The Disreputable W1!



So, you’re at a grand party in a Park Lane mansion and get a bit tipsy. Seducing a beautiful woman, you tiptoe to a bedroom with her. In the morning, by way of thanks, you send her a diamond. Unfortunately it turns out to be one of the German Crown Jewels, which are not yours to give. The Kaiser is angry, the lady refuses to return the gift, an international incident threatens to break…

It’s just another day in the life of a London home, this one being Grosvenor House, owned by the Duke of Westminster. Once it was filled with art that included seven Rembrandt portraits. Now it’s filled with reps getting hammered while Jimmy Carr presents advertising awards. London’s present isn’t what it used to be.

Yes, I’ve been at the research again, and here are a few other London snippets I’ve uncovered about the history of the West End, which could be defined as that area loosely covering Marylebone, Fitzrovia, Soho and Mayfair – anywhere with a W.1. postcode. (Bloomsbury remains genteelly aligned to Holborn, and St James’s is too royal to be described as ‘up West’.)

A Mayfair address has never been an assurance of good behaviour, even if the ladies changed their outfits four times a day. When Hitler-acolyte Ronnie Greville, whose husband had been part of Edward VII’s circle, handed Bacon, her paralytic butler, a note at her dinner party that read; ‘You’re drunk. Leave the room at once’, Bacon promptly passed it on to Tory grandee Austin Chamberlain, who sat in silent mortification for the rest of the night.

In Fitzrovia, the WAM Nina Hamnett (Writer, Artist, Model) slid from glamorous confidante of Picasso, Diaghilev and Cocteau to dissipated dipso, finally throwing herself onto spiked railings after becoming convinced she’d been slandered in a radio play.

Over at the Fitzroy Tavern, where Hamnett drank, the house cocktail created by Aleister Crowley was a Kubla Kahn No 2 – gin, vermouth and laudanum. Beat that, Soho House.

In Regent Street, pseudonymous oriental drug peddler Brilliant Chang (the first name was popular in Victorian times, the surname was slang for cocaine) was hunted down by police even as idolizing women ran their fingers through his hair, and London society was shocked when West End nightclub doyenne Kate Meyrick was sentenced to jail for serving liquor without a license, mainly because no-one had ever seen her in broad daylight before.

In wartime West End, Fascists controlled every aspect of Italian life in London until blacklists weeded out many, including the manager of Claridge’s hotel (a sad story that needs more coverage here one day), and waiters from the Ritz were ejected mid-shift.

The area’s polyglot nature proved a natural draw for a broad variety of cultures, and Americans always fascinated. The US army’s intelligence boys, described as being like ‘jeune filles en fleur straight from a finishing school’, trained their agents in Berkeley Square and lived where Ian Fleming was to write his spy novels. At least they didn’t leak our secrets to their press back then.

London’s West End owed much of its reputation to the sensational headlines of the Sunday papers, who gleefully reported back whenever toffs behaved poorly in nightclubs, a habit they continue to this day. The likes of Colin MacInnes and Muriel Belcher were legendary in terms of notoriety, but I’m not sure that tales of Soho’ Colony Room members drunkenly shouting ‘Fuck off’ to other soaks amuses much today. The hard-drinking raconteurs who barely mask their desperation and the watering holes that can’t be lively without displaying a nasty side are still in evidence, but these days belong to the Bridge & Tunnel crowd. What’s missing now is the scale of ambition that allowed the owner of Soho’s Gargoyle club to hire Henri Matisse and Edwin Lutyens to jazz up his decor.

Gin fizz

London’s streets don’t change their character from one century to the next. Mayfair was aristocratic, Soho misbehaved, Fitzrovia was bohemian and Marylebone could only be dull. Once there were guidebooks to the sporting ladies of Covent Garden and Soho, including this from a 1788 edition concerning Miss B at 18 Old Compton Street: ‘In bed she is all the heart can wish…every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds.’

Dostoevsky was disgusted by the harlots of the Haymarket, but the French whores of Maddox Street were admired by police for being brisk, clean and businesslike. London conducted a schizophrenic relationship with its rentable ladies, but Soho’s gay quarter was not always so tolerant. After a raid on the White Swan pub near Oxford Circus in 1811, six men charged with intent to commit manly fun were pilloried with bricks and dead animals, while Charing Cross pubs had signs warning ‘Beware Of Sods’.

Through history everyone from William Blake to Jeffrey Archer has used W1 for naughty adventures. Verlaine described his London environs as ‘black as a crow and noisy as a duck’. One West End robbery was so famous and redolent of an Ealing comedy that it ended up getting mentioned in ‘The Ladykillers’. Everyone has their own experience of London W1, and to this day it retains a shade of disreputability, despite the virtual destruction of Soho.

9 comments on “The Disreputable W1!”

  1. Andy W. says:

    Chris an absolutely fascinating posting ! also many thanks once again for the signed etc books, cheers Andy

  2. Roger says:

    Saki’s character Adrian, who has “delightful hair and a weak mouth”, although born John Henry in Bethnal Green, “lived in a roomlet which came under the auspicious constellation of W.”, though “how he lived was to a great extent a mystery even to himself”, which suggests that upward mobility through disreputable and questionable means was a continuing tradition.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I really enjoyed that Chris. Thanks.

    Nothing for me sums up old Soho (as I imagine it was like) and the drinking to forget culture, is Rodney Acland’s play “The Pink Room” written in the forties, and set in a Soho drinking club on the election night after the war when Labour won the landslide. It was revised about 20 years ago and played at the National as “Absolute Hell”. Dame Judy Dench played the lead as the sad owner, who used to drink to numb the pain of loneliness.

  4. admin says:

    There’s a Betjeman poem about a Belcher-like figure, isn’t there? I used to be able to recite it…

  5. Vivienne says:

    I was almost misled into thinking the title was about the Women’s Institute.

    Not sure if it’s the law or just over-population and crowding that has ruined these venues. The war, I suppose did for the Mayfair set. When I was quite young (too young to go into pubs) I was going out briefly with a chap who one day took me round lots of Soho pubs meeting various people and spreading pills out all over the tables, which various people bought and swapped. All quite openly, but no one even offered me one. His other penchant was for the cartoon cinema at Piccadilly Circus, which seemed to make him more juvenile than me, so it didn’t last long. But Soho was certainly obviously edgy then – broad daylight and the professional girls were out and about obviously touting for business.

  6. Tony Walker says:

    “Charing Cross pubs had signs warning ‘Beware Of Sods’.” I used to work in the Strand in the 1980s, and we used the Princess of Wales pub in Villiers Street as our local. Inside, there were a number of framed Victorian and Edwardian music sheets, one of which was titled, “My Hat’s a Brown ‘Un”.

  7. Peter Noten says:

    Very interesting post, Chris!
    I can recommend The West End Front, abook about the hotels in the West End during WW II. As a true connaisseur of all books about London you undoubtedly will know it and probably will have read it.

  8. I love the lovely euphemisms that betray your tolerance of the ladies and gents of W1 that we’re in the shady side of the sex laws of their time. Nicely done!

  9. Sorry. Were on not we’re in…

Comments are closed.