Places Of The Night
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.