Family and friends of the party hostess and activist Cynthia Payne, known to some as ‘Madam Cyn’, will celebrate her life with a humanist funeral in Streatham this week.
Known to many for her prominent appearances in the national press in the 1970s and 1980s, Cynthia was a humanist all her life, and is described by her loved ones as a non-judgmental and compassionate person who was ‘tolerant of everyone’s way of life’. The same tolerance was not afforded her, as she was subject to several police raids of her brothel, where she employed young women who would spank men in exchange for luncheon vouchers.
Payne served four months in Holloway Prison after her initial arrest. Rather than sympathise with the authorities however, the public was shocked at her sentence. A group of 30 MPs from all parties came together, appalled that Payne had been so mercilessly prosecuted despite posing no harm to the community. One Conservative MP at the time said the police ought to ‘be spending their time more usefully than prosecuting a jokey English lady who has made us laugh during a cold winter.’
Payne’s parties were attended by all of London’s elite – from high-ranking lawyers and businessmen through to prominent vicars, MPs, and Lords. Her sentencing drew the public’s ire all the more because it was seen as disproportionately punitive to female sex workers, while men in positions of power were let off without punishment, and their identities protected.
But social conservatives could not predict that the clampdown on Payne and others like her would lead to changes in the law and changes to policing. Payne’s new status in the public eye allowed her to address the nation, and she proved to be a likeable face of the sex work industry, changing moralistic public attitudes. Along the way, she highlighted serious shortcomings with the law on prostitution, and paved the way for the legal reforms of the 2000s, as well as new initiatives to protect prostitutes from the dangers posed by their work.
Her campaigning ramped up in the late 1980s. Payne even stood for Parliament as the leader of her own party – the Payne and Pleasure Party – which raised funds and public support for reform of Britain’s outdated sexual offence laws. As she grew older, she retired from the business which made her famous, but led an active career as an after-dinner speaker and comic entertainer.
BHA Head of Ceremonies Isabel Russo said, ‘We are honoured to be taking the funeral of a national treasure like Cynthia Payne. In her life, Cynthia pushed society’s boundaries and entertained the nation, yet she still found time for serious campaigning for the causes she believed in. She will be remembered by loved ones in the same spirit in which she lived – with good humour and good cheer – having led a long and exuberant life.’
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.
A humanist funeral is a non-religious service that is both a dignified farewell and a celebration of a life. It recognises the profound sadness of saying goodbye whilst celebrating the life and legacy of a loved one.