Episode 111: London Nightclubs in the interwar years

In the latest episode of the London History Podcast, we delve into the fascinating world of the London clubs in the 1920s and 1930s.

From the glitzy sophistication of the Kit-Cat Club, famed for its membership of artists and intellectuals, to the eclectic sounds and sights of the Shim Sham Club in Soho, where jazz and the emerging Lindy Hop dance scene brought diverse crowds together, our exploration today will take us to the heart of an exciting era.

So, ladies and gentlemen, put on your dancing shoes, cue the jazz and join us as we dive into the smoky allure of London’s nightclubs in the 1920s and ’30s, and the indelible impact they left on the city’s cultural landscape.

Stay tuned, the night is young and the history is rich, just like the clubgoers.

Guest: Lucy Santos

Historian examining the crossroads of health, leisure and beauty with science and technology. Lucy has appeared as an occasional contributor on TV and radio, and her historical research has been featured by History Today, BBC History Revealed, Jezebel, LitHub, New York Post, the Telegraph, and on the BBC2 documentary, Makeup: A Glamorous History. Her most recent project is as Creative Consultant for the documentary Obsessed With Light a film that tells the story of the performance artist Loïe Fuller. Lucy’s debut book was Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium (Icon: 2020, Pegasus: 2021). Half Lives was shortlisted for the BSHS Hughes Prize in 2021. Her next book, which is a history of the element uranium, will be published in 2024.

Host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified  CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain(Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7). Het Rampjaar 1672Afl. 2: Vijand Engeland and Arte.fr Invitation au Voyage, À Chelsea, une femme qui trompe énormément.


Related blog posts:

Viscount Brentford’s Crusade – The Battle Against Nightclubs and Indecent Literature in 1920s Britain.

The Allure of Tango Teas – A Glimpse into London’s 1912 Dance Phenomenon

The Cave of the Golden Calf – with its enticing blend of culture, entertainment, and controversy, enjoyed a brief but significant existence in the heart of London’s artistic scene, forever imprinted in the annals of the city’s cultural history.

Artist Walter Sickert – leader of the Camden Town Group was admired for his commitment to painting scenes from everyday life, often capturing moments that others might overlook.

Episode 111: Nightclubs in 1920s and 1930s London Transcript:

For the last seven or so episodes we have been exploring Victorian London. And now for something completely different…

Today, we’re going to dim the lights and step back in time, exploring the smoke-filled, jazz-infused London nightclubs of the roaring 1920s and tumultuous 1930s. These were places where new music was forged, societal norms were challenged, and the intoxicating glamour of the era unfolded under the warm glow of chandeliers.

For this enthralling journey into the past, we are accompanied by a distinguished guest, a scholar whose pen dances as smoothly on paper as the flappers did on those long-ago dance floors. Please welcome historian, author, and expert on British popular culture, Lucy Santos.

With her extensive knowledge and passion, we’ll delve into the hidden histories of these clubs, uncovering stories of the people who frequented them and ran them, the culture they created, and the impact they had on London society during the interwar years. We’ll discover how these clubs, both celebrated and notorious, formed a microcosm of the larger societal changes in London, reflecting the shifting dynamics of class, race, and gender.

From the glitzy sophistication of the Kit-Cat Club, famed for its membership of artists and intellectuals, to the eclectic sounds and sights of the Shim Sham Club in Soho, where jazz and the emerging Lindy Hop dance scene brought diverse crowds together, our exploration today will take us to the heart of an exciting era.

So, ladies and gentlemen, put on your dancing shoes, cue the jazz, and join us as we dive into the smoky allure of London’s nightclubs in the 1920s and ’30s.

Stay tuned, the night is young and the history is rich. 

Hazel Baker: Welcome, dear listeners, to another fascinating episode of the London History podcast where we delve into the vibrant and diverse past of this great city. I am your host Hazel Baker, a qualified London tour guide and founder of London Guided walks.co.uk. Whether you’re a born and bred Londoner or a curious listener, join us on a journey through time as we explore the city together.

Each episode is supported by show notes, transcripts, photos, and further reading all to be found on our website. If you enjoy what we do, then your love are guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year. All bookable online. At London Guidedwalks.co.uk. Subscribe now to never miss an episode, and if you enjoy the show, please leave us a review and rating to help spread the word to other history lovers.

Joining me in the studio today is Lucy Jane Santos, an historian examining the crossroads of health, leisure beauty with science and technology. And today we’re going to be talking about the 1920s and thirties in London. Hello Lucy. 

[00:01:17] Lucy Santos: Hello. Nice to be here. 

[00:01:19] Hazel Baker: Now, I’m looking forward to this one for a number of reasons.

Knowing that you were coming on, I thought I’d do a little bit of reading and I realised how much. I didn’t know. So I’m so glad that you’re here to fill in so many of the gaps for us. So it might be worth first of all, 

[00:01:37] Lucy Santos: setting the 

[00:01:37] Hazel Baker: scene and maybe starting with tango teas

[00:01:40] Lucy Santos: So we are in around about 1912, and obviously we are in London now Tango that, that wonderful, gorgeous dance has moved from Argentina to Paris and then.

Wow. All the smart people are in Paris, and when they come to London or when Londoners go to Paris, they see these wonderful dancers and they want part of it. Before this nightlife in London hasn’t been it hasn’t been based around dancing or nightclubs in the way that we’re going to talk about, for the rest of this episode.

There, there are a few restaurants, there are places to go obviously, but these tango dancers are the first real opportunities for public dancing in, in the 20th century. Now they are. So these tango dancers, it is as just as it sounds. So you go to a place dance, the tango you can have cups of tea as well.

