What was a night out in London's West End like a hundred years ago?
Thanks to a piece of enlightening gonzo journalism published in 1922, we've got a pretty good idea. And *spoiler alert* it could get pretty wild.
Olive Young (which may or may not be a pseudonym) was the journalist behind the report which ran in the Sunday Post on 19 March 1922. On the back of the tragic deaths of a number of women known to the West End's nightclub scene — including hostess Freda Kempton and performer Babs Taylor — Young set out to uncover the seedy underworld of drink, dancing and 'dope'.
Her opener reels you right in:
The bells of the West End churches were stroking midnight in deep tones as a detective friend and myself set off on a tour of the London night clubs... What had become of that vast crowd of fashionably-dressed folk who in pre-war days used to be found nightly promenading the neighbourhood of Leicester Square? They had disappeared, and the C.I.D. officer accompanying me knew where.
Accompanying Young is a detective, well-known to the owners and patrons of the various clubs (who are invariably on their best behaviour). And so the pair head into the night, calling in at the litany of clubs that suck in the Theatreland crowds once the curtains have fallen, and the pubs closed up.
"You can get a drink until five in the morning"
Inter-war Britain was well-known for its hijinks: this was the era of the Bright Young Things as depicted in Evelyn Waugh novels and Cecil Beaton photos. The jazz scene was burgeoning — in clubs like the Cafe de Paris and Shim Sham — and Young's piece captures such snapshots. They visit the 'latest and swellest night club' [all names in the article are, alas, redacted] where:
We could hear a jazz band playing away inside, and went in to discover twenty or thirty couples tripping the light fantastic...
Sounds fun, as does the next joint — a club 'situated in a little street off one of the main thoroughfares':
There was the inevitable jazz band but the dancers were indeed a cosmopolitan collection of humanity... The basement was hot, and smelt of perfume and drink.
In the London of 2022, it's not all that easy to find somewhere for an early morning eye-opener (though we do know a place or two). 100 years back, there were laws prohibiting drinking after certain times, but this didn't seem to deter many club owners: Quips our detective:
You can get a drink here up to five o' clock in the morning. But there will be nothing doing while I am here.
At which point Young notices everyone is hastily necking whatever's in their glass. Pricy booze in the West End, by the way, is nothing new. As the C.I.D. officer informs:
Brandy and soda is the favourite tonic. They charge them five shillings for the most poisonous stuff they can buy.
And clubs caught flouting the rules could end up on the rocks; says Young:
Sometimes, of course, the riff-raff get in, brawls take place, someone is thrown into the street, and by way of revenge goes to the police with a story of drinking after hours. There is a raid, and the club is ruined.
Still, Londoners in 1922 certainly knew how to make a night of it. And morning. And afternoon:
If things are quiet visitors have three or four drinks, get bacon and eggs at a breakfast club, and then go off home to have another kind of tonic about lunchtime to pull themselves together.
"Easily the worst place in London"
But something altogether stronger was doing the club circuit; cocaine — what was then commonly called 'dope'. In the 1910s, Harrods, no less, sold a DIY hardcore drug kit containing cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles. In 1920, though, coke was criminalised, and had to be pushed in more clandestine ways. In one scene from this night on the tiles, Young's detective companion winds up dancing the foxtrot with a 'pretty young girl' in a Parisian dress. Young enquires who the girl is, the detective answering:
She used to be on the stage, Now she spends all her time in the night clubs. I hear she has been doing a bit of doping lately. There was a fellow who used to be very fond of her and now, well, you can fill in the gap for yourself.
To which Young adds:
I knew. So many of the young girls who take to cocaine start the same way.
The journalist is illuminating the desperate circumstances of many of the young women on the West End scene at this time; lured into a world of 'hostessing' at night clubs, an exhausting job, often fuelled by coke. Hostess Freda Kempton had died earlier in 1922 from a cocaine overdose (something that was later blamed on the Chinese dealer 'Brilliant Chang', who makes an appearance in Peaky Blinders). Billie Carleton had also died from a supposed cocaine overdose four years previously, a gold box of the drug found by her bedside.
Prostitution was very common in the 1920s too, many women finding it was the only way to avoid poverty (this was covered in detail another exposé, In Darkest London, written by Ada Chesterton for the Sunday Express in 1926).
As the club crawl continues, Young and her policeman friend find themselves in ever-less salubrious surroundings...
That Soho club housed a strange collection of men and women. The men, I was informed, were out-and-out adventurers who went to bed in the early dawn and got up in the afternoon. Some of them trafficked in 'dope', some were expert thieves.
... and being 'welcomed' by obsequious club owners, who you feel aren't being totally open:
What's the trouble? There's none of them here. I won't have any of that dope mob in here.
Of course, any chance of catching anyone with a stash of dope is out of the question; the nightclubs have eyes everywhere:
And so it went on all through the night. Any mention of "dope" was sufficient to produce either polite incredulity or else a significant wink... But as for anyone who did actually have a stock of cocaine, no. The police had been too active of late.
Eventually Young and the C.I.D. officer come to what the detective calls "easily the worst place in London". Our journalist paints the picture:
I saw a hotch-potch crowd of men and women dancing on the big floor. I could well understand why Piccadilly became so empty around midnight. For here they all were.
Once again, the appearance of Young and her companion has an immediate effect on the revellers:
The advent of a couple of strangers was the signal for a general cessation of conversation. I heard a whisper from one little group, discussing some deep secret, for their talk abruptly ceased and they leant back watching us with open hostility in their eyes.
"Reeking with the smell of frying bacon and cigarettes"
All in all the West End of 100 years ago seems more like the Wild West, with its brawls, drugs, sleaze — not to mention entire rooms falling silent at the entrance of the law/strangers.
If you knew what you were doing, you could sure have a swell night out. But the London of 1922 was also lurking with dangers, particularly if you were a young woman.
Young and the detective wind up their tour at 4am with a visit to a 'breakfast club' — something very different to the Breakfast Club chains we know today. It's described as a place 'reeking with the smell of frying bacon and cigarettes', where 'greasy waiters' serve exhausted West End hostesses and performers at the end of another tough shift.
"Ask any of the night club proprietors who make a living out of them what ultimately becomes of these people and they will merely shrug their shoulders. They do not know. Someday they disappear, where no one quite knows."
We discovered the original Sunday Post article on the brilliant British Newspaper Archive.