Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies was published yearly between 1757 and 1795, and acted as a concise almanac of prostitutes available for hire in London. Each imprint generally listed more than 120 prostitutes at work in and around Covent Garden and the West End, giving their address, ages and chief attributes. At around two or three shillings per copy, the pocketbook was aimed chiefly at a middle-class audience.
The publication revealed the tip of an enormous industry in sex that many contemporaries struggled to quantify. Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, for example, suggested that perhaps 50,000 women had some sort of dealing in the London sex trade by the 1790s, though the real figure was probably never more than 6,000 or 7,000 individuals.
Prostitution in London was nevertheless an undeniable feature of life in the 18th century; its conspicuousness was frequently commented on by both foreign and domestic visitors alike. Prostitutes congregated around Covent Garden and the Strand as night began to fall, though the existence of permanent ‘bawdy houses’ in most London districts during the period were a continual source of problems to local authorities. Most prostitutes were aged in their 20s and born outside the capital; they were drawn into the trade through a lifelong background of poverty.
The contents of Harris’s List were designed as much to offer a titillating glimpse of the Georgian sexual underworld as they were to any serious geographic or commercial advice on London’s pleasures, and as such reflected the large trade that existed in 18th-century erotic literature. Modern research suggests that the lists were first published by Jack Harris (possibly the pseudonym of John Harrison) who began his working life in London as head waiter of the Shakespeare’s Head tavern in Covent Garden. Harris earned the reputation of ‘Pimp-General to the People of England’ by procuring prostitutes for the tavern’s clientele; he later organised his business on a more formal footing. The lists are then believed to have been written by one Samuel Derrick – a jobbing journalist and aspirational poet who negotiated with Harris to use his name and reputation as a marketing tool for later editions.