Cuz these are dry events. So these aren’t alcohol-based events. They’re often in the afternoon or in the early evening. Sometimes they’re after dinner as well. So you’ll go one of the places in London that offered these tango teas was. The Savoy. So it’s already a hotel. It was established in the 1880s, definitely by the 1890s.

So it’s already a place, but they start doing these sort of pop-up tango dancers. Now these are really successful. And then around about 1914, we start seeing actual purpose. Purpose designed dance clubs bringing up. So one of those was called the 400 Club, and it was on Old Bond Street. And this opened actually in October, 1913.

Now it was in an old art gallery and it had been converted into a night spot. So it was actually more like a supper club. So you’d have supper there and then you would dance the tango into the relatively early hours. Now, there was other places that’s brought up as well.

There was for the Lotus Club and Murrays on Beak Street as well. Now Murrays actually goes into the fifties and sixties. It ends up being a very famous cabaret. Now these are all places which are essentially licensed clubs with a membership. So you have to have a membership to be there, to dance there, to eat there, and they’re very exclusive and very expensive places to be.

Around about this time, we start seeing licensing coming in for them as well. So pretty much anyone who wanted to could open up a club. And you’d have to pay five pounds. And you would have to register it as a police court or a petty sessional court, I think it’s called. So yeah, these are essentially the extensions of those private members clubs that you would find in Mayfair.

Certainly in the in the. Dispensary beforehand. And the key thing here is they are private. They are private premises, so they’re private premises and highly exclusive for the wealthy upperclass upper classes only. 

[00:04:50] Hazel Baker: And so this was like a, maybe the clubs who were an a need to know basis, they’re not gonna be advertising, are they? Are they? 

[00:04:59] Lucy Santos: No, not really. I’ve, for these early clubs, I found it quite difficult to find any adverts for them. One thing to say right at the start is that nightclub. Then and now are ephemeral things, I don’t think I was thinking about the nightclubs of London in the nineties when I was a teenager going out there, and I was trying to there was one that I particularly remember on Oxford Street and I became obsessed recently thinking, oh, what about if it was actually one of the old clubs that I’ve been researching from the thirties, and I vaguely remember it.

Of course it’s not. But I couldn’t find a trace of it. I couldn’t really remember what it was called. Couldn’t really remember where it was. But yeah, and there was nothing really seemed to survive a bit, in terms of these early nightclubs sometimes, and we’ll talk about it later, you’ll find membership cards.

And the Museum of London has a great collection of membership cards from the twenties and thirties. It was one man who I can’t remember who he was, but he was incredibly rich and was a member of 20 of all these really fancy clubs. And they’ve got this wonderful collection of all of his membership cards.

His name was Emil Clubber. Yeah, so he was a member of all of these clubs and often It is the membership cards that you occasionally come across or with some of these private members clubs, they have Oh that Museum of London collection has teeny tiny little pocket booklets of all the rules of the clubs for some of them as well.

The articles of association and the memorandum and what you’re signing up for when you join the clubs. Very little else and very few adverts. For these nightclubs you’ll see adverts going into twenties and thirties and obviously onwards for cabaret clubs. You’ll see adverts for restaurants that have cabarets and all those sort of different combinations.

But the nightclub nightclubs Tend to be more word of mouth than anything, or who knows, maybe there was people standing in Lester Square with flyers giving them out to people who were dressed very smartly. I dunno there’s no real evidence of that. 

[00:07:21] Hazel Baker: It’s interesting, isn’t it, when you’re running a business, you have they talk about having USP, a unique selling point.

But you also, yes, there’s a challenge of being exclusive but not so exclusive that people don’t know about you. 

[00:07:34] Lucy Santos: Certainly with these early clubs It is just for the top level of society. And word will get around them, so you don’t need to advertise them. What you do need is one very smart person to go to it and then the rest will follow.

The key bit of it was if you were one of those smart sets. So if you were one of the bright young things and you opened your own club, you could always guarantee that you would get people coming in. So there was a David Tenant who was one of the bright young people and he opened a club called the Gar Oil Club which is oh.

  1. Yes. Dean Street. 

[00:08:17] Hazel Baker: Yes. That one I know. 

[00:08:19] Lucy Santos: Yes. Yeah. He opened the Gaga Club in the early twenties. And he was part of the smart set. He was incredibly connected so people started coming cause they wanted to be, where the bright young people are. 

[00:08:34] Hazel Baker: So he’s basically the USP for his club then, isn’t he?

He’s the face and he’s what people want to come. What about other clubs as well? Did they have a particular draw for certain Cleon town? 

[00:08:46] Lucy Santos: They did seem they seemed to vary. Some of it was, like I said, the person who owned it, it was someone who was part of something.

Whether it was an artistic circle or society or, was [00:09:00] married to someone or knew someone or, there was those places. There was also the places where the Prince of Wales, for instance, wherever he was. People wanted to go. So there, there was really good examples of people calling in favours of favours to get guarantee that the Prince Wales will be at their club on opening night.

And it seems that he would’ve gone anywhere for anything as long as there was. Dancing and music and good times guaranteed. So you really s you know it is those things. Sometimes you’ll read about places that introduce new technology, for instance, and that starts intrigue people to go to.

 We have somewhere the Silver Slipper, which opened in 1927. I believe it. It had a glass dance floor with lights underneath that flashed. And so what like fever? Exactly. Like Saturday night Fever. Oh. I don’t, I’ve never seen an example of a thirties flashing dance club. I’ve certainly danced on the seventies.

