Kings of the hill
A new book asks whether small skeletons found in a house in Hampstead can be linked to a notorious 18th-century brothel keeper. Dan Carrier goes in search of answers
03 September, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
David Percy on Haverstock Hill – Moll King’s original houses were just down the hill from the tavern
THE land behind a villa on Haverstock Hill hid a macabre secret for hundreds of years – a secret that, unconfirmed rumours say, was discovered when building work saw the plot of land carved up for development.
The earth gave up a number of tiny skeletons, and the rumour states they may well be the remains of Georgian victims of infanticide.
And why this nondescript patch of land should have held this tragedy beneath its topsoil for so long is at the heart of new book by historian David Percy.
David, who has written and made films about the history of the streets of his home in Belsize Park, has turned his attention to the life and times of the notorious Moll King, Georgian coffee shop owner, prostitute and brothel keeper.
“I first came across her when I found an image of ‘Moll King’s Haverstock House’, dating from 1760,” he recalls.
Another image, dating from 1829, suggested a terrace on the hill was somehow linked to a Moll King – though David’s research shows they were from a later period.
“I decided I needed to look into who she was,” he adds.
His research revealed Moll was a self-made businesswoman – and was so successful, she decided to build three houses on Haverstock Hill to expand her trade and give her a country residence.
The book begins with David’s fictional rendition of Moll’s autobiography – a literary trick to bring her back to life.
Belsize House c 1721, which caught the eye of Moll King
“After gathering material together, I thought it would it would not be quite so interesting to write a straight historical narrative, so I turned it into the autobiography she could have written,” he says.
Moll was born in 1696, her father a shoe maker in St Giles In the Fields, while her mother had a fruit and vegetable stall in Covent Garden. Moll worked briefly as a servant in The Strand, and by 14 had decided she would be no one’s servant, but instead aspired to employ domestics of her own.
She took up her mother’s trade and thrived in the hustle of the market, befriending everyone from pick-pockets and beggars to lords and ladies.
David writes that Moll had built her business up from a barrow to a permanent stall when she met an Old Etonian called Tom King – the son of an upper-class family who had been kicked out of Cambridge University and had fallen in with the market crowd.
The pair married and rented a shack from the Duke of Bedford on the Covent Garden piazza. It was here they set up King’s Coffee House.
Business boomed and the Kings added to their premises – including a set of bedrooms on an upper floor accessed by ladders for their family.
The coffee house gave them three strands of income – from prostitution, from serving drinks, and from trading gossip and information picked up from the conversations from the many well-heeled, influential people who came through the doors.
By the 1730s, David writes, Moll had seen competition grow. Though she was still at the top of the game, she wanted to expand and invest her earnings.
He describes how for many years she had heard of Belsize House – under an hour away by carriage.
Built by Colonel Daniel O’Neill in the 1660s for his wife, it boasted space for 100 carriages and its vast ballroom was the perfect place for Georgians to party.
“The research I did linked into previous work on the history of Belsize House,” says David.
David drew on contemporary writings about Moll, including two publications that came out soon after her death. Constructing a time line of her life, using baptismal records, her will, maps and images, the book recreates the Georgian world she lived in.
Belsize House was bought by Welsh property developer James Howell in the 1720s, its reputation grew – and Moll saw it as providing the sort of draw that her business could feed off.
David adds how she had long wished to have a country home – the sign, in her eyes, of her reaching respectability… even if her country home, four miles from the centre of town, was to be used for the selling of sex.
And it was because of this that David says there might be gruesome evidence of the history of Haverstock Hill.
“Inevitably,” he writes, “at any one time during the course of their work, a number of working girls would become pregnant despite, in some cases, going to extreme lengths to avoid such an outcome.”
Some women would take the herb mugwort, which would not always mean the pregnancy was terminated.
It meant, says David, women were faced with an agonising choice.
“It is known from a confidential source familiar with the grounds of the present villa, that several small skeletons have been found in land just beyond the villa. This land is shown on many later maps as Moll King’s Field.”
The rumour is another possible piece of tantalising evidence about the life and times of the “Harlot of Haverstock Hill”.
• The Harlot of Haverstock Hill. By David Percy. Aulis Publishers £10.99.
• Hampstead resident Dame Janet Suzman reads extracts from The Harlots of Haverstock Hill at belsizevillage.co.uk – click on View Films