Prostitution is often referred to as the oldest profession in the world. In the United Kingdom, brothels have certainly been around for a long, long time. British brothels have frequently been run by women, who own the establishment and manage the younger women or girls who work there. Many of these brothel-owning women – commonly known as ‘madams’ – were once prostitutes themselves. Others simply saw an opportunity to make money. Since brothel-owners have mostly operated outside of the law in Britain, the business has produced some colorful characters over the centuries. Here are ten of Britain’s most infamous brothel-owning madams.
Diana Jones was a short, bleached-blonde grandmother from outside Carmarthen in Wales. In 2008 she was tried in the Cardiff crown court for running a string of brothels located in Cardiff and Swindon. The trial was complicated, however. The South Wales Police had known about Jones’ highly successful prostitution empire for some time. According to the defense, the police had turned a blind eye – although Jones also claimed her establishments had been raided many times.
The Police, Jones claimed, had been hell-bent on charging her with human trafficking. She employed several Eastern European girls, but insisted that none of them were working at her parlors against their will. Jones claimed she had even taken some girls whom she suspected of having been involved in human trafficking directly to the Police prior to her arrest. She had apparently treated her employees well, and so the judge let her off with a twelve-month suspended sentence and community service.
Nonetheless, Jones was ordered to repay 2.6 million pounds in illegal earnings. She refused to pay and skipped the country with her eleven-year-old granddaughter shortly after the trial. Beginning a new life in an area of Cyprus from which she could not be extradited, she threatened to write a book that would expose the realities of the sex industry in Wales and include details about the death of a Welsh politician who died of a heart attack whilst visiting one of her establishments.
The unfortunately (or appropriately) named Margaret Clap – otherwise known as ‘Mother Clap’ – ran a so-called coffee house in seventeenth-century London. Her clientele did not, however, attend the establishment with the sole intention of drinking coffee. The venue was in fact a ‘molly house’ – a gay male brothel.
On most nights, Clap would serve beverages whilst the ‘mollies’ (a common term for homosexual men during that period) reportedly amused themselves by impersonating women, sitting in each other’s laps, and fondling each other’s genitals.
The coffee house was especially popular, since Clap had installed beds in every private room. A couple would enter a room to have sex without fear of disturbance, a guard being placed outside the door for the duration of their activities.
Mother Clap’s molly house was eventually raided. Although many of her customers escaped being hung for sodomy due to lack of evidence, Clap was not so lucky. She was charged with sexual offences and keeping a disorderly house, ordered to pay a fine, pilloried, and sentenced to two years in prison. In more recent times, her establishment became the subject of a musical play by Mark Ravenhill.
By the sixteen-hundreds, London was already a busy port. Many ships would tie up at Wapping waterfront. Near to this was an infamous area known as the Ratcliffe Highway. Sailors with plenty of money and free time after long sea voyages would roam the Highway in search of drink and women. Brothels were therefore also in abundance, and some brothel owners made a fortune. One such ‘bawd’ was Demaris Page – although she did not make her fortune easily.
Page was referred to as ‘the great bawd of the seamen’. Things seem to have gone fairly smoothly for her until she was charged with assaulting a young prostitute named Eleanor Pooley. The ‘weapon’ was a two-pronged fork. This was no act of aggression, however, but rather a botched and unsanitary abortion. Eleanor died of her injuries, and Page was convicted of manslaughter.
Page would have been hung for this crime had it not been for the fact that she was pregnant. She served time in Newgate prison and gave birth to a stillborn child there. Sometime after this, she was pardoned by the Lord Protector, Richard Cromwell, and allowed to return to her life as a brothel keeper. She died a wealthy woman, and is said to have always believed that “Money and Cunny are the Best Commodities."
Cynthia Payne was probably Britain’s most infamous brothel madam of the twentieth-century. She gained nationwide media attention back in the 70s and 80s because her home in Steatham, South-West London, was used as a brothel, and it was allegedly attended by notable politicians, judges, lawyers, vicars, and police officers. These middle-aged and elderly men reportedly exchanged ‘lunch vouchers’ for sexual favors at Payne’s erotic parties.