One. But it was described as waves of light underneath. So I’m not sure if it’s like I’m actually doing Saturday night Fever hand, but I’m not sure if it’s like flashes of, the seventies ones are usually like each square flashes. Yeah. Different. But this one, the thirties, ones waves of light.

So I wonder if it’s like ripples or something. I’m not sure. These things don’t survive. You can’t. You can’t see them. You could only go on descriptions. So yeah, so you get places where, somewhere has the new dance floor or air conditioning, that’s a key one. Air conditioning, when they start introducing air conditioning to clubs.

Really from early twenties, I think it is, especially in those summer months, people want to go there. Yeah, so there’s all sorts of reasons why people make the decision, but it is usually because the smart set are there. It’s a place to be seen and it’s gorgeous in some way. 

[00:10:59] Hazel Baker: And how did clubs have their own sort of dress code?

Or did they lend themselves to a particular style of, style? Of, of fashion as well? Because like you’ve seen, like now on the streets, even at five o’clock on a Saturday, you can see those who are gonna go clubbing. It’s quite, they’ve got a sort of uniform, haven’t they? Yeah. 

[00:11:15] Lucy Santos: It would definitely be most of these clubs would be black tie.

 People being not allowed entrance because they’re not fully, fully kitted out. So on the whole, it’s the smartest of smart dress. Like I said this is the upper class society. And they, and this would be. Be normal. So you would there’s, you can read autobiographies from people who would spend a day To spend a day or an evening.

So they’d have dinner in one of the big mansions around Hyde Park area or anything, uhhuh. So they would have dinner at Lady and then they might go to the theatre. And then after that they might go to one another club, and then another club, and then another club [00:12:00] and, all through the course of that evening.

That would be smart dress, wouldn’t it? You know that, that is Yeah, I, you don’t, you start seeing a sort of lessening of the smart dress as you go into the twenties and thirties, but it would always be best dressed. And I think that if something we forget. Even when you go to the theater in the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, people would dress up.

You would always put on the best clothes that you owned to go to these places. The smartest, the most fashionable. And I know we still do in a way, but it’s different now, isn’t it? 

[00:12:39] Hazel Baker: Yes. Yeah. Very different. But it sounds like a, I suppose they don’t the people that are going to these clubs don’t have to get up for work in the morning.

[00:12:49] Lucy Santos: No. Yeah. Yeah, that’s the thing. May maybe they do, they’re. They’re a they’ve got a, they’re editor of the Times or something. I dunno, they can rock into the office. Late. No one’s really policing them and telling them telling them what to do or where to be.

So yeah, it is it’s the leisured rich on the 

[00:13:13] Hazel Baker: whole Yeah. I suppose also the age has a, when we were 20, we could bounce back from a night out being too worse for Yes. Quite. And 

[00:13:22] Lucy Santos: yeah. It is important to, to remember that. Yeah. Cause I do tend to be like, oh, they’re just so rich. They don’t need to worry.

But yeah. You read. You read autobiographies, you read the books, they’re all getting up the next morning probably to go and have tea with the relatives or something. But they are, yeah, much more energy than I can remember ever having. 

[00:13:43] Hazel Baker: And when we’re talking about the people who the clients if we queuing these venues, what kind of age are they?

Because we’re talking flappers, but also they’re not kids, are 

[00:13:55] Lucy Santos: they? No, again, it’s, you do see some young people going, eighteens, nineteens, twenties. But it is also, it is a place where it would be perfectly normal for someone in their mid-forties to go to a to a nightclub like this.

But often, often really, because these places have chairs and tables. Oh, 

[00:14:22] Hazel Baker: oh, I know how to treat you. 

[00:14:25] Lucy Santos: No, and you can sit down you can, it most of these are cabaret style things, aren’t they? So you’ll, you can go and have a table, and it’s your table that night, and there’s chairs, and you can just sit there and you can dance if you want.

But if you don’t, that’s one of the main differences I think about these nightclubs then and now is chairs and tables. But that might be just cause I’m in my mid-forties. 

[00:14:53] Hazel Baker: I think it sounds very appealing. And also I suppose with the membership fee. The businesses aren’t [00:15:00] having to worry about churning people out like they do nowadays.

There’s no nowhere to, to sit. You’ve gotta stand of course, in your heels. That’s just impossible after half an hour anyway. And so you go somewhere else just to get the more money in. And who are the big people that we know that we’re going to these nightclubs. Then have we got any memoirs or diaries?

[00:15:22] Lucy Santos: Yeah there’s quite there’s quite a few actually. And there’s quite a few. They don’t talk too much about the nightclubs as such. Which is, again, I find very frustrating. They’ll talk about restaurants again. They’ll talk you get the get memoirs where they spend pages and pages talking about the scene and the vibes at the Cafe Royal, for instance.

So they’ll talk about, they’ll spend, oh, Augustus Johns was over there or something, like three pages of that. But nightclubs, it just tends to be things they say, like dropped into the, wherever popped into. Blah, blah, blah. Maybe there might be a little bit of a gossip about someone.

But that’s what we do have, which is really good though, is a few memoirs of the people who ran the clubs. And they are absolutely wonderful. So there’s a woman called Kate Merrick who ran the 43 Club. And we have. Her memoir. And in it I mean it was a big scandal when she wrote it at the time.

It was just before she died, she’d written these memoirs where she indicated that she was gonna give all the secrets of all the, her celebrity and important cleon tell cuz she had for 20 years and had been Giving people illicit booze, sneaking them outta the back. If there was a police raid obviously there’s gonna be more indiscretions that she would’ve witnessed people coming with their, coming to clubs without their, with someone who’s not their partner.

