Nighttown: Dublin’s Monto

The Mabbot street entrance of nighttown, before which stretches an uncobbled transiding set with skeleton tracks, red and green will-o’-the-wisps and danger signals. Rows of flimsy houses with gaping doors.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Entry under occupation for Maud Hamilton, 1911 Census (National Archives of Ireland)

Entry under occupation for Maud Hamilton, 1911 Census (National Archives of Ireland)

In the 1911 Census, the occupation of two Dublin women is entered as prostitute. One was Maggie Boylan living as a boarder on Faithful Place, the other—whose original entry of “unfortunate” was amended by a clerk—was Maud Hamilton on Elliott Place. Both Faithful Place and Elliott Place were off Purdon St, now completely disappeared. At the time of the Census, it was a street running parallel to, and north of, Foley St.

Purdon St with Elliot Place and Faithful Place highlighted (OSi)

Purdon St with Elliot Place and Faithful Place highlighted (OSi)

Foley St was called Montgomery St, and this gave the name to the small area just west of Connolly Station that was once one of Europe’s largest red-light districts: the Monto. The Monto came to prominence in the late nineteenth century, and lasted well into the twentieth century, until the new State, prompted by the Legion of Mary, effectively shut it down.

There is no specific boundary for the Monto, but it is considered to be within the boundaries of Gardiner St (to the left/west), Talbot St (to the south), Amiens St (to the east) and Gloucester St to the north.

There is no specific boundary for the Monto, but it is considered to be within the boundaries of Gardiner St (to the left/west), Talbot St (to the south), Amiens St (to the east) and Gloucester St to the north. This map ca. 1840 shows many street names before they were changed. The red cross marks Montgomery St.

Oddly, my awareness of the Monto came about through a gift of the book Science and Technology in Nineteenth Century Ireland, which contains an essay by Tadhg O’Keeffe and Patrick Ryan. They write that there is little surviving of the Monto today, with streets, houses, and street names cleared away. They have used the Ordnance Survey maps of the city to trace the growth and decline of prostitution in this small area.

Why did the Monto come about? Early nineteenth century records suggest that prostitution was more prevalent on the south side of the city; with one of the city’s better known Madames, Margaret Leeson, setting up shop in Pitt St, now Balfe St, site of the Westbury Hotel (and the subject of this blog’s first post). In a second essay, O’Keeffe and Ryan propose three reasons why this small part of the north inner city became one of Europe’s most notorious red-light districts. Firstly, the area was far enough from respectable eyes to enable the containment of prostitution away from upper and middle-class residential districts. From the 1870s, there was no shortage of powers  available to the police to shut down brothels and arrest their occupants. But they were not used, and the area was openly acknowledged to have ‘open houses’ in a publication of high repute as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ths is not to say arrests didn’t take place. Luddy reports the Dublin Metropolitan Police records: 2,849 arrests in 1838, 4,784 in 1856; and running at about 1,000 per year from the 1870s. A low of 494 was recorded in 1899.

Secondly, the area was a slum, meaning rents were low. And thirdly, and most likely crucially, the area was perfectly positioned next to Amiens St station, Dublin port, and Aldborough House. Amiens St likely provided plenty of young women from the country looking for work. The port and Aldborough house—converted from a school to a military barracks during the period of the Crimean war—provided plenty of clientèle along with the demand of locals.

Elliot Place, 1930s, from the Frank Murphy Collection (Old Dublin Society). Reporduced in Luddy and O'Keeffe and Ryan.

Elliot Place, 1930s, from the Frank Murphy Collection (Old Dublin Society). Reporduced in Luddy and O’Keeffe and Ryan.

Keeping track of street names in the area is no mean feat. Looking at Rocque’s map from 1756, the area is mostly undeveloped. The extract from Rocque shows Mabbot St running roughly N-S, with “Worlds End Lane” running east-west along what became Montgomery St. O’Keeffe and Ryan suggest that this name indicates that even then, the area “had a long-standing reputation for the darker side of life.”

Rocque's Map, 1756, showing Worlds End Lane, which would become Montgomery St

Rocque’s Map, 1756, showing Worlds End Lane and Great Martin’s Lane, which would become Montgomery St and Mecklinburgh St.

