Weird History

Everything Hulu's 'Harlots' Gets Right (And Wrong) About Brothels In 18th-Century England  

Setareh Janda
26.5k views 15 items

Set in rival parlors in 1700s London, the Hulu show Harlots goes where no other show has gone: It explores the dramatic lives of women who lived and labored as ladies of the night in an era that really, really liked "doing it." How accurate is the show? Like any piece of historical fiction, it hits some facts and misses others.

Overall, Harlots accurately depicts the life of an 18th-century working girl. Through the experiences of Margaret Wells, a woman who runs a bawdy house alongside her partner and children; Lydia Quigley, a madam who caters to high society in her classy, fashionable establishment; and their female workers, the show depicts how diverse the world of sex work was in the 18th century.

There are nitty-gritty details that Harlots doesn't explore as much as it could, however. The industry in 1700s London was more lucrative and dangerous than the show suggests. From male-only molly houses to the job's serious health risks, there was still more to the industry than Harlots leads its audience to believe.

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Photo: Jan Gerritsz van Bronckhorst/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Selling A Girl's Virginity To The Highest Bidder Was Actually A Thing

In the first episode of the series, parlor-keeper Margaret Wells reluctantly auctions off her 15-year-old daughter's virginity at the opera. Wells's act of putting Lucy's virginity up for sale - shocking as it may seem to modern eyes - was a common practice in the 18th century. Clients coveted these girls, as they did not have to worry about catching a venereal disease.

One notable, real-life madam in the 18th century was Charlotte Hayes. Hayes's career began when her mother sold Hayes's virginity for up to £50 - no small sum in the 1700s. Claims of a working girl being a virgin were sometimes dubious. Shrewd women who appeared young knew that they could easily sell their virginity "several times over."

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Photo: Samuel Derrick/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
There Really Was A List That Described London's Ladies Of The Night

Harlots begins with a published list that describes the city's working girls. Lucy Wells brings a copy of it home to her mother's cathouse. The workers gather around a table to hear what others have said about them and their unique skills.

This list actually existed. Published annually from 1757 until 1795, Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies acted as a guide to London's working girls. It was far from an exhaustive list, however. The 1787 version, for example, only included 86 women

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Charlotte Wells And Lydia Quigley Are Based On Real Women

Real historical figures inspired many of the characters in Harlots. One such character is Charlotte Wells, Margaret's successful daughter and one of the most celebrated courtesans in London. There were many women like Charlotte Wells in 18th-century London, but one stood out to the show's creators: Kitty Fisher. Fisher ran in some of the most illustrious circles and was a celebrity courtesan. She also served as a muse for artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Another inspiration for the shows' creators was the parlor-keeper Elizabeth Needham. Needham influenced the character of Lydia Quigley and appeared in William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress, a photo series released in 1732 that depicts the rise and fall of particular working girls. Needham recruits young women into the profession in Hogarth's series. Like Quigley, Needham sometimes procured young women for her high-end parlor through deceptive means.

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Photo: Thomas Rowlandson/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Riotous Hellfire Clubs Depended On Girls To Fuel Their Dark Fantasies 

The ladies at the center of Harlots are up against the patriarchy, as represented by a creepy, violent old boys' club, the Spartans. They comprise a group of London's power players, including aristocrats and politicians. With the help of Lydia Quigley, they acquire young women whom they harm and slay for their twisted amusement.

Hellfire clubs sprang up in Great Britain and Ireland throughout the 18th century. Gentlemen who lived seemingly respectable lives joined these secret societies and used them as an excuse to carouse and procure working girls. Members of specific clubs often recommended girls to one another and asked madams to gather women for their meetings.

Though rumors suggested hellfire clubs participated in all manner of sin - including devil worship - it's hard to separate fact from fiction. Harlots tends to exaggerate the worst of these clubs' behavior. Regular ritualistic slaying likely wasn't on the repertoire for most clubs. 

Some members committed murder, though. After Lord Santry, a member of a hellfire club in Dublin, took a man's life in 1738, the general population began to associate such clubs with vicious behavior.