Edinburgh and sex: City’s seedy history laid bare

There have been other New Town brothels. Picture: Toby Williams
There have been other New Town brothels. Picture: Toby Williams
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IT is often called the oldest profession in the world and, judging by the earnings of vice queen Margaret Paterson, certainly among the most lucrative around.

The 61-year-old and her pimp partner Robert Munro, also 61, are facing jail after being convicted of running a brothel and nationwide 
escort business from a flat in the West End.

For nine years they provided prostitutes for punters across Scotland, with co-accused Ian Goalen, 59, acting as their driver.

Police who raided their premises in September 2011 found evidence that Paterson had embarked on a £461,604 spending spree at some of the city’s most exclusive shops. And they found more than £204,000 in cash at her home.

The evidence is a fascinating insight into a sleazy red light world, alien to most of us, but clearly every day life to others.

Until “Madam Moneybags” arrived on the scene with her Louis Vuitton handbags and designer clothes, Edinburgh’s best known brothel keeper was, of course, Dora Noyce, who ran her house of ill repute from Danube Street from the late 1940s until the Seventies.

Her townhouse at number 17 had around 15 girls in permanent residence who would be joined by up to 25 others during busy periods. Business famously boomed, apparently, when the USS John F Kennedy docked at Leith.

The vessel offloaded hundreds of sex-starved sailors into the Capital and many headed straight to Dora’s front door. The queue for her girls’ services is said to have stretched all the way to Ann Street, much to the irritation of her well-heeled Stockbridge neighbours.

Dora and her girls are said to have earned around £4000 before the ship’s captain stepped in to declare the brothel a no-go zone for his men.

Dora, a former callgirl herself, appeared in court on many occasions. And never short of a well-placed quip, she once commented that her busiest time of the year was during the church gathering of the Kirk’s General Assembly.

She was charged more than 40 times with living on immoral earnings, usually rolling up in court smartly dressed, a string of expensive pearls looped around her neck. Typically she would pay the fine on the spot – then head straight back to work. Sometimes, however, she’d be sent to jail and her last prison term was in 1972, aged 71, for four months.

Dora is the best known, Madam Margaret the latest, but, of course, there were many before and just as many after who made their living from sins of the flesh....

Brothel keeper who paid a hefty price

Running a brothel in a Leith hotel not only cost Paul Naef a month in jail, it set the wheels in motion for his deportation. Naef had originally denied running a brothel at the Commercial Hotel in Sandport Street in November 1928.

However one businessman who stayed at the hotel for six months told his trial how “there was very little legitimate business carried on” and that he only saw “one respectable couple” stay there. Police set up watch to gather evidence of men who looked like foreign seamen entering the hotel. Mr Naef was given 30 days, but a previous £25 fine for running a shebeen, or drinking den, meant he was recommended to be deported to his native Italy.

Trade took deadly turn

Victorian Edinburgh was shocked by the actions of prostitute Jessie King. She probably already had mental health problems made worse from doses of mercury given to treat venereal disease.

Lengthy periods spent in institutions no doubt did not help. She turned to another trade to help pay her bills – taking in unwanted children from single mothers who, she’d claimed, she would arrange to be adopted by new parents. Except in at least two cases the babies were strangled and hidden in her coal cellar. Her partner, Thomas Pearson, turned Crown’s evidence and King became the last woman to hang in Edinburgh, on March 11, 1889.

Attempts to reform failed

As far back as 1928 efforts were being made to rethink society’s attitude to prostitution. Former police officer Mrs Hamilton More Nisbett was called to the House of Commons to give evidence on street crimes on behalf of the Edinburgh National Solciety for Equal Citizenship, and appealed for what she called “the offensive label” of common prostitute to be abolished, arguing that once attached to a woman, it removed any hope of reformation.

She referred to one 15-year-old girl, “in whom the glimpses of good had been crashed” by being labelled a common prostitute. Another she said had tried to reform but her reputation has gone against her. “When you’re down, you’re down and there’s no use trying to get up,” she says the woman told her. “When I’ve finished my 60 days (sentence) I’m going straight to hell”.

The trade that won’t go away

The early 20th century saw desperate attempts to clean up Edinburgh’s prostitution problem. The chief constable’s report for 1913 revealed 38 people were charged with brothel keeping. There were 686 women arrested for prostitution. It might take two to tango, but it was clear who the authorities felt were at fault: “How to deal with these women is indeed a perplexing problem,” the report concluded. “Many are incorrigible and to deal leniently with them simply means they will figure more often in the number arrested until the state interferes and makes it by law possible to send these women for periods of detention.”

Made in Manhattan

A mother of four from Kirkliston, Anna Gristina, was recently revealed as the madam behind a Manhattan sex service.