As the area began to be laid out in the mid-Georgian era, Great Martin’s Lane became Mecklinburgh St in 1765. Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburgh had married George III a few years earlier. This street ran through and beyond the Monto’s (loose) boundaries. Residents on the Upper part of the street, describing themselves as “respectable working classes”, lobbied to have the name changed so as to lose the association with the area, and this part of the street became Tyrone St in 1886. But just two years later, the residents in the Lower part had their street name changed to Lower Tyrone St. A medical student walking down Tyrone St in 1904 observed that “in no other European capital have I seen its equal. It was a street of Georgian houses and each one was a brothel”. The Upper and Lower Tyrone streets subsequently became Waterford St and Railway St in 1911, the latter name survives today.  Montgomery St had substantial slum clearances in 1905 and the street’s name was changed to Foley St, albeit with the same reputation. Mabbot St—immortalised by Joyce as the entrance to “Nighttown”—is now called James Joyce St. Are you keeping up?

The “other-worldliness” of the Monto, captured by Joyce in his expression of Nighttown is elaborated on by O’Keeffe and Ryan. This area of the city was the inverse of its surroundings; coming to life when Dublin slept, being run by women rather than men; public expressions in the most intimate of places.

Magdalen asylum in the Monto (OSi)

Magdalen asylum in the Monto (OSi)

While the growth of the Monto may have been due to the turning of the cheek by the law, religious groups were not so unobservant. The all-male and Protestant White Cross Vigilance Association organised patrols from 1885, keeping watch outside “evil houses”. Bizarrely, the neighbours of brothel owners and prostitutes in the Monto were the nuns: the Sisters of Charity, who took over the Magdalen Asylum established on Mecklinburgh St in 1822.But it was the Association of Our Lady of Mercy (Legion of Mary), founded by Frank Duff in 1921 which had the greatest impact on shutting down prostitution in the Monto. Their actions included the persuading of women to leave brothels and take up paid employment elsewhere. The new State’s police force could no longer turn a blind eye and in the Spring of 1925, a large raid resulted in significant numbers of arrests. While this did not shut it down completely, activity petered out over the following years. Street clearances and renamings means that there are no physical marks on the landscape recording this district’s history; the only thing that remains is a white tiled cross on the back of a Magdalen building awaiting demolition and reconstruction.

White tile cross over a gateway on the back of the former Magdalen Laundry on Railway St (Google, 2014)

White tile cross over a gateway on the back of the former Magdalen Laundry on Railway St (Google, 2014)

Notes

This lapse in abstinence of blog posting is a form of birthday present to a friend and supporter of the blog: Happy Birthday! 🙂

Updates, as they may come in the future, can be sent to your email address by subscribing below. 

  • Tadhg O’Keeffe and Patrick Ryan (2009) At the World’s End: The Lost Landscape of Monto, Dublin’s Notorious Red-light District, Landscapes, I, 21-38.
  • Tadhg O’Keeffe and Patrick Ryan (2011) Representing the imagination: a topographical history of Dublin’s Monto from Ordnance Survey maps and related materials, in Science and Technology in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Julia Adelman and Éadaoin Agnew (eds), Four Courts Press: Dublin.
  • Maria Luddy (2007) Prostitution and Irish Society: 1800-1940, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Last Post on James’ St

Having served the area since 1891, James’ St post office recently closed and is currently for lease. It was one of several post offices designed by “the always interesting” J. Howard Pentland. Others in Dublin include Ballsbridge, Phibsborough (demolished and rebuilt in 1960), and Blackrock in 1909.  Maire Crean’s magnificent book “Lost Post” provides substantial detail on James’ St post office, including the original proposal of the floor plan, now kept in the National Archives.

James’s Street Former P.O.; Part Original Ground Floor Plan (National Archives of Ireland, reproduced in Crean)

James’s Street Former P.O.; Part Original Ground Floor Plan (National Archives of Ireland, reproduced in Crean).

James’s Street Former P.O.; Original Elevation (National Archives of Ireland, reproduced in Crean).

James’s Street P.O.; Original Elevation (National Archives of Ireland, reproduced in Crean).

The public office is visible to the left of the plan, and the sorting office to the right. Crean also treats us to the original elevation – clearly it was originally intended to be a Gothic affair. The door to the public office is on the left on the plans, but from the existing building, we can see it is on the right.

