Comparing two nightclub raids

In the interwar period, London’s nightlife developed rapidly, in a grateful response to the lifting of blackouts and other restrictions imposed during the Great War by the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Nightclubs in particular, over restaurants, dance halls or cinemas, have captured the imagination and become emblematic of interwar London’s night-time culture. Nightclubs as such were not illegal, but many of them operated on the border of illegality by serving alcohol past permitted hours; not operating a sufficiently strict membership system; or allowing ‘indecent’ behaviour. As Judith Walkowitz has demonstrated, the appeal of the nightclub was largely that they were spaces that allowed people who would not normally come across one another, to mix freely.[1]  

The policing and controlling of nightclubs was a topic of public interest from the mid-1920s onwards. Due to the clubs’ restricted access, surveillance could only be done by undercover police officers. In order not to draw attention to themselves, these constables had to partake in the club’s activities during their observations. The image of the police officer spending his shift dancing and drinking champagne caused public discomfort, particularly as repeated observations were often deemed necessary before a club could be raided.[2] As nightclub owners got more suspect of single men entering clubs, the Metropolitan police started using undercover female officers as well. Female police officers were still a relative novelty; a male and female officer posing as a couple and entering a club together were less likely to raise suspicions.[3]

Nightclub raids were gratefully covered by newspapers; the reports reveal that the social background of the people attending a club to a large extent shaped how cases were dealt with. In March 1932 for example, the Daily Express covered a hearing at Marlborough Street Police Court relating to the Burlington Club, which had been observed and then raided in January.[4] The charge against the club’s owner and secretary was that of selling alcohol outside of licensing hours; this was the most common charge used against nightclub owners. Despite this illegal activity, the newspaper article takes every opportunity to stress the respectability of the club.

It starts with the description of the police constable who had conducted observations in the club: he is described as ‘debonair’ and having ‘beautifully curly hair and a public school voice.’ The inference is that in the only police officers who were able to successfully blend in with the clientele of the club were those who appeared to be of a high social class. The club itself is described as ‘extensive and well-furnished’ and the police inspector leading the investigation admitted that those present in the club during the raid were ‘reputable people of position’: “You could not put the place down as one of the usual dens”.

In deference to these visitors’ reputations, none of them were charged or even named in the newspaper reports; not even the club visitor who was found by the police to be ‘very drunk’ and emptying half a bottle of champagne over the head and neck of his female companion. The police had also found clear evidence that alcohol had been served at the club beyond permitted hours and not in accompaniment of the substantial meal that was required by law.

Very different was the newspaper reporting on the raid of the Caravan Club in 1934. The Caravan was a gay club in Endell Street, Soho, which was raided within months of its opening. The opening of the Bow Street police court hearing warranted reports across two pages in the Evening Standard of 28 August, against the one column given to the raid on the Burlington Club in the Express two years’ prior.[5]

Unlike the common charge of selling alcohol after hours, which was only laid against the proprietors of a club, in the case of the Caravan Club the charges were those of keeping a place for the purpose of exhibiting ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ behaviour; and aiding and abetting such premises. The aiding and abetting aspect applied to all the visitors of the Club – a total of 103 individuals were put in front of the magistrate.

The first part of the Evening Standard report deals almost exclusively with the huge crowd that gathered around Bow Street to see all those charged as they entered the court. The reporter specifically states that ‘Most of the onlookers were market porters’.[6] This evokes an image of a crowd of men who look and behave within the bounds of masculinity as it was accepted at the time. As becomes clear of the remainder of the report, the ‘indecent behaviour’ witnessed at the Caravan Club mostly centred around men behaving in ways that were considered improper and not masculine. The reporter also notes that the crowd of market porters cheered and jeered at each of the defendants as they entered the court, further underscoring that those present at the club had behaved in ways that elicited public ridicule.

Although the language of the report is circumspect when it comes to describing the activities within the club, they are still reported in much greater detail than those that took place inside the Burlington Club. Men were seen dancing with men; men were dressed up as women; a male performer was half-naked; and the ‘conversation in the club was a lot on sex matters’.[7] Interestingly there were no allegations made of alcohol being served without a license; it appears that the club’s proprietors had been observing that particular rule. After the evidence was given, one of the counsels for the defence described the club as a ‘horrible place’.

As is evident from the comparison of these two newspaper reports, the moral judgement of what went on inside a nightclub weighed heavier than the legal argument. The language of the newspaper reports underscores the tacit assumption that wealthy, educated people should be allowed privacy even if they break the law, whereas men engaging in transgressive behaviour can be jeered and shouted at.

Serving alcohol outside of permitted hours was a clear offense, but if the club served ‘reputable’ people then the proprietors were simply fined. However, if the club allowed the display of ‘indecent’ behaviour, particularly behaviour that challenged what was considered appropriate for men, the punishments were much more severe. In the case of the Caravan Club, custodial sentences rather than fines were meted out, with the longest sentence given to the club’s proprietor who had to undertake 20 months of hard labour. Interwar nightclubs may have allowed their visitors to engage in transgressive behaviours but if they threatened to challenge accepted norms too much, institutions of authority were swift to move against them.


[1] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 209-252

[2] Heather Shore, ‘Constable dances with instructress’: the police and the Queen of Nightclubs in inter-war London’, Social History, 2013 Vol. 38, No. 2, 183–202, p. 200

[3] Louise A. Jackson, ‘Lady Cops’ and ‘Decoy Doras’: Gender, Surveillance

and the Construction of Urban Knowledge 1919–59, The London Journal, 2002, 27:1, 63-83, p. 77

[4] ’72 People in Raided Club’, Daily Express, 11 March 1932, p. 7

[5] ‘Crowd of 500 in Club Case Scenes at Bow-street’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 1; ‘Constable Tells of Scenes in Raided Club’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 2

[6] ‘Crowd of 500 in Club Case Scenes at Bow-street’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 1

[7] ‘Constable Tells of Scenes in Raided Club’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 2