"There were clip joints on either side of Soho Parish Primary School. At three o'clock, when the children were coming out, the clip joints would pull their shutters down, then they'd bring them back up again at four, after the children had gone home." Clare Lynch, who edits the Soho Clarion, has lived in Soho for almost two decades. Her eldest started at the school in 2010, and she often chatted to the women working on the door of the neighbouring clip joints. She says, "they were always very friendly. They're mothers and grandmothers themselves, so I think both the clip joints and the school tried to make it as least disruptive for the children as possible. When the children came out, they were just businesses with shutters pulled down."
While the women on the door were friendly, promising pretty girls and a sexy show to prospective customers, anyone who ventured inside a clip joint found that not all the staff were quite so affable. The bouncers, who popped up when customers tried to leave, were better known for demanding exorbitant sums of money with threats of blackmail and violence. Steve Clark, who was a PC in Soho from 1977 to 2005, says some men were stung for thousands. One American tourist who reported what happened to him, said in a statement, "I was more frightened down there than I was in Vietnam!"
There were around twenty clip joints in Soho, scattered about on Great Windmill Street, Peter Street, Rupert Street, Tisbury Court, Brewer Street, Archer Street and Charing Cross Road. To the disappointment of the men who went inside, there was no sexy show — there wasn't even any alcohol. The clip joints were unlicensed, and, up until 2007 when they were classified as sex establishments, they didn't need a license to operate, as long as they didn't serve alcohol or provide entertainment.
Now retired, Clark explains, "we called the clip joints 'Near Beers' because they portrayed themselves as being licensed premises but actually they weren't. They sold non-alcoholic drinks at extortionate prices, hence 'nearly beer!'"
While there were women inside as promised, they weren't necessarily what the guys were expecting. "They’d normally put the good-looking girl on the door," says Clark, "then the ming-mongs were downstairs. And they weren't in stockings and suspenders, like the guys might have imagined — they'd just be in jeans and a top."
This reflects the experience Martin had at a clip joint on Rupert Street. In London for the first time, at the age of 21, he says, "there were pretty girls outside asking if I wanted to see a show. I'd never been to strip club before and I thought, why not?" Walking downstairs, through a red curtain, "that needed a wash," Martin found himself in a dark room, with "red velvet sofas, that a few too many punters had spilt drinks on." Approaching the bar, he asked for a beer, but the bartender, who was "in her 40s, dressed in jeans and a black top," told him, "we only serve alcohol-free beer." Opting for a vodka and coke, Martin was told they didn’t serve vodka. At this point, the woman pointed to a laminated list of "virgin cocktails" which were £5 each. Martin says, "I tried not to show my northern shock at the prices, but it was 1996, and even by London standards that was mental."
Martin was told the show would start, "when it gets busier," which could be, "any time, really." Hoping for a more concrete answer, Martin approached a girl with a feather boa, asking if she was doing a show soon. She said no, "not for ages yet, darling."
With no sign of a sexy show, and unable to buy a beer, Martin decided to go, but as he approached the red curtain, "a bouncer the size of a shed opened it from the other side. He walked straight at me, and I had to back up or he'd have man-chested me." The bouncer asked where he was going, and when Martin said he was leaving, a second bouncer appeared. "He was twice the size of the first one," says Martin. "They both walked towards me so I had to move backwards towards the bar."
Finding himself in front of the laminated drinks menu, Martin was directed to read the last line, which stated there was a one drink minimum — and a £50 service charge. They had him on camera, they claimed, reading this rule at the entrance, before he came inside. "I was shitting myself," says Martin. "I told them I was still at college and I was skint," but the bouncers were unmoved. One said: "Mate I don't give a fuck, you need to buy a fucking drink and pay the service charge, NOW." When Martin explained that he only had a fiver to last the next two days, one of the bouncers said, "I want your wallet now — or I'll turn off the cameras and get it off you!"
Martin handed over his wallet, which was, "basically half an old plastic card wallet you get free at train stations when you buy a travel card." One of the bouncers went through it, pulling out Martin's travel card, and student ID. "My heart was pounding," says Martin, "I thought they were going to take me out the back and kick the shit out of me." Ultimately though, they told him to, "get the fuck out and don't go into any places like this again."
Martin puts his lucky escape down to the pathetic state of his wallet, which contained the princely sum of a fiver — and the fact that his bank card went undiscovered in the pocket of his jeans. Twenty years on, he says, "I've only ever been that scared once or twice in my life."
