Priests and prostitutes in Southwark

Priests and prostitutes may not seem an obvious combination but in the Middle Ages – nobody would have batted an eyelid. It was well known that men of the cloth and women of the night were having fun down in Southwark!

Last week, I got my hands on an 1814 guide to London. There’s one page that made me chuckle, describing the way in which priests and prostitutes had fun together.

On the south bank of the river Thames, in the borough of Southwark, every other house seemed to be a brothel. Londoners strolled across the bridge linking their city to this playground and paid for sex in one of the many “stews” – a delightful word for a brothel.

Stewholders – brothel keepers – rented their premises from powerful landowners. These included the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Walworth (died 1385). These enterprising women were often from across the English Channel in modern Belgium and the Netherlands. They were referred to as the “bawds of Flanders” or “Froes”.

The authorities took a surprisingly lenient view of their activity provided certain rules were obeyed. Stews were not to open on a Sunday – after all the priests who formed a goodly part of the clientele would be busy in church.

Married women could not work in them and female criminals who had been branded for their crime were forbidden to get involved. These were moral establishments after all!

Catholic priests and bawdy prostitutes

My book, dating from 1814, takes a typically anti-Catholic line. The Middle Ages is depicted as a time of dark superstition and cruelty. When it comes to the stews, the author thinks that brothels were so prevalent because so many Catholic priests before the Protestant Reformation had taken vows of celibacy. It was a vow few of them could keep.

Perhaps in days when thousands were tied up by vows of celibacy, these haunts might have been necessary, for neither cowl nor cope had virtue sufficient to annihilate the strongest of human passions.

The signs for these stews didn’t hang off the building but were painted on the walls. The author thinks it’s hilarious that one brothel was called The Cardinal’s Hat. The involvement of the clergy weren’t just as potential clients. The bishop of Winchester – who ran much of Southwark – didn’t bat an eyelid as he taxed the prostitutes. It was good money. He wasn’t going to forego his cut.

In fact, his taxation became a subject of ribald gossip among Londoners. As they arrived over London bridge, the prostitutes would squawk and cackle at them – looking for business. They became known as the “Winchester Geese”. Let’s hope the bishop saw the funny side.

Unsolved murders in 1930s Soho

In a seventy year old guide to Soho in my London book collection, there’s a great chapter entitled: Wide Boys, Spivs, Dippers and Steamers. It details the murky criminal underbelly of London’s entertainment district. Because mid-twentieth century Soho was a dangerous place. But also exciting. As the book puts it:

One has only to take a short walk from Great Windmill Street to Charing Cross Road via Old Compton Street to see fifty faces that would fit into the Police Gazette with no trouble at all.

On a street corner, you might see a fence with a jeweller’s magnifying glass screwed into his eye regarding a watch or ring that somebody wanted to sell in a hurry for cash and no questions asked. A former Special Branch officer Detective Inspector Harold Brust stated: “Regarding criminal haunts in London, there are districts which are known as haunts of vice and depravity full of bolt-holes for hunted men. Soho is one such region.” That was his opinion in 1937.

Not surprising really as the previous two years had seen a series of brutal murders in Soho – mainly of prostitutes. “French Fifi” was strangled by a silk stocking in Archer Street. “Red” Max Kassell, who was believed to be the head of a supposed White Slave ring was also killed. Jeanette Cotton was strangled by a silk hanky in her flat on Lexington Street on Thursday, April 16th, 1936. Connie Hine (spelt Hind in another account) was garrotted with piano wire.

In a rather melodramatic turn of phrase, my Soho guide claims:

This trail of homicide led to the formation of the CID’s Vice Squad, which managed to get a line on Soho’s white slavers and dope kings in double-quick time.

In fact, the crimes went unsolved. Local ladies of the night talked to police but it all came to nothing. Once the police lost interest, Soho clammed up on itself. This may be a Soho that’s hard to imagine now – one of poverty, crime, seedy cafes and violence – but it certainly existed. At the close of World War Two, for example, a Canadian officer was killed by a blow to the head with a brick while walking down Bourchier Street – linking Wardour Street and Dean Street. As he lay dying, he was relieved of his wallet.

London Chinese restaurant honours two great Victorian artists!

If you’ve ever been to Wong kei in London’s Chinatown, you may have experienced the joy of being shouted at by the waiters – it had the reputation for years of being the rudest restaurant in London. I understand that as of last year, they’ve refurbished the place and decided to tone down the bad attitude – even though many punters paid to be treated badly. It was all part of the fun.

Wong Kei Chinese restaurant

Wong Kei Chinese restaurant

IMG_7366 IMG_7367

But what has often caught my eye on going into Wong kei – and I haven’t dined there for at least ten years – are the plaques on either side of the main door. One commemorates Sarah Bernhardt laying the foundation stone of the building in 1904. And who, you might ask, was she?

Sarah was the leading actress in the late Victorian period. Born in Paris of a Dutch prostitute and unknown father, she briefly trained to be a nun before taking up acting. She was very aware of her public image and projected herself as mystical and unknowable. This extended to having some very odd pets including a boa constrictor and an alligator fed on milk and champagne (it died). When I first came across her story what struck me was the choice of resting place at night – Sara slept in a coffin, which she took with her on tour. When the great actress died, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu.

The other plaque is to another legend of the same period, Sir Henry Irving. He laid the coping stone in 1905. Irving was both an actor and theatre manager Рa very hands-on member of the acting fraternity. He had a close association with the Lyceum Theatre, near the Strand, which today has been hosting the Lion King for what seems like an eternity. Irving found a sound financial manger for the Lyceum in the form of a Dubliner called Bram Stoker.  Yes РTHAT Bram Stoker! The creator of Dracula.

I’m not going into all the detail here but there’s a debate that has raged for a hundred years over whether Irving was the model for Dracula. The theory tends to emphasise a history of conflict between the two men with Stoker seething with hatred for the overbearing and evil Irving. The truth doesn’t quite bear that out – though they seem to have had stormy episodes, they co-operated for decades in running the Lyceum.

So why are these two plaques outside Wong kei? Well, the building originally opened as a theatrical costume shop in the heart of London’s bohemian Soho. Little could Bernhardt and Irving have known that the thespians would one day give way to scoffers of crispy duck noodles.