How sex clubs once formed a booming part of Hackney’s nightlife

Jo King who was one of the first strippers to work at the White Horse in the 80s

Jo King who was one of the first strippers to work at the White Horse in the 80s - Credit: Archant

As one of Hackney’s four licensed sex venues closes down, Emma Bartholomew looks back on the heyday of the Shoreditch ‘strip mile’.

Jo King who was one of the first strippers to work at the White Horse in the 80s

Jo King who was one of the first strippers to work at the White Horse in the 80s - Credit: Archant

Whatever you think of them, sex venues in Hackney could soon be a thing of the past.

They haven’t been shut down by the town hall – not directly, anyway – but by the march of time.

Hackney tried to purge the borough of sex clubs six years ago by revoking their licenses, but the attempt proved unsuccessful.

They said it was to protect women working there. But workers were outraged and held protests outside the town hall insisting they were not being exploited.

Owner of Shoreditch’s White Horse, Sue Bristow, spent thousands in legal fees along with Denise Chandler, owner of Browns, ensuring they along with The Rainbow Sports Bar and The Axe could remain open.

The White Horse strip bar in the 80s

The White Horse strip bar in the 80s - Credit: Archant

“The Olympics was coming to town, so I think they wanted to clear up their borough,” said Sue. “The councillors didn’t know there was going to be such a big stink.”

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As a parting shot, new “nil policy” licensing rules forbade them to sell them on their businesses as sex clubs.

That means the White Horse, which has just closed thanks to a rent hike, will be something else when it reopens.

It was the first strip club in the area when Sue’s parents Pauline and Jonny decided to host a striptease in their pub on Thursday and Friday nights in 1978 “to draw customers in”.

Sue remembers: “It was quite unusual at the time.

There weren’t many pubs that did striptease, then, which made people inquisitive.”

It was so successful they started doing it every day. Business began booming in the ’80s and by the ’90s the area had earned the nickname the Strip Mile. Sue can remember at least 10 clubs there including the Crown and Shuttle, which recently reopened as a pub after several years derelict; the Norfolk, under Shoreditch High Street bridge; the Spread Eagle, which no longer has strip shows; and Solly’s and Images in Hackney Road. The Bull and Pump turned into the Rainbow Sports Bar – one of the borough’s remaining strip clubs, along with Browns and The Axe in Hackney Road and Metropolis in Cambridge Heath Road.

Sue, now 45, was six when her parents started the striptease.

“It was very normal growing up there,” she told the Gazette. “It was never a taboo. My daughter Emilie was brought up there too and she felt the same. The pub was like our front room.”

Stripper Jo King, 54, was among the first to perform at the White Horse. She remembers Sue as a child. “I was on stage doing a secretary act, and when I came off Sue said: ‘You know what, Jo, you should be a secretary because you really look like one.’ She was cute and naïve.”

Jo became a big name in the strip industry and set up the London Academy of Burlesque when she retired at 40.

She only got into the profession when a stripper failed to turn up to work at the luncheon club where she was a 19-year-old waitress. Despite being “petrified”, she earnt £80 for the eight minutes she danced.

“In our heyday striptease performers were earning more money than grown men were,” she remembers.

“I could work three months and go on holiday a month.

“You would have three topless go-go dancers and at some stage you would be bare busted.

“Really we treated it like a strip tease and kept everyone waiting. For the three of them you were paid £15, and you could pass a jar around and collect what was inside.”

Jo described how the whole system changed in the noughties when poles and tables were brought in and venues copied the American system of getting the girls to pay the club for the privilege of dancing there.

“People talk all the time about women being exploited, and I used to say the only person who exploited me was me.

“But if you want to talk exploitation then I do feel it has become exploitative because all the businesses are taking money from the girls. I don’t ever agree with how the business went.”