It was in the 90s that Clark spent six years on the Soho Unit, a vice squad that raided the clip joints and encouraged the victims to testify against them. Based on Clark's experience, Martin may be right about the state of his wallet working in his favour. Clark explains, "the clip joints had menus with prices on, but if you looked like you had money, the menu went out the window. If you got your wallet out and there was a big wedge of notes in there, the price went up." Would they really have had Martin on camera, reading the small print outside? Clark says, "That was intimidation — if he's a young student, he'll question his own judgement. They didn't have it on tape. They're just fake cameras — we looked at them for evidence and there was nothing there at all."
According to Clark, clip joint punters were often strip searched, so Martin was lucky to get away without them finding his bank card. Clark says, "they'd take them down the cashpoint. The pissed ones who came when the pubs shut were an easy target. The bouncers would take them down there just before midnight, draw their maximum out, then after midnight, draw their maximum again. That was a regular occurrence."
Colin Vaines, a film producer who's lived in Soho since 1990, had two clip joints opposite his flat until the 2013 raids. He says, "I'd chat to the women who worked there, about their kids, their families, their lives. They were great characters, just making a living." One of these clip joints was owned by a guy who Vaines has pegged as, "one of the last members of the Maltese families that used to run the sex operation in Soho in the 50s and 60s." Describing him as a lovely guy, Vaines says, "the big thing was, he was providing employment. And these weren’t little girls working there — they were women in their 40s."
Vaines recalls menus in the windows of the clip joints which of course, "no one looked at." Champagne would be on there, he says, "but next to it, in brackets, it said, "de-alcoholised" — they were charging £160 for fruit juice!" Vaines recalls the Maltese owner being outraged at a story in the paper, that claimed clip joints marched punters to cashpoints. Vaines recollects him declaring, "fucking forget that — we take credit cards these days!"
But not all customers had credit cards. Gary went to a clip joint in '99, at the age of 19. Originally from Glasgow, he'd just moved to London to start his first job. He says, "I was on £13,000 a year and I had a Clydesdale Bank ATM card. It wasn't even a debit card — you could only use it at the ATM." On one of his first visits to the West End, Gary found himself in Soho. He says, "I seen a doorway with a neon sign that said "Girls Girls Girls" — I've never been able to say no to that!"
After walking down the stairs, Gary found himself in a tiny bar. He says, "there was a girl sat there. I bought her a drink and she was chatting shit and stroking my leg." After an hour or so, when Gary went to leave, he was given a bill for over £100. "That was loads of money," he says, "so I told them to fuck off." At this point, they showed him the small print on the back of the drinks menu that explained the "hostess fee." He says, "some big heavy guy was blocking the exit. They told me I wasn't leaving, but I didn’t have any means to pay."
At this point, Gary was told he'd be accompanied to the cash point. "As we left the bar, the bouncer said, "don't attempt to do anything stupid" — and I told him I'm an honest guy and I always pay my bills." They walked to the NatWest cashpoint, opposite the Golden Nugget casino on Shaftesbury Avenue. Gary says, "at first, I planned on paying — and if he'd stood right beside me at the ATM, I'd have had no choice." Luckily, however, someone else was in the queue, "so he backed off and I ran for it. He was a fat bastard — he had no chance of catching me!" Gary says that afterwards he laughed about it, but, "I didn't go back to that street at night for about three years."
Gary was lucky to be able to leg it. Clark explains, "if there was two of you, and you didn't have the money or any credit cards, one of you was detained, and the other one was frogmarched to the hole in the wall, with the threat, "if you run off, he's going to get a slapping"."
Leslie Hardcastle, OBE, had to intervene when his teenage son found himself in a situation like this. Hardcastle, who's lived in Soho since 1970, is Honorary President of the Soho Society, which campaigned to get the clip joints closed down. He says, "we used to stand outside distributing leaflets, saying, don’t go in! If you go in, you're going to get clipped!"
Elizabeth Mitchell is a long term Soho resident who used to live in a flat opposite the clip joint at 7 Archer Street, which was known at different times as Casa Rosa and the Blue Bunny Club. Mitchell saw guys going inside and says, "I felt sorry for them, because a lot of them were young, and coming to Soho for a bit of a laugh. I wanted to say, "for God's sake, don't do it, because it really isn't worth it — it's not what you think it is! I felt pity for them, but it's up to them, isn’t it? And there were so many of them."
Of course, it wasn't just teenagers who were caught out by clip joints, and not all the customers were innocents. In 2004, 23 year old Camille Gordon was stabbed at 7 Archer Street, while working there as a hostess. A customer who'd been charged almost £400 for sitting with her, returned with a knife and killed her. Mitchell was watching from her window when the paramedics arrived. She says, "they spent ages trying to save her. All her colleagues — the girls and the security guys - they were distraught."
