For as long as there has been a European settlement here, there has been a sex industry in Wellington. Tom Goulter investigates some of the many city and suburban locations with a seedy history and asks, did your house used to be a brothel?

Moonlight Geography: Wellington’s secret sexual history

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Wel­ling­to­ni­ans carry a sense of place every­where we go. Our streets are dot­ted with loc­a­tions of sig­ni­fic­ance: hal­lowed Basin, gleam­ing Golden Mile. And then there are spots we leave off the maps: places where private pas­sion runs as deep as any pub­lic sentiment.

Pur­chased sex is an irre­du­cible com­pon­ent of cap­it­al life. It was here that the New Zea­l­and Pros­ti­tutes’ Col­lect­ive was foun­ded, today an inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised voice for the rights and dig­nity of sex work­ers. Wellington’s sex industry has shaped its cul­ture, often from loc­a­tions ban­ished from polite con­ver­sa­tion; these, in turn, become rehab­il­it­ated into places every­one knows.

Where did sex work come from? Where did it find a home? What places might we know by heart, which earli­er Wel­ling­to­ni­ans knew by oth­er parts? The story — like all stor­ies, ulti­mately — begins at sea.

Sea­farers and Ship-moles

Stevan Eldred-Grigg, pre-emin­ent author­ity on long-dead New Zeal­anders’ private lives, con­tends that neither the eco­nom­ies nor mar­it­al codes of pre-colo­ni­al Poneke would accom­mod­ate pros­ti­tu­tion, as we under­stand it. It was in barter with vis­it­ing sail­ors that loc­al Māori first placed a mater­i­al value on sexu­al companionship.

Though lonely months at sea would make sail­ors no less stingy. Jamaic­an his­tor­i­an Fernando Hen­riques cites a Cap­tain Wal­lis, tra­vers­ing the colon­ies aboard a ship “slowly dis­in­teg­rat­ing around him as its nails were sys­tem­at­ic­ally removed” — each one the price of an indi­gen­ous encounter. As Port Nich­olson became Wel­ling­ton, sail­ors’ desire to make port and get nailed showed no abate­ment. The 20th cen­tury was the age of the ship-moles: female guests aboard ship for the dur­a­tion of crews’ time in port.

Dana* worked Wellington’s streets from the 1960s. “Ship-girls nev­er asked for money,” she explains. “When you went on a ship and hooked up with a guy, he’d look after you while he was in port. He’d buy you food, he’d pay your rent — he’d spoil you.”

Sail­ors also brought intim­a­tions of a world bey­ond Wellington’s hills. ‘Ring­bolt­ing’ was the prac­tice of ship-moles stow­ing away for pas­sage to bright­er climes. Former sex work­er Dr Lauren Roche writes of weeks of isol­a­tion in an icebreaker’s pitch-black fan-space while ring­bolt­ing from Wel­ling­ton to Seattle.

Ship-moles don’t exist now,” says Dana, “because you have con­tain­er ships with a skel­et­on staff.” But mean­time, the sex industry had made its way inland.

R&R with Ma

Glover Park on Ghuznee Street is a pop­u­lar loc­a­tion for a mid­day break or after-work brew. In the war years, this area sat bestrode by prop­er­ties belong­ing to a for­mid­able loc­al figure.

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Clara Hal­lam, known around town as ‘Ma’, bought her first Wel­ling­ton prop­erty in 1928. Her later hold­ings included the Albemarle, whose grand grey front­age on Glover’s east­ern edge houses a gut­ted, quake-prone interi­or. In Hallam’s day, the Albemarle was the White Lodge, and word was that Ma was run­ning girls out of there. Later it became the May­fair, a brothel cater­ing to the high-end of the down­town market.

Hal­lam also owned the Man­sions, on the oth­er side of Glover Park, where now sit apart­ments with a car rent­al out front. “In the war years it was a dance hall,” says Dana, who learned loc­al his­tory from Ma her­self. “The girls would take the R&R guys upstairs.”

The threat of sexu­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases (STDs) had long been used to lever­age social con­trols over sex work­ers. While women’s groups had lob­bied suc­cess­fully against the most dra­coni­an of these laws, R&R was still a battle against the Amer­ic­an military’s longest-stand­ing foe: the dreaded VD.

