Untold story of Belsize Park’s Georgian brothels published as “fictional autobiography”
PUBLISHED: 10:54 10 September 2020 | UPDATED: 07:36 11 September 2020
Story of how infamous madam and coffehouse owner Moll King rose from humble beginnings to own several Hampstead houses told in David S Percy’s The Harlots of Haverstock Hill
The life of an 18th Century businesswoman, who rose from selling her body on London’s streets to owning several Hampstead houses, has been imagined in a “fictional autobiography”.
Belsize Park resident David S Percy has put himself in the shoes of coffeehouse-owner and infamous madam, Moll King for The Harlots of Haverstock Hill.
Although a work of fiction, most of the facts and characters are carefully researched from wills, baptism records, maps and engravings.
“There’s an element of conjecture, but all the events, places, timings and names are real,” he says.
“I thought it would be interesting to write this untold aspect of Hampstead history in the first person as she might have recorded it.”
The filmmaker and author also drew on anonymous pamphlet ‘The Life and Character of Moll King Late Mistress of King’s Coffeehouse in Covent Garden’ written just after her death.
Myths grew up around her, it’s suggested she provided inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, and Percy speculates that she also traded information gleaned from pillow talk and overheard conversations.
It was while making the documentary series The Belsize Story that Percy found an 1760 engraving of ‘Moll King’s House’ on Haverstock Hill, just downhill from The Load of Hay pub.
“I thought who was this woman? I started to investigate and became interested in this dynamic entrepreneurial businesswoman who became a wealthy landowner with several properties.”
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The daughter of a fruit seller and a shoemaker, Moll started as a nut seller in Covent Garden before marrying Tom King and opening a coffee house in the corner of the Piazza. Painted by Hogarth, it was a place of gossip, intrigue, and sexual assignations, frequented by the likes of Alexander Pope, John Gay and Fielding.
But Percy asked himself: “Why did Moll King, a famous madam running a successful coffee house in Covent Garden decide to come to Haverstock Hill in the days when there was hardly anyone there?”
He believes the answer lies in the opening of grand mansion Belsize House as “a house of pleasure”. Built by Postmaster General Colonel Daniel O’Neill for his wife Katherine, it was leased in the 1720s by James Howell, who opened its 39 rooms and 234 acres to the public.
Its grand gardens with their illuminations soon became a disreputable place where as the book says “young rakes could meet young misses”.
“Belsize House had extensive gardens - there was nothing between it and Westminster except Primrose Hill - the forecourt could fit 100 carriages which arrived along the driveway, which is now Belsize Avenue. The opening of the mansion to visitors for entertainment presented a wonderful business opportunity and it isn’t too much of a leap to think that Moll brought her ladies with her from Covent Garden to service Belsize House. On certain days of the week her girls would parade in the gardens then go back to one of her houses.”
In addition, the Load of Hay, where travellers to London stabled their horses, may have been a place to recruit young women.
Moll survived two husbands and several lovers. According to the pamphlet, she died aged 51 “at her “Country-House at Hampstead, on Thursday the 17th of September, 1747”.
She is buried back in her old stomping ground at St Paul’s Covent Garden.
Percy, who has discovered the remains of a villa she built, says: “It’s a feelgood story of a strong woman trading in a man’s world in Georgian London, who amassed quite a fortune, owning several properties and a parcel of land - Moll King’s field on which an orphanage was later built.
“As many as 20 percent of women in Georgian London were selling sex. If they were bringing up children on their own it was the only way to earn money. There were varying types, street walkers, brothels, courtesans and women kept by wealthy men, but this ambitious opportunistic woman did incredibly well and became one of the first settlers of Belsize Park.”
The Harlots of Haverstock Hill: Moll King and her Belsize Houses, is available at Hampstead Daunts, Waterstones and The Owl Bookshops and on Amazon. £10.99.
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