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Sex tourism in 18th century London?

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By | From the Collections

We’ve all heard of the Grand Tour, when 18th century Englishmen went off to the Continent to further their cultural education and cultivate their aesthetic tastes, returning with paintings and statuary to adorn their homes. But what about traffic in the opposite direction? What could the contemporary Frenchman or Italian hope to pick up in London to stimulate the passions and quicken the pulse?

"Touch for touch or a female physician in full practice." Etching with watercolour 18uu by Thomas Rowlandson

“Touch for touch or a female physician in full practice.” The benefits of a prostitute’s work are likened to a physician’s services. Etching with watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson. Wellcome Images reference: L0033923.

One possibility was a copy of Harris’s List, a piece of Georgian ‘top shelf’ smut that could be had for the modest sum of ‘two and sixpence’. Harris’s List was published annually from 1760 to 1794 in print-runs of some 8000 copies. It listed the names and addresses of London prostitutes – ‘Covent Garden Ladies’with notes about their particular erotic specialities. Few copies now survive because it was not exactly the sort of publication that sat comfortably in a gentleman’s library, available for perusal by wives and servants.


When a former member of Wellcome Library staff who now works for a rare books dealer got in touch last year to say she had a copy it was therefore a moment of some excitement. In fact she had not one but two copies, of the consecutive issues for 1787 and 1788, the former of which appears to be the only one in existence. They belonged to a private owner who wished to remain anonymous and were available for purchase at the right price.

When the pamphlets arrived in the Library they turned out to be not dog-eared victims of a thousand grubby fingers but near pristine copies encased in a handsome and very expensive 19th century French binding. Whoever commissioned the binding clearly regarded these relics of the Georgian underworld as collector’s items. And so, in a way, they finally gained the high cultural status that had always attached to the works of art that flowed in the reverse direction.

Update: Thanks to Dr Patrick Spedding for drawing our attention to additional digital versions of Harris’s List dating back to 1765.

Author: Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research and Scholarship at the Wellcome Library.

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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