The Stews

Stews, or brothels, where an early feature of Bankside but it is not known exactly when they first appeared. The area known as the Bankside Stews was between Maid Lane (named after the women of the stews) and Bankside and was part of the estate belonging to the Bishop of Winchester. The Bishops were not involved directly with their running as they had leased, or alienated, these plots of land but it fell to the Bishops of Winchester, as Lord of the Manor, through his bailiff, steward or constables to administer and enforce the 1161 regulations at his Court Leet. Most offences were punishable by a fine, a source of revenue for the Bishops. The women who worked in the stewhouses became known as Winchester Geese but the Winchester Goose was also used to describe a swelling in the groin caused by venereal disease. To be bitten by the Winchester Goose was slang in the 16th century for contracting venereal disease and it is maybe this that Ben Jonson describes:

.. The Wincestrian goose
Bred on the bank in time of popery
When Venus there maintaind her mystery

There have been two explanations for why they were called the Stews. Firstly, the ponds on the Bishop of Winchester's estate where fish, especially carp, were bred for the table were called stew-ponds and that the near-by brothels were called stews after these - if someone said they were going to visit the stews it could be laden with innuendo. Secondly, it has been put forward the name stew derives from the word Estuwesor Estueswhich is Norman French for stove. Baths included a 'hot-house', that is a sweating bath, hence the need for estuwes and since Roman times there had been a connection between bath-houses and prostitution. When the Romans left, bath-houses disappeared but the crusaders of the early medieval period were introduced to the pleasures of bath-houses when overseas and brought the practice back to England. Prostitution again became associated with these bath houses and, as Dr Johnson was to write centuries later probably stew like bagnio , took a bad signification from bad use. It is unlikely the Bankside stews had ever provided bathing facilities, just the associated service!

Medieval authorities seem to have viewed prostitution as a necessary evil but over time sought to restrict the practice and brothels as they attracted criminals and people of unsavoury reputation which created a problem with the attendant crime and disorder. In 1161 Henry II introduced an ordinance that regulated the conduct of stews, stewholders and the women who worked there. On the face of it, Henry IIs regulations appear enlightened as some are concerned with safeguarding the liberty of the women. The regulations included:

- stewholders were to be married and the premises to be used as brothels only

- it was forbidden to sell food and drink

- stewholders were not to keep a woman against her will, to allow her to board or to lend her more than 6s8d. These regulations would limit the hold the stewholder could have over the woman as she would be unable to run up a large debt and the stewholder would be unable to ensnare her by charging her inflated prices for her food.

- there was a limit that a stewholder could charge for her room

- pregnant and married women and women of religion were forbidden to offer their services at stewhouse

- the wife of a stewholder was not allowed to offer herself or to entice customers

- stewholders were not allowed to hold a customer against his will or to seize his goods

- the women of the stews were forbidden to wear an apron which was considered a sign of respectability

- they were forbidden to grab a man or his clothing as he passed or to obstruct him in any way. This restricted soliciting, the woman was supposed to sit passively by the door or by the window and to wait for the customer take the initiative

- a prostitute was not allowed a paramour. This would limit the practice of pimping

- a woman was to be evicted from the stewhouse if she was pregnant, suffered from the burning sickness, married or a woman of religious orders

- there was to be a quarterly inspection by officials and if it was discovered a woman was held there under duress, she would be free to leave.

These regulations though were regularly flaunted, often aided by corrupt officials. Violence, or threats of violence, would have been used to keep the women in order. There are court records that show that girls, thinking they were to be employed as servants found themselves forced into prostitution, that despite regulation women were kept in food and lodging, and that stewholders were illegally selling ale. The frequency of offences by repeat offenders point to the regulations being taken lightly and viewed as an occupational hazard.

Across the river from Bankside, the City of London had become alarmed at the public disorder associated with prostitution and had tried to curtail it within the City. In 1383 it was decreed that if a harlot was found in the City her head was to be shaved and, wearing a red and white cap she would be carried in a wagon with red and white awning to prison, where she would be put in a kind of pillory and whipped, and then escorted to the City gates where she would be banished. In 1391 the watermen were forbidden from taking customers over the river at night. Stew Lane, a narrow street that still exists today, led down to the river and was where people would take a boat to cross over to the Bankside stews.

