Untold lives blog

71 posts categorized "Rare books"

12 November 2020

Stand and deliver! Cross-dressing highwaywomen in broadside ballads

You’ve heard of highwaymen, but what about highwaywomen?  Female highway robbers definitely existed in the 17th and 18th centuries.  They worked alone, as part of a gang, or with husbands.  They appear in the records of county session court trials and in other sources like the Newgate Calendar.  They were notorious for cross-dressing.

Highwaywomen also appear in broadside ballads, a major part of popular news culture at that time.  Printed cheaply on a single sheet, they focussed on sensational tales of murder, doomed lovers, cheating husbands, wonders, famous military victories, highwaymen and, occasionally, highwaywomen.  The so-called unladylike behaviour and cross-dressing of highwaywomen caused quite the scandal.  Most of the time, the ballads are written from the perspective of the highwaywoman on the scaffold, about to confess and be hanged.

Ballad entitled A True Relation of One Susan Higges with illustrations of her robbing whilst dressed as a man, and being hanged.A True Relation of One Susan Higges, dwelling in Risborrow a Towne in Buckinghamshire and How She Lived 20. Yeeres, by Robbing on the High-Wayes. London, c.1640. British Library, C.20.f.7.(424-425), EBBA 30289  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In A True Relation of One Susan Higges and The Sorrowfull Complaint of Susan Higges (two ballads about the same person printed in 1640), Susan Higges commits highway robbery for twenty years while dressed as a man, before being caught and executed.  Her shocking exploits are described as acts of gallantry and female boldness:
    'In mens attire I oft have rode,
    upon a Gelding stout,
    and done great robberies valiantly,
   the countries round about'.

Retribution comes when she robs a woman who recognises her.  Higges stabs the other woman who, as she dies, spits three drops of blood at Higges’s face, which cannot be washed off.  Higges is caught and executed, but not before warning the readers: 'Be warned by this story, you ruffling roysters all: the higher that you climbe in sinne, the greater is your fall'.

Ballad entitled The Sorrowfull Complaint of Susan HiggesThe Sorrowfull Complaint of Susan Higges. London, c.1640. Pepys Library, EBBA 20002.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Highwaywomen rarely got away with it, as it were.  In another pair of ballads, The Female Frollick and The Female Highway Hector (1690), the female highway robber is raped by a highwayman: 'with her he did what he pleased', and this is presented as her comeuppance for committing robbery and, especially, cross-dressing.

Ballad entitled The Female Highway Hector  with illustrations of her dressed as a woman and as a man holding the reins of a horse.The Female Highway Hector: or, An Account of a Woman, Who Was Lately Arraign’d For Robbing on the Highway in Man’s Apparel. [London?], c.1690. National Library of Scotland, Crawford Collection, EBBA 33924.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There is an 18th-century ballad about a woman avenging herself on highwaymen, rather than committing robbery herself.  The Cook-Maid’s Garland was popular; it was printed at least five times in the 1760s and 1770s.   It tells of a 'handsome brisk cook-maid' at a Reigate inn.  Five naked gentleman arrive, having been robbed by highwaymen en route.  The cook-maid offers to take these highwaymen on for £100.  One man agrees, promising to marry her if she succeeds.  She dresses up as the devil on horseback, covering herself with soot and attaching the antlers of a stag to her head.  She terrorises the highwaymen and captures them.

Ballad entitled The Cook-Maid’s Garland  with an illustration of her dressed as the devil on horsebackThe Cook-Maid’s Garland: or, The Out-of-the-way Devil [London?, c.1775], British Library C.20.f.9(772-773), EBBA 31494  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Precious few highwaywomen cried 'stand and deliver!', both in real life and in broadside ballads.  They were outnumbered by highwaymen.  They also don’t get away with it for very long.  Did these women cross-dress as a disguise or were they making a bolder statement about their gender?  We will never know but this glimpse into their lives is intriguing indeed.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

06 October 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.3 The first 20 years of Plymouth Colony

The colonists signed the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, before they disembarked the ship.  This was to establish legal order and quell dissenting views between the separatists and the other passengers on how the colony should be run.

The colonists settled at an abandoned settlement of the Patuxet people in Wampanoag territory.  They had raided this settlement shortly after their arrival, desecrating graves in their search for corn stores.  It became Plymouth Colony.  Construction began in December but most people stayed on the ship.  Many succumbed to disease and, by the spring, only 47 survived.  Local people made contact in March 1621 and it was only because of the help of Tisquantum, the sole survivor of the Patuxet people, that the colonists survived.

