Little slices of London's history

Cardinal Cap Alley to Pall Mall: bishops, brothels, and London’s sex-related streets

Once again, without wanting to trivialise anything to do with the virus, I recently saw a TV report on the effect of the virus on the sex industry, particularly sex workers. Even in countries where it is a legal profession and sex workers pay their tax, apparently they are not entitled to any government financial aid. 

Apart from making me think about something that hadn’t occurred to me before, it also put me in mind of the oldest profession and the key role it has played in the history and naming of London’s streets. There is a natural link between the last post, which focused on prison-related streets (of which there are many, so there will be another, or another few, similarly themed post in the future) and this one.

The link is the Bishops of Winchester. Just to remind you, the mention ran thus: “The contradictorily named Liberty of the Clink was attached to the manor of the Bishops of Winchester who occupied much of the land on the south bank of the Thames”.

The Bishops also rented out the brothels, also known as ‘stews’, on their land: from the 12th century to the 17th, the banks of the Thames, primarily the south bank, teemed with such establishments and the women who worked within them were known as ‘Winchester Geese’.

The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”. Those who failed to comply with the regulations could be sent to the Clink.

Some of the regulations governing the stews were that they could not be opened on holidays; that women of religion or married women could not work there; that men could not be enticed into them; that no woman could be “kept against her will that would leave her sin”; and that a woman could not “take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow”.

The women of the stews were not allowed the rites of the church, and were not permitted Christian burial; they had their own plot of land, called the Single Woman’s churchyard, a respectable distance from the parish church.

On the south bank is Cardinal Cap Alley, which takes its name from the Cardinal Cap, or Cardinal’s Hat, one of the licensed brothels of Bankside that flourished for centuries until the time of Henry VIII and had their names painted on the walls rather than on a hanging sign.

On the other side of the Tate Modern from Cardinal Cap Alley is Holland Street, which has nothing to do with the more respectable Holland connections in the Kensington area, which take their names from land owned by Sir Henry Rich, Baron of Kensington and first Earl of Holland.

This Holland Street was named for a notorious procuress – the self-proclaimed Donna Britannia Hollandia. Mother Holland, as she was known, rented a moated manor house once owned by the Knights Templar, and ran a brothel frequented by James I and his court, including George Villiers who features quite a lot in this blog and who is due another appearance soon.

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

Mother Holland was a force to be reckoned with: when, during Charles I’s reign, there was an attempt by soldiers to storm the house, she waited until they were on the bridge before drawing it up and depositing the soldiers in the unpleasant waters of the moat.

Let us now head north of the Thames to Stew Lane, which probably takes its name from one of the few early brothels on that side of the river. According to one source, the lane led down to the waterside embarkation point for women working in the Bankside brothels. 

From Stew Lane we move on to the eminently respectable Pall Mall, which takes its name from a French game, paille-maille, mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet and Pall Mall was supposedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Pall Mall has sex and brothel connections in high places. Charles II’s mistress, Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne, whose mother ran a brothel, spent the last 16 years of her life in a house in Pall Mall. Nell’s bed in the house was solid silver and situated in a room lined with mirrors.

This bed may have been the inspiration for a quirky 18th-century quack by the name of James Graham, who ran a ‘Temple of Health and Hymen’ in Pall Mall, at Schomberg House. It was, essentially, an 18th-century sex therapy clinic and fertility centre, and one of Graham’s early assistants was a young girl known as Vestina, Goddess of Health. Vestina was born Emy Lyon and later became Lady Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Nelson and the mother of his child.

The centrepiece of this temple of Hymen was the Grand Celestial Bed, guaranteed to induce conception for even the most infertile of couples. The bed was supported by forty glass pillars and surmounted by a mirror-lined dome.

3 responses to “Cardinal Cap Alley to Pall Mall: bishops, brothels, and London’s sex-related streets”

  1. Such a shame the general sex business had to degenerate to seedy rooms above shops in Soho, marked by illuminated bells, and a handwritten card, ‘Model’. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. So, true, Pete! All the best, Elizabeth

  2. Pall Mall also has a dance named after it. Recorded in Playford’s Dancing Master, 1686

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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