Starting on Monday (on ITV Encore) is an 8-part drama entitled Harlots. It’s set in eighteenth century Georgian London, a so-called family drama (as opposed to family-viewing drama). Inspired by the stories of real women of the period, it follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters as she attempts to balance her roles of mother and brothel owner. Her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.
Competition between houses of ill repute is not new, of course. Coincidentally, I came across this item recently:
Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, 1890s.
The House of Adeline had been the only game in town for some time. Then an enterprising madam called Jewel hung up her shingle about a block away and vied for clients.
One day the working girls at Adeline’s nailed the door shut on one of the Jewel girls as she visited the outhouse – after throwing in a hornet’s nest. When the hapless girl was freed, she was badly stung and couldn’t work for a few days. Later, emboldened by this ‘success’ against the competition, Adeline’s girls then sneaked into Jewel’s back yard and put itching powder on the bedclothes drying on the line. Much cursing and scratching followed, and clients were lost.
Several days later, the Adeline madam didn’t get any customers for some days and wondered why, only then discovering that a quarantine sign for measles had been placed at the front door!
The two madams called a truce.
This is paraphrasing just one anecdote in a fascinating non-fiction history of prostitution in the American West – Upstairs Girls by Michael Rutter. I’ll write a review of the book shortly.