If you had been a rake in 18th century London, you would have been very familiar with a guidebook called _Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies_. It was issued first in 1757 and continued for almost forty years a bestseller. It was a bit expensive, two shillings and sixpence, which was about what you could rent a room for. It was a guide to the prostitutes available around Covent Garden, their attractions, their talents, and, in some cases, their demerits. The authorship of the _List_ was attributed to "Harris", of course, but Hallie Rubenhold, a teacher of history, is the first to uncover the full story of the _List_'s production. In _The Covent Garden Ladies: Pimp General Jack & the Extraordinary Story of Harris's List_ (Tempus Publishing), Rubenhold has not only told the story of the List and given full depictions of the three main characters involved in its production, but has also given a social history of the London of the time. It is a raucous picture, funny and sad by turns. If you appreciate the work of Hogarth, many of whose pictures are included here, you will find this a fascinating account.
Harris was not the author of the notorious book; he wasn't even Harris. He was John Harrison, who was a waiter at the Shakespear's Head tavern, a boisterous retreat especially for the theatrical set. Harris was a clever man who might have been a banker but for his low birth. He said, "I saw great room for an amendment in the profession of pimping," and worked out solutions to such problems of supplying new whores into the system. He called himself the Pimp General of All England, and few would have disagreed. He had an army of over 400 prostitutes, and was a well-known figure in the town, so including his name on the _List_ was a perfect selling point for it, but he wasn't the author. That honor, Rubenhold discovered, goes to a fascinating Irishman, Samuel Derrick. He ran away to London with aspirations to become a poet and a member of Dr. Johnson's set, and indeed became acquainted with Johnson, Boswell, and the rest. His real talents lay not in poetry but in whoring and in hack writing. It was he who produced the lists, and probably paid Harrison for the use of his assumed name in the title. The profits from the _List_ were the making of him, and he wound up surprisingly respectable. He was able to bequeath the profits of the _List_ to Charlotte Hayes, with whom he had had a fond relationship as customer, lover, and friend. She became landed gentry, although she never really left the business. Inspired by French examples, she became a mistress of high-class brothels mockingly known as nunneries. Even in comfortable widowhood and retirement, Hayes could not completely leave her background, and was sought out to help arrange assignations. This is a big story, and Rubenhold has wisely not restricted it to the lists themselves. She does, of course, include samples of what the _List_ had to say, showing that Derrick's prose was not only a precise, witty, and useful guide, but was material for fantasy that could be enjoyed as anyone can enjoy a catalogue without buying from it. Here you can find, for example, Miss Loveborn, of Number 32 George Street, who delighted in birching her customers, and it is revealed that the shop from which she bought her birchen brooms was so pleased with her custom, it granted her discounts on tea and coffee as well. There are scores of others.
The three main characters here all fared reasonably well from their trades, but Rubenhold quite rightly describes the less salubrious and cheerful parts of being a prostitute of the times. There were diseases, and cures for the diseases that were sometimes worse. There were unwanted pregnancies and distasteful ways of dealing with them. There was rape, and there was the threat of prison, though this was often for debt rather than moral crimes. Rubenhold's description of life in the Fleet Prison is unforgettable. After Harris, Derrick, and Hayes bowed off the stage, society became more prudish and the _List_ was legally closed down. It was great while it lasted, and it was the making of the pimp, the hack, and the whore, chronicled in a vastly entertaining and revealing work of history.