Mar­garet Macnab, a Second World War-era nurse who admin­istered STD checks for sex work­ers, told a 1986 inter­view­er that Ma Hal­lam “could have been anyone’s grand­moth­er”. She remem­bers vis­it­ing work­ers at Hallam’s dark red two-storey where Wil­lis Street meets Abel Smith. Anoth­er Hal­lam house fur­ther down the lat­ter now hosts one of Wellington’s best cof­fee-roast­ers but was once “one of the worst” loc­al houses of ill-fame, accord­ing to police testi­mony in 1943.

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The room was filthy and there were partly-con­sumed bottles of wine there,” huffed an inspect­or. The occu­pants “were in bed with a drunk­en ser­vice­man”. Ma Hal­lam, then 58, was fined £100 and sen­tenced to three months’ deten­tion for per­mit­ting her premises to be used as a brothel. Her arrest was one in a long line of pro­sec­u­tions lev­elled against women in the sex industry. Ebor Street, mere blocks from the Man­sions, had been the site of a 1919 raid that saw three women pro­sec­uted as “incor­ri­gible rogues”.

Sim­il­ar raids dis­turbed Island Bay’s Freel­ing Street, and a still-stand­ing house at the fork of Kelburn’s Upland and Glen roads. From here once issued sounds resem­bling “a drunk­en orgie [sic]. Sev­er­al even­ings a week,” noted the Nel­son Even­ing Mail, “were devoted to singing, dan­cing and music, and usu­ally a large num­ber were present.” The Upland Road bust made nation­al front pages in 1918. The New Zea­l­and Free Lance offered little sym­pathy to the men “shiel­ded from that pub­lic and private oblo­quy of which [their] fem­in­ine asso­ci­ates” bore the brunt.

2015_01_23 FishHead:And back up Ghuznee Street, 1932 saw Hilda Pierce charged with “not only offer­ing the oppor­tun­ity for girls to act immor­ally but incit­ing and assist­ing them to do so”. The site of her oper­a­tion still stands, today fron­ted by Fallen from Grace Hair Salon.

Venus and Solomon

As the 20th cen­tury surged on, today’s sex industry took shape. Barry Moore opened Cuba Street’s Venus Sex Shop in 1974, in what’s now Fidel’s (the Super Cuts room). Moore did his Auck­land and Christ­ch­urch con­tem­por­ar­ies one bet­ter, repor­ted the Even­ing Post, by selling “see-through night­wear, bot­tom­less panties, and over­seas linger­ie” — not to men­tion “arti­fi­cial pros­thet­ics, nov­elty pro­phy­lactics, [and] goats’ eye­lashes” — from cab­in­ets, not catalogues.

When vis­it­ing Venus, “It was nice to be around someone as curi­ous as you,” remem­bers Eliza­beth, who worked around town in the 1970s and 1980s: “Maybe not the place to go by yourself.”

Oth­er firsts included the Purple Onion, the capital’s premi­er strip club, now the site of a Vivi­an Street apart­ment block (Purple Onion); and Solomon’s, the first expressly des­ig­nated mas­sage par­lour. This sat on what’s now Vic­tor­ia Street, between Man­ners and Dix­on. Solomon’s “had swing-doors like in the west­erns,” remem­bers Dana. “Police used to walk through, and if they couldn’t see your feet or your head, then they’d push the doors open.”

Now you can step out of any­where and not be noticed,” says Eliza­beth, who also worked at Solomon’s, but “back then you were really con­scious of being seen. The only exit was the front door. It was so raw.”

Work­ers and inter­na­tion­al pat­rons found secrecy at the Crowe’s Nest: the inform­al title giv­en to a private res­id­ence over­look­ing Ori­ent­al Parade (Crow’s Nest). “Their cli­ents came to them,” says Dana. “They were much more hid­den, much more secret­ive prostitutes.”

Before leg­al reform, female sex work­ers oper­ated in the shad­ows; but their male coun­ter­parts, in defi­ance of fur­ther laws, had to be nigh invis­ible. In what’s now a back­pack­ers’ on Wake­field Street dawned the Sun Sauna, later the Wake­field. Mal­colm, a long-time pil­lar of the city’s LGBT scene, says this was the first aimed at Wellington’s gay male cli­en­tele. A Chris­ti­an book­shop on the same floor provided camouflage.

