Watching Jessica Brown Findlay’s spirited “kept woman” Charlotte Wells, Samantha Morton’s no-nonsense bawd Margaret Wells and Lesley Manville’s nasty high-class brothel keeper Lydia Quigley in ITV’s new period drama Harlots raises one major question: did these women actually exist?
The straightforward answer is no. But the more complex answer is that each character is a mosaic, a composite of the real-life “harlots” that creators Alison Newman and Moira Buffini met in their travels through libraries and archives as they reconstructed Georgian London’s sex industry for a TV audience.
“We took bits from people that we found – that sounds awful, doesn’t it? We were inspired by them,” says Newman. “We’ve borrowed – that’s a better word, isn’t it? – we’ve borrowed from real life a bit.”
So who have they borrowed from? Meet Ann Duck, Kitty Fisher, Teresia Phillips and more…
The character of Violet Cross (Rosalind Eleazar) – a black street girl – is based on a criminal whose trials are recorded in the Old Bailey archives, Buffini reveals. “A girl called Ann Duck was hanged for stealing and we sort of based Violet on her,” she explains. “We hope Violet doesn’t get hanged because she’s great, we love her, but she’s a thief. She’s a street whore and a thief.
“But it’s much like now, this is a multicultural city, people are surviving in all sorts of surprising and interesting ways, people are confounding your expectations, and we hope this show does.”
The real Ann Duck was tried in 1743 for assaulting a man called William Cooper and stealing his money-bag. “I took Notice of her, because she is a Black woman, and so the more remarkable,” said one witness at the time. Another refused to come forward because he feared “he should be knocked on the Head by her Bullies if he should” (a Bully was the equivalent to a pimp and a brothel’s doorman). She was acquitted, but in 1744 tried for another case of violent theft and highway robbery and sentenced to death.
When the Harlots’ creators were dreaming up Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay), they were thinking about Kitty Fisher. This courtesan of the 1750s and 60s was famously painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
“I looked at his portraits, I found them so inspiring,” Newman says. “I had a book of his portraits by me as I was writing a lot of the time, and Kitty Fisher is a very famous courtesan of the day, and he painted her about twice a decade. There’s several wonderful pictures of Kitty Fisher, and she’s luminous, she just looks like such good company… such good fun.”
Before she died in 1767 in her mid-20s, Fisher was a leading courtesan with humble roots who carefully developed her public image, showing off her beauty and carrying out affairs with men of wealth. She was one of the first people in the world to be famous simply for being famous (so it’s not such a new phenomenon, after all).
A Harlot’s Progress
While Margaret Wells is a brothel owner, she’s on the nicer end of the spectrum of London bawds. But Lydia Quigley is another matter, and the creators of Harlots found themselves “inspired” by William Hogarth’s famous engraving, A Harlot’s Progress (okay so none of the people in it are technically “real”, but they struck a chord at the time).
A series of six images shows the sad story a young woman, M Hackabout, who arrives in London from the country (in the above image you can see the carriage with York printed on the side). When she arrives with her trunk, fresh-faced and respectable, she is immediately approached by an old woman (marked with venereal disease) who procures her for a gentleman, taking advantage of her innocence. She soon becomes a mistress with two lovers, then a common prostitute, then a prisoner, then a sufferer of venereal disease, then a dead woman at 23.
The bawd here is setting a trap, just as Lydia Quigley does – because once you enter her house, it is hard to get out. Her girls find themselves tangled up in debt, owing money to her for food and lodgings and even clothes. The only way to escape is to find a wealthy “keeper” to buy you out, and then you are contracted to him, too.
There is one character who is completely based on a real-life person: Teresia Phillips, who ran the “Ann Summers of the day”. Harlots creator Alison Newman, who previously played DI Samantha Keeble in EastEnders, reluctantly agreed to a cameo.
According to historian Lucy Inglis, Teresia Constantia Phillips (“Con”) was actually born in 1709 and moved to London at the age of 13 to try to earn her living as a seamstress. She went on to become the mistress of many men, married illegally many times, entertained, travelled and became a courtesan.
In the 1730s she struck upon a way of sharing her expertise and, with true entrepreneurial spirit, launched a shop in Covent Garden called The Green Canister selling useful items including “preservatives” or “cundums”. These, however, were very different from your average Durex. They were made from a sheep’s intestine and secured with a coloured ribbon around the base, they were reusable, and it was suggested that one should soak them in water and squeezed out before use to keep them stretchy. “Con sold condoms wholesale to the brothels and bagnios, so if you wanted to use one, all you had to do was ask,” Inglis writes.
Mrs Phillips, who was married many times and tried for bigamy, does sound like quite a character. Sources suggest that her shop also sold everything from dildos to flagellation machines. She wrote a tell-all autobiography – An Apologia for the Conduct of Mrs Theresa Constantia Phillips. She then moved to Jamaica, where – according to Fergus Linnane‘s Madams: Bawds and Brothel-Keepers of London – she was elected Mistress of the Revels at carnival time.
The brothel keepers of Harris’s List
One major source that served as a launchpad was Harris’s list.
Buffini explains: “Alison [Newman] loaned me Harris’s List, which is a sort of Time Out guide to whores from the 1760s onwards. And that was our first document and then that led up to many others. It just opened up the door to a London that was so fascinating, and into a world which surprised us at every turn, in not just how difficult women’s lives were, but in basically how strongly they turned very difficult circumstances to their advantage.”
The list revealed “very, very modern businesswomen” like the fictional Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley.
“There were many many other brothels that were run by men, but we’ve chosen to look at two that were run by women,” says Buffini. “There were also plenty of brothels run by women, so it’s historically accurate.”
Jessica Brown Findlay also dived in to Harris’s List to research the part of Charlotte Wells – and what she found surprised her.
“Some of the descriptions – they just get down to it,” she says. “Literally. There’s no sugar coating on those descriptions, you get – you can get a pretty harsh review. It’s kind of fascinating, the openness about sex which I found really interesting.”
Eight-part period drama Harlots will premiere on Monday 27th March at 10pm on ITV Encore. It will also be available via US on demand service Hulu from 29th March