Tag Archive: Kate Meyrick


This newspaper article written was written shortly after Elizabeth Ponsonby’s death is not, I imagine, untypical.

Milwaukee Sentinel Sep 1940

The narrative is familiar enough, apart from this sentence.

“She served for a time behind the bar at the Melody night club, run by Irene Meyrick of the famous night club family but she lost her job when she started drinking heavily again.”

This, if true, raises a couple of questions.

In Taylor’s “Bright Young People” he quotes Arthur Ponsonby from 1939 on his daughter’s recent acquisition of a job as a “manageress” -“she seems to have some curious club job”. Taylor goes on to say “Two months later Arthur gave Elizabeth and her employer (” a showy pretty friend who runs her club”) tea at the House of Lords”. This “friend” is presumably Irene Meyrick.

Gwendoline Irene Meyrick was the youngest of Kate Meyrick’s daughters. In 1939 she would have been 24 and got married in the May of that year to the Earl of Craven (most of Mrs.Meyrick’s daughters married into the aristocracy – often accompanied by controversy – see Kate Meyrick’s Children ).

Irene Meyrick (1914- 2002)

The Melody Club was at 19 Wardour Street and is listed in directories from 1937 to 1939 and as the New Melody to in 1941. If Irene ran it then the received wisdom that the Meyrick involvement with clubs ended with Kate’s death (1933) cannot be true. If she was a friend rather than just an employer, we can add another name to Elizabeth’s post-BYP circle.

Elizabeth and Denis Pelly – wedding day

The story of Kate Meyrick, her children and her clubs, has  been told repeatedly, but there are several unresolved issues. I have always wondered about the number of custodial sentences – fines were the usual thing for licensing offences. Her involvement with police corruption, drug scandals, Soho villains and the whole “hostess” thing suggests a criminality beyond merely serving a few drinks after-hours. On the other hand, her clientele was by and large wealthy and prestigious and she was held in high regard by many West End night-owls, dance-band musicians in particular.

Kate Meyrick

Her own autobiography, probably ghost-written, is relatively unrevealing, self-serving and little more than a list of famous names. Much more informative is the section in Judith Walkowitz’s Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (see Walkowitz Nights Out ).Immortalised in Brideshead Revisited as Ma Mayfield, the proprietor of Dalton’s, the 43, the Manhattan, the Silver Slipper and one or two more venues does have a real claim to be the “Queen of Night Clubs” and merits a full of biography.

Party at Silver Slipper

There don’t seem to be any surviving anecdotes associated with the Melody Club, so whether it was a dive, an exclusive drinking-club, had a band or a pianist, I can’t say. My guess is that it was a fairly small members’ club typical of the area and the era.

There was a 1950s club of the same name in Maddox Street, Mayfair but I doubt there’s a connection. In that same decade the Russian Spy Gordon Londsdale had a flat at 19 Wardour Street and today N.19 is the the “Old 97” , a Chinese Restaurant, much favoured as a late night eating-spot.

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More about Cars and Women

Women and Fast Cars have begun to form an unexpected sub-section of this blog (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/of-cars-and-car-crashes/ and others). In the light of this, the following passage seems worth mentioning.

The greatest motor-racing hoax of all time took place at Brooklands and the novelist Barbara Cartland and a group of her friends very nearly pulled it off. As women drivers became more successful, some wildly exaggerated claims were made about them in the media. Some, like Victoria Worsley, complained that they were continually being accused of ‘flirting with death’ and ‘dicing with their lives’. Even the least glamorous of them were described as “ravishing”, or they were ‘dark-haired, blue eyed beauties’ and everything they said or did was blown up out of all proportions. Victoria told one interviewer, ‘Actually, we are a modest, unassuming group of women, who just like driving fast cars and want to get on quietly with the job of doing so. Most of us are highly embarrassed about all the fuss being made about us. Their popularity, however, was looked upon with a certain amount of envy by some women, who longed to be like them and were envious of their celebrity status.”

Victoria Worsley in MG

“That was why in 1931 a group of ten society women arranged to be filmed taking part in their own private race at Brooklands, but without actually putting themselves at any risk. Barbara Cartland planned the event following a remark a male guest had foolishly made at one of her house parties. She persuaded some of her friends to take part in the event to show off their driving skills and even suggested that the Society Ladies’ Private Handicap might become a regular event at Brooklands. Ten MGs had been borrowed for the occasion, which was filmed by British Movietone News. Princess Imeretinsky was to be announced as the winner with Lady de Clifford acting as her racing mechanic, and they were filmed crossing the finishing line a few feet ahead of the Hon. Mrs Joan Chetwynd, who it was claimed was heavily handicapped because she was the only driver taking part who had previously raced at Brooklands. Third place went to Miss Paddy Naismith, who claimed the distinction of having driven the prime minister on several occasions.”