And then, into this furt­ive night-time world strode Carmen.

Reign of the Voo­doo Queen

They say she prac­tised black magic. Dana reck­ons Car­men some­times slept in a coffin; her auto­bi­o­graphy recounts ama­teur vodoun rituals.

Car­men Rupe — queer icon, busi­ness­wo­man, whore and Wellington’s queen — burst onto the scene as oper­at­or of Le Bal­cony. Wellington’s well-knowns crowded this striptease ven­ue, nowadays the site of the CBD’s main police station.

Le Bal­cony was but the first jew­el in the queen’s crown. Soon her Inter­na­tion­al Cof­fee House opened next to the Sal­lies’ store on Vivi­an Street. Should her cof­fee — reputedly the city’s worst — fail to invig­or­ate, reg­u­lars were taught a cup-and-sau­cer sem­a­phore to indic­ate who they’d rather take upstairs.

The oper­a­tion soon expan­ded over the street into the Pea­cock. The latter’s employ­ees bought Car­men out, turn­ing it into the city’s first les­bi­an-run brothel; today the site houses The Baby Fact­ory. Carmen’s oth­er premises — brothels, cafés and even an antique shop — dot­ted the Cuba quarter. Many young work­ers found a home at her Han­son Street “Hatch­ery”.

Car­men was crack­ing it with busi­ness­men, men from Par­lia­ment,” says Dana. At the height of the queen’s reign, Wally Mar­tin — former pro­pri­et­or of Man­ners Street’s secret­ive Club Exot­ic and Mt Vic’s Psy­che­del­ic Id — set his sights on her.

He was say­ing her cli­ents didn’t know that she was a man,” remem­bers Dana. “That was when everything changed for Car­men. She was always exot­ic but she became this very over-the-top per­son.” Mar­tin tried to expose “female imper­son­at­ors” dan­cing at Le Balcony.

Of course,” grins Dana, “it filled the place up.”

Drink­ing Deep

Carmen’s cups and sau­cers are long gone, but mod­ern Wel­ling­to­ni­ans wish­ing to drink at his­tor­ic sex-industry spots are spoiled for choice. Wil­lis Street’s Gen­er­al Prac­ti­tion­er used to sit fur­ther up Boul­cott Street as the House of Ladies (Boul­cott). Across the inter­sec­tion from its present-day loc­a­tion once sat the San Fran­cisco Bathhouse.

This ori­gin­al SFBH shouldn’t be con­fused with Cuba Street’s later ven­ue, whose premises nev­er­the­less served a stint as a brothel some years back. But Wil­lis Street’s ori­gin­al San Fran was a multi-storey com­plex cater­ing to all per­sua­sions (SFBH).

If you wanted straight trade,” recalls Mal­colm, “Wel­ling­ton was small and closeted, it wasn’t leg­al: you had to be dis­creet. A lot of gay boys would go to the San Fran and meet busi­ness­men from out of town there.”

When homo­sexu­al pro­hib­i­tion was struck down in 1986, Alfie’s on Cuba and Dix­on became the first pub­lic gay club, adja­cent to the new Wake­field — whose brand had remained even after mov­ing from its ori­gin­al premises. Those, in turn, had become the Pink Pussy­cat, whose mas­cot flashed a dar­ing pubic chalice across Wake­field Street from her mar­tini-glass perch.

The girl-in-a-glass motif was potent enough to echo up Vivi­an Street onto the mur­al adorn­ing the side of Tiffany’s, later Liks. The main attrac­tion here was proudly touted from the much-mourned “Striptease” sign that flashed for dec­ades from the Cuba/Vivian corner, before dim­ming into shad­ow in 2013. Second-hand shop­pers can now pur­chase cast-off clothes there (Liks).

Sex work has fought to claim a place in the day­light Wel­ling­ton world. Nowadays, “former brothel” is a badge of pride for numer­ous bars, brew­er­ies and inner-city spots. But many vet­er­ans feel a little old-fash­ioned sleaze still has its place.

The world has become more ser­i­ous,” says Eliza­beth. “A lot of stuff seems to be com­ing to the sur­face. There’s a dis­ad­vant­age to cit­ies becom­ing too squeaky-clean.”

*All sources in this story have chosen the names by which they’re quoted.

About Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.

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