Sex parties and luncheon vouchers: How Cynthia Payne made headlines in the 80s

On February 7, 1987, Cynthia Payne was acquitted of nine charges of controlling prostitutes at her home in South-west London.

Described by biographer Paul Bailey as “a chirpy little Cockney woman going round telling people to behave themselves”, Mrs Payne, or ‘Madam Cyn’, was a brothel keeper. 

The prosecution said Mrs Payne provided facilities for prostitutes at her home in Ambleside Avenue, Streatham, including food, drink, condoms and bedrooms.

She had ended up in court after holding an “end of film” party following the production of the Bafta-winning movie Personal Services, starring Julie Walters.

During proceedings at Inner London Crown Court, Judge Brian Pryor said: “You must be sure that the particular woman was acting as a prostitute and that that particular girl’s movements were influenced one way or another by Mrs Payne.”

He ordered defence costs to be paid from central funds and Mrs Payne’s £5,000 legal aid costs to be reimbursed.

Cynthia Payne in 1993 (Picture: PA)

The courtroom burst into applause as the jury – of eight men and four women – announced a decision after just over five hours of deliberation.

After the 13-day trial, Judge Pryor’s summing up included a strong warning to jurors that the case was a criminal trial and not some kind of entertainment.

A day later, Mrs Payne sent him a copy of her 1982 biography, An English Madam, with the inscription “I hope this book will broaden your rather sheltered life.”

Aged 53 at the time, Mrs Payne said: “This is a victory for common sense. But I have to admit all this has put me off having parties for a bit.”

The mischievous ‘English Madam’ first hit the headlines in 1978 when police raided her home to find a sex party in full swing.

Officers discovered more than 50 middle-aged and elderly men – including lawyers and clergymen – exchanging luncheon vouchers for sexual entertainment, many caught in maid’s outfits waiting to be spanked.

Julie Walters starred in the Bafta-winning movie about Mrs Payne’s life, Personal Services (Picture: ibsan73 / Flickr)

After a trial in 1980, Mrs Payne was convicted for running the “biggest disorderly house in history”. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which was then reduced to six months and a fine on appeal. She was released after four.

Born in Bognor on Christmas Eve, 1932, Mrs Payne showed early signs of being the rebellious woman she would become.

Expelled from boarding school for being a “bad influence,” she first worked as a waitress in Brighton. 

Before she reached 22, Mrs Payne had three illegal abortions and two pregnancies after having an affair with a married man who refused to use contraception.

She moved to London to embark on the career that would see her name printed in national headlines. 

She first started working as a prostitute to pay the bills, but when a fellow sex worker rented her room for a session with a client she realised that hosting prostitutes could provide both a living and entertainment. 

Mrs Payne was arrested for hosting “sex parties” at her home in Ambleside Avenue, Streatham (Picture: Google Street View)

Once, she reportedly told a policeman: “I prefer to enjoy the parties these days. Anyway, the hostess can’t keep disappearing all night.”

Determined to change the UK’s sex laws, Mrs Payne stood as a candidate for Parliament in the 1988 Kensington by-election, calling herself the “pleasure and Payne party”.

Unsuccessful in her bid she later completed a sell-out three-week season at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1992.

Denounced by critics who described her as a “glamourised pimp” hiding beneath the guise of a respectable woman, and with two major court cases under her belt, Mrs Payne’s story is a complex one.

Even so, by the time of her death on November 15, 2015, aged 82, she had done her best to give sex work a familiar face the middle and upper classes of England could understand.

Pictured top: Cynthia Payne (centre) and friends at her Streatham home, where a party was given to launch the book of her life ‘An English Madam, the Life and Work of Cynthia Payne’. On the right is the author of the book Paul Bailey (Picture: PA)

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