She had hope. She had a whole group of they were called mes maids and they were dance hostesses. There’s a little bit of a blurred line at this period cuz dance hostesses are, Women who will be at these clubs and you can dance with them so you can sort of book them up and dance with them.

So single gentlemen can go to clubs and have a partner to dance with. It gets a little hazy somewhere. Exactly. Where dancing stops and other things start. So she will especially especially with some of Kate Merrick’s women they did go me Dante assesses. There were some rumours about some of them who knew things about their customers.

So she was indicating that she would spill the beans and things like that. So her biography is not as scandalous as you would hope, but really interesting. Her manager, Richard Carlisle who actually managed the clubs for her also wrote a biography. Again, lots of [00:18:00] scandals and lots of interesting bits and pieces and information about.

Drinking. So this is one of the big things about these nightclubs is the tension between legally drinking and illegally drink. So they like a lot about their ways of getting around the licensing laws at the time, which were pretty strict. So what was 

[00:18:19] Hazel Baker: a legal drink above board? What could you have in one of these clubs?


[00:18:24] Lucy Santos: the licensing laws are really complex at this time. When the first hard war comes in we start getting really strict licensing laws. There is a real concern. That people, especially the working classes, who are meant to be making the munitions and working in the factories that they’re drinking too much.

So they put really strict legislation to prevent that. This does off. Obviously stop some of the rich people enjoying themselves as much as they would like. But on the whole, they get away with it. We get new licensing laws in 1921 after the first Lord War has ended, and they are, again, very complicated.

So there’s laws for pubs. There’s laws for private members clubs, there’s laws for dance clubs, there’s laws for restaurants, and they’re all slightly different. But one of the key things is the serving hours. So if you have a license, if you have applied for a proper license and been granted it, you can serve alcohol between certain times.

That’s a fairly standard thing. We see lots of these nightclubs even not bothering with the license. So they just start serving alcohol and hope they don’t get caught. They usually do. There’s lots of police raids at this time, but what happens? They just move somewhere else. They don’t, it doesn’t really matter.

And you can make so much money in such a short time from selling alcohol especially if it’s a, a late night club or an a, one that hasn’t a license. You can pretty much charge what you want. Other clubs. You just, again, it’s like a lock in, isn’t it? You just carry on serving after the time that you’re permitted to Kate Merick at the 43 Club now.

She started off not having a license and there’s great stories of her serving. Serving neat liquor in teacups. Which would more stop, you’d more think about American prohibition than here. Yeah, I got 

[00:20:18] Hazel Baker: put phone in my head 

[00:20:19] Lucy Santos: then. Yeah, exactly. So she was serving alcohol in teacups and if they were raided, everyone chopped the alcohol on the floor and.

Pretended they were drinking tea. A bit later she got her proper license, but just carried on serving after hours. And there was different prices, so if you ordered a bottle of champagne during legal hours, it was, a certain amount. If you wanted a bottle of champagne or a bottle of whiskey, cuz they served whiskey.

I love this idea. Not only were there tables, but you could order a bottle of whiskey and they just bring it to you. So you know, you could order that, but it would be triple or quadruple the amount after hours, and so would cigarettes and food and any of those things. [00:21:00] So they would make an absolute packet with those late night drinking, 

[00:21:04] Hazel Baker: I suppose.

I suppose where you coming back to where the point where you’re saying like the clubs are ephemeral, if they’re needing to shut down, they can do, because the emphasis isn’t on the actual physical location of the premises. 

[00:21:17] Lucy Santos: Yeah. And sometimes it’s important to obscure where the premises is.

I mentioned Kate Merrick a lot because she is one of, the biggest names, especially in these sort of illegal and slightly dodgy nightclubs. But she, at the 43 Club that she had she started off on the ground floor that got raided and closed down. So she opened the another club, which was called the St.

John’s Club on the floor above. She obviously owned, or, leased the entire building. So the St. John’s Club opened on the first floor. But everyone still called it the 43. And you, they would pretend to go to the first floor and actually go to the bottom floor and carry on as normal. And then, so John’s got closed.

So she went to the next floor, and then by the and once you get raided, you get, you might lose your license for 18 months or something. So by the time that she’d worked her way up the top of the building, the original 43 was open again. So she just went straight back there. It’s just going up and down in this building.

And she did this with other places as well. There was a location on Regent Street, I think it’s 180 Regent Street, and she had the silver slipper in the basement. And then there was another club like on the first floor, around the back. And that is just, the licensing laws were quite strict, but there were so many loopholes.

Yeah. And people were just exploiting them as much as they could. 

[00:22:40] Hazel Baker: She’s a woman in business in the early 20th century in something that’s actually quite high risk out. You’re talking about police raids and that, there’s, she was a mom, wasn’t she as well? So how did she look at it all and what got her into it?

[00:22:55] Lucy Santos: She’s an absolutely fascinating example. I dunno even know what in, I don’t even know what I was gonna say. An example of what, she has a fascinating story. So she was born in Ireland was married to a doctor in like in the southeast, I think it was, is a bit hazy exactly what happened.

They divorced, she said that he’d had an affair. He always denied it, that type of thing. But she was left with five kids to. The upshot is she had five kids that she needed to support. So she had a bit of money. Her family was wealthy, so she had a bit of money and she basically seemed adverts in the paper for an investor and a manager in a nightclub.

And she’s. She basically answered it, invested some money. Again, it’s a little hazy. Exactly. And these things where legends starts and actual truth begins, that type of thing. Yeah. She somehow she got in there, she ran, and this club was called Dalton’s. It’s in the basement and next door to the EAM Theater, which is now the Odn and.

