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Wartime Brothels

July 2016

Maida Vale and its Murky Past Laid Bare!

Back in the days of the Second World War and when much of Maida Vale was under Church ownership there was a pretty strong whiff of sex in the air. Celina Fox has been delving into the archives on our behalf…

Known Women and Disorderly Houses: Wartime Sex on the Paddington Estate 

By Celina Fox

On 18 November 1944 the Paddington Mercury led with a sensational story headed: ‘The Church and the Paddington Scandal – Grave Revelations Follow Doctor’s Letter to Bishops.’ From the opening paragraph the piece did not inspire confidence in the salubriousness of our neighbourhood: ‘The Church knows that its Paddington Estate is one of the worst districts in London for prostitution. It knows that a large proportion of the £84,000 rent income helps to pay the stipends of its clergy. But it has no legal power to interfere with the traffic. And it does not regard the money so received as “tainted” for it is received not from brothel keepers but from perfectly respectable people.’

This was the most dramatic expression of long-running concerns over the reputation of the Church of England’s Paddington Estate, which covered 600 acres north of Bayswater Road and west of Edgware Road. The Second World War exacerbated the problem as thousands of young men and women, on leave from the Allied Forces and/or determined to enjoy freedom while they could, descended on the capital in search of a good time. Alarm was raised when a letter from Dr Thomas E. A. Stowell, a distinguished surgeon and doctor of medicine, was published in The Times of 5 August 1942 under the heading ‘Commercialized Vice’. He claimed that the incidence of venereal disease had grown by at least twenty per cent as a result of the increase in London’s ‘white slave trade’, with Euston and certain parts of Paddington commonly mentioned as the worst plague spots. Rising public indignation that the evils were tolerated led him to call for legislative and administrative action.

His letter eventually prodded the London Diocesan Conference to form a committee in June 1943 to consider how the Paddington Estate could be cleaned up. Its report, summarised in The Times of 30 March 1944, recommended that the Bishops should raise the topic in the House of Lords and the Home Secretary should introduce a Bill into the House of Commons giving additional powers for ground landlords to deal with abuses committed on their property. Stowell spoke at the Diocesan Conference on 30 October 1944, stating that he had studied the problem in ten European countries, Canada and America, and nowhere had he seen anything ‘more blatant, cruel and cynical’ since taking a house in the Paddington district (at 37 Sussex Gardens).

But the Mercury concluded, anyone who read the committee report and press reports of the conference was left with the impression that the Church was more concerned with demonstrating the whiteness of its hands and its lack of power to interfere than it was with the ‘evil’ itself. The Church argued that the problem lay with the law. While solicitation on the street by a ‘common prostitute’ could result in her being arrested and fined, from 1895 the legal definition of a ‘brothel’ – premises used by more than one woman for the purposes of prostitution – had a major loophole. If a flat or rooms were let to prostitutes, each of whom used her own flat or room for prostitution, then none of the parties was guilty of an offence. The Church was powerless to control these ‘single room’ flats.

…the tip of the iceberg in Paddington

Nevertheless, under subsection 13 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, entitled ‘Suppression of Brothels’, any person who kept, managed, or assisted in the management of premises used as a brothel, or was the landlord or tenant of such premises, was liable to a fine or a maximum of three months’ imprisonment. Cases reported in the Mercury – the tip of a very large iceberg – were usually prosecuted on these grounds before the magistrates of Marylebone Police Court. The greatest sexual traffic occurred in the south of the Estate, near Paddington Station, where cheap hotels and boarding houses jostled next to each other along Praed Street, Sussex Gardens and Norfolk Square. Police tactics followed a standard pattern. The suspect property was observed on three or four consecutive days or nights and the number of women and men entering counted. If the girls were ‘known’ and calculations suggested that the premises were being used for ‘improper’ purposes – the ratio could be as low as one to two or three, female to male – a police raid was staged and charges usually ensued.