In 1393, the City banned all prostitution from within its walls proclaiming many and divers affrays, broils and dissensions have arisen in times past, and many men have been slain and murdered [by consorting with] common harlots and taverns, brewhouses and other places of ill fame. The City decreed that all prostitution was to be banished to Cokkes Lane in Smithfield, and to the stews in Bankside, an early example of the City banishing their unpleasant and unsavoury problems and practices across the river.

The 'single women' themselves, although Henry IIs law of 1161 sought to protect their liberty, were stigmatized. They were not allowed burial on consecrated ground, neither were they allowed to supplement their income by more moral occupations like spinning. Many were immigrants from Flanders and many came from rural areas in England and had moved to London to avoid the serfdom of feudalism but when they were unable to find work were ensnared into prostitution. It was a very hard life and the women would have been brutalised by it.

The stewholders became rich on the proceeds of the houses, and were able to purchase the freeholds of other properties including taverns in Borough High Street which became brothels. If they owned freehold property that was worth more than 40s they were entitled to serve on juries where they were open to corruption and return an untrue verdict. The citizens of Southwark were outraged the stewholders should gain such a position and petitioned the king that stewholders be prohibited from owning property elsewhere in Southwark. The king granted this request and the citizens again petitioned the king to close down five stewhouse which had opening in the Guidable Manor and had occasioned violence and other criminal acts. Again the king granted the petition, and Parliament passed a law that all stews in Southwark were to be confined to Bankside although it's unlikely this is what happened in practice. Also, there were many women working throughout the area as 'private' prositutes, that is outside of a brothel.

The houses were detached and standing in their own grounds and the side of the house that faced the river were whitewashed with a sign painted flat on the wall rather than painted on a sign that hung at right angles in the manner of taverns. In this way, the different establishments were clearly visible from the river as customers were taken across from the City. Stow writing in 1598, after the stews had been closed down, described the Bankside stews as having

signes on their frontes, towardes the Thames, not hanged out, but painted on the walles, as a Beares heade, the Crosse Keyes, the Gunne, the Castle, the Crane, the Cardinals Hatte, the Bell, the Swanne, etc."

There were 18 stews at the beginning of the 16th Century, in addition to the ones listed by Stow were the Antelope, the Bulls Head, the Elephant, The Lion, the Hartshead, the Rose, the Barge, the Unicorn, the Boars Head and the Fleur de Lys.

This early attempt at state controlled brothels ended in 1546 when Henry VIII banned them by proclamationwhich also outlawed bear and dog baiting. It was possible he outlawed them for reasons of morality but also as a means of containing a syphillis epidemic that was currently raging. It was also a means of reducing the threat to public order presented by the people of dubious character who were drawn to them. Of course prostitution did not disappear, more it went elsewhere, went underground, or even, with a few modifications, went on exactly the same as before except that now there was no pretence at regulation and merely switched from being a brothel that sold drink and food illicitly to a tavern that sold the services of women illicitly. When the playhouses of Bankside came to prominence at the end of the 16th century, the whores and the brothels were a part of the entertainment, and the areas reputation for vice and crime had become engrained. Today, Maid Lane is called Park Street and has just a very short street leading off it called Maiden Lane.

Eric Burford, Bawds and Lodgings.(1976) London
Martha Carlin, Medieval Southwark. (1996) Hambledon Press
Grace Golden, Old Bankside. (1950) Williams and Northgate
Stephen Inwood,A History of London.(1998) MacMillan
David Johnson, Southwark and the City.(1969) OUP
Leonard Reilly and Geoff Marshall, The Story of Bankside.(2001), London Borough of Southwark
'Bankside',Survey of London: volume 22: Bankside (the parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark) (1950), pp. 57-65. URL:
Date accessed: 04 June 2011. 4 June 2011 (see also Robert Nares, 1822 on Google Books) accessed 4 Jun 2011


Graffiti on the hoarding to Crossbones Graveyard, Redcross Way, reputed to be an unconsecrated burial ground where 'single women' were buried.


Henry II