The sight of a yellow page is an increasingly rare occurrence these days, as the rise of smartphones has rendered it virtually superfluous.
But just rewind a decade or so and the bright yellow telephone book was a staple in almost every London home.
Rewind a few centuries further, and Londoners could pick up a directory for something far more salacious than just phone numbers.
READ MORE: There Was A Real 18th Century ‘Farting Club’ And It Was Exactly What It Sounded Like
Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, informally known as Harris’s List, was published annually in the 18th century and included a comprehensive list of sex workers operating in London’s West End.
Anyone viewing the list during its publication years between years 1757 and 1795 would find a “concise almanac of prostitutes available for hire in London”.
Modern research implies that the lists were first published by Jack Harris, the butler of Shakespeare’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden, nicknamed “Pimp-General to the People of England”, a reputation he has gained by recruiting sex workers for the tavern’s clientele.
It is believed that the actual author of the lists was the ambitious journalist and poet Samuel Derrick.
According to the records of the British Library: “Each footprint usually lists more than 120 prostitutes at work in and around Covent Garden and the West End, giving their address, age and principal characteristics.”
In other words, you can basically read reviews of every sex worker on Harris’ list, which describe their looks, list their skills, and apparently even rate their performance.
At about two or three shillings per copy (about £8 or £10 in today’s money, depending on the National Archives Currency Converter) the portfolio was aimed primarily at a middle-class audience.
Harris’ list may sound like a sordid farce, but it was actually a widely used publication that now has historical significance for the insight it gave into historical sex work.
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According to the British Library, many contemporary historians have struggled to understand how “huge” the sex work industry was in the 1700s, with most sex workers being pushed into the trade due to poverty .
Sex workers, mostly in their twenties, congregated around Covent Garden and the Strand as night fell, and the permanent ‘bawdy houses’ were an ongoing problem for local authorities, making the industry an “undeniable feature of life” in London.
It has been suggested that between 6,000 and 50,000 women were involved in the sex trade in London in the 1790s, and its notoriety was frequently commented on by foreign and domestic visitors.
According to the British Library, the contents of Harris’s List were “designed as much to offer a thrilling insight into the Georgian sex underworld as any serious geographical or business advice on the pleasures of London”, indicating a great appetite for erotic literature in the Georgian language. . England.
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