Fines were generally modest for small-scale operators pleading guilty – £10 or £12, with two to four guinea costs. But repeat offenders or those protesting their innocence were punished more harshly. A report of 29 March 1941, headed ‘Aged Woman Sent to Prison’, concerned Mary Baker (65), manager of St David’s Hotel, Praed Street, who was jailed for three months for keeping a disorderly house there, having had a three-month sentence in 1934 for a similar offence. Margaret Eleanor Fontana (39), a hotel-keeper of 19 and 22 Norfolk Square, was fined £30 in July 1942 for allowing the premises to be used as a disorderly house, while her Italian engineer husband, who was employed in aircraft production, got one month’s imprisonment for assisting her, with a recommendation for deportation.

…moral panic

The defence mounted in each instance sheds light on the circumstances in which the respective hoteliers found themselves. Mary Baker’s solicitor stated that the spotless condition of the premises (verified by Sub-Divisional Inspector Farthing on the police raid) ‘raised them very high above the usual disreputable establishments.’ Besides: ‘The accused was aged and in poor health and had to support a relation in these difficult times, and it was hard in these days of travelling without luggage to decide who were genuine married couples and who were not.’  When she was raided, Mrs Fontana protested that she could scarcely ask couples for their identity cards and marriage certificates. Police Inspector Brown reported that he had found a number of American, Canadian and English soldiers with girls: ‘This house’, he said, ‘is used by men of the Services who meet their girls in various parts of London and take them there for the night.’ Business was very brisk during week-ends, he added. While Paddington did not reach the lurid excesses of the West End where ‘good-time girls’, emboldened by the black-out, ‘threw themselves’ on GIs, the rise in reported prosecutions in the second half of 1942 suggest that Marylebone’s magistrates were not immune from the moral panic that seized authorities following the arrival of American troops.

Although even the police conceded that ‘genuine business’ was conducted in hotels and boarding houses, the magistrates viewed infiltration by prostitutes as an insult to respectable tenants. Flora Morton (54) of the West of England Hotel, 41-43 Praed Street, was fined £100 plus ten guineas costs after a police raid, as reported in the Mercury of 26 July 1942. According to Mrs Morton, her boarders were mostly travellers who came by rail, paying 17/6 per room. According to the police, they were mainly soldiers with girls. A French boarding-house keeper, Rodger Robert Moreau (41) of 5-6 Porchester Street – who evidently had been editor of a French financial paper before the war – was fined £90 with ten guineas costs in November 1942 despite the fact that twenty of his twenty-two letting rooms were occupied by permanent residents. Joel Harris, an ex-taxi driver and manager of the Paddington Grande Hotel, Norfolk Place, was fined £100 in December 1944 for assisting in the management of a brothel there, the magistrate finding it – apparently without irony – ‘intolerable in a hotel for respectable people and to which soldiers and sailors and other members of the Forces were directed as a suitable place to stay.’

Further north, in April 1945, Tobias Westerman, manager of the Esplanade Hotel, Warrington Crescent (now the Colonnade Hotel) and staff were all fined for running a brothel following a police raid, despite their not guilty pleas and assertion that the accounts given by the police sergeant and constable who kept observation were ‘coloured’. The police conceded that legitimate business was transacted but claimed the hotel also satisfied officers and soldiers of the American Army, who brought with them ‘women whose appearance, condition and manner of approach indicated what they were and why they had come there.’

…frolics in Formosa Street

Maida Vale prosecutions mainly targeted the traffic in rented rooms. Trade was so buoyant, according to an unnamed Scotland Yard Officer, that one house had sixty girls on its books, living in flatlets let at £5 weekly for immoral purposes, and that some of the girls had as many as twenty clients a night. John Frances Montague Rhind (28) and his common-law wife, Annie Struthers (31), were each sentenced to three months’ hard labour in July 1942 for managing a disorderly house at 42 Formosa Street, which comprised ten rooms, eight of which were bedrooms. Rhind had only become landlord six weeks earlier and according to Annie, he had been getting rid of the women who lived there as tenants of the previous landlord, and now there were only two left. Although the defence solicitor argued that the prosecution had failed to make a case and the police had acted prematurely, the magistrate found both guilty. S.D. Inspector Stickley then revealed that Rhind had previous form – for larceny, indecency, in April 1939 for keeping a disorderly house and in 1940 six months’ imprisonment for theft.  The filthy condition of the house might also have contributed to the stiff sentence. In the eyes of the magistrates, moral filth was compounded by physical filth. When Nellie Faley (28), a housekeeper of Clifton Gardens, pleaded guilty for knowingly permitting her ‘spotlessly clean’ ground floor flat to be used as a disorderly house, she was fined £20, with five guineas costs, or one month’s imprisonment. She let out one of her two rooms at 2/6 a time and during the period of observation, eighteen men were taken to the flat by three known prostitutes. ‘I was a fool to do it. I knew I should get caught’, she sobbed.

