Places Of The Night

London

Cafe Royal hotel - Grill Room_0

A couple of years ago, one of our Mayor’s henchmen was asked why so many young people poured into London, and he bluntly replied ‘For the sex,’ which was at least honest.

But London had always been ‘for the sex’. There were once 107 brothels in the immediate vicinity of Drury Lane alone. Nearly a fifth of all houses were brothels of some sort. The prostitutes didn’t just work in houses, but plied their trade in the theatres and circuses too. In 1817 it was noted that the more high-end ladies went from box to box in the theatre, plying their trade. By 1840 it was noted that on a hot summer night the whole of Waterloo Road was inhabited by whores, many naked to the waist, in every window and doorway, laughing and joking. In these reports it’s interesting to note that the women are always described as the ones in charge, setting their traps for hapless males and selecting their customers with care.

Europeans felt that it was in the English nature to be coarse and indecent, but as the Victorian era progressed this attitude changed. By the time of the Street Offences Act in 1959, business had declined to just a few red-light patches of Soho. When I lived in the US I had to use a hotel whenever I returned to London, and sometimes stayed in Meard Street, opposite an old brothel. By this time half of its ‘ladies’ were not ladies at all, and I was regularly awoken by the sound of a fight in the street below after some drunken customer had discovered that his ‘she’ was a ‘he’.

The Haymarket was known as Hell Corner because there were so many whores jostling for customer, and this continued right up until I started work, long after the war’s so-called ‘Piccadilly Commandoes’ had finished operating on the street corners. By the 1970s Piccadilly had become the place to find rent boys, because so many casinos and penny arcades attracted males. Whenever you walked through Soho you had to skirt around the ladies (or ‘sploshers’ as we used to call them for some odd reason).

There were a great many dance halls where prostitutes could find nightly work, and it’s quite a shock to realise that the venerable, grand Cafe Royal on Regent Street was once the home to so many ladies of the night. Its ground-floor Oscar Wilde bar has finally been reopened after years of neglect (I used to go there after work with friends, in its declining but affordable years). Now the building houses a swanky hotel, but thank goodness the bar has been restored and returned to its earlier glory.

Unlike many cities, there are wonderfully opulent bars in London that hide in plain sight right at the heart of tourist destinations. One is the spectacular Criterion Brasserie, just yards from Eros. Few people realise that it houses a reasonably-priced bar as well as a restaurant, and that on most nights you can simply walk in and find a table. Under Piccadilly Circus itself there was an oyster bar, and a huge venue called Mr Fogg’s that modelled itself on ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’, with each bar featuring a different mode of transport. One day I’ll have to draw up a definitive list of extant places to visit – but that would fill a book.

CE-233

7 comments on “Places Of The Night”

  1. snowy says:

    Henchman? that will either be Ratty or Mole.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Enjoy reading about these nocturnal rambles. If there are to be more, I may have to invest in a monocle, silk topper and a sword cane.
    “Oh my, we’re surely looking posh tonight, dearie.”

  3. John Griffin says:

    It used to be called the English kiss, the indiscriminate use of the tongue in lascivious full kisses, even of strangers. How did those Victorians turn us into the nambys of today, who decline to French kiss even their spouses in some cases.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Never mind spouses, what’s with these full lascivious kisses between people who have only just met? In films it seems to be used to indicate a ‘love at first sight’ awakening, but surely we can read body language well enough not to require a total down the throat dive to signal a feeling of ‘hey, you’re my kind of person’.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    But I think I’m an old fashioned sort of prude.

  6. jan says:

    There was a road in the Paddington/ Harrow road area which was re named after the 2nd world war as it had become so associated with prostitution – i’m not talking about Sussex gardens or the area around Praed st but a much longer road leading from West of Paddington almost to Harrow road. the name will probably come to me when i get home.

    Also the Royal parks were crammed with prostitutes up until the 1950s (of both male and female variety prostiution must have been a spare time job for guardsmen!)

    During the Georgian era around a quarter of the large homes in central London were high class – or somewhat lower class – brothels. The south bank with its prostitutes known as Winchester geese as the bishop of Winchester owned much of the land there has always been an area of ill repute. And working girls filled the streets around Whitechapel right up until the 1990s. Prostitution has only really changed since the influx of eastern europeans in the last couple of dedades but now areas not traditonally used by kerbcrawlers and prostitutes such as parts of Southall in West London suddenly have problems.

  7. karin says:

    when we were visiting London a few years back we were doing some shopping (indulging the child) near Piccadilly & were desperate to sit down and have drink. We walked into the most incredible room I had ever seen – the story was that the walls & ceiling had been plastered over & only rediscovered many years later. It looks very similar to your last picture – where is this & what is its name please?

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