It was meant as a joke, but as the smoke bomb filled the Royal Albert Hall, and thousands of choking party goers made a beeline for the exit, it was clear things had got out of hand. Things always got out of hand, though. This was Chelsea Arts Club's annual New Year's Eve ball.
It wasn't the first time the gathering had hit the headlines: once described as "the most scandalous event on the social calendar", it was also one of the city's most famous parties, having been documented as far afield as America’s LIFE magazine, and featuring as a significant location in David Lean’s 1949 film The Passionate Friends.
"The greatest fancy dress ball ever held in London"
Chelsea Arts Club was founded in 1891 by a group of artists which included the renowned late 19th century painter James McNeill Whistler. As part of their social gatherings, the club were fond of hosting costume parties, which grew increasingly ambitious over the years. This culminated in their first grand fancy dress ball in 1908, at the Royal Opera House, before moving to the Royal Albert Hall two years later. THIS was when the party really began — and where it would take place every New Year’s Eve for the best part of five decades. It would later be declared as "the greatest fancy dress ball ever held in London" .
"Scanty dress was more the rule than the exception"
Mass destruction at midnight was one of the rituals of each event. Every ball would feature large floats paraded through the Albert Hall, designed by students from local art schools, and one of the traditions of the event was the collective tearing down of all these large constructions at the stroke of 12, leading to riots on the dance floor. A vast number of balloons would then tumble from the ceiling, enveloping partygoers. Following this, guests would dance, drink and embrace until five in the morning, when a mass breakfast was served.
Grand gestures were encouraged in all ways, including the costumes worn by guests. In the year of the 'Fun' themed 1953 ball, revellers wearing enormous papier-mâché heads could be seen making their way through the streets of London to the party season’s most anticipated event. Thousands attended every year, the venue overflowing with guests. After attending the 1923 ball, the writer Arnold Bennett recalled: "it was impossible to get supper without standing in a crush on the stairs for a very long time." But there was a major sense of freedom, too. As LIFE magazine put it, "scanty dress was more the rule than the exception."
"They decided to bring an elephant into the Royal Albert Hall as the centrepiece for the ball"
The organisers pursued many ambitious, and sometimes controversial, plans for the annual 31 December Blowout. One of their most audacious proposals was the idea to bring an elephant into the Royal Albert Hall as the centrepiece for the ball. The prospect of this unusual guest was ultimately vetoed due to fears the floor of the hall would not be able to take its weight.
Undeterred, the club continued to mount grand spectacles. At one ball in the early 1930s, they decided to create a dazzling display by covering people in gold paint, including students from St Martin's School of Art (the forerunner of Central Saint Martins) and parading them on top of one of the floats. This caused the dancers to come crashing down to earth once the customary midnight destruction of the floats beneath them took place. One had to leap into the arms of a fellow student, to avoid hitting the ground. They looked back at the event in later years with nostalgia rather than trauma.
"There was mass shock and much physical pain"
The balls were suspended during the second world war, but the post-war years saw the partying become so intense that the police were often on standby to deal with fights — vans waiting nearby to whisk inebriated guests away on stretchers.
But the party would finally be over, following the events of New Year's Eve 1958. At two o'clock in the morning on 1 January 1959, a male partygoer exploded a smoke bomb on the dance floor, which led to mass shock and much physical pain for many of the thousands of people in attendance. This was the final straw for the Royal Albert Hall, who decided to ban the club. The Chelsea Arts Club members would take their celebration to other venues in subsequent years, and three decades later, the hall did consent to a couple of occasional revivals, but the annual tradition of this London New Year's Eve ritual at the Royal Albert Hall was over.
"The media is no longer invited to spectate"
Today the Chelsea Arts Balls are held at the club's own premises in Old Church Street, near King's Road. The use of themes for each ball has continued: choices in recent years have included the Belle Epoque, and 2019’s gathering is focused on the Bauhaus art movement. Music and dancing remain key elements of the evening. One crucial difference to the Royal Albert Hall era is that the event has become a more private affair: the media is no longer invited to spectate, and photography of the event is not allowed. Moreover, the club has a ban on the use of all cameras, phones and computers inside the building, so what happens behind closed doors on New Year's Eve is now for the eyes of members only. Sensible.
However, the legend of the Royal Albert Hall party era endures, with key scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson's 2017 film Phantom Thread featuring recreations of the 1950s balls at their most frenzied heights.