Courage Brewery Bascule Bridge Chumleigh Gardens Pond and cottages Peckham Peace Wall 2 P5080015 (2)

  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

Magnify black small Search

The Bankside Stews

The stews, or brothels, of Bankside were infamous in the Middle Ages and though banned by Henry VIII in 1546 , their notoriety lived on.  Of course, although ‘The Stews’ were shut down, brothels still survived but unregulated.  When the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres briefly made their home along the river in Southwark, they added to the already dubious reputation of the area, a place of fun and a good time for some, a place of outrageous licentiousness for others.  


The area known as the Bankside Stews was between Maid Lane (named after the women of the stews) and Bankside, and a 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. Nevertheless, the women who worked in The Stews 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 maintain’d her mystery    


There have been two explanations how the Bankside brothels became known as ‘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 Estuwes or Estues which 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.”


The authorities of medieval London seem to have viewed prostitution as a necessary evil but over time sought to restrict the practice and brothels as they attracted criminals and 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 II’s 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.  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.


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 leading to all prostitution within its walls being banned in 1393.  They proclaimed that “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.  Stew Lane, a narrow street that still exists today on the City side of the River Thames, led down to the river and was where people would take a boat to cross over to the Bankside stews.


The 'single women' themselves, although Henry II’s 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 houses were detached and standing in their own grounds. The side of the house that faced the river was 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 forced to close, 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 Boar’s Head and the Fleur de Lys.


This early attempt at state controlled brothels ended in 1546 when Henry VIII banned them. It’s possible he outlawed them for reasons of morality but also as a means of containing a syphilis epidemic that was currently raging.  It was also a means of reducing the threat to public order presented by 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 area’s 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

'Bankside', Survey of London: volume 22: Bankside (the parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark) (1950), pp. 57-65.


(The above is a slightly modified article that first appeared in 2011 on my website Bankside Then and Now, not currently online)