Paddy Naismith


“Barbara Cartland and her friends got the publicity they were seeking and their hour or two of glory, until Motor magazine in its issue of 1 December 1931 revealed what had really happened. According to the Motor report, when each competitor arrived at the track she was issued with some white overalls and asked to pose in front of a row of MG Midgets borrowed specially for the occasion.
The scene was then ‘shot’ several times by the newsreel cameramen and Barbara Cartland announced over the microphone that they were there to prove that women drivers were every bit as good as men. It was then decided that more still photographs should be taken of the competitors before they got into their MGs and drove off to the Railway Straight, where they were again filmed lining up on the starting grid. The handful of onlookers who happened to be there were rather puzzled that there didn’t seem to be any effort to handicap the cars if it was meant to be a proper women’s handicap, particularly as three of the MG’s, including the one driven by the Hon. Mrs Joan Chetwynd, were supercharged and at least one other was brand-new and one of the latest models.”

Mrs. Joan Chetwynd
“They were even more surprised when the starter’s flag fell and all the cars, with the exception of one, which stalled because its handbrake was still on, tore down the finishing straight and began cutting each other up in a most alarming fashion for the benefit of the cameras. Since a large section of the Members’ Banking was being repaired and there was barely enough room for one car to pass, even slowly, as soon as the cars reached that point they were forced to brake rather quickly. Princess Imeretinsky managed to get into a skid in doing so spun her MG completely round, giving her what she reported later to be ‘a delicious thrill’. Her passenger’s verdict when asked about the spin was that it was ‘too, too marvellous, my dear !’”

Dorothy, Lady De Clifford


“The first part of the filming being over, it was suggested that the race needed a close finish and so everyone returned to the Railway Straight, where they were restarted, and, with the cameras whirring away, shot across the finishing line bonnet to bonnet. Princes Imeretinsky was then hoisted onto the back of her car while the other drivers gathered round. A microphone was produced and she proclaimed to an imaginary crowd that she had ‘derived infinite satisfaction from winning the contest’.
The Motor’s report resulted in a spate of letters condemning the event.. Some blamed the Brooklands authorities for allowing it to take place, while others complained that it made women look foolish and was an insult to the genuine women racing drivers. One reader asked whether the ‘ so called society ladies’ had expressed shame over their silly Brooklands escapade.”

from John Bullock, Fast Women. The Drivers who Changed the Face of Motor Racing Robson Books ( 2002 )

There are still sources which dispute that this was a hoax, but, whatever the truth, the episode did not help the image of women racers of whom there were many and who had a keen following , not least among female sports fans such as Elvira.

Elvira had, of course, a more personal interest in this event as the “winner” of the race was her sister, Avril ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/elviras-little-sister/ ). Not only that, Princess Imeretinsky’s partner, Lady De Clifford, was Dorothy Meyrick, the daughter of “The Queen of The Night Clubs” and regular Holloway inmate, Kate Meyrick. I”m not sure if Elvira had much to do with the Meyrick clubs but she would have,at least, been an occasional visitor and was possibly acquainted with some of the daughters, all of whom seem to have married into “Society”.

Dorothy’s husband was a keen racing-driver and was the last person to be tried “by his Peers” in the House of Lords – after he had been involved in a head-on collision and the other motorist died. He was acquitted, but it rather ruined his public profile as the leading campaigner for the imposition of speed limits on the public highway. For more see http://everything2.com/title/Edward+Southwell+Russell%252C+26th+Baron+de+Clifford.

Kate Meyrick, daughters and friends, celebrate her release from Holloway

Brooklands, with its banked track was one of the iconic places of inter-war modernity. Women racing drivers who competed there epitomised everything associated with the changes in gender roles, actual and perceived, that is such a feature of the Bright Young Era. Here are a couple of Britis Pathe newsreels from the time. The Movietone film of the Barbara Cartland stunt is still in existence but does not appear to be on-line.