The arrival of the Plymouth colonists put Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags, in a vulnerable position.  He had already witnessed the devastating effects of disease and colonisation on his people and the neighbouring Narragansetts were threatening.  He had little choice but to sign a peace treaty and ally with the English colonists, which he did at the end of March 1621.

That is not to say, however, that the Plymouth colonists maintained peace with other local Native American tribes in the years that followed.  Tensions in the region heightened as the English founded more colonies, encroaching on native territories.  The Plymouth colonists were perpetrators of violence and brutality towards some communities, namely the Massachusetts at Wessagusset in 1623 and the Pequots in the 1630s.

The first printed account of Plymouth Colony

 Title page of 'Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth'  1622Edward Winslow and William Bradford, Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth, 1622, C.33.c.7 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, this is the earliest printed account of the establishment of Plymouth Colony.  It functioned as a promotional tract, an appeal for investment and an attempt to gloss over the hardships and uncertainties facing the colony in its first two years.

The Mayflower Compact is printed, for the first time, in this account.  This was to give the impression of law and order within the colony and to emphasise that there was a unified mind-set across the colonists, separatist or otherwise.

This account also emphasises the devout nature of Plymouth Colony.  However, a mention of the whaling opportunities in the area lets slip the economic factors behind its establishment.  The colony quickly got involved with the profitable fur trade.  These things tend to be glossed over in the Pilgrim tradition.

This account also emphasises that relations between the local people and the English were cordial, ignoring any tension and conflict caused by their invasion of Wampanoag land.  Indeed, this relation’s description of the sharing of food between the Wampanoags and the English has become celebrated as the First Thanksgiving, but this is a mythologised 19th century reinterpretation of events.

Winslow and Bradford’s account also introduces us to Tisquantum of the Patuxet people.  Tisquantum had been abducted by English explorer Thomas Hunt and sold into slavery.  He escaped, returning to America to find his tribe wiped out by disease.  He worked ceaselessly to establish peace between the colonists and the local people, living in the colony for 20 months and acting as a translator, advisor and diplomat for Massasoit.  Tisquantum is often depicted as a ‘noble savage’ but he should be remembered as a practical advisor and skilled diplomat.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

29 September 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.2 Who were the so-called Pilgrims?

The separatist congregation that made up a third of the Mayflower’s passengers are remembered and celebrated today as the Pilgrim Fathers of North America but who were they really?

The other passengers aboard the Mayflower were servants and independent settlers hired by the Merchant Adventurers Company who financed the voyage and the prospective colony.  However, it was the elders of the separatist congregation who governed the new colony in its formative years and their religious beliefs shaped how it was run.

The English Reformation

The tremors of the English Reformation, in which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII, were still being felt in the early 17th century.

It caused decades of conflict, intolerance and persecution on both sides as each monarch after Henry VIII swung back and forth between Protestantism and traditional Catholic beliefs, culminating in the English Civil War.

 

Illustration showing the burning of Thomas Cranmer at Oxford from John Foxe’s Book of MartyrsThe burning of Thomas Cranmer at Oxford from John Foxe, [Book of Martyrs], 1563, C.37.h.2 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The persecution of Protestants is famously depicted in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a highly influential work printed in 1563 that fuelled the radicalism of English non-conformists and separatists, such as the congregation that helped to establish the Plymouth Colony.


A difference of opinion

A catalogue of the severall sects and opinions in England and other nationsA catalogue of the severall sects and opinions in England and other nations. With a briefe rehearsal of their false and dangerous tenents, 1647, (669.f.10(111)) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

English separatists were Protestants who believed the Church of England hadn’t gone far enough in its renunciation of Catholicism.  Separatists existed in many diverse groups but they were united in their desire to defy the law, form their own churches and resist state interference in religious matters.

The separatist congregation that established the Plymouth Colony were originally from the East Midlands.  They immigrated to Leiden in Holland initially but a desire for more religious freedom, financial difficulties, a dislike of Dutch culture and the potential for missionary work compelled them to sail to North America aboard the Mayflower in 1620.


Worms gnawing the kingdom to the bone

The Mayflower congregation are remembered as legendary pioneers who established one of the earliest English settlements in North America, all in the search of religious freedom.  However, this was not how they were seen at the time.

