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Danube Street brothel: From sex-starved sailors to the Capital's establishment

SHE was, by all accounts, the very epitome of the genteel, refined Edinburgh lady.

With her fur coat, her pearls and the Conservative Party posters which appeared in her window at election time – not to mention her refined air – there was little on the surface, at least, to make this Morningside matron stand out from the city crowd.

Certainly few who glanced at Dora Noyce, as she made her way to her notorious business at 17 Danube Street, could have dreamed they were gazing upon Scotland's most infamous madam.

Today Noyce and the Stockbridge brothel she ran from the aftermath of the Second World War until the mid-1970s have almost legendary status as Scotland's best known – and perhaps most unlikely – pioneers of the modern sex industry.

But back in the late forties, the late night activities and, indeed, the queue around the block when certain ships dropped anchor at Leith Docks, must have shocked residents in the quiet New Town street.

Dora's terraced townhouse property in Danube Street, where around 15 girls in permanent residence were joined by up to 25 others during busy periods, was a hive of illicit activity for decades, a pleasure palace – she despised the word "brothel" – where anything and everything was on the menu along with a cup of tea for afters.

And the madam revelled in her role as queen of the city's brothel keepers. With her haughty dowager manner and upper-class Morningside tones, she created an air of well-bred class and sophistication for her customers – many of them undoubtedly from the higher echelons of city society.

Yet despite her posh persona, Dora was born in 1900 in Rose Street, a rough area of pubs and poverty. Named Georgie Hunter Rae – perhaps the "Dora" was adopted when she herself worked as a call-girl – she was the youngest of five children born to Alexander Rae, a cutler, and his wife, Mary.

She was 23 when she had her only child, a little girl called Violet, whose father was named on the birth certificate as handyman Ernest Noyce. Dora may have taken his name but, by the time of his death, she regarded him as no more than a friend.

Perhaps it was the gloom that befell the nation during the Second World War that gave Dora the idea to liven things up. The war had just ended when she launched her thriving business in Danube Street. Taxis dropped off streams of customers – day and night. And come Festival-time, Danube Street's house of ill-repute was one of the hottest tickets in town.

Business is famously said to have boomed when the USS John F Kennedy docked at Leith. The vessel offloaded hundreds of sex-starved sailors into the Capital – and straight to Dora's front door, where the queue for her girls' services is said to have stretched all the way to Ann Street.

The legend of Danube Street goes that around 4000 of business was notched up before the ship's captain declared the brothel out of bounds to his men.

Dora herself, never short of a well-placed quip, once commented that her busiest time of the year was during the church gathering of the General Assembly.

Yet she was nothing if not discreet. The clients who visited Danube Street must have included household names of the day, members of the city's – if not the Scottish – establishment, but Dora and her girls never kissed and told.

Writer Roddy Martine stepped inside the den of iniquity in the early-seventies after a boozy stag night but insists he did not indulge in its services. "I remember it being rather scruffy. There was a big television and girls sitting about on sofas with drunken men. Dora served glasses of dry white wine and asked the suddenly sober stag night revellers if they were sailors."

He recalls his group being particularly popular with the girls: "Seven or eight girls sat around chatting to a few overweight middle-aged punters, but since we were all in our early twenties, they soon came over to inspect us

."

But not everyone welcomed Dora's business. Mairi Macbeath, who died last year aged 84, ran a guest house next door in Danube Street from 1964. Mairi had an enterprising approach to the brothel – she pretended to photograph punters on their way to the house of ill-repute and then threaten to send the pictures to the men's wives, although the camera never had film in it.

Still, despite what went on behind the front door of number 17, it was tolerated in a remarkable manner.

Dora formed a working relationship with police and local residents. She ran a tightly disciplined business which meant any trouble was quickly and effectively dealt with. And when the police dropped in to raid the joint, she responded politely and with grace, once throwing open the door with the welcome: "Business or pleasure, gentlemen?"

Of course, the city could not be seen to allow Dora's sex-for-sale business to go unchecked.

She was charged more than 40 times with living on immoral earnings. Typically she would pay the fine on the spot – then head straight back to work. Sometimes, however, she'd be sent to jail. Her last prison term was in 1972, aged 71, for four months.

Taxi driver Bob McCulloch wrote about her in his book, My Fare City, and described her as almost "prudish" and a stickler for standards. No-one would be allowed to refer to her as "madam", he wrote, and referring to her home as a brothel was off-limits. Instead, he remembers, she preferred it to be described as a "YMCA with extras".

Dora died in 1977. Her business at 17 Danube Street continued briefly, but without the guiding hand of its legendary madam, it was soon closed down and the property split into flats.

Dora's legend, however, survives

and she would probably be revelling in the fact that it is still worthy of discussion.

As she told journalists following one of her many court appearances: "In my profession there is no such thing as bad publicity, so do make sure you print the correct address in your newspaper."

Seedier side of a prim and proper Edinburgh

PRIM and proper on the outside, Edinburgh might seem the very epitome of the respectable capital city.

But power, money and influence seep through its streets – and they make perfect bedfellows for sex.

Dora Noyce's brothel in the heart of the staid New Town is the perfect example of a city that contrasts a conservative exterior with a much more adventurous attitude to affairs of the heart – and body.

Edinburgh has historically turned a blind eye to the saunas. Inside each, working girls offer their customers significantly more close physical contact than the word "sauna" suggests.

By the mid 1990s, and despite opposition, Edinburgh was welcoming lap dancing clubs.

Edinburgh might seem to some less easy-going than its Glasgow cousin, but the opposite is true when it comes to sex. Glaswegian councillors fought the onset of lap dancing clubs, while saunas, too, have been less tolerated. And while Edinburgh has a number of sex shops, Glasgow councillors have consistently rejected applications for similar outlets.

Although around 75 per cent of Edinburgh prostitutes work from saunas, areas in Leith remain a red light district for street girls, while the Calton Hill area is recognised as an area for rent boys.

 
 
 

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