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Sex worker's story held until now by WA state library details life in red light districts like Roe Street

By Emma Wynne and Dustin Skipworth
Red light area, Roe Street, Perth, just before the brothels closed, August 17, 1958(Supplied: State Library of WA)
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In 1988, Joan St Louis gave an oral history recording to the State Library of WA detailing her life as a sex worker from the 1930s to '50s on one condition — that it not be released until after her death.

She died six years later, and the library has now decided to share her story online

Joan was born in 1912 in Tasmania and moved to Melbourne in her teens, marrying at 17 and initially working as a waitress before taking up sex work.

She told the interviewer she couldn't remember quite why she became a sex worker, saying simply "it was just one of those things".

Joan moved to Kalgoorlie in 1941 where she worked in the mining town's famous Hay Street red light district while her husband worked as a barman.

Jules Kim, the chief executive of sex workers association Scarlet Alliance, said the recording was a fascinating insight into a little-documented experience and revealed similarities with the profession today, including workers being married.

"I think people have a misconception that sex workers don't have partners or aren't married, but it's not that unusual," Ms Kim told Christine Layton on ABC Radio Perth.

Sex workers outside Kalgoorlie's Club 181 brothel in 1990.(Supplied: National Library/Trish Ainslie & Roger Garwood)

Joan told the interviewer she was extremely busy in Kalgoorlie — sometimes seeing 20 clients a night at weekends — and that conditions were good.

"... very nice, very comfortable, carpets, comfortable beds, very clean. There was a housemaid. You visited the doctor.

"There was everything that was needed, just like an ordinary home, a comfortable home."

Barred from polite society

But while the brothels of Hay Street were famous in Kalgoorlie, the women who worked in them found themselves cut off from society, Joan recalled.

"We couldn't go anywhere. It was just all work and no play.

"You weren't allowed in the hotels, you weren't allowed to go to the movies.

"You weren't allowed to go out in public, except shopping. The only pleasure was to read."

The Questa Casa is the last of the original brothels still operating on Hay Street.(ABC Goldfields: Sam Tomlin)

Ms Kim said people might be surprised to learn the same laws that barred the women from pubs in the 1940s were still on the books today.

"We still have laws in place in WA, the Liquor Control Act, that state that it's an offence to permit a reputed prostitute to remain on a licensed premises, and you can be fined up to $10,000," she said.

"Now, there's no record of these laws being used since 2000, but they're still on the books and they still can be used."

Money matters still the same

Ms Kim said it was noteworthy the payment arrangements almost 100 years ago were very similar to today.

"[Joan] didn't talk about the amount of money that she made, but she did talk about the arrangements that were in place. It was really interesting to read, because it hasn't changed much.

"In the first place where she worked, she got 50 per cent and the house got 50 per cent, and that's quite standard.

"I think people are surprised to hear that, because perhaps in other workplaces that might seem like the house is keeping a lot, but you have to understand that you're getting the infrastructure, security, advertising, are often housed and fed, and the premises's upkeep and cleaning.

"It's quite standard still in the industry."

In 1929 The Truth captioned this photo: "Josie Villa, brothel in Roe Street, that allegedly lures married men to folly and infidelity."(Supplied: State Library of WA)

At 31, Joan separated from her husband and moved to Perth.

She worked in establishments on Roe Street — then dubbed Rue de Roe, possibly because of the large number of French women working in the brothels.

By the end of World War II she was running two houses looking after 11 women, almost all of whom were from the eastern states and needed money to support themselves and their families.

Many used nom de plumes at work and Joan remembered very busy times when soldiers came into port from all over the world.

She said, however, the brothels would close when a New Zealand convoy came into Fremantle as the men "get half drunk and go crazy".

"The money was it. The money was everything."

This service station doubled as a secret entrance to a brothel in Roe Street, circa 1929.(Supplied: State Library of WA)

On the day victory was declared over Japan in 1945, Joan left for London and worked on the street in Piccadilly, before marrying again and moving to Canada.

"She was quite broke at the time in Canada and she decided that she would go back to being a sex worker," Ms Kim said.

Eventually she divorced a second time and returned to Perth, once again running a house on Roe Street while continuing to work herself well into her 40s.

Jules Kim says stigma stopped Joan from sharing her story publicly while she was alive.(Supplied: Jules Kim)

"That's another myth about the industry — people expect that everyone's really young," Ms Kim said.

"It was a very broad and diverse age range and a diverse industry back then, as it is now."

The end of an era

By 1958, the Roe Street era had ended; the brothels were closed and demolished for redevelopment and the construction of the freeway interchange.

At 46, Joan left the industry for good and 30 years later decided to tell her story to the state library for posterity.

In the recording, Joan looks back fondly at her time as a sex worker.

"There was money, there was a lot of humour, which you don't get in any other life.

"You never knew who was going to come into the house. It was interesting. You met a lot of people from different walks of life.

"In fact, when the street closed, that was the only thing I missed about it. I missed the public. That's about all really."

Little is known about what Joan did after she left the sex industry.

Ms Kim said she understood Joan's decision to have the recording kept confidential until after her death.

"It's not surprising with the level of stigma. Unfortunately, that has not changed at all.

"She did very well for herself and she obviously enjoyed her work.

A house being demolished on Roe Street in 1985.(Supplied: State Library of WA)