Where [00:24:00] her partner was was John Dalton or Jack Dalton. Yeah. So she starts running this club. And it becomes really popular really quickly. It also gets raided very quickly cause they do not have a license. And when they get raided there’s quite a few court cases around it because it’s the undercover police who have been in there and been watching them for a long time say that there’s lots of sex workers on site.

 So there’s court cases and trials and all sorts of things. They lose their license, but she’s already opened another club. We, Kate Merrick’s always opening clubs all the time. So she’s already opened another club on Char Cross Road. And that gets raided, but she’d already opened a 43.

It’s a license to print money at this time. And she is incredibly clever. But yeah, also has to be incredibly tough as well. She’s. Right on. She’s right on the line with the law most of the time. Sometimes obviously she’s crossing over, but she tries as much as she can while still wanting all the money and the profits of course.

But she, and she goes to prison. So she’s very clever with her. Her Dodgers, but she ends up going to prison. I think it’s at least three times. And she’s not a young woman at this point, so she’s going to she’s going to prison for six months. It breaks her, it’s hard, she’s, she sent her six months hard labour for this, and it really does break her.

But. She’s done what she wanted to do, which is again, a really fascinating thing is she’s made so much money, she’s now living in a mansion just off regions Park. She’s also married off at least two of her daughters at this point to Anility. One of her daughters is married, the Duke of and the other one, the Earl of so and so she’s done really well there. So she’s got connection, she’s got money and she’s also got an empire. So she keeps opening nightclubs, but she then gives some of them to her daughter. So one of her daughters runs the silver slipper on region streets. It’s really hard to actually unpick their empire cuz they use fake names and register companies and all sorts of things.

But she’s got loads of nightclubs and her kids are running all of them. So she is like the queen of Soho, queen of even heading into Mayfair area at this point. 

[00:26:23] Hazel Baker: Wow. So she must have been William Johnson’s Hicks Thorn in his side. Then. He must have absolutely hated the idea of her getting away with so much.

But it might be worth telling the audience who exactly he is, first of all. 

[00:26:42] Lucy Santos: Yes, so we have a police and we have A government in the late twenties who are really cracking down on nightclubs. And we have the home secretary, the police commissioners, and all of those are they’re calling these places, the scourge of London essentially.

And [00:27:00] Hicks, or JS as he’s called is one who. Who is determined to take down nightclubs, absolutely determined to if he, if there was a movie of this, I’m not sure if he’s ever played in, in, I dunno if, whether they do Peaky Blinders or something when they come down to London whether he’s ever in of this.

But he is in a frothing rage about nightclubs. He thinks they are dens of iniquity. He’s a very religious man. He hates everything about them. So he, I. The amount of money and police time that was spent in closing down these or trying to close down these nightclubs is absolutely. I’ve read so many of the files.

The police files, they would go to nightclubs every night of the week. Two or three police officers would go sit there in plain clothes, noting down every single thing that was happening, whether someone had been served a drink after 1101. Whether that woman over there was talking to someone that looked like she was transacting something.

Some of the clubs they were going to whether white women and black men were dancing. And it’s always that combination that they’re very concerned about. They’d even go to the very few gay night clubs at the time and they would That man and that other man are dancing too closely together, these types of things.

We saw a man walking after another man into the toilet, and there’s just pages and pages of these logs leading up to the raids. And then there are tons of raids. He tries, or the home secretary and the police commissioners are trying to break the industry. So one night in 1927, they raid like 10 or 11 clubs.

Like simultaneously. And they’re trying to make it that they’re trying to make it a place that you should be scared to go to. So at the beginning, the idea that the police might come in and raid the club see is part of the sort of free song of it, isn’t it? You’re drinking your alcohol and your teacup, maybe the police will come, but you are rich, so who cares?

And that’s 

[00:28:57] Hazel Baker: it. And you’re young, so you’re invincible. 

[00:29:00] Lucy Santos: Yeah, and you you’re be Worcester, you might get hold up for the judge, but he’s the father. He’s the father of the woman that your aunt wants you to marry or something like that. There’s load like that so it doesn’t matter. But by the late 1920s and you start getting these serious rates it starts becoming much more much more scary.

And there’s one raid in 19 seven at the Kit Kat Club which is just off Piccadilly Circus. Either the Prince of Wales had just been there or was about to be there. But that was when they realized that the stakes had been right, raised because you don’t mess with where the, the Prince is, or any of the royal family.

They had always been if they were there, no one would raid that night. But it starts getting serious when even the Prince of Wales is not. Safe in a nightclub. Not saying that he would be hauled up for the judge or anything, but his employment of the evening would’ve been re impaired by something like that.

Oh, and what was 

[00:30:01] Hazel Baker: The end then? Was this a war on morals or cleansing of morals? What was going on? 

[00:30:09] Lucy Santos: All sorts of, yes, all sorts of things. There’s a real tension in the twenties. I said during First World War, you start getting this idea that people are drinking, not first starting inside, but there’s, people are drinking too much.

There’s the rise of prohibition which is a worldwide movement. So there is too much alcohol in society that needs to be cramped down on. Obviously in the 19. Twenties in the US they have they enact prohibition. This is a national agreement or national law that you’re not gonna be drinking in public.

Probation in the US was considered to be, what a success. It was considered to be the start of all the other countries following in line. With that. So it was really considered at the time that England might go dry at some point. So these nightclubs and this, the amount of nightclubs and general boo cuz they are very boozy places is a real kicking the teeth for prohibition campaigners.

