PRIM in her sumptuous fur coat draped over the classic uniform of twinset and pearls, the well-spoken and elegant middle-aged woman’s image was that of archetypal Morningside matron.
On the surface at least, there was nothing to suggest that Dora Noyce was anything other than one of Edinburgh’s more respectable, law-abiding citizens.
Of course, visitors to her elegant townhouse knew otherwise.
Thirty years after her death, prim and proper Dora can still claim legendary status as Scotland’s most infamous madam, who used her comfortable home in the strait-laced heart of the New Town as a magnet for pleasure-seeking clients from Edinburgh and beyond for three decades.
Formidable, enigmatic and always ready with a jovial quip for waiting reporters after her many court appearances, Dora presided over business at 17 Danube Street in Stockbridge from the end of the Second World War until her death, aged 76, in 1977.
Now the layers of the past are being peeled back to explore the building’s extraordinary history as a “house of ill-repute” right in the heart of the Capital’s Georgian New Town. Journalist and broadcaster Pennie Taylor lived in the basement at number 17 from 1982 to 1989. During her time there, she became fascinated by the house’s exotic past and determined to delve into it further in an attempt to gauge the truth behind the legend.
Like many, the former BBC health correspondent was already aware of the notoriety of the address long before she became a resident of the very rooms where Dora’s 15 live-in girls and the further 25 who were “on-call” plied their illicit trade in sex.
“I did know its history, but when I moved in I became aware of what a folk hero Dora Noyce had become,” she explains. “Every time you got in a taxi to go there you got told more tales. She’s mythical. And her fame goes far beyond Edinburgh, too. Working as a freelance, I would call people up all over Britain and when I gave them my address, they’d say ‘Not THE Danube Street?’ It was amazing. The place is still so famous that apparently the current owner still has people turning up looking for her.”
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It was hard to escape the notoriety surrounding her Danube Street address - particularly as a previous resident had uncovered Dora’s girls’ names and their price lists scribbled on the walls beneath the wallpaper - but Pennie’s probe into the city’s archives along with a BBC Radio Scotland research team, discovered Dora’s plummy vowels belied somewhat lowlier origins.
“She was born in 1900, in Rose Street. Her father was a cutler and she and her four or five siblings grew up in Rose Street,” explains Pennie. “You wouldn’t have known it from her accent or appearance though. She looked like a Morningside matron, dressed in twinset and pearls. And she spoke with an accent that could have been quite posh.”
It became clear that Dora soon put her humble childhood behind her in exchange for a comfortable and affluent lifestyle.
“Dora was a canny, canny woman,” adds Pennie. “She must have made a great deal of money in her life, since she had lots of property in Edinburgh and in Blackpool too.”
She admits to being slightly in awe of Dora, who managed to maintain good relations with both the police and her neighbours despite her line of work.
“It was obvious she ran her business as a very tight ship. For the three or four decades she had that place, she evidently kept out the gangsters and kept the neighbours and the police onside. She must have had the most amazing contacts in the business!” For all that, there was a surprisingly prudish element to Dora’s enigmatic character. For example, she detested anyone referring to 17 Danube Street as a brothel. Instead, she preferred to call it a “house of leisure and pleasure”.
Whatever you call it, it certainly went like a fair . . .
Her house of ill-repute threw open its doors to a grateful clientele in the aftermath of the Second World War. Those were days when Edinburgh positively teemed with servicemen, and the brothel attracted native visitors and foreign soldiers and sailors in their droves. Once, when the US aircraft carrier John F Kennedy docked at Leith, fed up law-abiding neighbours protested about queues stretching all the way along Danube Street’s pavements and around the corner.
It was such a good night’s business that the brothel’s employees managed to rake in a reported 4000 before the ship’s captain declared the premises off-limits.
Dora oversaw operations from her rooms on the first floor, while most business took place in the basement.
It was said the higher up the house clients moved, the more they paid for its services.
Despite being charged 47 times for living on immoral earnings and a four-month spell in prison in 1972 when she was aged 71, business boomed. But Dora was less than pleased to find herself behind bars. “Really,” she said, “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.” Ironically, one city councillor reported receiving most complaints during the time Dora was in prison - her absence meant a more disorderly house.
Bob McCulloch, an Edinburgh taxi driver, immortalises Dora in his book, My Fare City. A guide to the Capital, it paints the portraits of characters whose huge fame has now been all but eclipsed by more “worthy” figures.
“Edinburgh is famous for a lot of people - Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, all these - but there were lots of people who were equally famous and they don’t get any recognition,” says Bob. “Dora was just as well known all over the world, in certain different circles. I felt she had to be included in the book - and while there are still former clients of hers alive, she will never be forgotten.”
He recalls meeting one wealthy American gentleman on a cruise ship which docked at Rosyth some years after Dora’s death. “The man, who must have been in his 80s said to me: ‘Young man, I have a question. Is Danube Street still on the go?’ I knew exactly what he meant, but I had to bite my lip and say: ‘Danube Street is still there, what were you looking for?’ It turned out he’d visited the place when he was with the US Navy.”
Bob met Dora just once, in a pub on the Royal Mile, where she was giving an interview to reporters .
“She would not have looked out of place at a coffee morning in Morningside,” he recalls.
Her good manners were matched by her knack of never passing up an opportunity to advertise her business.
“She would always go to Deacon Brodie’s after court. All the press would be there, including the Evening News, and she’d say to them: ‘Just make sure you get the name and address right!’”
Never short of an entertaining quip, she blithely claimed in one interview that although her busiest time was during the Edinburgh Festival, the two weeks of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ranked a close second.
And she once likened her establishment, where gentlemen visitors received coffee and sandwiches along with their pick of girls, to the YMCA, “apart from one little difference...”.