Mrs Arnott at No 83
“Maggie”) Arnott is not mentioned by name in Ulysses, but there are at least three reasons for including her
1) She ran one of the “disorderly houses” or brothels along Lower Mecklenburgh Street between Mrs Mack’s at No 82 and Bella Cohen’s at No 85;
2) She is frequently alluded to as one of Dublin’s foremost Madams;
3) Her maiden name was ‘Higgins’, and this may have influenced Joyce’s choice of Zoe Higgins’s name in Ulysses.
Furthermore, the story of her life – as far as it is known – throws considerable light on what it was like to be a brothel-keeper at the end of the nineteenth century.
Unlike Mrs Mack the hard-nosed businesswoman, Meg Arnott was frequently in trouble with the civil authorities – more often than not in cases involving physical assault and the rough-and-tumble of north Dublin streets. To some extent she seems to have thrived on notoriety. She did not own a large property portfolio, but she was reputed to have made a financial success of the business she did run.
includes her in a list of prostitutes, Madams, and other street characters in As I was going down Sackville Street:
O’Connor picks this up in his Oliver St.
John Gogarty: a poet and his times (1964):
Meg Arnott’s life and times
some details of Meg Arnott’s life are currently missing. We meet her on 22 May
1879 at 1 Lower Gardiner Street (near Lower Mecklenburgh Street), when at the age of about 18 she registers the birth of her daughter
(unnamed: parents Margaret Higgins Arnot and John Arnot, Clerk). In 1881 Thom’s Directory lists her (‘Mrs. M.
Arnott’) at No 25 Lower Temple Street
(now Hill Street) on the fringes of the red-light district around Montgomery
Street and Mecklenburgh Street. She occupies the house next-door to Maria Lynam
(No 26: see Popping into Lynam’s). Mrs
Arnott’s house was formerly listed by Thom’s
as occupied by Bella Goad/Good (neé Carrington), whose parties and “house
of ill-fame” attracted the notice of the Freeman’s
Journal in April and May 1878:
Soon after this, Bella Goad moved with her husband to England. The chart below plots Maggie Arnott’s own moves between 1881 and 1905, using Thom’s Directory as well as other records. From the house in Lower Temple Street she moves by 1881 into No 4 Lower North Cumberland Street, one of a set of four houses (No 1-4 Lower North Cumberland Street) subsequently acquired by Annie McEachern (Annie Mack) in 1886. Maggie Arnott retains the surname Arnott, though John Arnott seems to fade from the picture. The interaction of the various major characters in this small but powerful demi-world is a key aspect of these articles.
While at No 4 Maggie Arnott maintained her business in elegant surroundings, as noted by the Freeman’s Journal, which reported on her prosecution for ‘shebeening’:
No 83 and No 84 Lower Mecklenburgh Street (adjoining Mrs Mack at No 85) were advertised for sale in 1887 and Maggie Arnott soon took up residence at No 83. She remains at this address until at least 1905.
(yellow = Thom’s Directory; brown = legal document; green = newspapers)
Life in Lower Mecklenburgh Street
But her arrival around 1887 in the heart of the red-light district only brought her more trouble:
By way of biographical information Maggie Arnott here offers the fact that she has been in Dublin for twelve years (she comes from Cork), and has never been inside a police station. We have, however, already seen that she has had several previous brushes with the law.
The sworn statement by her accuser in this case, Ninian Wildridge Woods, MRCS, is witnessed by one of his colleagues, Henry Noble. Two years later, in 1889, Maggie Arnott marries Henry Noble (son of James Noble, Gentleman) at St Thomas’s (Church of Ireland) parish church, though they seem to have had a common-law relationship for several years before this. Both give their address as 16 Lower Gardiner Street, one house up from her home address with John Arnott. Maggie Arnott provides her name as “Margaret Higgins (now Noble)” and her father as “Daniel Higgins, Civil Engineer”.
Her names now extend from Margaret Higgins, to Maggie Arnott, to Margaret Noble. The names Noble and Arnott are used interchangeably over the years in her Thom’s listing for No 83 Lower Mecklenburgh Street.
The newspapers pick up on this variation when she is called upon as a witness in a court case involving “improper houses” in October 1889:
By this date Mecklenburgh Street had been renamed Tyrone Street. Mrs Arnott/Noble is not circumspect about her calling:
In 1891 she was again in court, this time as the plaintiff:
The magistrate is confused over Mrs Arnott’s real name:
By now Mrs Arnott has four available names: Higgins, Arnott, Noble, and LaTouche. We assume that Henry Noble is now part of her past. The banter continues, to the merriment of the court:
See Maggie Arnott’s marriage certificate, which includes her names “Noble” and “Higgins”.