A Whip for the Back of a Backsliding Brownist - broadside from 1640 demonstrating the unpopularity of separatistsA Whip for the Back of a Backsliding Brownist, c.1640, Lutt.II.237 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This unique broadside from 1640 demonstrates the unpopularity of separatists, and Brownists in particular (which is the particular sect that the Mayflower congregation identified as).  They were seen as intolerant fanatics and trouble-makers who were needlessly rocking the boat.  This broadside compares them to papists, arguing that both extreme groups “breed the mischief here” and jeopardise the Church of England.  The separatists are described as 'wormes' gnawing 'the kingdome to the bone'.

Colonial life: An equipment list

We don’t know for sure what supplies the passengers on the Mayflower brought with them but it is likely to be similar to the provisions described in this rare broadside.

List of provisions needed by settlers in New England 1630A Proportion of Provisions Needful for such as Intend to Plant Themselves in New England, 1630 816.m.18(13) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Atlantic crossing itself took 66 days and was beset by winter storms.  The colonists didn’t intend to settle in modern-day New England.  The Mayflower was bound for Virginia but it was forced to anchor in Provincetown Harbour, Cape Cod, due to rough seas.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

22 September 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.1 English colonisation of North America prior to 1620

This month marks a pivotal moment in English colonial and North American history: the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to North America in 1620.

Approximately one third of the passengers on board the Mayflower were English separatists who wanted to make a living in the profitable ‘New World’ away from religious restrictions.  They are known euphemistically as the Pilgrim Fathers of the United States of America, and are mythologised today as symbols of religious freedom.  They have become a central theme in the United States of America’s founding story.

The settlers founded Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts and what was then Wampanoag land.  Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags, had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with the invaders.

Jamestown and Plymouth were the first of many English colonies in North America and the Caribbean.  This was driven by the pursuit of economic profit and the fight for influence amidst other European powers.

The consequences of colonisation were grave for everybody who was not European. Native Americans were devastated by disease, the buying out of land and violent conflict. The racial enslavement and transportation of African people to work on colonial plantations became endemic and horribly profitable.

More colonists wanted

The English Virginia Company established the colony of Jamestown in 1607 on Paspahegh land.  The Powhatan Confederacy, a collective of Algonquian peoples that included the Paspahegh, resisted English colonial establishment and expansion for many years in the Anglo-Powhatan Wars (1610-1646).

The settlers defeated the Powhatan Confederacy but they did struggle in the early years of the colony.  No crops were planted in the first year and supply ships either brought more hungry settlers or failed to arrive at all.   There were many fatalities from 1609 to 1610, a period known as the starving time.  The colony desperately needed more settlers.

An advert printed in London by the Virginia Company in 1609 calling for people to sign up.

For the Plantation in Virginia, 1609, C.18.e.1(63) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is an advert printed by the Virginia Company calling for people to sign up, giving no indication that Jamestown was on the brink of collapse.


Native Americans as seen through European colonial eyes

Picture entitled ‘A weroan or great Lorde of Virginia’ showing two men with bows and arrows, with text describing these 'Princes' of Virginia‘A weroan or great Lorde of Virginia’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Picture and text explaining the manner of making boats by Native Americans in Virginia, hollowing out tree trunks‘The manner of making their boates’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Engravings by Theodor de Bry in Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590. C.38.i.18

These engravings are the only surviving visual record of the Native Americans encountered by England’s first colonists.

Although stylised, they depict the Secota, Roanoke and Pomeiooc peoples of North-Carolina and their settlements. De Bry based his engravings on the watercolours of John White, a member of the short-lived Roanoke Colony, who drew from life the Carolina Algonquian people in that area.

These images played a central role in shaping European conceptions about the so-called New World and its inhabitants.


How New England became New England

Map of New England unfolded from a book, first printed in 1616Map from John Smith, New England’s Trials, 1622, G.7197 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This map, first printed in 1616, marks the first time that New England was called New England.

It was named by John Smith, the coloniser famous for his association with Matoaka, the Powhatan woman who was captured and held for ransom by colonists during the First Anglo-Powhatan War.  She is known today as Pocahontas.

John Smith’s book is essentially a promotional brochure about North America’s riches and natural resources.  The then Prince Charles (who became Charles I in 1626) renamed the Native American places with English alternatives, erasing their people’s history and culture.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

30 June 2020

Remembering the Vere Street Coterie: a story of gay community, a police raid and library censorship

During Pride Month especially, it is vital that we remember the injustices and hardships faced by the British gay community over the centuries.  On 8 July 1810, the lives of a group of gay men in London were turned upside down.

