Some nightclubs and ‘dives ‘ of post-war London


Jot 101 Night club dancing pic

We at Jot HQ know our audience. We know, for instance, that Jots on long-departed restaurants and pubs in London are popular. Presumably, Jots on seedy night clubs and ‘ dives ‘ ( do people still use this word to describe such resorts ?) will also prove popular. People are certainly curious about the London drug culture of yesteryear. They are aware that drugs like opium and cocaine have been around, thought not always easily available, for two centuries or more. They know that S. T. Coleridge and Thomas de Quincey were slaves to laudanum and that Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict. They are perhaps not so sure about the history of marijuana consumption in the UK before it became the drug of choice among hippies in the swinging sixties.. One of the most interesting sides of The Good Time Guide to Londonis the candour with which the more disreputable and sleazy pleasures of the flesh— from sex , (the while slave trade and prostitution)—  to hard drinking and drug taking are discussed in 1951. This is such a contrast to a guide like Dining Out in London, published in the same year, which merely covers restaurants. In fact, The Good Time Guide to Londonseems to revel in the seamier side of London.

Take the general introduction to the section on night clubs:

‘…In theory all the clubs are for the use only of members and their guests. Some of them stick to this rule, and it isn’t easy to get in without preparation ( though nothing, of course, is impossible). Others are, shall we say, less insistent on the letter of the law. A day ticket is produced from somewhere, or the secretary may discover you are a life-long friend of his…The dives vary a great deal. Some have specialised clienteles—artists, coloured folk, poets or crooks. Some play be-bop all night; others prefer poker. A sniff of marijuana. Not all of them places to go with your wife. Whatever happens, you’ve been warned !’

The writer then proceeds to make notes on individual night clubs, which we shall discuss under various headings:

The Pigalle

‘…just opened in Piccadilly, offers the disturbing attraction of 40 pretty girls, properly dressed to be undressed, accompanied by a really lavish stage show. You can dance between times, and enjoy yourself for the remarkable small sum of 17/6 which you pay for your dinner…Original idea was provided, it is said, by the world famous Tabarin in Montmartre…’

The Society

Sited in Jermyn Street ‘…with its tiny dance floor and its beautifully panelled walls, ( it) is an excellent rendezvous if you are in the mood to appreciate an intimate, relaxed, unmistakably French atmosphere. Here the gypsies will leave their stand to sing just for you; here the rumba-drums mix with the ripple of whispered conversations and subdued laughter…’


The Embassy


This was situated in Bond Street and was where ‘ Michael Arlen used to sit and watch the Prince of Wales enjoying himself in the twenties, when life was young’. Arlen, of course, was the pen name of the Bulgarian novelist , journalist  and playwright Dikran Kouyoumdjian, a darling of the London ‘smart set ‘ .


The Bagatelle


This was the place ‘ Princess Elizabeth made famous years ago when she was just coming out into London public night life, some time before anyone could make a really good guess as to whom she was going to marry.’ I wonder how many biographers of the present Queen have mentioned this fact in their books.


The Four Hundred


In this exclusive Leicester Square night spot ‘formal wear is so essential that a distinguished lady wearing one of Dior’s short evening dresses was once turned away with a certain well-mannered asperity.’


Cocoanut Grove


This Regent Street club,’ known to thousands of war-time visitors, is still the scene of high-spirited, and sometimes noisy enjoyment. Edmundo Ros, London’s leading rumba merchant, is currently Master of the Revels.’


The Stork Club


Unrivalled among all these clubs was Berkeley Street’s musical haven. ‘Moderately expensive, with two bands—as is now generally the fashion—and a better-than-usual cabaret. Thursday night at the Stork Club is ‘celebrity night’, when Mr Francis, one of the most agreeable maitres d’hotelin London night-life, uses his skill to persuade stage and radio celebrities among the guests to give impromptu cabaret turns. The famous ones ( we suspect) know perfectly well that they’ll be persuaded in  the end, but just hate to say ‘ yes’ right away. As for the not-so-famous, they can hardly wait to be persuaded. Sometimes these debutantes provide the best show of the evening by nervously forgetting half their words, enabling everyone in the audience to come delightfully to their rescue…,


The Allegro


A place that approaches ‘ very closely the popular conception of a true Parisian boite de nuit…where you may hear the accordion played as it should be, and the old French songs sang with Gallic verve…’


And that ‘ sniff of marijuana ‘ ?


Cannabis was brought over from Bengal by an Irish physician W.B.O’ Shaugnessy in 1842 for recreational and ( presumably) medical use. It was smoked legally throughout the nineteenth century in the UK, but banned from some time in the nineteenth to the twentieth century in certain British colonies, possibly because it negatively affected the work rate of manual workers there. In the UK it was described as a ‘dangerous ‘ drug in 1928 and subsequently prohibited. According to one source:


‘ Cannabis remained a fringe issue in the British public consciousness throughout the intervening years and beyond, associated with society’s margins, “ coloured seamen of the East End and clubs frequented by Negro theatrical performers “ . This perception was strained by a 1950 police raid on Club Eleven in Soho, which recovered cannabis and cocaine and led to the arrest of several young white British men…’


The Good Time Guide to Londondoesn’t mention Club Eleven, perhaps because the raid a year earlier had led to its closure. Cannabis users continued to be arrested in clubs. In 1960 there were 235 arrests. By the end of this decade this number had risen to 4,683.

To be continued. [R.M.Healey]



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