Bliss and Blitz

Cocktails and laughter – but what comes after?
Noel Coward – On with the Dance (1925)

The roaring twenties were a decade of excess and an overflow of creative energy. Novels by Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald captured the mood. Jazz took the world by storm and silent movies dominated the big screen. The 1920s changed London’s West End by transforming its nightlife. By the end of the decade, generally referred to as the Jazz Age, over fifty licensed night clubs were operating in and around London, many patronized by upper class socialites. This post-war generation, themselves too young to have experienced the nightmare of the trenches, was an eclectic set of young people with more money than sense. Known as the Bright Young People, these aristocrats, middle class money makers, and bohemian artists lived a hedonistic and alcoholic life, furnishing the press with a flow of scandalous snippets of a so-called youth culture. Their parties were renowned and attracted interest and indignation from the side of press and public. Gossip columns flourished as never before in papers and periodicals, foreshadowing the celebrity culture of today. Some members of that crowd, Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford, Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman and others, later became household names.

The quest for pleasure came at a price. Like elsewhere in Europe, despair about the Old Continent’s political and economic future was hidden behind a façade of fast living, frivolous partying, and ‘stylized’ debauchery. This was a tormented and aimless generation, brought up in the shadow of a war for which Europe had suffered so greatly. Their progress through the painful 1930s, when times were hard and another war hung over the horizon, often led to drink, drugs and alienation. The atmosphere was captured in 1929 by Evelyn Waugh’s fictional account of the 1920s in Vile Bodies. Photographer Cecil Beaton has left a visual history of this social phenomenon. Having learned the professional craft of photography at the fashionable London studio of Paul Tanqueray, he was employed by Vogue in 1927 and subsequently set up his own studio. One of his first clients was Stephen Tennant. This young aristocrat and lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon whose brother had been killed in the war, enjoyed a notorious reputation for his decadent lifestyle (he claimed to have spent most of his life in bed). Beaton’s photographs of Tennant and his circle are considered some of the best representations of the Bright Young People of the later twenties.

One of the significant aspects of the 1920s in London was the explosion of unlicensed clubs that operated on the fringes of the criminal underworld. However determined the police were to crack down on out-of-hours drinking, youngsters were determined to get round the law. This they did through so-called bottle parties which were organized by a ‘host’ and were held on private premises. The host was expected to provide live music, an elegant dancefloor (the Charleston was the craze of the age), impeccable waiters and sophisticated surroundings. The venues rarely opened before midnight and closed in the early morning. Queen of the bottle party was ‘Ma Meyrick’, an Irish immigrant who became a celebrity for her ingenuity in evading the licensing laws. Kate Evelyn Nason was born in August 1875 at no. 24 Cambridge Terrace, Dun Laoghaire (then: Kingstown), a privileged seaside suburb of Dublin. Within a year her father, a prosperous Protestant medic, died. Her mother re-married a Lancashire clergy man. At the age of seven her mother died as well. Kate returned to Ireland as an orphan and lived with her grandmother in a house called Fairyland, where she was educated by governesses. About 1890 she attended Alexandra College, South Dublin, which is a prestigious private school established in 1866 educating girls in a ‘Church of Ireland ethos’. From an early age, Kate set out to prove her independent mind. She claimed to have been the first woman to ride a bicycle in Dublin. In December 1899, she married Ferdinand Richard Holmes Merrick, a Dublin physician and specialist in nerve diseases. They adopted the gentrified name-spelling of Meyrick. After moving to England, Ferdinand practised medicine at Southsea before moving to Basingstoke.

By 1909 Kate Meyrick was ten years married, mother of three daughters and three sons, and bored with respectability and family life. About 1912, she left with her children, drifting for a year from one seaside town to another before returning to her husband. During the war she took lessons in hypnotism and practised suggestive therapeutics on shell-shocked and nerve patients who had been sent back from the battlefields. At the end of the Great War however the marriage finally collapsed. In 1919 Kate moved to London where she managed and part-owned Dalton’s Club in Leicester Square. The club had the dubious reputation of a pick-up place for the lost and the louche. London was full of desperate young men who had recently returned from the battle fields. It was a disillusioned generation of soldiers, haunted by memories of death and destruction, unable to find work and rebuild their shattered lives, and searching for whatever form of escape they could find from the new burdens of isolated life in the urban wilderness. For the price of a couple of quid Kate’s girls would offer them sympathy, shelter and sex. Under the licensing laws of this period, closing-up time was at ten, but Ma Meyrick disregarded such prudish austerities with Irish bravado. Accordingly the police raided her place. When she appeared in court on vice charges, she insisted that the West End was a hotbed of lawlessness and that her girls were bringing comfort to the ‘terribly disfigured boys’ who had returned from the war. In spite of her social mission, Kate was fined for keeping disorderly premises, and the club closed shortly afterwards.

In 1921, she opened her own night club, named the 43, at no. 43 Gerrard Street, Soho, the house where John Dryden had lived since 1687 and died in 1700. The 43 became a fashionable jazz night club. Amongst its members in the mid-1920s were artists like Augustus John and Jacob Epstein and writers such as Joseph Conrad and J.B. Priestley. In 1922 American violinist and bandleader Paul Specht formed a ‘Sweet Music’ band with Charlie Kunz as leader, and succeeded in obtaining a sixteen week booking at the Trocadero in Piccadilly. Although influenced by jazz giants from Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong, the sound of the sweet band was in many ways an outgrowth from the big city society orchestra of the 1910s. The early sweet bands paved the way for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When the engagement ended, Charlie Kunz stayed on and formed his first British band which debuted with providing musical accompinament for the diners at the sumptuous Lyons Popular Café, Piccadilly, which offered seating for 2,000 customers. His success was such that Kate booked the band to perform in the 43 where he experienced, in his own words, ‘some exciting times’. It was the beginning of a splendid career in Britain. In 1933, he started a one year residency at Casani’s Club, run by former dance champion Santos Casani. It was while appearing at Casani’s that Charlie started his BBC broadcasts, bringing him fame with a much larger audience. A newcomer, Vera Lynn, was his vocalist at the club. She made her very first record and broadcast with Charlie. Eventually, Kunz became a popular piano soloist and Vera won the war for Britain.

