The Women Who Made 20th Century Bohemian London

Last Updated 07 June 2024

The Women Who Made 20th Century Bohemian London
A woman holding an anvil with her biceps
Strongwoman Jean Rhodes was one of a multitude of women who thrived in, and helped create, the Bohemian London of the 20th century. Image: fair use

"I was happier back in the old bohemia. Art was more intense, purer. Sex was hotter too — more repressed! And there was a genuine intellectual bohemia instead of this hipster-lite culture we have today. It was much smaller, much more authentic. …take me back to the old bohemia!" — Marianne Faithfull

Women have long had a difficult time being listened to. Saint Paul told the Corinthians that women should not speak in church. Elizabethan women who tried to speak up for themselves were often gagged with an iron muzzle.

Bohemian London was different, though. A place that offered women recognition as individuals at a time when they were controlled by men. Indeed, without many of these women, bohemian London couldn't have existed at all.

"With her cheery catchphrase of "Hello C**ty" Muriel Belcher altered the course of British art"

An image of a woman in glasses
Olwen Vaughan fed the French Resistance and supported Soho's film industry.

My new book Queens of Bohemia and Other Miss-fits begins in the 1920s — a time when the Suffragettes had fought hard for equality and nightclubs became the new social spaces where women could socialise unchaperoned. Kate Meyrick's 43 Club on Gerrard Street scandalised society and inspired the creation of the Gargoyle Club, a hunting ground for femmes fatales and film stars. Until then, a woman's 'pleasure' was to be found in everyday banalities such as running the household and making a virtue from the acceptance of a woman's lot. But this was the arrival of the age of the dance craze and the gender-bending 'flapper' — an androgynous-looking female with boyish cropped hair who caused outrage by drinking, smoking and partying.

In 1928, women obtained the right to vote and began making inroads towards equality. Then, during the second world war, women began taking over jobs and professions previously seen as male-only — from factories and hospitals to the armed services. The languages some learnt at finishing school made them ideal contacts for secret agents, working with resistance groups. Other women broadcasted propaganda and produced literature, entertainment and even pornography as part of the war effort. 1940 saw the opening of Le Petit Club Francais run by Olwen Vaughan, who fed the French Resistance and supported Soho's film industry with her ground-breaking 'Documentary Boys'. After the war, the Colony Room Club became Muriel Belcher's kingdom. Known for her cheery catchphrase of "Hello Cunty" she inadvertently altered the course of British art by becoming a guru to a group of painters nicknamed Muriel's Boys: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews.

Alongside the clubs were the numerous pubs run by women, each with its own collection of eccentrics; Annie Allchild's Fitzroy Tavern was where the bohemian enclave of Fitzrovia derived its name. A little further down the road was the Wheatsheaf run by Mona Glendenning. Across Oxford Street, into Soho proper, was Victorienne and Victor Berlemont's French pub (the York Minster) and Annie Balon's Coach & Horses. These landladies presided over their establishments like circus trainers, uncertain of what the wild beasts in their domain might do next: Betty May aka the Tiger Woman — known for her taboo breaking ways — and the artist Nina Hamnett, (nicknamed the Queen of Bohemia) whose patrons ran an opium den in a decommissioned submarine. Then there was Sonia Orwell, nicknamed the 'Euston Road Venus', who became the model for the heroine, Julia, in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. And her friend, Isabel Rawsthorne: artist, spy, pornographer, model and muse for some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Picasso whom she considered "not a man any woman in her right mind could care for."

"Overnight everybody wanted to be a bohemian"

Marianne Faithfull with a mic
Marianne Faithfull has written the foreword to Darren Coffield's new book. Image: A. Vente via creative commons

Other women turned their homes into social spaces. The artist Elinor Bellingham Smith's 155 Salon became the social fulcrum for the post-war art crowd, where you'd find the prototype rock'n'roll wild child, Henrietta Moraes, much loved and painted by Francis Bacon.

For those who preferred sobriety, a café society co-existed. There one could find 'miss-fits' such as The Countess, who ruled the bins of Bond Street; the 'Mighty Mannequin', Joan Rhodes, who developed a strongwoman act bending iron bars and their friend, raconteur and queer pioneer Quentin Crisp. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s the traditional bohemian world was absorbed by the espresso bar explosion, an invasion of coffee shops where youths gathered and British rock'n'roll was born. Bohemia became youth culture, musicians replaced artists and muses inspired music. "People say that's what the sixties were: mass bohemia…overnight everybody wanted to be a bohemian," says Marianne Faithfull.

Some of these queens of Bohemia identified with the cross-dressed heroines of Elizabethan literature. Adopting the appearance of a girl as a survival strategy they blended the roles of boy and girl, man and woman, king and queen. Bohemian women and homosexuals had an affinity; women's rights and gay liberation became entwined since they were fighting for similar freedoms. Making love could lead to a criminal conviction since abortion and homosexuality were both illegal. For a homosexual to admit their sexuality was career suicide and for a creative woman to entertain having children was to potentially consign oneself to a female ghetto. Although the contraceptive pill became available in the 1960s it would take many more years for abortion and homosexuality to be decriminalised. Female fear of sex and a horror of their own bodies was best summed up by the Pop artist Pauline Boty who said she had an "ugly cunt".

Many did not feel comfortable with their biology. George Jamieson gravitated to bohemia and hung out at the Fitzroy Tavern before transitioning to April Ashley, one of the first Britons to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Bohemian women posed political, moral and existential challenges to authority and gave rise to a new way of living. Many were trailblazers, part of a dramatic wider shift in society.

In Queens of Bohemia and other Miss-fits I have used previously unpublished memoirs and eyewitness interviews to fill the gaps of historical vision and a montage of quotes and fragments of published biographies to create a soundscape of voices, as if one were in a room listening to them talk. It also gives the reader a flavour of what it was like to be part of their bohemia — so exotic and yet occasionally rank with urine, dampness, and despair.

The book cover

Queens of Bohemia and Other Miss-Fits by Darren Coffield, published by The History Press.

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