The First Gin Palace

‘The Gin Shop’, a cautionary cartoon by George Cruikshank. This dates from 1829; in just a few years Londoners could drink themselves to ruin in much plusher surroundings.

‘It was near Field Lane that the first London gin palace was built. The polished mahogany counters, the garish bar fittings, the smartly painted vats, inscribed ‘Old Tom’ and ‘Cream of the Valley’, the rows of showy bottles of noyau and other cordials, and above all the immense blaze of gas light within and without these buildings as soon as dusk set in, were all so many novelties and came as a vision of splendour to the besotted denizens of the neighbouring slums. (From Glances Back through Seventy Years by Henry Viztelly. ‘Noyau’ is, I believe, a French liqueur made from brandy, flavoured with almonds and the pits of apricots.)

The gin palace described by Henry Viztelly was an establishment called Thompson and Fearon’s – and whilst it might have been the first of London’s gin palaces, it didn’t last long. Built in the mid-1830s, it was swept away in 1860 to make way for Holborn Viaduct. A drawing made shortly before its destruction shows a tidy establishment, not the flamboyant palace of booze associated with later examples of the species. But it was a prototype for all the others, and its location is significant, as Field Lane – which remains in ghostly form as Shoe Lane – was a remarkably hairy locality and had been so for at least a hundred years before the Victorians remodelled the area. Field Lane abutted the western edge of ‘Fleet Ditch’, the monstrously polluted Fleet River, and was once notorious as the site of an early 18th century gay brothel, Mother Clap’s, whose proprietor died in the pillory. (Mark Ravenhill wrote a play about her. And I’ve already written about a famous local dive, Jonathan Wild’s House.)

Holborn Hill circa 1860, shortly before redevelopment. Thompson and Fearon’s is on the left, with the cute balcony. As reproduced in Mark Girouard’s ‘Victorian Pubs’.

The new drinking establishments fascinated the young Dickens, who noted that the ‘handsomest’ gin palaces were the ones closest to the worst rookeries, but he evinced unqualified approval for the theatrical glamour of the bars themselves:

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined … You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. (‘A Gin Palace’, 1835’)

Dickens left an intriguing inventory of the brands of gin on offer, their descriptions a come-on even at a distance of 180 years: ‘The Cream of the Valley,’ ‘The Out and Out,’ ‘The No Mistake,’ ‘The Real Knock- Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-up … I never seen any of these brands in Waitrose, but it’s only a matter of time before some artisan distillery christens their boutique spirit with one of these monickers, slapped with a faux-Victorian label and bottled in hand-blown glass – good value at £46 for 50cl.

There’s a direct connection between the expansion of London and the endless trudges the workforce were compelled to make to and from work (in an era where public transport was non-existent), so that bars located on the main arterial roads offered the working populace an opportunity to break their interminable journey home with a palliative stiff one. If the gin palaces got a bad rep, perhaps it was because a bright pub on a dark street often indicated the only available pleasure in a pitiless urban existence: a source of warmth and light, company and laughter, oblivion and escape. And, as Mark Girouard succinctly puts it in his admirable book Victorian Pubs, Their customers tended to get drunk because semi-starving people get drunk very easily’.

A fun evening in Thompson and Fearon’s (allegedly). Another illustration from ‘London Pubs’.

Dickens was writing Oliver Twist at the same time as he wrote his piece on gin palaces, and he chose to locate Fagin’s hideout in Field Lane, at that time the centre of the ‘snot-haul’ trade. (A pickpocket was a ‘snotter hauler’, although Dickens uses the politer term ‘fogle-hauler’.) Silk handkerchiefs stolen all over London were brought here to be traded on, displayed in lines on poles above the street.

The rear of Wren’s church of St. Andrew abuts Shoe Lane, and the church is name- checked in Oliver Twist, as Bill Sikes leads Oliver away to Hyde Park Corner he makes sure to check the time by its clock. (A few years after Oliver Twist, Dickens used this vicinity again for his historical novel Barnaby Rudge, based on the Gordon Riots of 1780.) The arse end of St.Andrews remains monumentally imposing today, its stony bulk offering no comfort to the lost, vanished souls of Field Lane – or, for that matter, to anyone who walks down Shoe Lane today. When I was researching this post, back in February this year, it seemed to me that Shoe Lane was as desolate and dead a street as it was possible to find in 21st century London. But, post-lockdown, all of London looks like a bit like Shoe Lane now. However, at time of writing there are fragile grounds for hope; pubs are, ever so tentatively, opening again. On Saturday I walked through a deserted Clerkenwell and discovered a small oasis in the hot, empty streets: by St. John’s Gate a bar was open for business, serving a handful of customers sitting in the sunshine. It was indescribably beautiful.

Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club

Brian Howard gazes thoughtfully at the camera. Photo taken sometime in the 1930s by noted portrait photographer Howard Coster (not at The Gargoyle: this is The 500 Club.)

‘At least, my dear, I am a has-been. That’s something you can never be.’
Brian Howard in The Gargoyle Club, circa 1940s.

