The Edinburgh Madam

Posted MyT 29th June 2008

With time to kill before the Scotland v France Six Nations match this year, I started thinking about what used to be one of the regular sights of an International Rugby weekend when Scotland were playing at home. I took a stroll down the road and took the picture below.

It looks a perfectly ordinary street on the northern fringes of the New Town, but if you hang around for a while on the corner of that street on the  night before an International, there is just a chance that you will see visiting supporters wandering along it checking the house numbers.

The street is Danube Street and there is nothing remarkable about it now. The last subdivided flat (a double upper with 3/4 bedrooms, 2 reception and a bathroom) that was sold in the area went for over £600,000 and a complete terraced house would probably sell for nearer £2,000,000, even in the present market. At one time, however, it was the most notorious street in Edinburgh.

Number 17 Danube Street was owned by a Mrs Dora Noyce from just after the Second World War until her death in 1977. She was, by all accounts, a typical Edinburgh matron, well-liked and respected by her neighbours. She was a staunch Conservative and always put Tory posters in her windows at election time.

She was also a Madam – she was charged over 40 times with living on immoral earnings. Most of the time she was just fined. She would pay the fine on the spot and then she and her girls would go straight back to work. She was sent to jail a few times, presumably if the Sheriff on the bench had not had good service when he visited her house. Her last prison term was in 1972 when, at the age of 71, she was sentenced to four months. Her comment when she was released was:- “It was very stupid of the court. I was just a burden on the ratepayers and goodness knows they have enough to put up with already.

Stories of the lady abound. She apparently said that her busiest times of the year were the Festival and the week when hundreds of ministers and elders were in Edinburgh for the annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. She hated her home being called a brothel, describing it instead as ‘a house of leisure and pleasure’ and a bit like a YMCA ‘with one little difference’. Her gentlemen callers were offered coffee or tea as well as the girls.

The only time that I visited the street during Dora’s occupancy was on the famous occasion when the US aircraft carrier ‘John F Kennedy’ docked at Leith. The queue of American sailors stretched all along the street, round the corner and right down the side of the Water of Leith to the Dean Bridge. It was a sight to remember.

It has been suggested many times before that it was his Edinburgh upbringing that enabled Robert Louis Stevenson to come up with the tale of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. The citizens of Edinburgh are indeed a strange mixture of the sanctimonious and the sinful in many cases. As everybody in Morningside knows, sex are what you keep your coal in and not something that you should allow to happen in public, for fear of frightening the children (or, in earlier times, the horses or your servants).

Nonetheless, the fact that we live cheek by jowl in our tenement flats means that we do not really care what you get up to behind your own front door and lace curtains so long as you do not judge us either. We may twitch our own lace curtains from time to time to check up on you, as good neighbours should, but we don’t really mind which particular path to Hell and Perdition you are following, as long as it’s not a noisy one.

Neither the City Fathers nor the police seem to have made any attempt to close Dora down and I cannot find any record of neighbours complaining or getting up petitions about the brothel. On the contrary, there seems to have been a certain pride in the goings on at Number 17. Even after all these years there are people who think that those goings on are still ongoing.

Airport taxi drivers tell me that male tourists to Edinburgh sometimes still give 17 Danube Street as their destination, particularly on International Rugby weekends. In the case of the Welsh it appears to be a rite of passage for the first time visitor – when they are asked who gave them the address, it is usually their father or grandfather who has taken the chance to have a little, gentle leg-pulling at the expense of the next generation.

The sad thing is that the properties in Danube Street and the surrounding area are now mainly owned and occupied by hand-wringing, guilt-ridden Lib Dems or by the fat cats, toadies, fellow travellers and apparatchiks of New Labour or the Nats. There are probably still a few Tories there but I have never seen a Conservative poster displayed – that would probably cause more offence to the neighbours now than anything Dora could have got up to in her prime.


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