What they are and what I had to do with them (since you asked…)
Until March 2005, very few people outside of academic circles knew about the Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. They are a set of remarkable little guidebooks. Each one contains the names of women who lived in London and worked as prostitutes in the second half of the eighteenth-century. They also contain an enormous amount of detail about these women’s lives; not only their addresses, ages and physical descriptions, but their sexual specialties, their prices, their backgrounds, their quirks, their histories, their passions, their families, and their personal ambitions. When I came across them, only a handful of articles and a chapter here or there had been written about the subject, so, when I was asked to write an entire book about The Harris’s Lists (the first ever, and the only one still) it seemed like a daunting task.
It look two years of digging in archives and libraries to piece together the story surrounding the creation of the Harris’s Lists and the tales of those whose lives are featured in them. Unlike with other biographically-based histories, there were no caches of correspondence, no diaries, no autobiographies and no living relations to interview. The information I discovered about the three people whose stories were woven into the history of the Lists‘ creation: Charlotte Hayes / O’Kelly (nee Ward), Sam Derrick, and Jack Harris, I derived from bits of Grub Street journalism, which I carefully stitched together with the historian’s greatest tool, informed supposition. Ultimately, the idea was to create a narrative which not only told the story of the Lists, but more importantly, which plunged the reader into the eighteenth-century world from which the Lists emerged. In fact, when people have asked me what The Covent Garden Ladies is about, my answer has always been to say that it tells the story of those who created The Harris’s Lists, but equally that it tells the stories of the individual women whose names appear on the Lists.
When I started reading the entries I was struck by the extraordinary intimacy of these tragic, emotive, fascinating and sometimes bizarre accounts of what it was like to have been an ordinary woman who just happened to have found herself in prostitution – sometimes by choice, sometimes not. In 2002 -05, digitisation hadn’t yet happened, and so the Lists to which I had access were from nine years between 1757 and 1795 (more have subsequently been discovered and catalogued). During the course of my research I had the privilege of reading over 1,000 entries – each one, a different story, each one, a person with a name and a life that had been lost to us. Each woman had been someone history had never thought to record and it felt like a beautiful accident to stumble across these individuals and to commune with them, however briefly. I choose to include a selection of these entries in The Covent Garden Ladies and also in an edited Harris’s List compendium which accompanies the book. However, I also thought it was worth making an exploration of their lives central to my narrative.
Although she appears only briefly in the Harris’s Lists in 1761, the one prostitute whose story receives the most attention in The Covent Garden Ladies in Charlotte Hayes (nee Ward). Charlotte was born the daughter of a brothel keeper, Mrs Ward and grew up to be a harlot, like her mother. My chapters trace her ascendancy as she becomes one of the most desirable ‘votaries of Venus’ in London, as she plays fast and loose with her wealthy keepers while managing to have ‘favourites’ (or men of her own choosing) on the side. Charlotte becomes entangled with Sam Derrick, a brothel-going, whore-loving journalist who eventually ghost writes the Harris’s List, and later she finds herself in debtor’s prison. The love of her life was a poor Irishman, Dennis O’Kelly who began his life as a sedan-chairman offering sexual favours to wealthy women and who became one of the era’s most successful gamblers and racehorse owners. Together, Charlotte and Dennis managed to scale the heights of the sex trade, opening a series of up-scale brothels.
But Charlotte’s history is set against the backdrop of many such stories, some triumphant successes and others, back-slides into misery. The Covent Garden Ladies is about their experiences. It’s about how prostitution was structured, how it operated, about the women who lived in brothels and those who ‘traded off their own backs’. It is about how prosaic prostitution was, about how there were no red-light districts, how prostitutes lived cheek-by-jowl with everyone else in their neighbourhoods. It is about the ‘family business’ of prostitution and the mothers and daughters who lived by it. It is about the small shopkeeper who also sells sex, the seduced servant girl, the actress, the young beggar taken off the street, cleaned up and taught to serve wealthy men in a ‘nunnery’ (a high class brothel). It’s about Emily Colthurst, the beautiful blond whose father had been a poor tailor and who gave Emily the nod to make her money by being a courtesan to titled gentlemen. It’s about Miss L–k–ns, and her particular clients who like to have their eyes licked and Nancy Burroughs, who ‘uses more birch rods in a week than Westminster school in a twelvemonth’. It’s about Charlotte’s rivals, the infamous Fanny Murray and Lucy Cooper. It’s about Miss Menton, so wretched about the way she’s forced to live that she turns to the bottle.
The Covent Garden Ladies is about the prostitutes who clubbed together to share a carriage and clothes, it’s about how they built their community, it’s about how they supported each other, it’s about their hopes and aspirations. It’s about the madams who let out rooms to adulterous couples, it’s about the lavish parties and dinners and orgies that took place in their brothels. It’s about how the inhabitants of these brothels found themselves trapped, it’s about how few options they had in a deeply misogynistic world where women, by law were the property of men. It’s about what they did with their illegitimate children, how they managed to find love, how they got out of the profession, how they died on the street, how they married well. As I say in my final chapter, prostitution was the only way in the eighteenth-century a woman born into poverty could scale the heights and potentially even marry a man of title. Selling their bodies was one of the only means by which they could achieve some control over their lives, and in many cases, it was a far better option than marrying a man of their own social class and passing their days in poverty and endless childbirth. If successful, a prostitute could choose her own lovers and make her own life decisions. But there was a high failure rate too – violence, drink and debt ended the careers of many.
The Covent Garden Ladies provides the context for reading and understanding The Harris’s Lists, for making sense of the sex-trade and of the lives of ordinary women in the eighteenth-century. So much history has been written about the wealthy and influential, and so little about the people everyone was so keen to forget. In all of the nonfiction I’ve undertaken to write, I’ve always sought to tell the unknown stories and to introduce readers to women about whose lives we’ve never heard. I’ve also always encouraged readers to come to their own conclusions about the material I present; who is to blame, who is not, and what is right and what is wrong. Issues are always complex, but I do maintain one thing; never allow anyone to erase the less powerful from history.
And for the record, The Harris’s Lists may no longer be a going concern, but it is most certainly not out of print.