The working girls of Soho were in jubilant mood today after scoring a famous victory over the forces of law and order. Indeed, today may count as a significant date in the 350-year-long history of Soho as a haven for the world’s oldest profession. After all, how often has a judge ordered the police to re-open a brothel they have just closed?
That is effectively what happened at Horseferry Road court when district judge Howard Riddle dismissed an application by the Metropolitan Police and Westminster Council to wind up a discreet little sex business in Dean Street. Women had been entertaining clients in two flats at the address for years, but they suddenly found themselves caught up in what many believe is a campaign to clear prostitutes out of their West End heartland.
Conventional wisdom may suggest the police and local authority know best when it comes to handling matters such as vice, but in this case they have both suffered an unexpected humiliation. Their case was unceremoniously thrown out by Judge Riddle, prompting questions about why it was brought in the first place.
The police claimed the brothel fostered anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing, but the claim crumbled when exposed to evidence from the community, which included testimony from the local rector, the Rev David Gilmore from St Anne’s Church. He lives five doors away from the brothel and said he had never seen any drug dealing outside. Another witness said the brothel was crime-free, not least as it was monitored by CCTV.
So why did the police and the council act? The answer appears to be bound up in a policy that began about five years ago. The council began using compulsory purchase orders to buy property used by prostitutes. There were about 50 working brothels in Soho, but after concerted action by Westminster and the police the number was probably halved.
It might be thought local residents would welcome this. Far from it. They organised a petition calling on the authorities to leave the working girls alone. It bore more than 10,000 names, but the anti-brothel campaign continued. One casualty was Lizzie Valad, whose Soho flat was closed by the council. She took to the streets of King’s Cross, where in 2003 she encountered Anthony Hardy, later dubbed the Camden Ripper. Hardy murdered Ms Valad, dismembered her body and dumped it in bin bags around north London.
“No one has been murdered working in a Soho flat,” Niki Adams, from the English Collective of Prostitutes, said. Ms Adams has been at the forefront of efforts to halt action against Soho’s working women and was in court today to hear Judge Riddle’s decision. “It was a victory for women’s safety,” she said. “This case was based on discrimination. Many of these cases have simply been nodded through. But there are important issues at stake here. Women are 10 times more likely to be attacked on the streets than in a flat. The community wants these women to have a safe place to work.”
Members of the Soho Society agree. Some have criticised the drive against prostitutes and have accused the police of going after soft targets rather than pursuing the hardcore drug dealers who infest Soho, especially at weekends. Juliet Peston, a Soho Society member, said she knew many of the women and some had become friends. “Many are mothers,” she said. “Many are immigrant women whose families back home rely on the money they make for survival. Without exception, all are working to support their loved ones.”
That description applies to Sharon, one of the women at the Dean Street brothel. She said: “I have been working there for about five years and in all that time there has never been any trouble. The local people are very nice to us. When the police closed us down the people in the paper shop rallied round us. I work to support myself and my family. I think this decision today is brilliant and I’m very happy.”
One reason for her happiness is that when the brothel was closed she resorted to the streets of King’s Cross. “We shall be open again tomorrow,” she said. “It will be business as usual.”