So yeah, so you really. They really hate these places. And they hate everything about them. They hate the dancing. So the dancing, we start, we’ve moved from Tangos, which is vaguely acceptable. You’d allow your daughter to tango at the sevo of an afternoon. Would you allow your daughter to Charleston or black bottom at the kit casts or the cat?

In the 1920s, would you allow your daughter to listen to the African American jazz musicians that are incredibly popular? We coming in from like 1919 you start seeing jazz coming in and then you see Charleston and all of these things that. Everything that these moral campaigners do not want.

In London, they don’t, they do not want the drinking. They do not want the sexy dancing. And this is one of the things I always have a rant about when I watch strictly when they do the Charleston and it’s them pretending to be Dick Vandyke and Mary Poppins doing their John two Charleston. I’m like, this was a dangerous dance.

This was considered to be highly immoral and. Sexy, and I love it when they do. The Charleston that’s actually bit snobby mean, like a proper, what I would think of as a twenties nightclub. Charleston. It was sexy. The black bottom dance is a sexy dance. So yeah, these are everything they hate.

Dresses as well. Women’s, this is also the period where women’s skirt length start going up a little bit. I was going to 

[00:32:41] Hazel Baker: say, you see this in Downton Abbey, don’t you? At the very beginning, in 1912, you can’t even see their ankles. And then by the time the 1920s you’re getting just below the knee.


[00:32:52] Lucy Santos: And especially in nightclubs, these are, often basements. Some of them have air conditioning, but not all of them.[00:33:00] And the air conditioning probably isn’t that great anyway. And so we start seeing dance especially evening outfits where there’s sleeveless dresses.

So showing, we’re showing off our arms. The hems are going up on the skirts. Heaven for fence. Someone might take their stocking off if they’re hot. So we’re starting seeing flesh, and then there’s flesh and then dancing, and then drinking and smoking and makeup. You can see why these three faces wouldn’t be very popular.

I, I 

[00:33:33] Hazel Baker: suppose also when you’re talking about the hemlines going up with that, these legs are also moving. They’re not just sitting de mulling in a seat, are they? If you’re going to be doing the dancing. So they’re gonna ride up 

[00:33:44] Lucy Santos: even more. Yeah. They, and they’re gonna be hitched up as well yeah. We’re in, you’re getting into, you’re doing your down and dirty Charleston, you’re pulling up on your dresses. This is also a period where women would rouge their knees cause they were showing off their knees at dancing or sitting or things like that.

So there’s focus on bits of the body as well. Like the knees or the thighs or the arms. Yeah. And yeah anyway, they’re moving. They’re sweaty as well. Sweater is also one of the things women do not sweat. Yeah. Of course. So there’s sweatt going on. You also at this time see the rise of deodorants as well.

 Razors shaving their legs, shaving their armpits. These are all things, it’s outta control, quite frankly. 

[00:34:34] Hazel Baker: So is it more a control on morals or is it more control on women? 

[00:34:41] Lucy Santos: Both. It is all linked to the fear or all linked to the concern that women’s private public spaces is opening out.

You can see it in restaurants as well when you start seeing more restaurants accepting single women or groups of women to come and have lunch or dinner, that wouldn’t be, that wouldn’t be some that wouldn’t be acceptable in the previous century, but now we start seeing a woman having lunch on her own.

Ooh. I know. It’s just I just, ugh I’m getting quite dizzy just thinking about it, but, having children going somewhere on their own groups of women going on their own, not being chaperoned you. So yeah you’ve got this concern about what women are doing and where they’re doing it, and Kate Merrick is not a good example of this issue.

She is. On her own, running these businesses out all night, doing all of these things. And Kate Merrick is particularly, there are other club owners doing the same as her, but the fact that she’s a woman is a is even more rage inducing, I would say, for the authorities. Yeah, so there’s all that, but there’s also the general morals.

There’s a concern, there’s a concern in the 20th century that, yeah, it’s all wrapped up in racism and eugenics and all of these things, but the [00:36:00] though we’ve lost our moral compass People are, as a country, we’re not as strong as we used to be. So these are all things, it’s all wrapped up in, in all of those all of those discussions that are being had outside, they’re being outside of nightclubs are being had about the education system, the general health of the population, the food that they need, everything like that.

There’s just this concern for the moral morality of the country and the. Not only the relative of the country, but the actual continuance of the British Empire as well, isn’t it? It’s all of these things. Yeah. The early 20th century is a roter for all of these types of discussions.

[00:36:41] Hazel Baker: I think what’s different here compared to other lockdown of behaviour in previous centuries, is that usually it’s the poor people that. Get the treatment, but with the nightclubs, these are the top elite. So is this because they’re also the, they’re going to be the offices and the generals in the army and leading society.

Is this where they’re so talking from, you’re focusing on the top now rather than on the mass of the people. Is that where they were going? 

[00:37:15] Lucy Santos: Yeah, partially. There is a concern that. This weakness has extended everywhere even to the nobility. I think also with the nightclubs and yeah, it’s, there is a broad spectrum of nightclubs as you can imagine.

There are the top ones. I’ve also talked about there some of the queer spaces, some of the places that I. I’d also say that most of these nightclubs are white only as well. So once you start finding nightclubs that are being run by Jewish people, nightclubs that are being run by queer people and being run by and for that community as well.

They, those clubs really get the brunt. So the posh clubs, the police will come in and, blow their whistles and everyone’s out. And you have to take the names and see you in court the next day. The places that are considered to be even less Even more of a moralistic issue. You’ll see arrests on the night, you’ll see people dragged to prison.

