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Editorials

Wrong Reasons to do SM
by Midori

The Covent Garden Ladies:
Pimp General Jack & the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List

by Hallie Rubenhold


Book Review by Rob Hardy



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. However, landing where he was, he "set about cudgelling my brain" for improvement in his lot: "I saw great room for an amendment in the profession of pimping." Other pimps "were men of expedients, devoid of all forecast," and he determined to develop a methodical system. He understood the major obstacle to effective pimping to be the problem of supply; new recruits would have to be brought to Covent Gardens from other parts of the town, or the country. On scouting missions, he noted the particular attractions and talents of women and he remembered them for future use. He would be able to call upon their services when a customer specified what he was looking for; he also would, just like in the popular tales of the time, find ways to trick young women into the business. 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 was apprenticed to a Dublin draper, but he knew that he was fit for better things. He ran away to London with aspirations to become a poet and a member of Dr. Johnson’s set. Indeed, in 1755 he brought out an edition of original poems, with such lights as Johnson, David Garrick, and Tobias Smollett as subscribers. He was also friends with that other chronicler, James Boswell, who eventually turned on him (as Johnson did not), calling him "a little blackguard pimping dog." His poetry was pretty bad, but he fared even worse as an actor; an audience member wrote, "Any other man might labour all of his life and at last not get into so bad a method of playing." His real talents lay 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 became a successor to the famous Beau Nash as Master of Ceremonies at Bath. His manner of election was hilarious. The grandees of Bath bickered about who to appoint, and one of them in exasperation exclaimed that they might as well nominate Samuel Derrick for the position. Then Lady ___, Derrick’s friend, stepped forward and "seriously seconded the ludicrous motion," which thereupon had to be seriously considered. None of the men could inform the ladies present that Derrick wrote scurrilous poetry and descriptions about Covent Garden whores, and the motion carried. He was well paid for his position, and seems to have carried out its duties faithfully; he spent all his income on himself or his friends and died without a penny.

But 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. Hayes, originally Charlotte Ward, was the daughter of a bawd and was brought up in the trade. A smart woman, she eventually fell in love with an equally shrewd gambler and horse-racer, and though they may not have legally married, they set up as a couple and the match proved an unlikely, life-long triumph. Hayes never was able to rise to true respectability; she and her partner became landed gentry, and entertained lavishly at their home, but all knew from where she had arisen. In fact, 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 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. Miss Love, of Tottenham Court Road, was "a dd fine hairy piece." Miss Robinson of the Jelly Shops was "a slim and genteel made girl but rather too flat." Of Mrs. Hamblin, of Number 1 Naked-Boy Court, we are told, "The young lady in question is not above fifty-six." There is an anecdote about Miss Grant who allowed a customer to wash her underclothes, for a fee of two guineas. Lucy P-t-rson was "as lewd as goats and monkies and she generally has a design upon her friend’s watch, purse, or handkerchief… a vile bitch." Most curious of all (at least to this reader) was the remarkable Miss Kilpin, who concealed her address, but might be found near St. Paul’s churchyard. If you were "no frothy coxcomb, no male Adonis, conceited of his own dear person, no show stringed effeminate puppy, no insipid empty chatterer," you might have had good luck with her. What she liked was unrestrained rapture within her coach as it progressed, and since she was independently wealthy, she wanted no money, just a good time. If you could entertain her, she was yours.

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.


The Covent Garden Ladies:
 Pimp General Jack & the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List

(Tempus Publishing; April 30, 2005; ISBN: 0752428500)
 Available at: Amazon.com / Amazon UK / Amazon CA

_______
© 2005 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.



About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy



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