Brooklands Ladies Race 1931

Women Speed Queens 1932

Eve at the wheel

a good blog on the history of women racers is this one

http://speedqueens.blogspot.com/

Clubs – Ham Yard

Ham Yard, opposite Great Windmill Street in Soho, holds a special place in the history of English club culture. Most famously, it housed the Scene club in the early sixties. The Scene was for many of that generation the Mod club, much written about and still fondly remembered.To a Drinamyl-driven audience, Guy Stevens, the DJ, played the mix of Soul and R&B  that comprised the essential Mod soundtrack and, through his involvement with Sue records (UK),  acted as proselytiser and publicist for the music.  Along with the Flamingo on Wardour Street (blacker, jazzier) and Le Duce on D’Arblay Street (gayer, more Motown-oriented), the Scene was one of those essential spaces that permanently altered the musical and social landscape of post-War England.

However, for all the much vaunted newness of the Modernist movement, the Scene was actually just another phase in Ham Yard’s long connection with clubs, drugs and nocturnal subcultures.In the 1950s, The Scene had been Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club. Although Trad Jazz gets pretty short shrift in most studies of “youth culture”, it was important (Skiffle and the Blues revival came out of it) and Cy Laurie’s club was as Bohemian and free-spirited as you could wish for. This was partly because it was very dancefloor-oriented and partly because of its popularity with St. Martin’s College Art Students. The police saw fit to raid it on a number of occasions.

For more on Cy Laurie see Cy Laurie’s Club

The story goes that both the Scene and Cy Laurie’s were on the same site as the Hambone, which takes us back to Elvira’s era. Here the street numbers become rather confusing.  Ham Yard is always given as the site of the Scene and very often for Cy Laurie’s, but the given address for both clubs was 41 Great Windmill Street , which as Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms and Mac’s Dancing Academy had been around since the 1920s. Curiously, London’s early Modern Jazz venue, Club 11, was in Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms (briefly Moffats Club). Club 11′s existence was short-lived (1948-50)  due to a much-publicised drugs raid. I assume it was the same space but jazz histories give the address as 44 Great Windmill Street. The whole area is so small and a bomb in World War 2 had damaged one side of Ham Yard so we are probably talking about one place –  but it is all a little puzzling.

Club 11 1949

Things get even more complicated when we get back to the 20s and 30s. Ham Yard was apparently  home, simultaneously, to at least ten (!) clubs. Apart from the Hambone (15 Ham Yard) and the Blue Lantern (14), these included  Freddy Ford’s New Avenue, The Pavilion,The Top Hat, Mother Hubbard’s,The Morgue, The Oak ( according to James Laver) The Last Club and the Windmill (according to Horace Wyndham) and, according to one account, Douglas Byng’s The Kinde Dragon.All of these places had live music and most were open all night. Heretical as it might seem to die-hard Mods, the true golden age of Ham Yard night-life appears to be sometime around 1929-1932 – the era of Elvira’s party set.

The Hambone was the earliest, most prestigious and in many ways the  most salubrious of these clubs. Founded in 1922 as a Bohemian cabaret club, its original membership was almost exclusively drawn from the Arts. Founder member and presiding figure was, inevitably, Augustus John. I posted earlier that Freddy Ford was the owner but I don’t now think that is the case – at least not in the club’s halcyon years. An early review characterised it as “a futurist den”  and instead of the usual “Dancing and Cabaret” it advertised itself as offering “Special Artistic Entertainment”.  Dancing there certainly was though, Radclyffe Hall was fond of stepping out there, which must have surely been something to behold. In the latter half of the decade it had fallen into line and had a regular band, Alec Alexander played there before becoming long-term resident at the Gargoyle. Ethel Mannin also danced there and recalled the place as “chronically Bohemian”. She found it hard to believe that the small and densely packed dance-floor had allowed for anything as expansive as the Charleston.

Ethel Mannin

By the mid-twenties the Hambone started to attract writers and journalists as well as a group of heartier, sporty types. Elvira’s fiance, Charles Graves straddled all three categories and it was on his return from a late night drink at the Hambone that the incident with Elvira arrived with the gun (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/charles-graves/ ) . The De Haviland Aero Club held its annual dinner there and hack-novelist Peter Cheyney made it the base from which he observed the Mayfair-Soho connections that feature in many of his books. The club was now officially “Ye Olde Hambone Club” with suitably retro-furnishings (a mock-Adam fireplace) but it remained known as the Hambone. It still valued its original clientele as, unusually it had a graded membership policy.Artists, authors and journalists paid One Guinea, actors Two and business men Three. There was an entrance fee as well but this was cheap compared to  High Society haunts like The Embassy or Uncles, where membership was Eight Guineas plus entrance fee.

