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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 13 / 25





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If Southwark was famous -- and infamous -- for its shady inns and taverns, it was equally (and perhaps better) known for

another catering industry: prostitution. Although there were of course other areas of the city which were also recognized

habitations of prostitutes, Southwark, and the Bankside in particular, was the principal brothel district in London. The key,

again, was the fact that the district was for the most part outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor. In his treatise Christs

Teares Over Jerusalem , published in 1593, Thomas Nashe describes the metropolitan suburbs as little better than "licensed

stews" operating with the connivance of magistrates. While this last point is probably an exaggeration, Dekker is almost

certainly right in emphasizing how prostitutes, whom he significantly describes as "suburb sinners", had to behave with

greater circumspection within the more strictly regulated bounds of the City.59 Beyond the existence of its liberties,

however, what made Southwark the most notorious of suburban red-light districts was the fact that, like the victualling

houses, it could serve the needs not only of citizens but also travellers coming from the south of England, whilst the theaters

and other amusements of Bankside served as a permanent magnet for women of easy virtue.

As was the case with alehouses, the origins of South London's brothel

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industry far preceded the Tudor/Stuart period. When Henry II promulgated his "Ordinances touching upon the government

of the stews in Southwark" in 1161, they had already been in existence for half a century under the supervision of the

liberty's episcopal landlord, the Bishop of Winchester, who derived a vast income from licensing and supervision.60 In

1504, due to the general fear of the spread of syphilis, Henry VII closed these facilities, but business resumed the following

year. By 1546, however, crime and disorder in the district had grown to such proportions that a proclamation aimed at a

"final" closing of all the stews was issued by, of all people, Henry VIII.61 Although the suppression of public brothels

gladdened the heart of John Stow, it does not seem to have resulted in any notable diminution of prostitution; indeed, many

observers, among them John Taylor, believed that things had gotten worse rather than better as a result, not just on the

South Bank, but in the metropolitan area in general:

The Stewes in England bore a beastly sway, Till the eight Henry banish'd them away: And since these common whores

were quite put down, A damned crue of private whores are grown, So that the diuell will be doing still, Either with publique

or with private ill.63 In spite of this, numerous contemporary references make it clear that the suburb of Southwark

remained an important center for

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prostitution. At least two of the brothel houses on the Bank mentioned by Stow survived into Shakespeare's time -- the

Cardinal's Cap and the Bell, both seemingly favorite haunts of the actor Edward Alleyn. Pepys, too, speaks of visiting a

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