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How real Harlots sold their daughters’ virginity at 12 & trapped naive girls into child prostitution

RAUNCHY drama Harlots burst onto the BBC with a bang last week, with viewers stunned at the amount of sex in the opening scenes.

But viewers were also shocked at scenes where brothel madam Margaret Wells puts her 15-year-old daughter’s virginity up for sale before admitting she had done the same to oldest daughter Charlotte – at 12.

Incredibly, the disturbing scenes reflect the grim reality behind the booming sex trade of Georgian England where children as young as 11 worked the streets and mothers auctioned their daughters’ virginity for up to £9,000.

One in five women sold their bodies to get by and women who had grown too old to earn a living often became “bawds” preying on young girls who came to London looking for work and conning them into prostitution.

Horrifyingly, one celebrated brothel owner even put on a show where wealthy punters could watch as teen virgins were publicly “deflowered.”

As the drama continues on Wednesday nights, at 9pm on BBC2, we look at the darker side of Georgian prostitution, where children were sold into the sex trade and purity meant pound signs.

In a scene from Harlots, Margaret Wells, played by Samantha Morton, sells off her “favourite” daughter Lucy’s virginity to the highest bidder.

Confronted by older daughter Charlotte she admits that she “had her out at 12”.

Outrageous as it seems, the character of Charlotte – played by Downton Abbey star Jessica Brown Findlay – is partly based on real life prostitute Charlotte Hayes, born in 1725.

Like her Harlots counterpart, she was raised as the daughter of a brothel owner who trained her from an early age in the art of becoming a courtesan.

At 14, her mother sold Charlotte’s virginity to the highest bidder for £50 – the equivalent of £9,000 today.

With sexually transmitted diseases rife among sex workers, virgins came at a premium and, in a common con, the teenager’s ‘virginity’ wasn’t just sold once, but several times over.

Historian and Harlots writer Hallie Rubenhold told I: “The experience of having sex with a virgin was highly prized in the 18th century.

“People were afraid of venereal diseases, people were obsessed with youth and so this was a highly erotic, pleasurable experience.

“If a girl was young enough, they could sell her virginity several times over. They had methods by which they could pretend it had been restored, they had recipes for how to tighten the walls of the vagina using various herbs.”

Hayes went on to become one of the most desired women in London, lavished with luxury by her wealthy “keepers”.

As well as making a mint as a courtesan, Charlotte Hayes ran one of the most lucrative brothels in London, off the elegant thoroughfare of Pall Mall, which she called her “nunnery.”

Hayes took in girls as young as 12, taught them refined manners and dressed them in French silks and lace, promising customers they would “satisfy all fantasies, caprices, and extravagances of the male visitor, carrying out their every wish”.

A night with one of her “nuns” cost over £100, more than the average annual wage at the time.

The high price meant her customers were members of the highest society, including lords, earls and even royals, such as the future King George IV.

On one occasion, after reading about erotic rituals in Tahiti, she organised a event in which “12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted” were deflowered by 12 young men, as in “the celebrated rites of Venus”.

An audience of 23 men were charged handsomely to watch the sordid spectacle.

Hayes became a celebrated name amassing a fortune of £20,000 – around £3million today.

Hayes wasn’t the only one to build her fortune on child exploitation.

Every year thousands of young girls flocked to London in the hope of finding work, and many fell into a common trap set by “bawds”, who trawled the inns and taverns looking for a fresh young face.

Once sucked in, the girl’s virginity could be sold to a nobleman for up to £150.

In The Secret History of Georgian London, historian Dan Cruickshank describes one “vile procuress” at work.

“Each morning she took her rounds to all the inns, to see what youth and beauty the country had sent to London.

“And when she found a rural pretty lass step out of a wagon, the antiquated She-captain of Satan’s regiment would offer the poor innocent creature accommodation in her house gratis, till she saw if she should like the town.”

The naive country girls were taken in by these motherly figures, who offered them a roof over their heads until they found their feet.

One contemporary author reports these “fallen angels” were then trapped by false debt, thinking they owed money for lodgings or food.

They would often be forced to work in “bawdy houses”, with the older woman passing them round to drunken men for cash.

“Then, at a nod, must that tender delicate person be given up to the lust of every ruffian who can afford the price, to be touzed, and rumpled, like a bit of dirty paper,” reads the report.

Like Charlotte Hayes, many prostitutes became celebrated courtesans and even mistresses of the King.

According to series creator Alison Newman, Harlots’ Charlotte Wells was also inspired by Kitty Fisher, a sex worker immortalised in a famous painting by Joshua Reynolds.

Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, Kitty came from a humble background but rose to high society by becoming the mistress of a series of wealthy men, including Lord Coventry and the Duke of York.

One contemporary writer noted: “She lives in the greatest possible splendour, spends twelve thousand pounds a year, and she is the first of her social class to employ liveried servants.”

Kitty was immortalised in the nursery rhyme line: “Lucy Lockett lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it.”

Another child prostitute who infiltrated the upper classes was Lavinia Fenton, the illegitimate daughter of a sailor whose mother married a London brothel keeper.

As her mother was in negotiations for her “deflowering” defiant Lavinia slept with with a Portuguese nobleman who was then imprisoned for debt, so she became a child prostitute.

However at the age of 20, in 1728, she ran away with her lover, The Duke of Bolton, who was 23 years her senior.

They married after the death of his wife, over 20 years later, when they already had three children, and she became the Duchess of Bolton.

Harlots madam Lydia Quigley – played by Lesley Manville – is seen supplying teenage virgins to a club of aristocratic men, who are later found to be raping and murdering them in Satanic rituals.

The scenes are inspired by the 18th Century rise of Hellfire Clubs, secret societies formed by wealthy society men and, on some occasions, women.

According to the London Gazette of 1721, these “scandalous clubs meet together and in the most impious and blasphemous Manner, insult the most sacred Principles of Holy Religion, affront Almighty God himself, and corrupt the Minds and Morals of one another.”

The paper reported that party-goers drank “Hellfire punch” and dined on dishes named Holy Ghost Pie, Devil’s Loins and Breast of Venus.

Reports of deflowering virgins, Satanic abuse of women and even murder began to circulate around the clubs.

One such club, formed in 1746 by Sir Francis Dashwood with the motto “Fais ce que tu voudrais” (Do as you will) included such notable figures as Lord Sandwich, Lord Bute, the Duke of Queensbury and the Prince of Wales.

When one Dublin-based member, Lord Santry, murdered an innocent tavern porter in 1738, the Hellfire Clubs’ reputation for violence and abuse was sullied even further.

But while drinking and debauchery were undoubtedly at the core of these scandalous societies, there is little evidence to suggest that Satanic sacrifice, as seen in Harlots, was part of their secret meetings.

Covent Garden was the centre of London’s sex trade, with girls accosting men on every corner and coffee houses full of flamboyantly dressed ladies plying for trade.

To help the prospective punter navigate his way through the many choices available, a now infamous directory, The Harris’ List, was produced from the 1740s.

The annual list – named after pub landlord and self-styled ‘Pimp-general of All England” Jack Harrison – listed intimate details of the women, including descriptions of their bodies, their foul language and how accommodating they were to the more unusual requests from clients.

In one entry a Mrs Russell is praised for her “vulgarity more than anything else, she being extremely expert at uncommon oaths”.

Another, from the 1761 issue, describes Jenny Nelson from St Martins Lane.
“A jolly smart wench, a good companion at table; but particularly joyous in bed,” it reads. “There are few whores to be found so generous as she is, often restoring the money when she likes her man; but she drinks damnably, and is then too apt to be saucy.”

She has the most consummate skill in reviving the dead… the tip of her tongue can talk eloquently to the heart.

At No 10 Plow Court, a Miss Moble’s bedroom skills were admired, with the entry claiming she “has the most consummate skill in reviving the dead… the tip of her tongue can talk eloquently to the heart”.

Not all were so complimentary, with Mrs Forbes of Yeoman’s Row, described as “very much pitted with the pox… but has played with her own sex in bed (where she is as lascivious as a goat)”.

The book also detailed specialists such as a Miss L-k-ns, whose clients liked to have their eyeballs licked, and dominatrice, such as Nancy Burroughs, who used “more birch rods in a week than Westminster School in a twelve-month”.

As a form of recommendation, famous clients of the ladies were also named, including King George IV, author James Boswell and the statesman Robert Walpole.

In a 1758 document about the sex trade in London, reformer Saunders Welsh recorded: “Prostitutes swarm in the streets of this metropolis to such a degree, and bawdy-houses are kept in such an open and public manner that a stranger would think the whole town was one general stew.”

He added that on every street women exposed themselves in windows and doorways “like beasts in a market for public sale” and with language, dress and gesture too offensive to be mentioned.

But the brazen nature of the sex trade in the UK was to come to an end towards the end of the century when society’s changing views led to several acts outlawing brothels and street prostitution.

Harlots continues on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesdays

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