The Bow Street Runners, an early version of the police force, launched a surprise raid on the White Swan in Vere Street, a molly house.  Many were arrested, six were convicted of sodomy and two others were later hanged.  This has become known as one of, if not the most, brutal public punishments of gay men in British history.

In 1813 a lawyer called Robert Holloway tells the story, somewhat disapprovingly, in a book called The Phoenix of Sodom, or the Vere Street Coterie. The British Library has two copies of this book, and both were secreted away in the Private Case, a collection of forbidden books, as soon as they arrived.  

The Phoenix of SodomThe Phoenix of Sodom, or, The Vere Street Coterie. Sold by J. Cook, at and to be had of all the booksellers, 1813.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Homosexual activity was illegal and heavily prosecuted during the 19th century.  Gay men were treated with derision and disgust, and their punishment often involved public humiliation.  Molly houses were meeting places for gay men.  They were taverns, public houses, coffee houses and brothels where men could meet, socialise and find sexual partners.  Gay couples could even get married.  Even though same-sex marriage was not legalised in the United Kingdom until 2014, unofficial ceremonies were conducted at the White Swan by a minister called John Church, arguably the first openly gay ordained Christian minister in England.  Needless to say, visiting these places was risky.

On 8 July 1810, amidst the chaos and panic, the Bow Street Runners arrested many men at the White Swan.  Six were charged with sodomy: William Amos, whose alias was Sally Fox, Philip Kett, William Thomson, Richard Francis, James Done and Robert Aspinall.  They were sentenced to an hour in the pillory and some were also sentenced to imprisonment.

On 27 September, the streets surrounding the Old Bailey were crammed with angry, self-righteous and moralistic people waiting with bated breath for the prisoners to appear.  The mob was armed with mud, the corpses of cats and dogs, rotten fish, spoiled eggs, dung and whatever else they could get their hands on.  Soon the men were bleeding and beaten insensible.

But the authorities didn’t stop there.  Two men who had visited the White Chapel in the past were betrayed by an informer and were sentenced to death.  They were Thomas White, a 16-year-old drummer of the Guards and John Newbolt Hepburn, a 42-year-old ensign in a West India regiment.  They were hanged at Newgate prison on 7 March 1811.

The terrible fate of these men, who became known as the Vere Street Coterie, terrorised the gay community in London.  Meanwhile, the mainstream press revelled in it, denouncing the men as “monsters” before the trial had even begun.  Raids like this were unfortunately all too common and were part of a general crackdown on immoral behaviour in the first half of the 19th century.

The British Museum Library was part of this; the Private Case collection was created in response to the Obscene Publications Act, which made the spread of obscene material illegal.  Library staff decided that The Phoenix of Sodom was obscene, obviously because it was about homosexuality, and locked both copies away.  Since then, they’ve been removed from the Private Case and restored to the general collection, where anybody can call them up and examine their account of a disturbing piece of our history.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

11 June 2020

Strange News for Strange Times

We might feel like we’re living through a surreal period of strange news at the moment, but that’s nothing compared to some of the stories reported in news pamphlets of the early 17th century.  During this period reports of freak weather, unearthly sightings of ghosts, monstrous births and more were frequent.  The question is, did people living in the 17th century think these reports were as strange as we do today?

In 1616, news broke of three dead bodies rising from their graves in a town in Germany.  In the aftermath of a ‘tempest’, the townspeople believed they saw three corpses rising from the graveyard to preach a terrible warning about God’s wrath.  Rumours of this spread, pamphlets were printed across Europe and news of it eventually reached Edward Allde in London, where he printed this account.

Cover of Miraculous Newes featuring three skeletonsMiraculous newes, from the cittie of Holdt, in the Lord-ship of Munster (in Germany) the twentieth of September last past, 1616. Where there were plainly beheld three dead bodyes rise out of their graves, admonishing the people of judgements to come. London: Printed [by E. Allde] for John Barnyes, 1616. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As you can see, 'Miraculous Newes' is splashed across the half-title page, just as any sensational headline would be today, and a fantastic woodcut of the three skeletons is emblazoned below.  This incident may seem surreal to us today but then it would have been only too believable.  People in the early modern period were accustomed to interpreting strange sightings and weird phenomena as signs of divine judgement or wrath.  This was the only way they could interpret them.

