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not quite Mallory Towers...

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

B O A R D E R S

Fans of Enid Blyton may remember her popular boarding school series, Mallory Towers. The series followed a bunch of teenage girls in the 1940s negotiating life lessons, lacrosse matches, midnight feasts and practical jokes on French teachers who were invariably called Madame.

Peg called the women who worked in her brothels, her boarders. They lived in, so technically they were boarding with her, but there was cunning linguistics at play here also. Many brothels were called nunneries, with the brothel owner called an abbess; in a similar fashion, when Peg suggested that she was running an educational establishment, she meant it ironically.


E N T R A N C E

Peg had no shortage of women asking to join her house. One such would-be-boarder was Molly McPerson from Banbridge. Molly had been previously living in the 'most exalted stile' under the protection of Wills Hill, the first Marquis of Downshire. He seduced her at a young age and, once he tired of her, cast her aside. Peg didn't think Molly's looks were up to much, but her heart was touched by the woman's plight. She took her in "lent her five guineas to get a change or two of linen, which she stood very much in want of," and advertised her as the Marchioness of Downshire, "which had the desired effect, and procured her a few gallants, who would never have noticed her as plain Molly McPherson."


This world of the demi-monde could be fluid. 'Fallen' woman could move between protectors and bawdy houses. Peg took many of these women in. ..... at times regretting her decision.


A Mrs Magee proved too fond of brandy. Peg was delighted when Buck Whaley took the woman off her hands and paid her for the loss of future earnings. A Mrs Porter showed a lack of exclusivity bestowing her favours "with every ruffian who can a crown afford". Peg worried that Mrs Porter was lowering the tone of the brothel and sent her packing. The Duke of Leinster, perhaps partial to a bit of rough, took her in. A woman whom Peg called 'the Bantry Ginger' was "a little termagant, a vulgar Munster broganier vixen, with nothing to recommend her but her complexion". She too was given her marching orders. A Mary Roberts turned out to be a thief, running a scam on Jervis Street. She had presented herself to Peg as an innocent country girl whose parents had abandoned her. In fact she was a 'decoy-duck employed by a band of robbers to lure lustful gentlemen and down lonely laneways where her partners relieved him of his money and clothes.


U N I F O R M

Clothes were important in Georgian times. Dress was used to impress and one's garments were considered valuable property. Most people had fewer items of clothing than we do today. Fabric costs and mantua-makers were damn expensive.

Peg needed to ensure all her boarders looked the elegant part. The first thing a new girl would receive was brand-new gown. Peg would pay for the dress upfront and, in a form of indentured service, the new girl would agree not to.leave Peg's establishment until this debt was paid. When young Miss Kitty Gore joined the house, Peg tells us "I took her to the several shops, at which I usually dealt, and let her have as much as she pleased, of everything she wanted, to nearly the value of a hundred pounds (about €14,750 today). Unfortunately Miss Gore ran off with a gentleman admirer after an only a few weeks. Peg sued this gentleman to get the money she was owed.


E X C U R S I O N S

It wasn't all trouble and strife, most of the time the business ran smoothly. Parties by night and picnics by day - all opportunities for Peg and her girls to display their charms and capability for enjoyment in a loud, visible manner. One sunny afternoon in July they went to Rathfarnham, "and after very minutely examining all the beauties of that enchanting spot, adjourned to Laughlin's tavern, on the ponds, where we dined and spent the remainder of the day; by accident the company of Printers and Booksellers, amounting to upwards of fifty persons, happened to be there also". Much wine was enjoyed and it became rather rowdy. Two men got into a scuffle as they both wanted to partner Peg, one pulled the wig off the other and tossed it to Fanny Beresford, who decided to pee in it. She returned the wig to the man, he, unaware of it's liquid contents thrust it into his pocket and ruined his breeches, he "found his privities extremely chilled, which caused him in a paroxysm of rage to throw the well sluiced peruke into a running brook at the bottom of the garden... and he was obliged to return to town with a handkerchief tied about his bald pericranium, to the no small diversion of the company".


