The Covent Garden Ladies

  By Paul
  Category: Early Modern Era


Sacrifices to Venus

Miss B____rn. of No. 18 Old Compton Street, Soho;

This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianofort, sings, dances, and is mistress of every Maneuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance, which ever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds.
A scandalous tale of eroticism and vice throughout Georgian England delving into the slums of London, its gambling dens, whorehouses, aristocratic parlours, debtors prisons, seedy porn shops, boudoirs and lowlife taverns.

It was in these very back streets brimming of bawds and harlots that an outrageous publication emerged, that would resonate down the ages in both licentiousness & salaciousness. Harris’s Lists was first published in 1857 by the most unlikely of authors, a young middle class rural poet. The list which revealed the intimacies & habits of the women of ill repute in the Covent Garden area was more than just a directory of whores, in full poetic prose it paid homage to the ‘sacrifices to Venus’, who graced its pages & provided a menu to the sexual theme park that was Georgian London for any gentleman with the inclination, libido and money.

Harris’s List instantly became a best seller, over a quarter of a million copies in its thirty eight year run, making one of the best read publications of its era. What made Harris’s List so remarkable was its author in the early years: Sam Derrick. More than just an adult directory Derrick set about his bold endeavour with both love & vigour to give a stunning window to Georgian London.

While the prose of Derrick may have been poetic, it was nothing but scrupulous in its honesty. The lists show the depth of Derrick’s knowledge & admiration of his subject, as he celebrates each women and their profession and then goes on to individually give us a picture of their lives, personal tales and personalities. Derrick provides us with both an insight into who the whores really were and the hand society dealt them.

Harris’s Lists also show much about the professions itself. The rungs of the profession any girl may be placed on, from kept mistresses of aristocrats to street whores, from part time shop girls to upmarket brothel harlots and even lists middleclass nymphomaniacs who took gentlemen callers for free. The lists themselves served many purposes, they were desirable for any money minded female to get on and Derrick remained astonishingly scrupulous in the face of numerous offers of bribes, seeing his task to help rather than exploit the women he advertised. Derrick was also brutally honest about the girls themselves naming venereal disease carriers and purse snatchers. Finally they provide a vivid insight into the debauchery and sexual fetishes of the age. There’s very little that even the most widely stocked adult DVD shop today would look unfamiliar to a reader of the list.

Convent Garden Ladies tells the story of Harris’s list through three figures who’s lives the lists were to leave an indelible impression.

Sam Derrick was a Dublin born draper’s apprentice. Winning a national prize for poetry in his youth he abandoned his family and inheritance to make it in the literary lights of London. There though the small town boy failed to impress. Despite being both charming and witty, his literary talents were not recognised. Derrick led the ambiguity of through his social charm gradually weaning his way onto the social calendar of the aristocracy and at the same time falling into dreadful poverty, eventually sleeping on the street and living off handouts and freebies from the working girls whom he shared a mutual plight with.

Derrick turned to the only place a failed writer could turn, the notorious Grub Street. Living above a road of sleazy bookshops they became house writer/slaves to unscrupulous hack publishers. Writing whatever they were told to write from puff reviews, exposé to pornography they slaved all hours for little more than board and a meal.

Derrick like all abhorred his plight but even worse lived beyond his means, finally ending when one day the debt collectors caught up with him and he found himself in debtors prison. With no money and no way out, this was usually the end for such people as Derrick. However Derrick managed to remarkably extricate himself. The creation & publication of Harris’s Lists for the first time saw him with a steady income and he managed to pay off his creditors.

As anonymous writer of the capital’s most notorious publication he had a means to continue courting the patron he desired. In his later life Derrick’s carousing of the wealthy and charming of wealthy ladies paid off, when he was voted ‘King of Bath’ the city’s master of ceremonies in the country’s top holiday resort for the rich. There the most notorious pimp in London caroused with the virginal daughters of the society class as their fathers who were the main users of the list kept his secret until his death.

Charlotte Hayes was the daughter of a prostitute raised in a brothel. Having the kind of insider knowledge her mother had, she was determined Charlotte would have a head start over other girls. Charlotte was blessed with looks and would become one of the most famous beauties of her age. Her mother new there was only one role for her, the top rung of prostitution, a concubine, the kept mistress of a wealthy man.

Charlotte was schooled at one of the capital’s better schools and learnt the refinement and graces that would be expected of her in higher circles. When she entered the profession in the 1840’s the sophisticated beauty became an instant hit with the wealthy pleasure seekers of the age, as likely to be taken to the races or a private box in the theatre as to bed. Charlotte had no problem finding wealthy men to put her up in an apartment and keep her in servant and silk. Whilst cynically looking out for a better keeper and abandoning the previous at the drop of a hat.

Charlotte eventually achieved the top of her profession as the concubine of the Robert Tracy, the wastrel son and heir Judge Robert Tracy who had died leaving him his vast fortune to squander on gaming, drinking and whoring. Tracy was also one of the wealthy men who had fallen for Sam Derrick’s charms. Soon Charlotte and Sam began to conduct an affair behind Tracy’s back. However it was Tracy who would have the last laugh, dying and leaving Charlotte nothing in his will. Not a penny to pay for the bulging credit accounts for her silk dresses and lavish wares.

