Prostitution in Georgian London
The Swell’s Night Guides of the Victorian era were a continuation of a London tradition of providing visitors and residents with information regarding the prostitutes of the city. Beginning in 1757 an annual directory was published, entitled Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. Covent Garden was then a center of prostitution in the city, and the directory was intended to be a helpful aid for those seeking illicit sexual pleasure. The Lists were published, not by someone named Harris as one might expect, but most likely by what would today be called a hack writer named Samuel Derrick. After his death in 1769 the Lists were continued by other writers, always presented under the pseudonym H. Ranger.
Harris’s Lists were opened with an editorial on prostitution, which it defended in the face of the general public disdain for those involved in the trade. Each edition listed between 120 and 190 working prostitutes in the Covent Garden area, giving their names, addresses, rates, and evaluating their services. The descriptions were more along the lines of pornography of the day, rather than a simply clinical listing of services offered. Besides naming the prostitutes, many of the most famous men of the time were mentioned in the lists as satisfied customers of one or more of the Covent Garden Ladies.
Among these satisfied customers was the Duke of York, whose elder brother was King George III, on the throne of England when later editions of the Lists were released. Others whose names were prominently mentioned in different editions were George Augustus Frederick, who would become King George IV, and his brother, Ernest Augustus, who would become King of Hanover. Both were sons of George III. James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, was another satisfied customer, as was William Dodd, an Anglican clergyman who would end his days by being hanged for the crime of forgery.
The Lists frequently described the manner by which the Covent Garden Ladies entered the sex trade, though many of these were no doubt fictionalized to comply with political and moral views of its author. Following the careers of several of the Covent Garden Ladies through succeeding editions of the Lists reveals that some of them went from streetwalker to brothel owner to considerable wealth. Although homosexual behavior was illegal (the word itself had not then been coined) lesbianism carried little social stigma, and the abilities of some of the Ladies in that practice was evaluated and commented upon.
Whether the Lists were the actual directories which they claimed to be or works of erotica remains a subject of debate among scholars. After the death of Samuel Derrick in 1769 the list became more and more of a pornographic treatise rather than a mere directory. The last edition was published in 1795, after a campaign by social reformers to bring prostitution in London and the rest of England under control. One of the men responsible for the final edition was imprisoned for one year for printing the list, with his judge commenting, “…an offence of greater enormity could hardly be committed.”