Payne was jailed in 1979 for running a disorderly house; however, the judge reduced her sentence from 18 to 6 months, stating that there was “not a shred of evidence” that any notable person was actually present at Payne’s home on the night it was raided. Payne’s solicitor later argued that the judge was "more concerned about the apparent respectability of customers rather than the plight of an unwell, middle-aged woman sent to prison. This confirms the hypocrisy of the law by punishing the woman but letting her customers go free.”
Payne appeared in court again in 1987. She had thrown another ‘party’ in celebration of the end of production for a film, ‘Personal Services,’ which was based on her biography, ‘An English Madam,’ written by Paul Bailey. This time her legal costs were reimbursed and she was allowed to go free. She had much public support. She eventually retired but continued to capitalize on her infamy by offering her services as an after-dinner speaker.
Sarah Potter, alias Stewart, ran many different establishments over the duration of her career, specializing in kink at the height of the Victorian era. She became famous when one of the young girls in her employ, Agnes Thompson, was encouraged by the Society for the Protection of Females and Young Women to press charges.
An investigation brought to light the many curious implements used at Potter’s ‘academy’ of flagellation, including birch switches and brooms, as well as a ladder with leather straps which Potter’s girls were allegedly tied to and flogged against. Potter is said to have obtained these girls directly from their families, having made prior arrangements with the parents in order to avoid any legal complications. In exchange for clothing, board and lodging, the girls participated in the sado-masochistic goings on, while Potter is said to have received payments of between five and fifteen pounds each time. Potter was able to afford a house in the country and to support a lover.
Several girls testified at the trial. Accounts of them having been whipped by various gentlemen clientele were heard. Potter was convicted and sent to prison, but Dr. Iwan Bloch, the German pioneer of sexology, questions whether Potter could really have been the villain that Victorian society made her out to be. In a book called ‘The Sexual Extremities of the World', in a chapter on flagellation, Bloch considered other accounts, and contested that the visiting gentlemen were much more often the ones to be flogged under Potter’s direction. After Potter’s release from prison, one of the girls who had helped convict her was known to have willingly returned to live at one of Potter’s houses.
Mother Needham – thought to have been the model for the devious brothel-owner in Hogarth’s series of prints, The Harlot’s Progress – was the most infamous bawd of England’s Restoration period. Unlike other brothel owners, Needham specialized in innocent young girls who came to London from outlying rural areas in search of glamour or employment. She would wait for in-bound coaches to arrive and deliberately seek out the most vulnerable and suitable girls for her brothel.
Needham did not reveal what she had in mind for these girls at first, but would instead corrupt them gradually. By exploiting their trust and dependency, she soon made back any money she had spent on them, and then began to make a profit. She sold their clean young bodies to the depraved aristocrats and high-ranking army officers of the day. When the girls eventually became diseased and less appealing, their not-so-caring ‘Mother’ would simply abandon them to the gutter.
Justice finally caught up with Needham when citizens began to be sickened by the city’s epidemic levels of vice. Brothels were raided across London and Needham was convicted of running a disorderly house. She was fined and ordered to stand twice in the pillory. An outraged mob awaited her, and since the crime of seducing innocent young girls was viewed with such disgust, they showed her no mercy. She was pelted with bricks and stones and brought back to prison with serious injuries. Although she was terrified at the prospect, she did not get to visit the pillory a second time. She died from her injuries soon afterwards.
Lindi St Clair
Lindi St. Clair – otherwise known as Miss Whiplash – was a dominatrix who claimed to have had many prominent British members of parliament as her customers. She first got into trouble with the UK tax department back in the 1980s. Most of her savings were taken, along with some property, a yacht which she kept on the Thames, and a yellow Rolls Royce (LINK 20). Feeling victimized, she lashed back at the tax collectors, referring to them as "Her Majesty’s pimps."
