17 Danube Street: What Your Parents Never Told You…

28 Mar

Once upon a time, in the quaint, genteel little neighbourhood of Stockbridge, there was a brothel. And this brothel, located as it was in an elegant terraced house on Danube Street was, you might say, rather well disguised. It was owned and looked after by a lady called Dora Noyce, who didn’t actually care for the term ‘brothel’ – she preferred her house described as a ‘YMCA with extras’. This infamous Madam, her hush-hush House of Leisure and what her customers got up to there are surely among some of the worst kept secrets in Edinburgh.

             But for those of you who aren’t in on the gossip here are the pertinent facts. 17 Danube Street threw open its doors shortly after the close of the Second World War and kept them open until the late seventies, when Dora Noyce passed away at the age of 77. Noyce herself was, outwardly at least, a prim and prudish individual, always neatly dressed and always ready with a dry apercu for the authorities. When the police dropped in to raid the house it is said that she would regularly greet them with the words ‘business or pleasure gentlemen?’ At election time she would plaster Conservative party posters in her windows. She wore pearls to her court dates. And when out buying nibbles and wine for her guests at the little independent shops in Stockbridge, she would say, if asked, ‘one should always support one’s local businesses.’

Her smart appearance and Morningside manners belied a much harder upbringing. Noyce was born Georgie Hunter Rae on Rose Street in 1900, then a poverty stricken area where drink and disease were rife. Her father plied a fairly lowly trade as a cutler. She worked for some time as a call-girl herself before opening the Danube street business, perhaps seeing the moneymaking potential in catering for the needs of serviceman shortly after the end of a war. Indeed, it is said that when the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy had weighed anchor in the Firth of Forth, Danube Street made a staggering £4000 in one night. Soldiers were reputedly queuing all the way down the street and round the corner – until eventually the ship’s commanding officer ordered the brothel strictly out of bounds to his men.

On the hunt for more information about this notorious Madam I arranged to go for a walk around Stockbridge with Tom Wood, former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police. Now retired, Mr Wood works in an advisory role for the government, but back in the seventies he was a young beat bobby in Stockbridge – during the final years of Dora’s occupancy at Danube St. Who better to talk to then about this risqué chapter in Edinburgh’s past and, indeed, the sex industry in Edinburgh more widely?  He explained to me that in those days he worked from the (now obsolete) police box on Dean Terrace, which is where we arranged to meet.  How very cloak and dagger I thought to myself, it couldn’t get much more Rebus than this!

I met Mr Wood and we walked towards the house in beautiful Spring sunshine. He talked fondly of his days in Stockbridge, he had grown up there and still had quite an affinity with the place. He told me that it had changed a great deal since the seventies; it was a grittier, less refined area, with quite a diverse immigrant population. He had known Dora back then and had had dealings with her (in a strictly professional capacity of course!) and he told me that she was quite the character.  You would see her buzzing about to local shops and she would always be polite and courteous. She had real wit. Her perennial quip was that she did her best business during the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland!

As we approached the blue door at number 17, we stopped and discussed in more detail how the house had operated. There were two floors, of which Dora owned both, however she would sublet the basement flat to her girls, which was split into small cubicles. She would have about 15 regular girls at any one time and as much as a further 25 for busy spells. Dora would greet guests at the door of the upstairs flat and entertain them with glasses of wine. The upstairs flat, said Mr Wood, was better regulated and was never much trouble, the sublet cubicles downstairs however were more of a nuisance to the authorities but a good deal more lucrative.

Mr Wood is a noted authority on police perspectives on prostitution and he speaks with a great deal of insight on the subject. First of all, he said, you have to remember that despite her legendary status Dora was still a criminal and what she was up to was illegal. But regardless of this, Dora was able to strike up a working relationship with the local police, even senior detectives,  on the tacit basis of course that Danube Street would be raided every six months or so. Dora would supply the police with whatever information about the criminal underworld that came her way, and in return the police were lenient with her.

In the course of our discussion I began to appreciate that this was an entirely pragmatic approach to a very tricky problem. Mr Wood talked of a live and let live approach, with limits, naturally. You can either ignore the sex industry, he said, which is silly; try to suppress it, which is impossible; or recognise it and try in whatever way you can to regulate it. When Danube St was the centre of the sex trade in Edinburgh, he said, at least the authorities had a good grasp of what was going on and who the main players were. After Dora died and as things started to move into Leith and elsewhere, it became difficult to keep track. Crime linked to the sex trade became a big issue throughout the eighties, accompanied by a pronounced rise in the spread of sexual diseases. Dora’s girls had all received regular medical examinations.

It is amazing to think that Dora Noyce was charged over 40 times for living on immoral earnings and that she only spent a very small amount of time in prison. Her last prison term was for four months in 1972 at the ripe old age of 71. Remarkably, local councillors took more complaints while she was in jail because her business simply was not as well managed without her.