The Blue Lantern opened next door in the late twenties (1929?), perhaps to woo some of the younger element away from what was in danger of  becoming a rather masculine venue. It seems to have pitched itself as quintessenially “Modern”, being one of the first clubs to install Thonet steel tubular furniture. It also very quickly got a reputation as catering for the “more dissolute” elements among the Bright Young People. This meant, as it usually did, Elizabeth Ponsonby and her pals, one of whom was the club’s pianist, Hugh Wade.

Breur Thonet Chair 1929

Barbara Ker-Seymer, Freddie Ashton and Billy Chappell were regulars, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy seems to have spent part of most nights there, Tom Driberg loved the place (incidentally,he too refers to Hugh Wade as Hetty Wade), Jocelyn Brooke, Brian Howard, Terence Skeffington-Smythe and Arthur Jeffress were all members. Elvira and Michael were often seen there. Hutch’s lover  Zena  Naylor brought along Evelyn Waugh one night (“very squalid” he wrote in his diary) and Anthony Powell met Tallulah Bankhead (briefly) at the club. All in all, it does seem to merit the status that D.J.Taylor gives it in “Bright Young People” as one of the key hedonistic spaces of the era.Furthermore, given the inter-changeability of the clientele, I’m sure the Blue Angel was in some way an offshoot of the Blue Lantern.

But what of the other establishments in Ham Yard?

Firstly, although Roger Gardiner recalls seeing Hutch perform at the “Kind Dragon in Ham Yard”, this club, run by Douglas Byng, was almost certainly in St Martin’s Lane.” – I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a guest spot at the Blue Lantern he was referring to. Like Hutch, Byng was a favourite of the BYP and may also have had a residency or played in Ham Yard.

But probably not at The Morgue.  According to Jerry White, this was a venture run by “Dalton Murray” after Murray’s club on Beak Street closed temporarily. The owners of Murray’s were Percival “Pops” Murray and Jack May so I’m not sure about “Dalton”. Kate Meyrick’s first club was Dalton’s on Tottenham Court Road so there may be some collapsing of names here. White also mentions a club in Great Windmill Street, The Blue Peter, decked out like a battleship. (White London in the 20th Century). The Morgue sounds even more startling the with the receptionist dressed as a nun, coffins for tables and the waiters sporting devils’ horns. All very proto-Goth and disappointingly tacky – I’d like to think Elvira and her crowd stayed well clear.

Of the rest, Freddy Ford’s New Avenue Club was the most notorious. Known as the Havinoo  to its patrons, it was essentially a hang-out for Soho’s army of criminals, prostitutes and wide boys. The club and its owner feature regularly in court cases throughout  the period – fights and the contravention of licensing laws being the norm. Ford, depending on which account you read, was either an affable rogue or a putative “King of the Underworld”. His long career included convictions for  burglary and receiving stolen goods, but it was as a club-owner and a renter of rooms for prostitution that he made his fortune. At some time or other, he had a share in all the clubs around Ham Yard and may have owned The New Hambones, as the Hambone became in the Second World War.  Significantly, the club was found to be breaking licensing laws in that period.

Racetrack Gang including various Sabinis, Billy Kimber and the MacDonalds

The fact is that Ham Yard generally was a centre of villainy. Throughout the 1920s a series of fights took place there. These, all known as “The Battle of Ham Yard” were to settle disputes between which London gang would have first pickings of the many illegal and semi-legal businesses that bloomed in Soho, not least because of the plethora of night-clubs. Various Sabinis and Cortesis, Billy Kimber’s Brummagem Boys, gangs from Hackney, Kings Cross, Paddington, Hoxton and Elephant and Castle all settled scores with coshes and razors in Ham Yard.

All of which begs the question as to what overlap was there between the louche but largely Upper Class Overground world of the Bohemians and the real Working Class Criminal Underworld? By and large, the two groups would have kept to separate venues but the proximity is interesting. Some of the predilections of the Smart Set would have been of advantage to the Soho gangs. Most forms of betting were then illegal and we know that Michael Stephen was a heavy gambler (and he was surely not the only one). Cocaine and other drug use might also have been a point of crossover. Homosexuality (and its concomitant terror, blackmail) would have played a part.  As far as Soho’s most famous vice is concerned, perhaps he “Piccadilly tart” who arrived with Elizabeth Ponsonby for a drunken weekend at her parent’s house was first encountered in Ham Yard.