U N D E S I R A B L E C O N S E Q U E N C E S

Peg never mentions any of her girls getting pregnant but it is likely that some of them did. A woman who found herself in the family way had four choices: abortion; infanticide; the Foundling Hospital or keeping her baby. Abortion (if it worked) was the simplest choice for working girl. Certain herbs were known to 'bring down the flowers', the most common being savin, a species of juniper used to flavour gin. (The idea of a bottle of gin (mother's ruin) being an effective abortifacient was still popular in my late teens - a time when both contraception and abortion was illegal in Ireland).


Infanticide was a fact of life. Newspapers carried reports of newborn infants drowned in the Liffey and the canals. Thirty-four infanticides were recorded between 1780 and 1795, but there were probably much more than this that remained undiscovered.


Some women would leave their babies in churches or in doorways in the hope that a kindly soul would find them and care for them. Each parish had responsibility for the babies found in their jurisdiction and women would often travel to another area to leave their baby. This was such a regular occurrence that 'lifters' were employed to seek out the abandoned children and carry them back to the part of Dublin from where they originally came. Many of these abandoned babies ended up in the Foundling Hospital which was situated on James Street, (where the current hospital now stands). Its purpose was to avoid the murder of illegitimate children but its reputation for the care provided was appalling. Between 1790 and 1796 some 5,216 infants were sent there, of whom 5,215 died.



For those women who chose to keep their babies they most probably paid for another to care for the child. The practice of employing a wet nurse was long established. Taking this a step further a woman could farm out her child long-term, paying a sum of money for its upkeep and visiting when she could.


Contraception was rudimentary. Customers could be supplied with 'cundums' which were made of animal gut or treated linen. They were often one-size-fits-all and had to be dipped in water before use. They were tied to the penis with a little ribbon and were often rather baggy due to being re-used over and over again.

The main purpose of the condom was to prevent disease rather than pregnancy. Venereal disease was rampant with syphilis and gonorrhoea spreading rapidly all over Europe. No effective cure was available, the main treatment being the use of mercury to induce sweating to pull out the toxins. It didn't work. If the syphllis did not kill you the mercury poisoning would.


C A R E E R P R O S P E C T S

So why would a woman choose this line of work? The main reason was, of course, money. A girl, with no useful connections and limited education, could expect to make no more than £5 (about €735) a year as a domestic servant. But in contrast by working as a prostitute she could hope to make the same amount a week.


Another reason was autonomy. Most eighteenth-century women opted for marriage to ensure financial security, but according to the laws of the time, the entirety of a woman's property was placed under the ownership of her husband: a married woman had no control over her own finances. But it gets worse. Under the Law of Coverture a married woman's legal existence was considered to be merged with that of her husband. She had no independent legal existence of her own. By contrast an unmarried woman, or feme sole, had the right to own property and make decisions in her own name.


U N I O N S

Peg was friendly with most of the other bawds who operated brothels around the city. In fact a sisterhood existed whereby working girls could pay a small subscription and withdraw funds if they fell on hard times. I found this small ad the Sisterhood took out in 1779. At this time, there was a fervour around buying Irish and a demand for free trade. Peg is cheekily jumping on this band wagon, ensuring that the goods she brings to the market are genuinely Irish and requesting an exemption from paying duty.




Peg also sought membership to another union. With typical Peg flamboyance and wit she applied to become a member of a teachers' union. "I sent two guineas to Mr. McC——e their secretary, desiring him to enroll me as the principal of Pitt street boarding-school; however the honest worthy Puritan, not choosing to be so taken in, sent my money back". Not taking no for an answer, she wrote again and was accepted as an honorary member.


T O C O N C L U D E

Peg had a kind heart. She tried to help out her girls and others who came to her door when she could. But she expected a return for her money.


The ITV series Harlots has been an interesting source for this research. The show features two rival madams, their houses and their girls.The series is based on the work of Hallie Rubenhold, expert in eighteenth century prostitutes and accurately portrays the life. The colour, the squalor, the excesses, the daring, the vulnerability and the exploitation are all here.



And for those who prefer the innocence of Enid Blyton's world, here's some Mallory Towers.


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