You’ll see their details being leaked to the papers as well. On the whole, the rates and the top clubs, you don’t see the names of the people who were. You were detained or sent home or whatever, when you get those spaces where it’s considered to be like I said the, there’s a quote that I’m trying to to think about, but it’s really difficult cause the language they use about these places is also so awful.

It’s difficult to describe exactly how they were. Thought of. But yeah, there was no pity, no sympathy, nothing for those people. Those people’s names would be in the press the next day. Especially the [00:39:00] gay club braids long lists of every man that found their name, their age, their occupation, they would lose their jobs.

This is high stakes stuff. Yeah. You can see a difference within these spaces, the way the people were treated. But yeah, there is that feeling that even at the top levels of society, are betters even they are part of this moral generosity that is affecting the whole country and that needs to be stamped out.

And the other thing with the central nightclubs, like the Kit Kat of Wiil and all of these big ones is that they’re very they’re tourist sites as well. They are places where Where Americans will come to overseas visitors will come to. And there’s the idea that we don’t want our London to look like that.

We don’t want that to be the impression that these visitors get of London, of these drunkie, birdie, Worcester types. Drinking all their champagne and then getting in their car, which they can park obviously right outside the nightclub, get in and drive home. That’s not the type of thing that they want to.

To show and also. When there’s lots of money and lots of illegal stuff, we also start seeing gangsters coming in. And that’s not the side of London they want to show. Soho is obviously, brimming with tur wars and gangsters and people controlling different pockets of it.

And occasionally they would erupt into fights and these would often be late at night in nightclubs as well. So these are not the cla, this is not the, this is not our London, I think is the message. 

[00:40:38] Hazel Baker: Yeah. And what about bigger things like the Great Depression, how did that impact on the nightclub scene in London specifically?

[00:40:45] Lucy Santos: We do see, we start seeing a lot a lot less Americans coming in. And American money is quite key in the year, especially after the first World War. We see a lot of American servicemen around. We see a lot of after prohibitions enacted rich Americans would come to London. To drink.

That would be part of a thing to do. So we see, so with the depression, we start seeing a lot less people coming in the hotels, for instance, their bookings are down. So we just see a lot less money swi around in general. And yes, there are casualties and onto the British and ability as well.

People lose their money, they lose their, their savings. I dunno how much it is to do with the depression. Or the crackdowns or any of these things, or just a natural cycle. But into the thirties, we start seeing a different style of nightclub, which is usually about, it’s exploiting a different type of loophole, but also, I would have to say that I think the depression does affect as well, because once you start seeing a massive shift in a style of something, you have to look around and see what’s exactly happening in society [00:42:00] that would make that, and it’s not always, they’ve changed the law.

There’s different rhythms and different patterns and different types of money and availability of money coming in. Yeah. And 

[00:42:14] Hazel Baker: how do you think London’s nightclubs contributed to the city’s artistic side, and the cultural elements as well? These were beautiful places that they spent their time, so they must have been quite opulent inside.

Did that reflect on anything else that we saw later on in London, the hotels or anything? 

[00:42:32] Lucy Santos: Wherever you get a group of like-minded people, and they would be like-minded people. The arty people would find, their place the sporty people would find their place. The people who liked the all right, the people who, who liked, what did they call it?

They called it slumming. So the posh people going to some of these slightly illegal nightclubs, they’d call it slumming. Although the descriptions of these nightclubs do not sound like slumming as far as I’m concerned. It’s all beautiful designer chairs and art. This Yeah, so you, you get different pockets of people and, relationships are formed.

 So you find some artistic clubs. So the Gargoyle, which I mentioned earlier, that was considered to be a very artistic place. They had oh it was all decorated by Matisse and absolutely sumptuous surroundings. And it would be the place for artists, people to go. They offered a discount on membership for the deserving artistic, who as well was one of those things.

So that’s basically posh people who want to be artists who aren’t, maybe they’ve been cut off in the family wealth or something. I think 

[00:43:42] Hazel Baker: that Fred went to that one in 19 eight. Okay. He was performing at what’s the Empire Theater in Lester Square now. That makes sense. Yeah, 

[00:43:54] Lucy Santos: yeah.

Sometimes you get the artists being supported as well. There was a the Cave of the Golden, which was around about 1913 and the owner. But there was lots of the artists around at the time as she got them to paint the walls and paint the walls, decorate the walls, put a mural on They, they performed there as well, did readings and things like that.

So all of that st that stimulates that artistic scene, doesn’t it? Yeah, 

[00:44:19] Hazel Baker: it does, don’t they? And what were the popular drinks then? I know you mentioned whiskey and champagne, but were there any particular iconic cocktails and unusual ingredients that they were 

[00:44:31] Lucy Santos: using? Again, depends where you are. So if you are at one of those illicit clubs, you are gonna be drinking gin, whiskey, champagne, things that are easily Easily hidden, but easily put back into the back room.

In terms of the, in terms of extending outta that nightclub space into restaurants and cocktail bars as well the big cocktail bar at this point is the Sevo American Bar. And it’s the bartender, Harry [00:45:00] Craddick is in there from the 1920s. In 1930 he publishes the Sevo cocktail book.

It’s still, original editions of it goes for thousands of pounds. It’s still being reprinted today. I think it’s couple of thousand recipes, and they include all the classics. So you’ll see the Manhattans and the martinis. What else do you have there? Yeah. All of those wonderful classic ones.

