It is clear that Elvira Barney’s circle was made up up of a number of overlapping sub-cultures. Elvira was not at the centre of any of these but her Mews home had become a regularly place for the various elements  to meet up before going out and, for a hardy few, to finish off a night on the town.The greatest common denominator was sexuality – nearly all of Elvira’s regular entourage was gay or bi-sexual. Secondly, they were mostly involved with various branches of the Arts. Thirdly a majority were addicted to drink or drugs, or at least over-indulged in either or both “vices”.

Of the people we can ,with some certainty, identify as regulars at Number 21, Ruth Baldwin, Olivia Wyndham and Leonie Fester were full-on heroin/morphine addicts. Given the circumstances of his death, the same is probably true of Terence Skeffington-Smyth. Marty Mann and Eddie Gathorne-Hardy were alcoholics and Brian Howard was by now pretty well dependent on both drink and drugs. Elvira’s friends Brian and Brenda Dean Paul were the most famous drug-users of their day. Michael and Elvira were both cocaine sniffers and Hugh Wade’s early death does not exactly signal a healthy lifestyle. If we add Elizabeth Ponsonby and Sandy Baird to this coterie, which I think we can legitimately do, then we add two more serious imbibers. Billy Milton certainly dabbled in drugs in Paris and the South of France and rumours of Gwen Farrar and Audrey Carten’s excesses abound. All in all, sobriety was a rarity in these parts.

Brenda Dean Paul

That the “drug element” was an identifiable (and identified) coterie is verified by an article from one Sister Mildred Rebecca, who ran the rehabilitation programme at the convent of St. Mary’s Convent  at Egham in Surrey. Known as “Spelthorne St.Mary’s”, this retreat provided, for almost one hundred years, the nearest England then had to a respite for the casualties of narcotics and alcohol abuse  .

Spelthorne St. Mary’s

Founded in 1879 at Bedfont in Middlesex “For the reformation of Women who have fallen into habits of intemperance”, by 1930 the Anglo-Catholic nuns of St.Mary’s had created at Egham the Priory of its day, and become carers for a significant number of, mostly rich, women who in various ways had “gone off the rails”. If someone had the admission records for the early thirties then I’m sure a few familiar names would be found. Certainly Brenda Dean Paul was there for a time and I suspect that Elvira was referred there, by her parents, in 1933.

In her 1960s memoir the good Sister states,

“In Chelsea a small group – gathered round the notorious Brenda Dean Paul – practised a “heroin cult”: and perhaps the most significant admissions to Spelthorne St.Mary, from the point of view of its later history, were a few members of what was spoken of as “the fast Chelsea Set”.”

I now realise that this is what distinguishes Elvira’s friends from the usual definition of “The Bright Young People”. The “Fast Chelsea Set” had quite a specific meaning. The excesses (sexual,alcoholic and narcotic) that are seen as exotic embellishments to our notions of the Bright and the Young in this era  are, in fact, the defining features of what was meant by “Fast”.

 

These people are “Fast”

Having pioneered the apomorphine treatment ( most famously lauded by William Burroughs), when the debate about recreational drug-use re-emerged in the 1960s, Spelthorne St.Mary’s was still at the “cutting edge”. This ITN clip is typical –

ITN drugs report

The world has changed since then. However , I think that the sixties’ drug culture has more in common with the world Elvira inhabited than either do with the streets of London or Manchester today.

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