So did people always believe these strange news reports?  Well, in 1620, Nathaniel Butter published a news report translated out of Italian about a vision seen over the Prophet Mohammad’s tomb in ‘Arabia’ and an account of the skies raining blood in Rome.

Cover of Good Newes to Christendome showing skies raining bloodCortano, Ludovico. Good newes to Christendome. Sent to a Venetian in Ligorne, from a merchant in Alexandria, Discovering a wonderfull and strange apparition, visibly seene for many dayes…with many other notable accidents. London: Printed for Nathaniel Butter, 1620. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the preface, the translator writes that he found it hard to believe this account.  After all, other recent strange reports, such as the 'Sussex Serpent, the German Ghosts' (a reference to the pamphlet described above?) and a great army marching in the sky, all 'came out of the shop of invention'.  But he apparently realised his mistake and is now convinced that this vision isn’t fake news. This one is definitely true, and if it’s true, then it has to be a sign from God.

It wasn’t just ghosts and visions that were divine interventions either.  Extreme weather was also a likely sign from God.  This pamphlet is a 'true relation' of a storm and severe flooding in Barcelona and the surrounding area in November 1617.  The woodcut depicts people drowning in the floods.  It was only with much prayer and dipping of the Holy Cross into the water that the storm eventually abated.  The pamphlet ends with a reminder of God’s 'chastisements and warnings' and a warning to serve him with 'more truth and sinceritie'.

Cover of Newes from Spain showing people drowning in the floods

Rejaule, V. A true relation of the lamentable accidents, caused by the inundation and rising of Ebro, Lobregat, Cinca, and Segre, rivers of Spaine. Together with a narration of a fearefull storme, which happened the third of November, in the yeare 1617. In the haven and port of Barcelona. London: printed for William Blackwall, 1618.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These strange news reports that today we would brush off as fake news were in fact serious matters in the early modern period.  Whilst people may not have believed every incredible story, they were wary enough of divine judgement to certainly believe some.  Strange news reports like these became more prevalent in times of upheaval, anxiety and uncertainty, such as in the build-up to the English Civil War, as people didn’t know what to believe.  Surreal times generated surreal headlines, and we can certainly empathise with that.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

28 May 2020

The mysterious Captain Gladstone, RN - a bookbinding James Bond?

Beautifully tooled bookbindings signed with the initials C.E.G. appear on printed books dating from the early 20th century.  These are the initials of Charles Elsden Gladstone (1855-1919) of the Royal Navy. 

Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone The National Archives ADM 196-19-266Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone - image courtesy of  The National Archives, ADM 196/19/266 ©Crown Copyright

The National Archives chart his somewhat unusual career.  Like his later fictional counterpart James Bond, he attained the rank of commander.  Also like Bond, he used cutting edge tech.  There is even a suggestion of covert intelligence gathering activities!  Admiralty service papers refer to an early specialism in torpedos, submarine weaponry and skill in photography which aided research on the subject of armaments.  He saw action in 1873 when he was landed with the Naval Brigade in the Ashanti War, while serving on the corvette H.M.S. Druid.

Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880 - image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust 

As for hobbies, Gladstone’s name is included in the annals of specialist societies relating to microscopy and optical magic lanterns, interests which suggest he had a keen eye and feeling for accuracy.  His family house was based in Thanet where he lived with his wife, a son, a governess and enough domestic help to make his situation comfortable.  Gladstone’s life, therefore, is quite well documented, but, annoyingly for the fans of bookbinding, not his connection to the craft!

Apparently Gladstone family lore confirms that Gladstone bound books but what does this mean?  Traditionally, binding was a two stage process, making the structure (called ‘forwarding’) and applying the decoration (‘finishing’).  Practitioners did not usually teach themselves.  Apprentices spent seven years training with an accredited bookbinder.  Did Gladstone master both techniques and who taught him?  I have found no evidence either way.

People outside the craft did learn to bind but were usually guided by professionals in some way.  A contemporary of Gladstone’s, Irish barrister Sir Edward Sullivan (1852-1928), ‘finished’ ready-bound books to a high standard.  Today, these bindings fetch high prices, as do Captain Gladstone’s though to a lesser extent.  Was this a pastime for Gladstone or the means of raising income?  The latter seems unlikely as his navy salary was good and his retirement pay (from 1904) was £400 a year.  In 1919, the Liverpool Probate Registry listed the gross value of his estate as £27030 2s 5d.

