The Covent Garden Ladies
London in the eighteenth century is much chronicled and a spate of new books have depicted this country's capital at the time as a cesspool mired in vice, crime and violence. One such tome, authored by Hallie Rubenhold, concentrates upon the sex industry, the epicentre of which was Covent Garden. This was in close proximity with London's theatre-land and renowned lawless and bawdy drinking houses around the piazza.
During 1757 an annual directory of working ladies was first published. This lightweight catalogue, never more than 150 pages, was to run until 1795, and went under the name of Harris's List. Rather unsurprisingly Harris was a nom de plume, and the writer was actually second-rate Irish poet Samuel Derrick. The Harris to whom the title refers was, according to Hallie Rubenhold's research, John Harrison – a notorious and well connected waiter at the Shakespear’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden.
Rubenhold's research is breathtaking, and although regrettably she was unable to source more than a dozen of the original Harris's Lists, her extensive ploughing through contemporary documentation provides a persuasive argument for the version of history she posits.
The book is more than a summary of the ladies' pen pictures however. As well as a thorough biography of Samual Derrick and his interactions with John Harrison, large sections of Rubenhold's book chart the life of the courtesans such as the infamous brothel keeper Charlotte Hayes who was actually bequethed the List by Derrick on his deathbed.
Rubenhold is guilty of romanticising and frequently over-garnishes her accounts of the lives of the protagonists with meta-physical deconstructions. This does however make the reading process more interesting as she attempts to get into the heads of the players. In addition her choice of publisher must be questioned – the book's layout is an abomination and the typeface barely readable for those of a certain age. Notwithstanding these quibbles, the book is a fascinating insight into the goings-on in the late eighteenth century, and one thing is clear – man's desire for the purchase of sexual activity has changed little over the intervening centuries.