped and the properties he had access to. This became the source for Harris’s List. The book itself is suspected to be written by Samuel Derrick, an aspiring Irish author who had a history of low quality publications.

Harris’s List of Covent Garden ladies

The copy of Harris's List held by Wellcome Library. Photo credit: Wellcome Library

After Derrick died penniless in 1769, there was a marked change in Harris's List focus, moving away from the women of Covent Garden, to their stories instead. Who was responsible for writing Harris's List for the next two decades has never been discovered.

Harris's List sold over eight thousand copies annually, and over a quarter of a million during the thirty eight years it was produced.

For anyone interested in reading, there are several digitized versions of Harris's List on the internet—at Archive.org, at Project Gutenberg, and Google Books.


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