Today (February 11) in London History – Britain’s best-loved brothel keeper

More London Walks heading round to the dark side of the London moon. Today – February 11th – is the anniversary of the acquittal of Cynthia Payne. Cynthia Payne is richly deserving of a place in the Today in London History Pantheon. This podcast tells the tale.


February 11th.

Another one of those cup runneth over dates.

So, bongs first. 

Bong. February 11, 1826 University College London is founded. Near and dear to me, David, because it’s my alma mater, as the American expression puts it.

Bong. February 11, 1850 St Martin’s Hall opens. It was in Long Acre. Also near and dear to me, David, because it was the venue for Dickens’ first public readings. And of course what I was doing at UCL was a PhD on Dickens.

Bong. On February 11, 1852 the first flushing lavatory for women opens in Bedford Street. 

Bong. February 11, 1867 – a huge Reform League demonstration forms up in Trafalgar Square and marches to Islington. It was in aid of universal manhood suffrage. The huge turnout played a part in tightening the screws on the government – midwiving the 1867 Reform Act.

Bong. On February 11, 1878 the first weekly weather report is issued by the Meteorological Office.

Bong. February 11, 1907 – a massive explosion at the Chemical Research Department at Woolwich Arsenal damaged houses for miles around. At Bishops Stortford, 50 miles away, bells were rung by the concussion.

Bong. On February 11, 1975 Margaret Thatcher becomes the first woman leader of a British political party. 

Bong. On February 11, 1990 Nelson Mandela was released after 26 years of imprisonment. That’s very much a London story – and indeed a London Walks story – because London Walks guide Richard Roques was at the sharp end of the non-stop Free Nelson Mandela vigil that went on for years outside the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square. It got Richard onto the cover of Newsweek Magazine, the only London Walks guide to climb that mountain.

I asked Richard what February 11th, 1990 was like for him and his fellow activists here in London. Here’s what he said: “On the day of Mandela’s release we held a rally outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. We set up a sound system and invited anyone who wished to speak. Hundreds turned up and we sang South African freedom songs. It was a very emotional time, particularly for those of us who had picketed all day and night for over three years non-stop.”

Good on ya, Richard.

Anyway, so much for the bongs, so much for the obvious ones.

Let’s do one that’s not all over the Internet, not in the Today in History Reference Books.

It was the great Dr Johnson who uttered the immortal lines, “I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the publick stock of harmless pleasure.” He was talking about the death of friend and townsman, the greatest English actor of them all, David Garrick. 

Now I don’t know about the gaiety of nations plural but I do know that Cynthia Payne greatly contributed to the gaiety of one nation, this nation: the United Kingdom.

And today is a day to remember her, because it was on February 11th, 1987 that Cynthia Payne was acquitted.

So for those who don’t know, who was she? And why, in her case, out of many, is the sordid little procession so torchlit, so jolly, so contributory to the gaiety of a nation?

Cynthia Payne was an English brothel keeper. You can begin with her name and just keep right on going. Cynthia Payne is the gift that keeps on giving. So, yes, her name. Cynthia. Shortens of course to sin. And Payne, well, yes of course was spelt P A Y N E but it also gives us pain P A I N – as in, for example, sado-masochism. I mean, was ever brothel-keeper better named.

But point-counterpoint because Cynthia Payne was frumpy and dowdy, more like a downmarket Blackpool lodging-house landlady than the chatelaine of a glamorous house of ill-repute.

But of course her establishment wasn’t remotely glamorous. Forget naughty Soho or the swish West End of London, Cyn’s place was an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary suburban street – Ambleside Avenue – in ordinary suburban south London. Streatham, of all places. 

And then there were the luncheon vouchers. Men could pay – or part pay – with luncheon vouchers to be looked after by a member of Cyn’s workforce.

Luncheon vouchers. There’s a bit of yesteryear for you. They went back to 1946 when food rationing was still in place. If a firm didn’t want the expense of setting up and operating a canteen, they could issue luncheon vouchers – paper tickets – to their employees, which were accepted at nearby restaurants and cafes. And, yes, the vouchers were used as a form of payment at Cynthia Payne’s establishment on Ambleside Avenue – come to think of it, even that street name is faintly ridiculous. 

Anyway, Cynthia got her break in 1978. The police raided her home while a sex party was in progress. 

A lot of the men had handed over their luncheon vouchers in return for being able to dress up in lingerie and be spanked by young women.

There were 53 men there when the police crashed the party. The men were in varying levels of undress. Among their number were a peer of the realm, an MP, a number of solicitors and company directors and several vicars. 

Famously, the Times ran a cartoon showing a vicar in bed with a prostitute, confronted by a policeman. “I demand to see my solicitor,” said the vicar, “who is in the next bedroom.”

Cyn was successfully prosecuted. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison. That was appealed down to a fine and six months. She served four months in Holloway Prison. 

Reformed, let alone contrite, she wasn’t. She threw another “party” later in that decade. The police raided it. Arrested her. Tried her. This time she was acquitted. That’s today’s anniversary.

A final point, she stood for Parliament in the Kensington by-election in July 1988. The game-plan was to become an MP and use the office as a platform to campaign for a reform of Britain’s sex laws. You can’t help but wonder, had she been elected, how many of her customers would she recognised in the Palace of Westminster. Delightful to think of her coming up to them in the House and saying, “How are you? It’s so good to see you again.” What I wouldn’t give for her to have won that by-election. Imagine the possibilities on my Kensington walk.

Last point. Cyn’s party (how charged that word is all of a sudden). Anyway, her party – she was its standard-bearer – was, but of course, the Payne and Pleasure Party.

It’s 35 years later and politically the UK is in the convulsions of Partygate. Cynthia Payne would be right at home. If I were a political correspondent she’d be my go-to backbencher if I wanted a comment on any of the antics and goings-on in Downing Street.

Final thought. Years ago, a British friend explained to me the all-important difference between French farce and British farce. The focus of interest in French farce, Hugo said, was pretty young mademoiselleS running around in frilly underthings. British farce, in marked contrast, always features preposterous British males with their trousers round their ankles.

Cynthia Payne – long may her memory live – is of the essence of British farce. Her young women busy spanking peer of the realm and corporate and legal and C of E British bottoms notwithstanding. 

Good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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