Miss Ainsworth then issued a counter-summons against Mrs Arnott/LaTouche. The magistrate was inclined to be severe:
After appeals from both solicitors the women were allowed out on their own bail, bound to keep the peace for the future. But it seems that this good behaviour did not last. A year later, on 2 September 1892, Maggie Arnott was up before the authorities on the much more serious charge of manslaughter. Her constant appearances before the authorities are in marked contrast to Mrs Mack’s relative invisibility in this regard:
Mrs Noble clearly also has an interest in No 39 Lower Mecklenburgh/Tyrone Street, another house in the area with a shady reputation. The court report continues with a gruesome account of the assault by Mrs Noble on Polly Parker:
But there was medical evidence that Polly Parker might have died from natural causes, and after her discharge and subsequent retrial Mrs Noble resumed her normal business.
In 1893 she is back at No 83 Lower Mecklenburgh Street, but this time as the victim of an assault (allegedly because she demanded money from a ‘client’):
In between her court appearances business must, however, have been satisfactory. At the same time the Dublin Corporation was starting to make serious efforts to clean up the area and legislation by the Westminster Government was generally making life more difficult for the Madams. At the turn of the century the Corporation introduced the Montgomery Street/Purdon Street Improvement Scheme. With each new restrictive measure the Madams found they had less room for manoeuvre. They had seen their heyday back in the 1880s.
On the night of the 1901 Ireland census Maggie/Margaret Noble is ‘Head of Family’ at No 83 Lower Tyrone Street . Ellen (“Nelly”) Keyes is now a ‘boarder’ with her – in the previous court case she was said to be living next-door. The full listing for the household reads as follows:
Although Margaret Noble/Arnott does not state her age, we know from other sources that she was by now in her early forties.
Throughout this period Thom’s Directory lists her under the name “Mrs. Arnott”. Pressure from the Corporation must have been making itself felt, though. 1905 is the final year in which Mrs Arnott is listed by name at No 83 by Thom’s. After that, the property (like the others from No 82 to 85) are simply listed as “Tenements” as their use and condition changes. By 1918 they are listed as “Ruins”.
After the census
It seems that life had to change for Mrs Arnott. But things were not going to get any better for her before she slipped into oblivion.
1905 was an annus horibilis for Maggie Arnott. By now she seems to have left Dublin – or at least to be residing in Cork and in Bansha (County Tipperary). These are the latest residences she stated as she boarded the SS Majestic at Queenstown (now Cobh), southern Cork, bound for New York on 1 June. She says that she had previously visited the United States in 1902, and this time was en route to visit her step-son George Bartlett at 807 3rd Avenue, New York City. She describes herself as a ‘H[ouse]keeper’ and carries the princely sum of $2,500 (considerably more than most of her fellow passengers).
By early November Maggie Arnott was back in Dublin, but no longer – as it appears – in Mecklenburgh Street. We find her living, aged 42 or 43, with her young sister Kate (Higgins) at 53 Bishop Street, south of the river in central Dublin. A series of dreadful newspaper accounts detail her plight, as she was remanded in the Southern Police Court on 7 November 1905 on a charge of attempting to murder her sister:
Freeman’s Journal (on the same day) reports that after the attack “a desperate struggle for life ensued”, and The Irish Times notes that Mrs Arnott had recently returned from America. The Mountjoy Prison General Register for 7 November, the day of the arrest, offers a glimpse of Maggie Arnott: she is registered under the name “Margaret Noble”, born in Queenstown, Cork, aged 42, of small stature at 5 feet one inch, weighing 106 lbs (7 stone 8 lbs). She has brown hair, hazel eyes, and a “fresh” complexion. Her next of kin is her sister Kate Higgins, whom she is accused of attempting to murder. Her occupation is listed as “Pros[titute]” and her religion “Roman Catholic”.
Matters proceeded swiftly in such a serious case. On 9 November 1905 she was brought to the High Court (Chancery Division), “of unsound mind”, to face the Lunacy Commission. When we last hear of her she is committed to the Richmond Lunatic Asylum:
Ultimately life was
not kind to Maggie Arnott, but then she had not been kind to life. She was an
Irish girl who had the sound sense to establish herself in a profitable
business, and she did not seek to extend that business into an extensive
portfolio of lodging houses or brothels. She was apparently of striking
appearance, but quick-tempered, and perhaps her temper was her downfall. For
medical or psychological reasons she was adjudged “lunatic” at the time that
her business faded. Her generation of lodging-house keepers or Madams was being rooted
out by the authorities, and a new generation (including such ladies as May
Oblong and Becky Cooper) was starting to take over.
(Cleary's: Amiens St, Dublin)
This is the third of six related articles: Continued at:4) Mrs Arnold at No 40 Lower Cumberland Street and elsewhere
5) Bella Cohen at No 82 (not 81)
6) Summing up the Madams
Previous articles in the series:
1) The Madams of Nighttown
2) Mrs Mack at No 85