Soon the bailiffs were chasing Charlotte and Sam Derrick who had set up home together and both were to wind up in Debtor’s Prison. Sam was to extricate himself with the publication of Harris’s Lists but Charlotte was to languish there for almost four years until pardoned. Four years in harsh prison and turning the age of thirty hadn’t left Charlotte the most attractive candidate to become a concubine and Charlotte had no desire to become a common whore. So she decided as a madam her future would lie, and not just any madam but of the most expensive and exclusive brothel in London.

Charlotte knew of Parisian Salons and how they differed from London brothels and that was where the future lay. Very quickly Charlotte was owning and running the two most exclusive Salon’s in London. Not in and out brothels but clubs where men socialised, gamed, ate and drank downstairs while nude girls frolicked and entertained for hours before men retired upstairs and were finally billed, not just for the girl but everything they consumed. Charlotte filled the brothel with the most beautiful girls, kept lists of the members particular tastes and preferred activities. She schooled her girls in eloquence and dancing, fitted them out with the finest silks.

On the proceeds of the Salons, Charlotte was able to buy a country estate, a stable of the finest breeding horses. However quickly others cottoned onto her money spinning idea and soon the whole road her Salons occupied became a row of such Salons in competition with one another. With the money drying up at one point Charlotte found herself almost bankrupt but was bailed out by Sam Derrick her ex-lover whom she hadn’t seen for over a decade. The king of Bath had died, as usual living far beyond his means, leaving a trail of debt, but had left his one valuable item to her, the annual proceeds of Harris’s Lists. In a final twist Charlotte was to have a single, child, a daughter, whom she sent to convent school in France.

Jack Harris, Pimp General of England, was the man the lists bore the name of. Jack born in the theatre and vice district of London, Covent Garden. He was the son a well to do middle class country family who came to the city to pursue his father’s political ambitions. His father was a fearless politician and critic but was ruined by a libel suit from one he criticised and died leaving his family penniless in prison.

Jack now the provider embarked on a life of crime, trying both confidence tricking and card sharping, however he quickly found his talents lay in a more amorous criminality. Jack found work as a waiter in more downmarket tavern. Located in a heart of Covent Garden it was more an establishment for dangerous liaisons than ale. The job of a waiter in the 18th century not only involved serving drinks to customers but introductions to willing ladies.

In the days before widespread communications the standard way for a gentlemen who didn’t want to risk a street walker to learn of a prostitute was through a waiter/pimp. Waiter/Pimp’s kept lists of all classes of whores in the local areas, their rates and specialities. For a small fee the waiter/pimp would make the introduction. Waiter/Pimps reputations were made by the variety and quality of whore’s on their lists. Quickly Jack’s lists became second to none.

Waiter/Pimps jealously guarded their lists from rivals and continually sought out new recruits, and it was in the success of this they made their reputation. Jack's genius lay in his superior ability to procure girls, build a reputation for having a stable of size and quality.

Jack's girls ranged greatly, he a particular reputation for having the finest Irish girls around. Regularly he would go on recruiting troops to Dublin where he would offer local whores the opportunity of working in London. Being as Irish whores were rarely paid and often beaten by their pimps, most leapt at the chance. Another method he used was less benevolent. Where he would trick a girl into a private room with an offer of a job or marriage and there have her ravaged. Once spoilt the girl was offered a job with him. Few refused, unable to return to decent society.

Pimping was a very lucrative business, every aspect of it was designed to screw money from both the punter and harlot. Jack would parade a line of girls before his client one at a time. For each view the unlucky mark paid. Jack would start his parade ugliest girl first so he would amass a considerable some of money before even the choice was made. Then he would introduce a host of surcharges, often made up on the spot. His girls faired no better and he charged them for the room & for the rent of their fine dresses.

It was in Jack’s tavern the Shakspear where he met Sam Derrick an impoverished poet, popular amongst his girls and often sponging off them. Here Derrick became familiar with the mystique of pimp’s lists & the idea for Harris’s Lists was born. Though they bore his name, Harris’s Lists, were not in fact Pimp General Jack Harris’s List actual list, the publication Harris’s Lists were entirely the work of Derrick. But it was the genius of putting the Pimp General’s name on them that sold them. Derrick gave Jack a one off payment for the use of his name on the lists. At the time Jack probably thought he had a good deal. However the success of the lists that bore his name was to ruin him.

Already the most notorious pimp in the country, Jack Harris was to become the symbol of vice in Britain. When politicians ranted in Parliament about vice, it was Jack’s they cited as an example. When newspapers did expose it was Jack they named. All this attention initially brought Jack both wealth & fame but came back to haunt him when an anti vice movement gained popular support opening the capitals first Magdalene Home usefully lobbying the government for a clampdown.

Jack bore the brunt of the clampdown being jailed for 3 years. It was while languishing in Jail being visited weekly by hack journalist wanting another fill of his pimp anecdotes to print in the Sunday scandal sheets that he realised the Pimp General must die. Upon his release changed his name to John Harrison & ran the tavern next to Drury Lane theatre. Being a haven for harlots servicing theatregoers he returned to his trade as pimp/waiter. Jack was to marry and have a son whom he brought up to be a successful pimp/waiter in his own tavern too.

Harris’s Lists may have destroyed the Pimp General but that was not going to stop him from having his own go. Regretting accepting a one off payment rather than royalties for the publication that bore his name, Jack had a go at creating a rival publication. Ironically the real Harris’s List published by Jack Harris himself were everything that the Sam Derrick lists were not. A simple cold list of whores. The publication failed to sell & Jack quickly abandoned it.

The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold is published by Tempus and highly recommended.