harlots

Is Harlots based on a true story? Find out here...

Does the show take any historical inspiration? 

Emmy Griffiths

Harlots aired on BBC Two for the first time in early August, and viewers have been loving the antics of Madam Margaret Wells and her two daughters, Charlotte and Lucy, in 18th century London. The series focuses on the popularity of brothel houses, and the power (or lack thereof) of the women who owned them or worked for them. But is any of it a true story? Find out here... 

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While no one by the names of Margaret Wells, Lydia Quigley or Violet Cross really existed, the series took inspiration from Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, a directory that advertised prostitutes in the 18th century. In the opening episode, the young ladies at Margaret's brothel are even spotted excitedly reading their descriptions to one another. 

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WATCH: BBC's Harlots trailer

Chatting to Radio Times, co-writer Alison Newman said that they "took bits from people that we found – that sounds awful, doesn’t it? We were inspired by them. We’ve borrowed – that’s a better word, isn’t it? – we’ve borrowed from real life a bit". Speaking about the directory, her fellow writer Moira Buffini explained: "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." 

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Some characters also took inspiration from real life, with Charlotte Wells most notably being based on Kitty Fisher, a famed prostitute who lived in the 1750s and was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Violet Cross was also thought to be based on Ann Duck, a street thief who was hanged for stealing. 

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Violet is inspired by a real-life woman, Ann Duck

Moira explained: "We sort of based Violet on her. 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." 

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