After her court appearances you could find Dora in Deacon Brodie’s on the Royal Mile talking up a storm to the press. She was a canny self advertiser. ‘Just remember to get the name and address right’ she would say to the eager journalists, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity in my profession.’

So now you know the tale of the Stockbridge house of leisure and the formidable lady who ran it. Shocking: I’m sure you will agree. It is quite possible that you’ll never look at Danube Street in the same light ever again. Having said that, something like this, something a little outré, is that not what gives a place its real charm?

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15 Responses to “17 Danube Street: What Your Parents Never Told You…”

  1. Jo March 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Great post – interesting and well-researched 🙂 My parents DID tell me about Danube Street when I was a teenager and a friend had rented a room in a flat there but I think the establishment was closed my then. I wonder if the current owners of No 17 enjoy the notoriety or not… Jo PS: thanks for the follow, you know where to find me if you need your ancestry traced!

    • @alipeoples March 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks!

    • Sue Novicki May 21, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      Love this story! You are quite a delightful writer. It was such a pleasure meeting you and your mother in Florida and we hope you will come for a visit.
      Keep writing–
      Sue Novicki

  2. booguloo March 31, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    What a nice turn from my normal read. It’s good to see someone take on the lesser known history of their hometown.

    • amanda April 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

      i remember this place well. as a child i lived locally in Saunders street. and every Sunday morning, myself and friends would tap the door and ask for any spare juice bottles. there was always at least a dozen. so we would take them to the shops and buy loads of sweets to share up the park. good times. thanks for rekindling my memory’s. mx

  3. George Nicholas May 11, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Great story and pictures. As a boy of 17 and still a virgin in 1975 I was teased about 17 Danube Street and the noteriety of the whole dam place. Never plucked up the courage to visit though. Somebody should set up a burlesque club and fashon label called “17 Danube Street”, it would be a massive hit. The name is not registered at companies house, so any entrepreneur out there, what are you waiting for? Just give me the credit when u become a millionaire with my idea. DORA NOYCE WOULD BE PROUD. X

    • @alipeoples May 12, 2012 at 11:53 am #

      Great idea about the fashion label! And you would be amazed at how many people just like you came out of the woodwork after I wrote this article and told be about their intimate memories of Dora and Danube St.

  4. George Nicholas May 16, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    Did you know that Danube Street Madam, Dora Noyce, was good friends with rag & bone Stockbridge shopkeeper Mrs Doubtfire? The Stockbridge novelist Ann Fine later based her book on Madam Doubtfire, famously portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie of that name. There’s a lot of history in the old place. I’ve opened up an email account, danubestreet17@live.com for anyone interested in setting up or discussing ideas for a fashon label centered on the notorious “17 Danube Street” of days gone bye. Anyone with designs could send them in and maybe we could have them printed on T-Shirts. A blue colour like the door would be a good start X George Nicholas.

  5. Alexandra Wallace August 17, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Yes, I know Tom Wood and I well remember 17 Danube Street in the 70s. I worked in the old Edinburgh City Police HQ at Parliament Square and then down at the new Fettes HQ at amalgamation when it became Lothian and Borders Police in 1976. When Dora used
    to get brought in and asked what she was being charged with – she used to say “doing what comes naturally!”

    • @alipeoples August 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It would have been great to get some of your views when I wrote this article. I am still absolutely fascinated by Dora and her milieu. I have often thought that a novel set in Stockbridge during the 60’s and 70’s would be a good idea. If I ever get round to writing it I’ll drop you an email!

      • Eoin Robertson October 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

        One of the best novels with an Edinburgh background is “The Black Oxen by Bruce Marshall,in which a slightly fiction Dora Noyce appears.

      • George Nicholas November 5, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

        As a tribute to 17 Danube Street in honour of Dora Noyce, why not try to bring back the USS John F Kennedy Aircraft Carrier to Leith Docks as a floating Museum?
        The USS John F Kennedy News Update. In November 2009, the US Navy placed the John F Kennedy Aircraft Carrier on donation hold for use as a museum and memorial. A report that showed up in the Boston Herald newspaper on 26 November 2009 mentioned the possibility of bringing the Kennedy to the Boston, MA area, as a museum or memorial at no cost to the city, if desired.
        In August 2010, two groups successfully passed into Phase II of the U.S. Navy Ship Donation Program:
        Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame, Providence, Rhode Island &
        USS John F. Kennedy Museum, Portland, Maine.
        On 19 January 2011 the Portland, Maine City Council voted 9–0 to not continue with the project to bring the ship to Maine.

      • George Nicholas November 5, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

        One small point on the USS John F Kennedy when it’s crew visited Edinburgh. It never docked at Leith Docks. The Aircraft Carrier was too large and had to weigh anchor in the Firth of Forth.

      • @alipeoples November 6, 2013 at 9:36 am #

        Cheers George, changed that accordingly

  6. Samm Baigrie September 13, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    I used to work here (and no not as a lady of the night), as a nanny for the family I think that still exist there? They own the whole building, if indeed it is the same people?

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