Elizabeth Ponsonby and husband

Then there was the “Arminian”  cafe,  a Bohemian haunt on the corner of Great Windmill Street (Epstein dined there) which was also used by gangsters and prostitutes. The same was true of the “Harmony” (the same place, I’m guessing) in the 50s. Modernists and Trad Jazzers argued the respective merits of Dizzy Gillespie and Kid Oliver while the dangerous Jack Spot looked on. Clubland and Criminality have never exactly been strangers so it seems not unreasonable to assume more than a passing glance  took place between the wilder young things and the extensive Wide  community that dwelled in, if not the same precise space, then the club next door. Kate Meyrick boasted that gangsters and lords sat next each other at her clubs. She exaggerated – but not perhaps by much.

“29th June 1932

Holloway

Elvira Dolores Barney

Murder

Central Criminal Court

Sir

I beg to state that the  above named has been under mental and physical observation since her reception on June 4th. I have already submitted a report on June 8th giving a list of abrasions and bruises which I found on the prisoner after her reception to prison. She is in good health, has not shown any signs of physical illness, she has slept well, shown no symptoms of drug taking, and has increased one and a half pounds in weight since reception.

PAST HISTORY

She has had good health but has had to undergo an operation for middle-ear disease and she met with a serious accident some twelve months ago in which she broke her lower jaw and has since required special treatment for her teeth.

MENTAL STATE

I have examined her on various occasions, she has always conversed rationally, shown no signs of delusions or hallucinations and her conduct has been normal except on one or two occasions when she has shown hysterical manifestations.

I am of the opinion that she is of sound mind and fit to plead the indictment.

I have the honour to be,

Sir,

your obedient servant

John Hall Morton

Governor and Medical Officer”

Elvira in 1932                                        

There are a number of points worth exploring in this statement. Firstly, there is the denial in the first paragraph of Elvira’s drug-taking. There must have been a line of inquiry that suggested such an involvement, otherwise why mention the issue at all?

Secondly, Elvira’s medical history and the after-effects of the car-crash modify the usual narrative. I am assuming that this was the same incident in Piccadilly when Napper Dean Paul was also injured. Apart from sounding a lot more serious than generally reported, I wonder whether the marked change in Elvira’s appearance in 1931-32 was the result of the crash rather than her life of “debauchery”. It also can’t have had the most calming effect on her already turbulent personality. Of “middle ear disease” I know nothing but it has been linked to mental illness and schizophrenia by some doctors (then and now).

Of Elvira’s present mental condition the letter seems a little complacent. What “hysterical manifestations”? How many – “one or two” hardly smacks of scientific accuracy? I am not implying any sort of cover-up but for a woman about to go on trial for her life the general tone and brevity of the report suprises me a little.

The writer of the report, John Hall Morton, was in charge of Holloway Prison from 1921 until his death, aged 52, in 1935. He was, by the standards of the time, an enlightened governor, famously installing mirrors in the cells  – much to the delight of the female inmates and angry mutterings from the usual press sources. He was also an opponent of capital punishment. This stance, highly unusual in the service, had come about after he had been required to record the horrific state of Edith Thompson’s corpse after she was executed in Holloway in 1923.

Edith Thompson

The Edith Thompson-Freddie Bywaters trial was one of a number of high-level murder trials  that captured the popular imagination between the wars and her cruel sentence (her boyfriend had actually stabbed her husband) has been the basis for novels (A Pin to See The Peepshow) and films (Another Life) ever since. Along with Madame Fahmy, acquitted of shooting her husband at the Savoy Hotel, Edith Thompson’s was the name most often linked with Elvira’s by crime reporters at the time. Fortunately, Elvira had a more competent defence team than Edith.

Morton’s last act as governor/medical officer was to write a report on Alma Rattenbury, the central character in the next great scandal involving sex and murder (and the subject of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre ). That trial also had an accusation of drug use on the part of the accused but the various doctors, in Alma’s case, found no evidence although in retrospect it looks very likely.Alma’s story is well worth reading alongside Elvira’s, not so much for the “whodunnit” element but for the light they both throw on pre-War attitudes to sexually active women.

Alma Rattenbury

Apart from these high-profile figures the most famous, and very regular, resident of Holloway under Morton’s tenure was someone Elvira would have known well. This was the Queen of London Nightclubs, the legendary Kate Meyrick. However, she deserves a post to herself.

Party at Silver Slipper club celebrating Mrs.Meyrick’s release from Holloway