Gladstone’s well bound colourful goatskin book covers, displaying a range of finishing skills, are attractive additions to sales catalogues.  Antiquarian book sellers have included images on their websites, notably David Brass Rare Books, Temple Rare Books (see Temple Rare Books online Book of the Month January 2014), and Nudelman Rare Books.  The bindings usually (though not exclusively) include all-over designs comprising small flower and leaf motifs, have smooth spines and elaborately decorated turn-ins.  Here is the British Library’s example, Alfred de Musset's On ne badine pas avec l’amour.

Gladstone's binding of Alfred de Musset's 'On ne badine pas avec l’amour' with small flower and leaf motifs Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

 Tooling on the turn in of Gladstone's binding showing the initials C.E.G.

Tooling on the turn in showing the initials C.E.G.  - Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For a naval officer Gladstone was a quite remarkable bookbinder!

P.J.M. Marks
Curator, Bookbindings

Further Reading:
The National Archives Admiralty records ADM 196/19/266; ADM 196/38/621; ADM 196/40/207
Dreadnought Project
Commander Charles Elsden Gladstone

 

14 May 2020

The most noted girls of the town: A newly discovered edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is a notorious publication that detailed the names and ‘specialities’ of prostitutes working in Covent Garden and the West End during the late 18th century.  When the first edition appeared in 1760, it was immediately derided as pretending 'to give some account of the most noted Girls of the Town; but it has all the air of a lying Catch-penny Jobb' (Monthly Review, June 1760).  A contributor to the London Magazine claimed that the sex workers were 'frightful, and smell strongly of paints, pills, bolus’s, and every venereal slop' (April 1760).  Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its scandalous content Harris’s List amassed a large enough readership to be published yearly until 1794.

Frontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesFrontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for H. Ranger, 1773 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


It was doing so well that, by 1791, a rival Harris’s List had appeared.  An indignant but anonymous newspaper notice was printed, claiming the rival edition was 'a compilation of falsehood and imposition' and urging discerning readers to keep their eye out for the so-called authentic version of the directory.  No copies of this 1791 rival Harris’s List survive today.  In fact, the only extant edition of this rival publication was, until recently, thought to be the one from 1794 – suggesting that it ran for at least four years.

However, we have recently acquired a copy of the rival Harris’s List from 1793.  It was printed for John Sudbury in Southwark rather than the pseudonymous ‘H. Ranger’ who occupies the imprint in the official Lists.   John Sudbury was a bookseller and occasional publisher who was active between 1786 and 1795, dealing in cheap bawdy material.

Title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, LondonTitle page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Even though it has the same title, this edition describes different sex workers to those featured in the official Harris’s List for 1793.  However, the descriptions are similar in that the line between authenticity and titillation is somewhat blurred in both editions, probably containing only kernels of truth.  In the rival Harris’s List, Miss Patty S—n—rs, for example, is described as the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer and was one of 'numerous offspring'.  She worked in 'Lissen-green, near Paddington'.  Miss Betty Fr-el, is said to have lost both her parents and, as her stepfather would not support her, joined a 'Strolling Company' and became an actress.  The 'principal hero got the better of her chastity' and, in the words of the List, she 'was soon initiated into the misteries of the Cyprian Deity'.  Another woman, Mrs Stam-er at No.7, Charles-court, Strand, is a widow and nearly forty years old. Having said that, however, she still had 'very fine teeth'. 

Pages from Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesPage 42 and 43 of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies provides insight into the underworld of Georgian London and is invaluable for the studies of censorship, erotica and the treatment of women in the late 18th century.  Although the male gaze and its haze of titillation prevents us from getting anything other than a glimpse of these unfortunate women, this is far better than them being lost to history altogether.  While this new acquisition is important from a bibliographic perspective, adding to a precious and limited canon of this notorious publication, it is the stories of these women that are the most significant part of this discovery.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
The majority of the British Library’s copies of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies are part of the Private Case collection

The bibliographical history of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is explored here:
Freeman, Janet Ing. Jack Harris and ‘Honest Ranger’: The Publication and Prosecution of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1760-95.

For more research on the women described in Harris’s Lists:
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden ladies : pimp General Jack & the extraordinary story of Harris's List, 2005.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies: the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List. Penguin, 2012.

 

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