Shady ladies of the Cariboo – the spicier side of our history

Brothels and prostitution were a regular part of history.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Not many weeks ago, an Ashcroftian who shall remain nameless, told me that he very much enjoyed my articles, but with tongue in cheek, he wondered why I didn’t write about the “spicy stuff”? I replied that The Journal was a “family newspaper” and I did not think the “spicy stuff” was the stuff that people wanted to read. At least in a family newspaper. But I’ve been thinking about this fellow’s question, and decided to do a little investigation. And this is what I’ve come up.

Ashcroft, like practically any village or town of any size in the Cariboo from Fort George to Yale, had houses of prostitution. Usually, there was nothing fancy about the houses. They sat on the edge of town, well away from the respectable homes. They were cottages. Some with two stories. The bottom part of the cottage was the parlor area, where alcoholic beverages were served at tables covered with fringed cloths, coal oil lamps, and there were several upholstered chairs. Often, one of the girls would sing the ditties of the day, accompanied, often enough, by a pianist, or a fiddler, who might very well have been one of the guests. Then, the guests, after being serenaded and hosted, would depart for the upstairs bedroom, accompanied by his lady of choice.

Now prostitution wasn’t exactly illegal in British Columbia in the 1860s and ‘70s, and right up until before the First World War. “The girls” were merely considered a nuisance. If they kept out of sight, and didn’t make themselves too conspicuous while shopping for necessities in the shops downtown, they were more or less tolerated. But this patina of acceptance, – and it was just a patina, could be immediately demolished by some of the hardier, tougher varieties of girls making their living in this timeless way. Some of the girls would wear mens’ clothing, smoke shamelessly, – that is, on the streets, and they would even put a chaw of tobacco in their pretty mouths and hold the stuff in their cheek, while bantering with their counterparts. If ever there was a show of rebellion against the manner mores of the day, this was it. But the clients of these rougher type women did not mind at all about this outward show. For these early miners and teamsters were a rough bunch themselves, given to cursing and horsing about as roughly. How often did Ashcroft have to call in the police from the larger towns to help quell the vandalism and rowdyism of the teamsters, for example, when these freight wagon drivers held their annual ball? Once they had a few drinks in them, the teamsters were as big a nuisance as the prostitutes.

But more often than not, these girls wore quite presentable hats and dresses.  Dressed in the fashionable hoop skirts of the day.

There is a fine picture of the Hurdy Gurdy girls of Barkerville, dressed in their finery and posing for the photographer with faces that were not exactly glum, but they did not appear the happiest of creatures. Now Hurdy Gurdy girls, most of them, were from Germany. And they worked in the dance halls in Barkerville. Though they were subjected to some very rough treatment on the dance floors by the miners, the question of whether or not the girls, any of them, actually sold their physical favors to the dancers is still in question.  Historians agree that some of the girls went on to become good wives and mothers. Some married ranchers and operated road houses on the  Cariboo Road.  In any event, the miners were charged for every dance. And, no doubt, the charge included payment to the girls.

In the culture of the day in the 1860s in the Cariboo, dancing was considered by many to be a sin. So was smoking. And a woman smoking particularly, was considered little better than a prostitute. And, worse still, a woman who sang or danced on a stage, was also considered in the same light. The matriarch Antoinette Felker, of the 44 Mile Ranch on the Cariboo Road, was horrified by the marriage of her son Will in Victoria to her daughter-in-law, Fanny. She viewed Fanny, who came from an impeccably respectable home in Victoria and whose parents were illustrious pioneers, as little more than a prostitute.

Now Ashcroft’s houses of the girls of the night and day, lay on the flat almost directly above and below where the Hotel is located today. The location was not by chance. For, the bridge that the freighters used to cross the Thompson River over, lay close to the cottages of ill repute. Handy. And, the bench was known by all and sundry in Ashcroft, (I’ve been told by an Ashcroftian born and bred) “Crab Flats”. A term that leaves nothing to the imagination.

Walhachin, little mite of a village that it was and still is, had a thriving house of prostitution within easy distance of the square. This house was located just down the road. I was told by the late Tibby Leith, who grew up in Walhachin, that the kids would go off “on a lark” and peek in the windows of the house. And of course, be chased away. This house was busy during the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression. Walhachin had become a camp for unemployed men who were put to work on the nearby CPR rail tracks. The men were paid a pittance for their work, but that pittance was enough to buy tobacco with, and, well, you guessed it. The men were housed and fed in the camp. And the camp was not a jail or a concentration type camp, with armed guards. The men could wander as they chose.

The enormous picture hats of the day, decorated by wide ribbons and large bows, graced the heads of many a smiling prostitute. The police would, every once in a while, make a “swoop” of the villages or towns, and make the prostitutes pose for photographs. Many a girl was “swooped up” a number of times and photographed. But she was, very often, not charged. One of the reasons for the “blind eye” often given to the cottages housing the prostitutes was because many a town citizen of good repute was a client of said business. It was ever thus. That it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of an needle, as the Bible tells, than it is for a rich man to go to the kingdom of heaven. Or words to that effect.

The point of all this spicy stuff, which today is scarcely spicy at all, is to not only please the gentleman who suggested it, but to entertain the readers, and you will forgive me if I have not done so.