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.

Telling it like it is: bawdy London streets

Love Lane Greenwich cropLove Lane near London Wall is so called, John Stow wrote candidly in his Survey of London, “of wantons.” There is not much more that can be said, though some people theorize rather wistfully that it could have been a sort of lovers’ lane where courting couples used to stroll. (There is also a Love Lane in Greenwich; that may or may not have been named for the same reason.)

Even more unflinching was the original name of Grape Street, which was once Grope Lane and now, sadly, no longer exists. Early, non-euphemistic, forms of the name appear, as early as 1276, as ‘Gropecontelane’ and ‘Groppecountlane’. In Oxford, lanes of this name appeared as early as 1230. The name, says one source tactfully, is “an indecent one’. When it wasn’t changed completely, the name was altered to less drastic forms such as Grope Lane and Grape Lane.

(There is also a Grape Street, near High Holborn, named from a house that belonged to the leper hospital of St Giles ‘Le Vyne’. It is possible that a vineyard once stood on this spot as the area was particularly fertile and the vines were mentioned in the Domesday Book. The street was once called Vine Street.)

Stew Lane, just north of the Thames is not as appetizing as it may sound: a ‘stew’ or ‘hothouse’ was a brothel and, from the 12th century to the 17th, the banks of the Thames teemed with such houses. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. (One source says that this lane led down to the waterside embarkation point for women working in the Bankside brothels.)

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”.

Some of the regulations governing the stews were that they could not be opened on holidays; that women of religion, or married women (presumably even if they were ‘incontinent’), 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”.

Cardinal CapPretty much directly across the Thames from Stew Lane, Cardinal Cap Alley takes its name from one of the licensed stews of the Bankside area; they often had their names painted on the walls rather than on a hanging sign. These stews, which were licensed under strict regulations, were leased from the Bishops of Winchester, and the working women therein were known as ‘Winchester Geese’. (For more London animal connections in London streets, read our recent post here.)

Holland StreetOther streets with particularly bawdy connections include Holland Street, south of the river, which was named for a notorious procuress – the self-proclaimed Donna Britannia Hollandia. She rented the moated manor house of Paris Gardens and ran a ‘stew’ frequented by James I and his court (including George Villiers). 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.

Although not officially listed in many London street atlases, there is a Cuckold’s Point and the name is what it says. The point, at a sharp bend on the Thames in East London, was once marked by a pole, crowned with a set of horns, which delineated the boundary of land granted to a miller who had been cuckolded by King John.

The story goes that the miller returned home unexpectedly one day to find his beautiful wife disporting herself with the king. Not unnaturally, the fact that it was royalty in his bed did not stop the miller from being somewhat upset about the whole matter. In order to appease him, King John granted the miller as much land as he could see; the furthest spot was the point that bears the name.

There was, however, a catch (there often was with royal generosity back then): the king also granted the new landowner the privilege of an annual fair – but on the condition that, on the day of the fair, he should walk to the point wearing a pair of buck’s horns on his head. The miller’s jealous neighbours had to wrest some satisfaction from this downside to his newfound wealth: they dubbed the fair Horn Fair and gave the name of Cuckolds Point to the termination of the miller’s journey.