My favorite drink from the period comes from 1934 I think it is. And it’s called the 20th Century. And this is named after the 20th Century train which is Chicago to New York to Chicago. And in the early thirties, they re they had been running for quite a long time that route, but they’d re rejected and made this beautiful art deco streamlined locomotive the 20th century, and then carriage beautiful 20 beautiful art deco carriages.

As a absolutely gorgeous beautiful train. So they came up with a cocktail to celebrate it. And I was, oh yes. And it’s 1930s and a glass, I would say 40 milliliters. Dry gin. 20 liters li 20 milliliters. A chocolatey liquor, that’s key thing. Oh. And then the rest is lemon juice.

It’s that mixture of a chocolatey, a laure. So it’s a creamy, chocolatey laure. And lemon. And now you think that would split, but it’s actually, yeah. Absolutely beautiful. Actually no, you wouldn’t be able to use Bailey’s cause it’s too creamy. I might have to try and remember what exact What is that name of that?

I’ve got some I’ve got 

[00:46:46] Hazel Baker: some chocolate Mozart, Laure. I think that, I’m thinking that might work. 

[00:46:52] Lucy Santos: It’s a one but it’s quite a thick, clear. Anyway, it’s absolutely beautiful and that chocolate tea in lemon is so gorgeous. And now that was created By the bartender at the Cafe Royal Uhhuh in the early 1930s.

And it was so beautiful and actually it is still on the menu there. A couple of years ago, it was a couple years ago, I went back, I went into the Cafe Royal they’ve got that green bar there, and yeah, I went and had one and it was just so beautiful. And it’s called the 20th Century and it wasn’t one of the hugest of most popular cocktails of the time.

But I think it’s absolutely stunning and it’s, created in by the bartender in one of the London hotels. I just, I think that’s a great little story. 

[00:47:43] Hazel Baker: Fantastic. I find it creme ak. I had creme dement in my mind going, no, that’s the wrong thing. But I knew, oh, fantastic.

I might have to venture to there myself, the Cafe Royal, and [00:48:00] have a 20th century cocktail. 

[00:48:02] Lucy Santos: It is beautiful. It’s really nice. I’m sitting in, in, it’s not the exact spot, but sitting in the place where it was made is pretty special. Thank. 

[00:48:12] Hazel Baker: Yeah, it is something special bringing it home like that.

Now, my final question to you is looking back at the 1920s and thirties, and specifically, which aspects of London’s nightclub scene do you believe to have been the most impact on city’s nightlife and culture today? 

[00:48:34] Lucy Santos: I actually think it’s the bad things about it that has the most impact.

I think it is that moralistic posturing of the police. I think it is the legacy of the raids the overtrick licensing. I think we’re left with a lot of. The tail end of that. And that came that, that went into the second World War. It went into the fifties, it went into the sixties.

It, and it, further on and it’s still with us today. I saw a really interesting discussion on Twitter the other day, which was about soho. And it was about cuz Greg’s is looking for a late night license to have, I’ve seen this. And the 

[00:49:18] Hazel Baker: police are worried about bad behaviour.

Yeah. And they’re selling roles. 

[00:49:22] Lucy Santos: Yeah. And yeah it’s the opening hours. People do live there clearly, it’s the whole thing. But I, one of the comments underneath the whole, there was a whole dis, a whole thread and a whole discussion about it was some was about how in the good old days people didn’t drink and behave in soho like they do today.

And I just thought that’s an absolute nonsense. We’ve always used those public spaces, those public central London spaces as a playground to have some of our. Worst behaviours. I’ve certainly had some of my worst lings around there. It’s always been like that and always will be like that.

What I think is the legacy is that moralistic aspect of it that it, there’s always that idea that it was better in the good old days and it definitely wasn’t. So I think that’s our legacy that we look. That. I think that’s the strange, weird legacy that we can still look back on that fairly recent history and still think that it’s better than it is today, even though it’s arguably absolutely exactly the same with people pushing the loopholes, push people staying up too late, drinking too much, having all that bad behaviour.

But it’s that moralistic attitude towards it that I think means that no one’s ever really got to grasp with it. No one’s ever been able to effectively Effectively look after that area and that space. Because we’re always too busy judging the behaviors there, rather than actually dealing with them in a modern, sensible way.

I [00:51:00] a lot of. A lot of people would also say that’s an issue with English particularly, or British drinking culture as well. But it’s that sort of, all of that in a microcosm. 

[00:51:11] Hazel Baker: Yeah, I think, yeah, you’re right. I think with someone commenting about that, there is a danger of looking through rose-tinted glasses when you’re looking back in history and you can all, all you’d have to do is look at Hogarth’s Gin Lane, or Indeed in, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when he’s writing about the French mothers feeding their children gin first thing in the morning.

That’s the 1880s. So behaviours have changed in one way or another. It maybe it is just that it’s the lack of knowledge and education and also that holding onto a comfort blanket that actually didn’t exist. Yeah, 

[00:51:49] Lucy Santos: absolutely. 

[00:51:50] Hazel Baker: No, that’s absolutely brilliant, Lucy. There’s so much to get involved in here, isn’t it?

You start talking about one thing and it leads to another, and there’s also this big cycle of how all the elements in terms of the style of dancing and the drinking and the costumes and the behaviour of the clients. And also then the behaviour of the managers and the police.

They just feed into each other, don’t 

[00:52:16] Lucy Santos: they? It is such a rich area of history, a rich area of, so social and cultural history. I, I hope it is probably quite clear, I’m very passionate about this area of history. I think there’s a lot to learn from nightclub history.


[00:52:35] Hazel Baker: Now, Lucy, thank you so much. Thank you for having me. That’s all for now. Until next time.


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