The Harlots of Haverstock Hill
'Moll' King and her Belsize Houses

Review by Michael Wood

Not long ago David Percy co-authored and illustrated a delightful collection of tales about Belsize Park, one of London’s most charming and interesting villages. The book became an unlikely best seller with an almost incredible cast of characters from Agatha Christie to Madame Zwingli, Freud, Jung, and Twiggy – even Jimi Hendrix gets a look in!

Now David has homed in on an amazing tale of sex and scandal in Georgian Belsize. Alluringly titled The Harlots of Haverstock Hill, it is more than a local history, painting a vivid – and at times jaw-dropping picture of sexual mores in Georgian London. The tale is seen through the eyes of the notorious Moll King, coffee shop owner, entrepreneur and brothel keeper. Lavishly illustrated, the book has lashings (if that’s the right word!) of detail on the sex trade in 18th-century London when, staggeringly, a fifth of all women were in prostitution.

Celebrities of the time – ‘household names’ as the Daily Mail would say today – Fielding, Gay, Pope and Hogarth – went through her doors, and painted and wrote about her establishment. Moll King made such a fortune that in the 1730s she was able to purchase land on Haverstock Hill, building a cluster of houses which in a fascinating piece of detective work David discovers are in part still standing near where The Load of Hay is located.

Laced with sympathetic imagination the book is framed as Moll’s autobiography and is as breezily engaging as a picaresque novel. Among its revelations is that even before Moll King, Belsize Park was a popular venue for dancing and entertainments that drew the cream of West End courtesans, with carriages causing traffic jams coming up from Chalk Farm; a strange afterlife that continued into living memory with a brothel in Daleham Mews!

It seems somehow entirely fitting that Belsize Park should have had on the one hand a Buddhist monastery, and on the other a long pedigree of bawdy houses. As David shows in this very entertaining story, the history of the suburbs has its own rich and unexpected charm!

Michael Wood, historian and BBC broadcaster, July 2020

The book is available in Waterstones Hampstead, Daunt Books and the Owl Bookshop, and from Amazon as a printed book plus a fully-illustrated Kindle version in colour.

Read more here

£10.99 – 128 pages – publication September 2020

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