The existing building is part of a trio of red-bricked buildings on the site: two at the pavement, and one in between; a three-storey building recessed from the road. Casey seems doubtful that such a grand building could be for a postmaster, and I can’t find anything in the 1901 Census to counter her opinion. The Post Office in that Census was given number 106, and was of course uninhabited. Using that numbering system, 105 and 104 are the adjoining buildings, and they too were unoccupied in 1901. By 1911, the numbering had shifted to what we currently have: the post office at no. 109, and the large house at 108 was a boarding house for four brewers from England and four domestic servants. 107 remained unoccupied.

Penny Post History

Stafford Johnson gained a substantial amount of information from two pieces of paper found in a bin. Most other remaining archives were destroyed.

Postal history can be traced back to James’ St much earlier than 1892. Dublin had an innovative and efficient postal system known as the “Penny Post”, which was established in 1773. The city joined London to be unique in the world with such a system, although according to Stafford Johnson—who has provided us with one of the rare monographs on this topic—Dublin “has some matter for pride in the fact that it maintained the general character of the Penny Post unaltered until the end.

The Penny Post operated in parallel to the pre-existing General Post system. From 11th October 1773, letters not exceeding four ounces could be delivered from the Penny Post Office in the GPO yard or any of eighteen Receiving Houses around the city, at a cost of one penny. The receiving houses were named in the original correspondence and included Mr. Charles Wren, Hosier, at the Sign of the Stocking, Francis-street near the Combe, Mr. Bredberry, Grocer, at the Sign of the three Swedish Crowns, George’s Quay and Mr. Bourke, Grocer at the Black Boy and Sugar Loaf, Capel-street near Essex-bridge. By 1810, there were 54 receiving houses in the city, and 29 country receiving houses, the extra distance to the country (suburban areas) costing 2 pence.

Doorway, James St Post Office

Doorway, James’ St Post Office (Photo: B)

The original system involved a pre-payment of one penny which was given in to the Penny Post Office or receiving houses. Letters that did not have the accompanying penny were opened and returned to the sender. A plea was made to be as precise as possible with the address, and those intended for lodgers were to name the landlord or the sign (on the building) to assist the post men.These men wore a distinctive uniform from 1810, and like their colleagues in the General Post system, rang a bell when on collection duty.

In 1810, the pre-payment system was abandoned. The official reason isn’t known, but Stafford Johnson offers with some confidence his theory that pre-payment ran counter to the public sentiments of the time. Payment on delivery would be preferred as it secured a safer delivery, and poorer people could take advantage of the system by refusing to accept delivery (and hence avoid the charge) while learning who the letter was from. Apparently secret codes were used so that the recipient could interpret the message with accepting the letter. Nonetheless, the system was a successful and efficient means of communication in the city. The post-masters general were eager to highlight the benefit of their system and regularly published the notice:

So expeditious and regular is the dispatch and delivery of letters by this Office that two persons residing in the most distant parts of the City from each other, may write four letters and receive three answers in the day for the trifling expense of one penny on each.

James St Post Office (Photo: B)

James’ St Post Office (Photo: B)

Back at James’ St, a receiving house opened on the street in 1809/10, and we can propose that this house is a precursor to the post office mentioned at the head of the article. The listing of a receiving house at No. 75 in the 1862 street directory adds some weight to this proposal. Here, William Madden, M.D. operated his medical practice, and acted as a Post Office Receiver. In addition to the house on James’ St, a second receiving house opened on Echlin Lane (now Echlin St) after 1810. The latter joined receiving houses at Broadstone Hotel and Portobello Hotel linking the city system with the Royal and Grand canal harbours (see In the fields off James’ St).

The Penny Post system ended in 1840, because of a combination of factors, not least the duplication with the General Post system. Stafford Johnson closes his article with the following:

Looked at as a whole, the Penny Post was worthy of the City and fulfilled its functions truly and well. For 66 years it gave a service which for cheapness and quickness has never been equalled. All this was done by men on foot, and to-day, in spite of the advantages of modern science, there is nothing to come up to that old system of which all that remains is a memory and some faded old letters.

Letter Box on No 107 James St

Letter Box on No 107 James’ St (Photo: B)

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Notes