On 18th century ladies of pleasure

During the first decades of the eighteenth century Covent Garden was London’s hedonistic heart. Artists, writers, poets, pimps, whores, criminals, entertainers, and publishers – they were all drawn there. Life on the piazza was turned into a carnival. Its main establishments were the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern and the Bedford Coffee House where at some time or another Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Foote, Tobias Smollett or Henry Fielding would seek relief from life’s pressures and enjoy a drink or two. Covent Garden was an inspiration to them, an incubator of creativity.

The wild reputation of the area was highlighted by Henry Fielding in Jonathan Wild (1743). The author describes an establishment ‘where female flesh is deliciously dressed and served up to the greedy appetites of young gentlemen’. In fact, we do have a remarkable record of Covent Garden’s carnal pleasures, a record we owe to a Dublin linen draper named Samuel Derrick who, in 1751, decided to give up his profitable profession, move to London and establish himself as a poet or an actor. He settled in Covent Garden. At the time, Samuel was twenty-seven years old and a lover of wine and women. He was a mediocre poet and a poor actor. Soon debts started to haunt him.

Enter Jack Harris (properly known as John Harrison), chief waiter at the Shakespeare’s Head and the self-proclaimed ‘Pimp-General of All England’. Harris kept an extraordinary record, a handwritten ledger of more than four hundred names of the capital’s ‘votaries of Venus’. The list was extremely detailed, giving name, address, age, price, physical characteristics, biographical notes, and their specialized services. The pimp and the failed poet agreed together on the publication of the document. Derrick turned the ledger into a witty chronicle of women working on the piazza. It included tales of their exploits, their tricks and jokes, and assessments of their personalities and attributes.

Derrick’s version of the Harris notebook was both entertaining and informative. The success was overwhelming. Harris’s annual List of Covent Garden Ladies appeared from 1757 to 1795 and sold over a quarter of a million copies. Jack Harris himself was arrested in 1758, but Derrick continued to edit the List until his death, when he passed the proceeds of his final edition to his former mistress, the courtesan and brothel-keeper, Charlotte Hayes. The authors of the List after 1769 are unknown. The work was eventually discontinued after a group of moral reformers had demanded prosecution of those responsible for the publication’s production.

Prostitutes were keen to have their name included in the list. It meant an instant increase in their working wage. Bentinck has been an extremely important name in the history of Anglo-Dutch relations. It seems unlikely that Betsy Bentinck, alias B-t-y, alias Stickland, alias Ucklersbury, which appears in Harris’s list of 1761, is in any way related to her famous namesakes. The background of the name however is undoubtedly Dutch. Her ‘presentation card’ in the list is not very appealing, but the text does reflect Derrick’s ability of using his pen and observational skills:

This woman is tall and well made … Her skin is bad, her mouth wide, and her eyes rather heavy than languishing. She can put on a pleasing countenance when she pleases, which is seldom … An attorney’s clerk in Furnival’s Inn kept her for some time, upon the slender diet of bread, cheese, and small beer; but has lately exchanged him for a fat grocer in the city, who gives her a scanty pittance, which she increases by plying near the Change, Leadenhall Street and some bye places, as a rose never blown on [a virgin].

In 1757, copies of the List were available in The Shakespeare’s Head or in the nearby brothel of Mother Jane Douglas for the price of two shillings and sixpence. Later, the list became more widely available. Such was the anticipation of public that H. Ranger, the publisher of the List (situated near the Temple Bar, Fleet Street), took the brave step of advertising a full range of Harris’s Lists in the newspapers. The fact that this publication was allowed to run for such a long period remains in itself quite remarkable.