WHERE WERE YOU WHEN: Madam Cyn flicked the V-sign

Britain’s best-known brothel-keeper cheered up the nation, remembers Rowan Pelling.

Madam Cyn
On her release from prison, Cynthia Payne was whisked off to a champagne reception in a Rolls-Royce. Image: Evening Standard/Getty Images.

I was 12 when Cynthia Payne – ‘Madam Cyn’ – was found guilty of running a ‘disorderly house’ and sentenced to 18 months in prison. I read my dad’s newspaper on the school run, risking car sickness to devour every last salacious detail of the trial. Scriptwriters couldn’t have dreamed up a more British tale of suburban swinging – down to the fact that her ageing clientele paid for sexual services with luncheon vouchers.

The police infiltrated Cynthia’s South London home during a sex party, where they found 53 men – allegedly including a lord, an MP, a couple of vicars and a clutch of lawyers – queuing for, or enjoying, the ministrations of 13 scantily clad women. PC Stewart Taylor told the judge he posed as a client and went upstairs with a woman called Isobel, who explained in a German accent that her specialisms were bondage and domination.

The timing of the trial, in the early months of 1980, couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Britain’s steel workers had gone on strike for the first time since 1926 and the year’s headlines were dominated by soaring unemployment. The country was in drastic need of cheer and Cynthia delivered it in spades. In the dock she explained her ideal ‘slave’ was someone ‘who does all the housework and in return he likes a little bit of caning, insulting and mild humiliation’. Judge Brian Pryor’s sentence was widely viewed as overly harsh and the term was reduced on appeal to six months.

This photo shows an exuberant Cynthia on her release, giving a V-sign to the establishment as she was whisked off in a Rolls-Royce to a champagne reception. The trial elevated her to national treasure status – two films were made of her life and she even stood for parliament, as a member of the Payne and Pleasure party. So when I became editor of the Erotic Review magazine, I was able to remind my anxious mother that being a woman of ill repute hadn’t harmed Cynthia Payne.


Also this month…

  • Sebastian Coe (right) won gold in the 1500m event at the Moscow Olympics.
  • Blockades of French ports by striking fishermen caused chaos for British travellers trying to cross the English Channel. Tens of thousands of people were stranded in ports for over a week.
  • Spoof film Airplane!, starring Leslie Nielsen, was released in the UK.
  • The Tyne and Wear Metro first opened to passengers.
  • Abba scored a number one hit with ‘The Winner Takes It All’.