Dora Noyce: The life and times of Edinburgh's most notorious madam and brothel keeper
Prostitution is, they say, the oldest profession in the world and regardless of class, it's certainly be a part of life in the Capital over many centuries.
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From the red light districts of Leith, first on Baltic Street then Salamander Street, to the relative 'safety' of city's saunas, regarded as many as legalised brothels, and the lap dancing and 'Go Go' bars of the ‘pubic triangle’, soon to be no more, Edinburgh's relationship with the sex trade has been long and difficult.
Back in the Fifties and Sixties, however, it was one Dora Noyce, the Capital's most notorious madam, who regularly stole the headlines thanks to her Danube Street brothel, Dora's, which catered for everyone from sex-starved sailors to esteemed city fathers.
Reportedly the epitome of the genteel, refined Edinburgh lady, Morningside matron Noyce could regularly be seen in her fur coat and pearls as she made her way to her business at 17 Danube Street where, famously, Conservative Party posters would appear in the windows at election time, an attempt to add an air of 'respectability' to her decidedly illegal doings, perhaps.
Noyce ran her Stockbridge brothel from just after the Second World War to the mid-1970s, becoming a pioneer of the modern sex industry along the way.
In its heyday, the stately townhouse's late night activities, where anything and everything was on the menu along with a cup of tea afterwards, would see sailors queued around the block when the Navy dropped anchor at Leith Docks – at such times Noyce would draft in additional girls to populate her 'Pleasure Palace' - she hated the word brothel - to meet the demand.
It wasn't just sailors, Noyce's air of well-bred sophistication attracted many from the higher echelons of Edinburgh society. Despite her la-di-da act, however, Noyce was born in Rose Street, then a rough area of pubs and poverty, 1900.
Born Georgie Hunter Rae, the youngest of five children born to Alexander Rae, a cutler, and his wife, Mary.At 23 she had her only child, a little girl called Violet, whose father was named on the birth certificate as handyman Ernest Noyce who, by the time of his death she regarded as nothing more than a friend.
The war had just ended when she launched her business where taxis dropped off streams of customers day and night – come Festival-time, Danube Street's house of ill-repute was one of the hottest tickets in town.
Business also boomed when the USS John F Kennedy docked at Leith, the queue for her girls' services is said to have stretched all the way to Ann Street and the stroy goes that the brothel did around £4,000 of business before the ship's captain declared it out of bounds to his sailors.
Former Edinburgh Detective Superintendent and crime writer, the late Peter Ritchie, once recalled, “Back in Fifties, Sixties and Seventies when local brothels were commonplace in the Capital, none was more famous than Dora’s. Dora Noyce operated as a madam from 17 Danube Street, Stockbridge, where it is said 15 resident prostitutes worked, with others called in when the business was busy.
“Noyce famously claimed she was at her busiest during the Festival and when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was in session.”
He continues, “When Tom Wood [a former Deputy Chief Constable] and I were talking... we got on to Dora’s, which was on Tom’s beat at one time. Dora cultivated the homely approach, but I think she was a bit of a one-off to be honest. It’s no secret that she was not unfriendly to the police - for all the times that she was taken to court it wasn’t like she was dragged there kicking and screaming. She would always argue she was providing a public service.
“One of the things Tom has discovered from that time is that brothels in Edinburgh, and apparently it was the same in Dora’s, kept the top floor for the ‘high heid-yins’, the bottom floor for the ‘you and me’.”
With such an eclectic mix of customers, discretion was the word for Noyce and her girls, who never kissed and told.
Recalling a visit to Dora's in the Seventies while on a stag night, writer Roddy Martine, who did not indulge in No 17’s services, said, “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.”
His group proved particularly popular with the girls, he recalled, “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.”Not everyone appreciated Dora's business. Mairi Macbeath, her next door neighbour, ran a guest house and would pretend to photograph punters on their way to No 17 and then threaten to send the pictures to the men's wives – the camera never actually had any film in it.
Running her tight ship and maintaining a working relationship with police and most locals, Noyce avoided trouble and, on the occasions when police officers did raid the joint, she would open the door with the welcome, “Business or pleasure, gentlemen?”Charged more than 40 times with living off immoral earnings, Noyce served her last prison term - four months - in 1972 at the age of 71. She died five years later in 1977 and although her business continued, without her presence it soon closed and the property was redeveloped as flats.