The tax department showed her no mercy accordingly. In what seems to have been a ploy to gain further media attention, in 1993 she arranged to meet a tabloid journalist, claiming she would provide evidence that high-powered politicians and judges had indulged in sex sessions at her establishment. St. Clair never made the meeting. A Jaguar car she had hired was found abandoned in a car-park near Beachy Head, a site notorious for suicides.
Police launched an expensive search in response, but St. Clair showed up some weeks later, having spent the whole time aboard a luxury cruise ship. “I went on that lovely world cruise first-class and blew the lot,” she said. “They are not getting tuppence out of me. Now all I've got left is zilch. I sold my brothel last year. I've got no assets.”
Mother Creswell was not born into poverty as many of the brothel-owners of the seventeenth-century were. Instead, she was born into a well-connected family somewhere in Kent outside London. It is not known why she got involved in the brothel-keeping business in spite of the assumed advantages of her upbringing; however, she does seem to have had a good business head combined with a clear understanding of male psychology, so she was certainly well-suited to the job.
Although "considered without rival in her wickedness", she is also said to have believed that plush, comfortable surroundings were better for business. She probably sourced many of her prostitutes from London’s poor slums, but her establishments were always refined. Her girls were elegant, well-mannered, sober, and clean as a matter of policy. They had to smell good and be free of any sexually transmitted infection. Creswell even kept a doctor on site, and her girls were to consult with him first if any customer was considered a risk in this regard.
Creswell’s reputation was so good that she was even visited by the King, Charles II, at one time. She fell out of royal favor in later years however when the new monarch, James II, took a dislike to one of her frequent visitors, Sir Thomas Player, who was also believed to have been her lover. Nonetheless, she died a wealthy woman. The woman “without rival in her wickedness” left a sizeable legacy to her relatives and others, and also left money for the relief of the poor in her parish.
Priss Fotheringham was another famous seventeenth-century brothel-owning madam. Originally from Scotland, she moved to London and began working as a prostitute. She married Edmund Fotheringham, the son of a bawd, and by the 1650s had taken lodgings in a tavern. Now in her forties and with her looks fading, she needed to find a new way of making money that was not dependent on her physical beauty.
She soon came up with a solution. She revived an old stunt known as ‘chucking,’ which involved her standing on her head, naked and with her legs spread, whilst gentlemen inserted coins into her ‘commodity’. It was said that she could hold as much as 40 shillings. Since she performed the stunt several times a day, eventually she was able to afford to run and staff her own brothel. Her husband died in 1663, and Priss in 1668 – both from advanced syphilis. She is commemorated as ‘The Wan’dring Whore’ on a plaque in Whitecross Street, London, where she lived and performed her remarkable act.
Josephine Daly was a softly spoken sixty-four-year-old who lived quietly in her expensive North London home. Her neighbors regarded her as eccentric, but she always seemed quite harmless until Police began to investigate a serious vice ring in 2000, which involved a number of brothels worked by women from Thailand and Eastern Europe. The brothels, which masqueraded as saunas, were visited by roughly 1500 men a week, and eventually by undercover Police officers. The Police officers paid a 10 pound entry fee and were then offered sex menus and led into another room. They made their excuses and left, having gathered sufficient evidence to make a conviction.
Daly pleaded guilty to controlling prostitution. She was heavily fined, and 2,000,000 pounds-worth of her assets were also seized. However, for Daly, who drove around in a white Rolls Royce and owned several properties with an estimated value of five-million pounds, the sentence was surely a manageable relief. When her home was searched by Police, they found 104,000 pounds in cash in her bedroom alone. The door fee from the brothels had been delivered to her seven-bedroom Victorian home by secretaries each day, while the unsalaried prostitutes that Daly had exploited had been allowed to keep whatever money they earned besides being given free lodgings. Daly denied any awareness of what the girls had been doing in her establishments. She was not sent to prison due to ill-health – although the more skeptical might be tempted to imagine some injustice here, since Daly had even been audacious enough to advertise her ‘massage parlors’ in Police magazines.
Copyright HTR Williams (May 19th) 2014.