Colin Vaines saw businessmen entering the clip joints opposite his flat, and says, "it would amaze me how naïve they could be." He adds, "there’s a wonderful phrase from the famous madam, Cynthia Payne, who said, 'when the balls are full, the brain is empty!' So you've got a bloke on a business trip spending £400 on de-alcoholised Champagne and a girl talking to them, and they're too embarrassed to do anything about it. So they pay up, and they go and they just feel stupid."
This was one of the problems Clark encountered when he tried to convince the men to testify against the clip joints in court. He says, "mostly they were too embarrassed. They'd be like, 'no, I can't do anything, my name'll be in the papers!' — because the bouncers had told them it would be." He adds, "The bouncers threatened the punters with violence if they went to the police, but nothing ever happened to them."
Rather than relying on the men to report the incidents, Clark took a proactive approach. He says, "if we were out on patrol and we see a punter go down, we'd walk around the block, then we'd go down. Cos by then, the punter knows it's not what he's been told it is." Clark aimed to walk in at the point when the punter wanted leave. He explains, "there’s a girl at the entrance who gives one ring for a punter coming down, and three or four rings if the old bill turns up. So whoever I was with, I'd leave them with the girl, so she couldn't press the button to warn the bouncers. Then I'd go down, and quite often I'd catch them with the guy up against the wall. Then I'd ask the punter if he wanted to make a report."
To get around the guys' embarrassment, they were allowed to remain anonymous. Clark says, "we gave them assumed names — they could be Donald Duck, Pluto, whoever they liked. So they'd have a Mickey Mouse name, and what we agreed was, they were robbed. So when they came back to give evidence, it was for a robbery. And that night they could tell their wives they'd been robbed — which they had been, just the location was a bit different from where it actually happened!"
It wasn't always easy to make the initial arrests. Clark says, "if a punter starts shouting that they're going to the police, the clip joint shuts up shop, or they swap staff — so the staff that was in Archer Street, ran round to Rupert Street. So if a victim reports it, we get there and the place is closed or the staff aren't what the victim's described." Clark developed his own system to narrow down who'd been working. He says, "I started a book. Black girl, white girl, mixed race, Chinese, then height, hair colour, accent, marks, scars. We had over 100 girls in this book. So a victim could come in and say, 'she’s a black girl with short hair and glasses,' and you'd go through this book, and at the end you had the one girl — it worked every time."
Arrests made, and court dates set, the men who'd been stung by the clip joints were brought back to London, and put up in a hotel for the duration of the trial. Clark says, "we flew victims back from Australia and America. They'd come over the day before, have a nice kip, then we'd pick them up, and take them to court." The Crown Prosecution Service paid for the flights and hotels. Clark explains, "if the girl on the door promised a live sex show and real beer, she'd be done for deception, and if the bouncer threatened them with a beating if they didn't pay, that's demanding money with menaces." He adds, "we had a regular CPS lawyer and we presented a water tight case — we never lost one!"
Despite successful prosecutions against the bouncers and the women who worked there, the clip joints thrived for decades, until the big raids in December 2013. So why were they so hard to shut down? Hardcastle says, "first you had to find out who the owner was, and it would take you six months because they were all crooks. So you'd get a case together against the owner, but in that time, they've sold it to someone else, so then you've got to build a case against them, by which time they've sold it back to the first guy. It was like a football match!" Clark explains, "they leased premises in Mickey Mouse names, and paid the rent in cash. Their cars would be registered to Mickey Mouse addresses, so we couldn't get a warrant because we didn’t know where they lived." The owners kept their distance from the clip joints, and the police didn’t necessarily know who they were. Clark says, "on some occasions we may have arrested them, not knowing they were in charge."
To Colin Vaines, the 2013 police raids were "disgraceful." He explains, "it was suspicious that they happened at a time when the gentrification of Soho was really kicking in. It felt like there was an element of collusion with various interested parties." While he previously enjoyed Soho's, "mixture of high life and low life," Vaines now sees Soho morphing into a, "gleaming sub-Mayfair sort of place."
Vaines doesn't defend the clip joints. He describes them as, "terrible rip-off joints where people would just be taken for their money." But he does miss the characters and the sense of community that Soho had prior to its sanitisation. "I have slightly rose tinted glasses," he admits, "but everybody knew each other, and people looked out for each other. And in an odd way, the clip joints were part of that. They were part of the fabric of the world we lived in."
Gary and Martin's names have been changed.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.