Perhaps the most persistent offender in the neighbourhood was Mary Parker of 1a Delamere Terrace. Described as a sixty-two-year-old house-wife when she appeared before the magistrates in November 1941, she was charged with keeping a brothel on the basis of the usual period of observation and a police raid on 31 October. Despite the accused’s denial, the police inspector had found in a back room on the first floor a woman sitting in an armchair with a soldier, who said he had met her in Oxford Street a couple of times and ‘came here to sit by the fire.’ Two more men and another woman were also in the room and shortly afterwards a couple entered – all, it transpired, calling on the house after casual meetings. The inspector added that its general state was filthy and the accused had £83 on her in notes. On this occasion she was fined £100 with twenty guineas costs. A year later, in December 1942, she was back in court and received a fine of £130, twenty guineas costs and three months in jail. The magistrate rejected her claims that all her tenants – among them, supposedly, a respectable widow, a woman with a baby and a nursemaid – paid their rent to her husband, John Beresford Black (whom she had married in 1941), who then paid the landlord. It emerged that she had a string of other convictions against her, not only in London but also in Dublin and Scotland, ranging from ten days for threats to seven years’ penal servitude for fraud. Her fines were always paid and she usually had up to £300 on her when arrested. Another charge, of her having received a ‘Service respirator, haversack and Army clothing’, was dismissed.

…randy in Randolph Road

Those most likely to get off prosecution for brothel-keeping were semi-absentee landlords, not to mention the ground landlord, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In October 1942, the charge against Annie Eustace (68), of Warwick Crescent, of knowingly permitting premises in Randolph Avenue (a street of such ill repute under its previous incarnation, Portsdown Road, that it was renamed in 1939 after John Randolph, bishop of London 1809-13) to be used for the purpose of habitual prostitution was dismissed. As lessee and ratable occupier, she let the house as furnished flats, charging £2 a week for the ground floor, £2 for the first and £1 13s for the top floor, while her son-in-law lived in the basement rent free. The evidence against her seemed strong – over three nights’ observation twenty-eight men were taken into the premises by three known women. She was seen to speak to one woman, who was soliciting on the street corner, and a woman took a man into the house in sight of the accused. But she stoutly maintained the woman was a friend of hers. Some time ago she had received a warning letter from the Council and had got the tenants out. When the current tenants had taken the flats they stated they were married and brought their husbands with them. She owned two houses opposite, which were empty, and she only took what she believed were respectable tenants. Perhaps the magistrate was swayed in her favour by the fact that she was blind in one eye with a cataract and her other eye was affected.

On 4 March 1944 it was reported that a portrait painter, Jack Rubin (68), had successfully appealed at the London Sessions against a conviction and fine of £50 with fifteen guineas costs, imposed Marylebone Police Court, for aiding and abetting James Francis Colbert by permitting 61 Praed Street to be used as a brothel. Rubin was landlord of the premises and Colbert his tenant. When he learnt of the charge, Rubin had placed matters in the hands of a solicitor who gave Colbert notice to quit. But according to the solicitor, the whole matter had been ‘tied up in knots’ owing to the complications of the Rent Restriction Act (first introduced in 1915 to prevent landlords from wartime profiteering), and believing it impossible to get him to leave, Rubin had allowed Colbert to remain. The Appeals Committee ruled that Rubin had taken all reasonable steps to see that the premises were properly conducted by placing the matter in the hands of a solicitor. The appeal was allowed with costs.

© Celina Fox 2014