The Gargoyle Club was located at 69 Meard Street, just off Wardour Street. The club was located on the top three floors of a Lutyens-adapted Georgian townhouse and was founded in 1925 by the young aristocrat David Tennant as a place where he could go dancing with his girlfriend, the actress Hermione Baddeley. (In the 1970s, her sister Angela Baddeley achieved a kind of immortality as the plain-spoken cook Mrs Bridges in the 1970s Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs.) By day the club was a straight-up venue for business lunches, but it came alive in the evenings, when the livelier members of London’s intelligentsia gathered to talk, drink and occasionally dance; no-one thought the resident band was any good but no-one seemed to care. The décor was especially noteworthy, having been supervised by none other than Henri Matisse: the ballroom was panelled with fragments cut from 18th century mirrors salvaged from a French chateau, and a pair of Matisse canvases completed the look. The Gargoyle immediately established itself as a very important cultural and social venue, even if Constant Lambert described the dance floor on Saturday night as being ‘packed with the two hundred nastiest people in Chiswick.’

Matisse’s Red Studio. The club also housed his Studio, Quai St Michel – both were sold in the early days of the war to pay club debts. The former is now in MOMA, New York, the latter in the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

The club’s members’ list is an impressive inventory of the great and the good, but this entry concerns itself with some of the sleazier regulars. The louche diplomat and traitor Guy Burgess became a member in 1943 and found the ambience particularly to his liking. At this time Burgess was working for the BBC and, covertly, the KGB, for whom he had already recruited sometime lover and occasional Gargoyle visitor, Donald MacLean. Their fellow Soviet spy in MI6, Kim Philby, was also a member of the Gargoyle but largely avoided the club during the war, possibly to keep Burgess’s conspicuous recklessness at arm’s length. Burgess was also close to another flamboyant Gargoyle fixture: Brian Howard, poet, professional failure, and one of the models for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Howard was, like Burgess, an old Etonian and a member of the gilded 1920s Oxford generation, which is where he encountered Evelyn Waugh. Later, he became associated with the party set beloved of twenties’ gossip columns. Unfortunately, Howard’s precocious poetic achievements petered out early and his youthful promise remained forever unfulfilled. Howard’s war time career was ignominious: thrown out of MI5 because he couldn’t keep a secret, he ended up in the public relations department of Bomber Command, a job title worthy of a Waugh novel. (Even in that post Brian Howard remained incorrigible. According to D.J. Taylor, in his book Bright Young People, Howard’s mother once interceded with her son’s RAF squadron leader concerning a uniform Brian had left in a pub toilet.)

Eaten up with bitterness, Howard functioned as the Gargoyle’s gargoyle, a sinister, mincing barfly who would assail people entering from the lobby with queeny insults (e.g.:‘Who do we think we are, dear, Noel Coward?’). Burgess, meanwhile, used the club as a pick-up joint, making passes at anyone who took his fancy, with mixed results. On one occasion he succeeded in luring an interior decorator back to his flat, whereupon he assailed him with coat hangers, but his approach to a young painter was less successful: ‘Would you like to come back to my flat? Would you like to be whipped? A wild thrashing? Wine thrown in?’ Howard and Burgess were occasional lovers, Howard indulging Burgess’s masochistic tendencies with enthusiastic firmness. There is also an intriguing episode in the summer of 1945, when Burgess and Howard went with their respective boyfriends to visit the ageing Lord Alfred Douglas at home in Brighton, thus squaring the circle: the louche gay spy and the Bright Young Person paying homage to Oscar’s beloved Bosie. Burgess wanted to show off his new boyfriend, who he believed was even more beautiful than Douglas had been in his fabled youth.

Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Burgess found MacLean sexually unappealing, ‘white and flabby’, in sharp contrast to the rough trade he preferred.

The Gargoyle celebrated its silver jubilee in 1950: later that year Donald MacLean was made a full member of the club. The troubled bisexual diplomat had recently returned from a calamitous posting to Cairo and was proposed for membership by a friend who thought it might cheer him up. Unfortunately, Maclean was deeply unstable: unhinged by drink, his confused sexuality and the pressure of his own treachery. He was by now head of the American desk at the Foreign Office but his behaviour in the club seemed designed to bring about his own unmasking. Club regulars were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of Maclean slurringly announcing that he worked for ‘Uncle Joe’ (Stalin). But they thought it was a joke. In the end, Burgess and MacLean were tipped off by Kim Philby and fled before they were exposed. They defected to Moscow in 1951, living miserable self-pitying, and booze-addled lives thereafter. As for Brian Howard, he went even more to seed, and lived a peripatetic life bouncing cheques across Europe, before dying of an overdose of sleeping pills at 52. By the time all this happened the Gargoyle was in terminal decline, and by the end of the fifties it was a strip club. It remained a club of sorts until the 1980s, and for a while was the home of The Comedy Store, that notorious bear-pit where anyone could try telling jokes in front of a baying audience and the demonic emcee, Alexei Sayle. (What does this tell us? Anything? Discuss.)