Less than ten minutes walk from Princes Street an elegant Georgian terrace stands in Edinburgh’s New Town.
As a schoolboy in 1970 I worked part time in Thornton’s Sports shop in the centre’s Hanover Street. In addition to pay, the owner would give us a luncheon voucher for each full day we worked. One day I settled on spending it in the nearby bar in Rose Street called the “White Cockade”, now the site of the Rose Street Brewery.
Although busy the restaurant upstairs served good food at a reasonable price. By the time I had finished my meal a very long queue of waiting diners extended along the wall of the congested dining room. Spotting a prim old lady complete with fur coat, twin set and pearls,and leaning on an elegant stick, I rose, approached her, and gestured towards my seat. She gave me a delightful smile and thanked me in what I thought was a posh English accent. Then, to my astonishment, she raised her stick and with a flourish pushed it against three young women behind her. With a motherly firmness she said, “Girls, let the young gentleman past.” A number of customers raised their heads and as I squeezed past the girls, each in turn smiled at me in a benign sort of way. I reached the till and handed over my luncheon voucher. The middle aged waitress took the slip of paper and said with a straight face “Aye . . . ye’ll be getting a discoont next time you go roond.” What was she on about?
I returned to Gordon Thorntons and, still bemused I told the other shop assistants about this . Within minutes my tale had spread; everyone was laughing and teasing me with comments such as, “Its amazing what you can pack into a lunch hour. Three was it? ” Later in the afternoon they put me out my misery: I discovered that I had encountered one of Edinburgh’s most famous citizens. Some might say that I should call Dora Noyce “infamous”, but 35 years after her death she is still remembered with something approaching affection by the Edinburgh public.
Dora Noyce was Scotland’s best-known madam, running a brothel in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town at 17 Danube Street, Stockbridge. Much has been written about Dora both in newspapers and on the internet; to this day you can hear her quotes repeated in Edinburgh bars.
Born in the same road as our encounter, Rose Street (a much sleazier area in 1900), her real name was Georgie Hunter Rae, the daughter of a cutler. She grew up here and somehow managed to develop a refined Morningside accent. Georgie or Dora began working as a prostitute but soon used her intelligence, her fledgling management skills and her charm to open a very profitable brothel (she did not like the latter word and preferred to describe her establishment as a “YMCA with extras” or a “house of leisure and pleasure”. She opened the establishment in 1946 and although she was charged 47 times for living on immoral earnings, it was not until 1972 that she was given a four-month sentence at the age of 71. Once released, she carried on as normal, running the establishment until her death in 1977, aged 76. Concerning the custodial sentence, Dora a firm believer in private enterprise and Conservative Party values, told the press, “Really, that 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.” How did she manage to stay in business for almost 30 years in the same residence? There are probably a number of reasons. She was on extremely good terms with the police and would greet them with, “How nice to see you! Business or pleasure?” and was thought to provide them with useful information about Edinburgh’s underworld. Always the self-publicist, she was a favourite with reporters; in Deacon Brodie’s pub on the Royal Mile she provided them wonderful copy with her witty remarks, adding at the end of the performance, “Just make sure you get the name and address right!”. If the address was an open secret, the names of her customers were not; she expected her “girls” to be discreet. Her clientele consisted of all social classes and professions. Her fifteen permanent employees worked from the basement while Edinburgh’s establishment and other special guests were entertained upstairs and would be greeted with glasses of wine and some choice nibbles . She shopped for these refreshments locally, addressing shopkeepers with the line, “I do like to support local businesses. Don’t you?”
In a recent blog campaigning for the erection of more statues of famous Edinburgh women it was claimed that the present ratio was 200 men to just two women. One reply to the site quipped that, “Dora Noyce is worthy of a statue – perhaps in recognition of her devoted service to the politicians, church elders and lawmakers of the day . . . ” I suspect Dora would have liked that. My favourite, and her most outrageous claim, that: “she claimed that while her busiest time was during the Edinburgh Festival, the two weeks of the Church of Scotland General Assembly ranked a close second.” On these occasions she would employ another 25 girls.
Perhaps her success and fame became too much for the law to ignore. There are many accounts of the day that the US aircraft carrier John F Kennedy docked at Leith, when queues of sailors snaked along Danube Street’s pavements and around the corner. The commander is said to have stepped in and declared the house off limits saving Edinburgh’s blushes but not before a reported £4000 had been taken.
In 1977 She defended her profession in the Scotsman by saying that she “offered a necessary social service.”
Her local MP got her support whether he liked it or not and to his horror she turned up at Conservative Party garden fetes and displayed in the window of number 17 a poster with the slogan: ”Life is better under the Conservatives.”
Today in contrast to Glasgow, the Edinburgh City Council tolerates the sex industry in the guise of 15 licensed “saunas”. The advocates of this liberal policy claim that it keeps women off the streets and provides a safer regulated environment. However, objections to the renewal of the licences have been lodged recently, making closures a real possibility. The objections have been met with statements from local politicians with incredulous though legally and politically astute statements that range from complete denial of the sauna’s actual activities to those citing a lack of evidence.
Dora Noyce would not know what a spin doctor was, but she would have been in her element.