London’s Red Light District Laid Bare

Date post added: 12th June 2024

PREAMBLE

Every London neighbourhood is a mind. When you walk a neighbourhood you’re exploring that mind, getting inside it. Walking it is the only way to get to know that mind, see what’s going on inside it.

SEX AND THE CITY

Sex and the city go hand in hand, and always have done. Back in Roman London there were brothels licensed by the authorities. Erotic celebrations took place in Roman temples. And it was the Romans that erected the model of a phallus in Coleman Street.

Over the years, the main hub of sexual activity has moved districts. The city, Southwark and Covent Garden have all been hotspots. In more recent years, Soho’s been known as London’s red light district. Whilst that still remains true, its image has evolved in the past 20 years or so.

Let’s go back to the origins of the red light district in London and explore how it’s changed over the centuries.

What is a red light district?

First things first. For the uninitiated, a red light district is a hub of the sex industry featuring businesses including prostitution, strip clubs, sex shops and peep shows.

Whilst Amsterdam is renowned for its overt (and legal) sex industry and red light district, London has always been more covert.

Where does the term ‘red light district’ come from?

Now this one’s up for debate, but here are a couple of theories. The first comes from the USA, where it’s said that rail workers placed a red lantern outside when they visited a brothel so that they could be found in an emergency.

Another story comes from 17th century Amsterdam. When sailors returned from a long voyage at sea, and having just been paid, they’d go looking for some ‘relief’. The female sex workers were often deprived and of poor hygiene. They felt the flattering light of the red lantern disguised their spots, boils and sickly skin which is why they’d carry them around.

The red light or lantern was later placed outside brothels to indicate the nature of the business.

How has the red light district in London changed over the years?

Today and for the past few centuries, the London West End has housed its red light district. But in the early days, it was further east.

The City

From its earliest days, London has been the site of sexual activity. The Romans absolutely celebrated it.

Gracechurch Street in the City of London is now filled with slick office buildings, the enchanting Leadenhall Market and the historic Monument. But back in Roman times, you’d find licensed brothels and temples where erotic celebrations were held.

Fast forward to the 13th century, and the area known as Smithfield (just north of St Paul’s Cathedral). It was the aptly-named Cock Lane that became the assigned area for sexual activity in 1241. For that reason, it’s seen as the first red light district in London. This didn’t change for several centuries. There are plenty of tales of women trading themselves or young girls around these streets.

Want to know more about Roman brothels in the City? Our Seven Deadly Sins tour is for you!

Southwark

Across the Thames, Southwark was an entertainment hotspot. In Tudor Britain, beer, bear-baiting and brothels were what counted as entertainment. Southwark fell just outside the mayor’s jurisdiction which meant that certain activities were seen as ‘fair game’ there.

It was an area known as the Liberty of the Clink. Prostitution was legal and unfortunate women such as ‘Bathsheba’ in ‘Dark Fire’ were known as the Winchester Geese. In fact, it was the Bishop of Winchester who owned most of Southwark including the brothels.

Discover more tawdry tales from this area on our Tudor London walking tour

Covent Garden

covent garden

In the 18th century, the sex industry moved to the West End and The Strand and Covent Garden became known as places for ‘sexual resort’.

In his book ‘London’, the city’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd writes, “There were public houses in the vicinity where ‘posture dancers’ performed an eighteenth century version of the striptease; there were ‘houses of pleasure’ which specialised in flagellation, and there were ‘Mollie houses’ which were frequented by homosexuals.”

Covent Garden had the reputation for the more upmarket brothels. Rich gentleman would venture along the alleyways looking for company. There were actually publications at that time that listed the addresses and details of local ladies. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, the “essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure” being the most popular.

Covent Garden’s sordid history is the subject of this special city walk

Soho

soho by night

Soho had been seen as Bohemian and rather raucous since the 16th century. At that point, the upper classes moved out to the likes of Mayfair and Bloomsbury. Meanwhile, the artists, writers and creatives made it their own.

But by the 19th century, Soho was the party district. There were more dance halls and public houses here than anywhere in London. But whilst there was decadence, there was a flip side. Poverty drove many Victorian women to turn to prostitution, simply to avoid death. They’d sell their daughters (or someone else’s) – and Piccadilly Circus was a central point for this.

In the 20th century, Soho was the heart of London’s sex industry. During World War II, street walkers kept calm and carried on. It was a busy time for them – demand was high.

The legendary Raymond Revue Bar opened in 1958, offering Burlesque-style entertainment and strip tease acts. It was the first London theatre to show full frontal nudity.

In the 1960s, Soho was a big part of rock ‘n roll London and the swinging 60s scene (especially Carnaby Street). Like centuries before, it was the party district and the epitome of cool. It was the place for strip clubs, lap dancers, peep shows, erotic cinemas, gay bars and clubs, and sex shops catering to any sexual proclivity. All nightlife was here. But by the 1970s and 80s, it was decried as an area of disrepute and seen as seedy.

Is Soho still seedy?

Shortly before his drug-related death, the writer and artist Sebastian Horsley (who was quite a seedy character himself to be honest) who lived in Meard Street, pointed out that, “The air used to be clean and the sex used to be dirty. Now it is the other way around. Soho has lost its heart.”

Like its namesake in New York City (SoHo NYC), Soho London has certainly seen some gentrification, but it has a buzz like nowhere else. It’s still known for its nightlife, but that can mean fine wining and dining, an authentic meal in Chinatown or cocktails and dancing in a gay bar. It’s certainly not just the Soho Red Light District, it’s got a lot more besides. It’s a properly diverse scene in Central London.

You’ll find media types around Soho Square, musicians and filmmakers on Frith Street. Authentic Italian delis and pavement cafes attract crowds on Old Compton Street. And you’ll find traditional British boozers, like The Shakespeare’s Head. The list goes on…

At the start of the 2000s, Westminster Borough Council started a clean-up act of Soho. And along came the internet, which meant that you didn’t need to make in person visits to adult shops. More sex workers work out of studio flats and advertise online, rather than leaving cards in telephone boxes or walking the streets.

A sign of the times, the former hotspot that was the Raymond Revuebar and surrounding buildings on Walkers Court are being redeveloped into swanky Soho offices and shops. La Bodega Negra is a wonderful Mexican restaurant, but you enter it through a fake, seedy-looking sex shop. The irony, that fake adult shops are springing up to replace the real thing.

Are there any guided tours of London’s former red light districts?

Sordid stories and tales of the city in days gone by are our speciality. Well, one of our specialities. We have a range of London walks, including those in former red light districts.

The capital’s vices are revealed in our Seven Deadly Sins walk

Take a look around Soho with our guided walk

Discover more tawdry tales from Southwark on our Tudor London walking tour

Go beyond the shops and restaurants to find the real Covent Garden

You can flick through a travel guide, but you’ll never understand the city as you would with a London Walks tour. If you’d can’t find the London city tour that you want, talk to us about private tours.


David Tucker

David Tucker

David – the Seigneur of this favoured realm – broods over words, breeds enthusiasms and is “unmanageable.”* He’s a balterer, literary historian, university lecturer, journalist, logophile and lifelong thanatophobe. For good measure, he’s the doyen of London guides.

Read all articles by David Tucker

Pippa Jackson

Pippa Jackson

Pippa is a word nerd and content aficionado with a background of working in TV on both sides of the globe. She loves to discover and share the diverse and wonderful stories of her much-loved London. When she’s not writing blogs and articles, you’ll find her walking beside the Thames or even paddleboarding on it (in the finest of conditions only!) or enjoying a coffee in the sunshine with a good book.

Read all articles by Pippa Jackson