The 45-year-old was jailed for six months and sentenced to five years’ probation after it emerged that she had been peddling call girls, a business that’s believed to have operated for 15 years. Gristina was caught on tape arranging for an undercover police officer posing as a client to watch two prostitutes have sex. Prosecutors believe she made $10 million from her business which had a roster of wealthy clients.

Dangerous life for women

Victorian Edinburgh police knew of around 200 brothels in the city, although that is thought to have simply been the tip of the iceberg, with street prostitution rife in some areas. Even Princes Street and Hanover Street were frequented by streetwalkers after dark. Life for a prostitute in those days was certainly a difficult and brief one. Charitable organisations were set up to help them, and found they were dealing with young teenagers and few older women – many simply fell victim to disease or brutality. Many girls rarely lived past the age of 30 and had most had been working girls since their early teens.

It takes two to tango

Dance club owners Asher Barnard and Edwin Jones appeared in court in November 1933 accused of attempting to earn money from prostitution.

The pair ran Kosmo Dance Club in Swinton Row, where they were said to have conspired together with a view to gaining money through the prostitution of employees who worked as dance partners or instructresses. Men who were “desirous of having immoral relations” it was claimed, could enter the club and chose a partner or make arrangements by phone. Thirty shillings would be paid to the owners, ten shillings to the women.

Exotic and erotic

Many 18th century prostitutes came from more exotic climes seeking a better life. Most are believed to have escaped slavery and arrived at the Port of Leith on board ships from the Caribbean, only to end up selling their bodies on the street.

According to the 18th century ‘Who’s Who’ of vice girls, Miss Ruthven of Nicholson Street was “black and comely, middle-sized, good teeth, agreeable and very good-natured. She is very engaging, and loves the sport very well; and when she is in the height of her devotion, she will turn up her eyes with the utmost rapture”.

Lady who fell from grace

Lady Agnew of Netherbow was the daughter of a wealthy baronet who fell on difficult times, turning to prostitution to make ends meet. But a scathing review in the 18th century List of Ladies of Pleasure would do little to increase her business. It described her as a “drunken bundle of iniquity”, adding: “Lusty and tall, and she has followed the old trade since she was about 13. She regards neither decency nor decorum, and would as willingly lie with a chimney sweep as with a lord. Her desires are so immoderate that she would think nothing of a company of grenadiers at one time. Take her in all, she is an abandoned piece.”

James Tytler: Impartial and investigative list

Vital reading, perhaps, for many an 18th-century gent was Ranger’s Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, written in 1775 by none other than James Tytler.

Tytler’s other, more legitimate, achievements included editing the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a particularly flying high career

as the first Scot to navigate the skies in a hot-air balloon.

His book reviews 66 of the city’s best known prostitutes, providing details of their looks, their personalities and just what they might offer their gentlemen clients.

Among them was Miss Peggy Alexander of Monteith’s Cross who, according to the List

was: “A smart genteel lass,

about 20 years of age, dark brown hair, good teeth, fine

skin, and extremely


“She has got a very agreeable squint, which sets her off to great advantage.”

Most of the ladies receive a range of excellent reviews in Tytler’s list.

A street called desire

Rose Street may have a reputation as being the city’s one time red light district, but the Royal Mile in the late 18th century was a thriving street of shame where there were at least 117 brothels to be found. In the 19th century it thronged with loose women who sold themselves for pennies which was often used straight away to buy booze.

The posh New Town wasn’t that much better, behind the prim walls of impressive properties. One of the best known areas for brothels in the 18th century was St James Square, however Elder Street also boasted one particular brothel said to be so wild that no decent person would go at night.

Robert Louis Stevenson no stranger to fleshpots

One of Edinburgh’s most famous sons, Robert Louis Stevenson, was no stranger to the city’s brothels and prostitutes.

While his own family campaigned vociferously against the evils of prostitution and were busy donating money to save the city’s fallen women, the Treasure Island author was said to have been among their regular visitors. Biographer Jeremy Hodges claimed the famous writer liked nothing better than to satisfy his own carnal curiosities among the city’s seedy underbelly.

And the fleshpots around Leith Street, where bawdy brothel girls flaunted disease-ridden wares and negotiated hurried sex for a few shillings and the illicit drinking shebeens where booze flowed regardless of the law, were where one of the Capital’s most famous writers frequently spent his nights. It’s not completely clear whether Stevenson visited the brothels for illicit sex or simply because of his fascination for Edinburgh’s underbelly.

Among the brothels of his time was Clara Johnson’s Clyde Street brothel, the poshest in town, where clients would pay £5 to spend time with one of her girls, known not as prostitutes but as “gay girls”. The 1871 census revealed them to be young women with previously respectable jobs, whose £8 annual salaries for such skillful jobs would have been dwarfed by their earnings under Clara.