Initially Kate Meyrick kept within the law, but then began supplying alcohol in defiance of the Licensing Act of 1921 which limited opening hours to eight hours a day with afternoon closing, and just five hours on a Sunday. Alcohol was not the only problem to the authorities. Outrageous American actress Tallulah Bankhead, a legend in her own time, often performed in London during the 1920s and frequented the 43 Club. She and Kate were one of a kind. Possessed of a relentless energy, Tallulah smoked over one hundred cigarettes per day, drank gin and bourbon like water, and carried with her a suitcase full of drugs to either help her sleep or keep her wide awake. It was rumoured that she was engaged in numerous affairs with both men and women. Her salty language and outrageous behaviour were considered shocking by many of her contemporaries. She was addicted to cocaine. Club 43 was said to be the centre of drug dealing in London’s West End. The venue was raided on numerous occasions, but drug dealers were relatively safe because of a hidden escape route leading into nearby Newport Place. The first raid on the premises took place in February 1922. In 1924 Conservative Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks (known as Jix) set out to suppress London night clubs with a puritanical zeal. The authorities distrusted the clubs’ undermining of social barriers. Regulars of the 43 included politicians, officers of distinguished regiments, members of the peerage, and rich young City magnates. They mingled not only with dancers, prostitutes, and dodgy businessmen, but also with criminals and delinquents. The upper classes had to be protected from their own weaknesses. The 43, which Evelyn Waugh depicted as the ‘Old Hundredth’ (also the name of a well known hymn tune) in his 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, was raided by the police in July and once again in November 1924. Ma Meyrick was sentenced to six months for selling liquor without a licence. Her clients, including the King of Romania and the Crown Prince of Sweden, protested against her imprisonment.

In addition to the 43, Kate owned other clubs, notably the Silver Slipper in Regent Street, a venue where the walls were painted with Italian scenes and the dancefloor was made from glass (raided on Christmas Eve 1927), and the Manhattan in Denman Street (raided in May 1928), together with an interest in the Folies Bergères in Newman Street. In 1926 her celebrity was enhanced when her second daughter, Dorothy Evelyn, married Edward Russell, 26th Baron de Clifford. The latter was an enthusiastic follower of Oswald Moseley being described by Time magazine as an ‘ardent British Fascist’. He had frequently spoken in the House urging that driving laws be tightened and more strictly upheld (his father had been killed in a road accident). In 1935, in a notorious case, he was acquitted for the manslaughter of Douglas George Hopkins caused by driving his Lancia sports car on the wrong side of the road. This was to be the last trial held in the House of Lords, since the right of peers to be tried by their peers for felonies was abolished in 1948. After that, Russell made no more speeches in the House of Lords for nearly forty years. Two years later, another Meyrick daughter, Mary Ethel Isobel, was married to George Harley Hay-Drummond, 14th Earl of Kinnoull in the Scottish peerage. Success was sweet to Ma Meyrick, but the bliss did not last.

Kate Meyrick’s nemesis was Sergeant George Goddard of the Metropolitan Police. He had led the first raid on the 43 in February 1922. In November 1928 Goddard was found to have accrued over £12,000 which was a substantial sum of money considering a policeman’s wage. He had been taking £100 a week from Ma Meyrick in protection money, with other little earners on the side. This time Ma Meyrick was hit with fifteen months imprisonment for bribery and corruption. Financially, the raids had a desastrous effect and the value of her holdings plummeted. Once released from prison, she resumed business, but the Metropolitan Police by now were far more efficient and ruthless in throttling London night life. Kate was back inside for six months in late 1930 and again in mid-1931. Poor conditions at Holloway prison weakened her health and she died in 1933 of broncho-pneumonia. Shortly before her death she composed her memoirs entitled Secrets of the 43 (1933). The book was banned. Maybe the title was too suggestive. Although her story is innocuous by contemporary standards, it shows a number of then prominent people in a very poor light. Censorship was a means of protecting members of one’s own class.

On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, stock prices on Wall Street collapsed. The subsequent great slump in Europe was rooted in the economic consequences of World War I, the most devastating war in terms of human losses and material damage ever fought. This destruction was further magnified by the insistence of London and Paris on crippling reparations to be paid by a defeated and humiliated Germany – in spite of Keynes’s warnings about the dangers of such policy. European economic stagnation proved catastrophic. Kate Meyrick’s dramatic career in many ways encapsulates this dark episode of European history. She was the product of her age, a feminist who rejected traditional concepts of the family and became an intrepid entrepreneur who challenged the cosy status quo of a male dominated London bureaucracy by flouting all the rules imposed upon her. Her phenomenal success as a businesswoman and club owner coincided with the roaring excesses of the 1920s. The social spectacle could and did not continue. By 1931, England was in deep financial crisis. Kate was in prison, ill, and approaching the end of her life. She died at the early age of fifty-seven. By then, the bright lights of London had dimmed and darkened. The Blitz would follow.