France's most notorious brothel was probably the sophisticated Le Chabanais near the Louvre in Paris, renowned for famous visitors like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Mae West. In Germany it was the salubrious Salon Kitty, situated in Charlottenburg, a wealthy district of Berlin and remembered for being taken over by the SS to spy on German dignitaries in the 1930s. In America, men flocked to the Mahogany Hall bordello in New Orleans, where Jelly Roll Morton played piano for sex dances in the glittering mirrored parlor on Basin Street.
Britain's most infamous brothel, however, was situated in Streatham in an Edwardian house on Ambleside Avenue, a stone's throw from the Streatham High Road, once voted the worst street in the UK.
The south London "disorderly house" was run by Britain's most celebrated madam, Cynthia Payne, who became front-page news in 1978 when the Metropolitan Police raided her "respectable" net-curtained home and found a queue of men—including vicars, lawyers, and politicians—patiently waiting to see the 13 prostitutes on the premises. A sign in the kitchen read, "My house is clean enough to be healthy… and dirty enough to be happy."
The "House of Cyn," as it came to be known, was certainly not celebrated for its luxurious surroundings (the interior was very chintzy) or the beauty of its women. Its notoriety came from the method of payment used—the luncheon voucher.
In 1946, around the same time a teenage Cynthia was being expelled from her convent school for continually talking about sex and generally being a "bad influence," the British government started the luncheon voucher scheme. It introduced them as a tax concession, hoping that it would encourage its citizens to eat more healthily. In 1948 the tax relief was raised a few pence, to three shillings, but unfortunately for lunch-eating Britons that was where it stayed until 2013, when it was finally abolished due to it being almost worthless.
Men under 40 were banned from her brothel—"all Jack-the-lads boasting about their prowess."
Three shillings certainly wasn't worthless in 1949, when the average woman's weekly wage was just over three pounds (men earned almost twice the amount), and Cynthia was certainly earning far less than that when she started to work, age 17, at a bus garage in Bognor Regis. She began an affair with a married man (a period of her life that would feature in the 1987 movie Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd). The man followed Cynthia first to Brighton and then to London, where she got pregnant, eventually giving birth to her son Dominic, followed by another, who was put up for adoption.
The luncheon voucher scheme initially worked on an ad hoc basis, with each company printing their own vouchers and arranging for local cafés and restaurants to accept them. In 1954, the businessman John Hack realized that a standardized voucher acceptable all over the UK would be much more efficient for everyone concerned, so he started the Luncheon Voucher Company in 1955. Establishments that were part of the scheme started to feature a green "LV" logo in the window (as did Cynthia 20 years later). Until a couple of decades ago, these stickers were still ubiquitous all over the country. If you look closely in the cafe scenes you can see an example in the video for "Deep" by East 17.
By now Cynthia was based in Margate, where she was living with an Amusement Arcade operator, with whom she stayed for five years. After a third illegal abortion (he loathed contraception) she left him and started the career that would make her famous. She spent two years working as a prostitute, before realizing she would make more money by opening her own brothel. She saved enough to buy a small terraced house in Eden Court Road in Streatham (where, for a 16th birthday present, she allowed her son to be "deflowered"), and then a few years later, in 1974, bought the house in Ambleside Avenue called "Cranmore."
"We had a high-class clientele," Cynthia remembered years later. "No rowdy kids, no yobs, all well-dressed men in suits who knew how to respect a lady. It was like a vicar's tea party with sex thrown in—a lot of elderly, lonely people drinking sherry."
Although men under 40 were banned from her brothel ("all Jack-the-lads boasting about their prowess") she was proud that she provided for all sorts of men, and once said: "Everyone can get lonely… We even used to have some of them coming along in wheelchairs, although not too many because they tended to block up the corridors."
In 1980, two years after the police raid on Ambleside Avenue, the case went to court, with Payne eventually convicted for running "the biggest disorderly house" in history. Although sentenced to 18 months in prison, she was released from Holloway after four. Six years later, in 1987, Personal Services—the first film about her life—was released, starring Julie Walters and directed by former Python Terry Jones. After the filming was completed, Payne organized a celebration at Ambleside Avenue and once again the police raided the house. This time she was charged with nine counts of controlling prostitutes. There was much laughter during the subsequent 13-day trial, and the judge warned the jurors that the case was a criminal trial and not some kind of entertainment show. When, after five hours, the jury found her not guilty, the courtroom burst into spontaneous applause.
Payne left the court clutching a Laughing Policeman doll, which she had kept as a mascot throughout her trial. "This is a victory for common sense," she said. "But I have to admit all this has put me off having parties for a bit." Cynthia later sent Judge Brian Pryor QC a copy of her biography, An English Madam, with the inscription: "I hope this book will broaden your rather sheltered life."
The luncheon voucher became next to useless when the LV tax concession was abolished by the coalition government in 2013. Extraordinarily, they still exist, although no one knows who takes them.
Sadly, Cynthia Payne certainly doesn't. She died at age 82 on November 15, 2015 while still living at Ambleside Avenue. Britain's most notorious madam was always proud of how she treated her employees, and at the end of every afternoon shift she always provided something that the girls at Le Chabanais, Salon Kitty, and the Mahogany Hall would have been more than envious of: a poached egg on toast and a nice cup of tea.