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Roadhouses

One of the lesser-known aspects of interwar Britain was the existence and popularity of roadhouses. A roadhouse was a large-ish venue, often located in the countryside a short driving distance from London. Their primary function was as a bar/pub, but many contained other entertainment spaces such as a dancefloor, a garden, or even a swimming pool.[1]

Cultural historian Michael John Law has done substantial work on roadhouses. He has demonstrated links between the emergence of roadhouses, the expansion of London’s suburbs, and the increase of private car ownership. Roadhouses were usually located alongside new bypasses, making it nigh impossible to access them in any way other than by car. Their location just outside the city allowed for the roadhouses to be bigger than a regular pub. The drive required to reach the roadhouse transformed the visit into an excursion. (It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that driving after drinking alcohol was perfectly legal in Britain until the mid-1960s.)

The interest of the popular media in the roadhouse appears to have peaked in 1932-1933. British Pathé visited a few roadhouses for their newsreels; those showing the ‘Ace of Spades’ near Kingston and the ‘Showboat’ in Maidenhead remain readily available. Both newsreels gratefully and extensively use the visual spectacle of roadhouse guests in swimwear, using the pool facilities. Beyond this focus on the swimming pool, however, both roadhouses are portrayed markedly differently.

The newsreel on the Ace of Spades consciously contrasts the roadhouse with more historical leisure pursuits and implies that the activities in the roadhouse are more energetic and transgressive. It exclusively shows activities taking place at night, including late-night swimming and a trio of singers performing a Duke Ellington song. The newsreel situates the Ace of Spades in the wider narrative of the aftermath of the roaring twenties and the London of the Bright Young Things. It shows the roadhouse as a space where adults can access ever-more exuberant entertainment and enjoy American cultural products.

The film taken at the Showboat, on the other hand, starts off during the day, and shows families with children enjoying the swimming pool. Here the roadhouse appears more like a country club where the community can enjoy its facilities. The evening’s cabaret is fairly staid, including dance performances and a comedian to whom no-one appears to be paying much attention. The Showboat is portrayed as less cosmopolitan and transgressive as the Ace of Spades, and as a less problematic space for Londoners to enjoy.

The links with American culture hinted at in the Ace of Spades newsreel were made much more explicitly in a 1932 Daily Express article entitled ‘Roadhouse Joys of Merrie England.’[2] In a stream of flowery language, the Express reporter describes his experiences in the ‘circle of gaiety that has been built around London.’ Yet the pleasure of the roadhouse cannot be enjoyed without complication for this reporter.

In 1932, some elements of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), originally implemented during World War One, still remained in place. Amongst these were the restrictions on when alcohol could be purchased and consumed; any venue with a license to serve alcohol could only do so until 10pm, or 11pm in London. The roadhouse the journalist visited, however, did not have a license to serve alcohol. Rather, guests were asked to bring their own – and consequently there was no government-imposed closing time.

The reporter writes: ‘So here was the English “speakie”, flavoured with a touch of American slang.’ Really, the link with the speakeasy and the Prohibition is tenuous: there was no outright ban on alcohol in England and, as the roadhouse waiter who is quoted in the article explains, it is perfectly legal for anyone to bring in their own alcohol and consume it. But throughout the article the journalist appears determined to link the roadhouse to Americanisation: he implies that the phenomenon was imported from America and that the ‘spirit of Jazz’ pervaded the place. The overall impression is that the young people frequenting the roadhouses are turning their back on traditional English culture and values; but also that they are having tremendous fun whilst doing so. The article encapsulates a recurrent tension in British interwar reporting where new developments are welcomed and distrusted at the same time.

Roughly a year later, the debate about whether the roadhouses were fun or to be feared, continued. The proprietors of an island in the Thames near Hampton Court, known as the ‘Thames Riviera’, sued the owners of the Reynolds Illustrated News for libel.[3] The paper had printed a series of critical articles about ‘up-river’ nightlife, which the owners of the island argued were without foundation. The contested reports included ‘Scandalous Bathing and Dancing Scenes’; ‘Plea that Mobile Police Should Combat Growing Menace’; and claims that ‘a large number of young ladies [were] running about naked.’ Although the claims were vehemently disputed by the venue proprietors, there was clearly an assumption both in the papers and in court that the reports could be true.

Roadhouses were a brief and now largely forgotten phenomenon in interwar London. They originated at the intersection between urban expansion, a boost in car ownership, an increase in leisure time and disposable income, and a rise of interest in American culture. As with many other interwar developments that were primarily focused on entertainment, roadhouses caused considerable anxiety about the ‘Americanisation’ of Britain and a potential loosening of morals. These anxieties appear to have been articulated more explicitly in the written press, whereas the newsreels leveraged the visual pleasures roadhouses provided to present them primarily as places of innocent, wholesome and British fun.


[1] Michael John Law, ‘Turning night into day: transgression and Americanization at the English inter-war roadhouse’, Journal of Historical Geography, 35 (2009), 473-494

[2] ‘Roadhouse Joys of Merrie England,’ Daily Express, 18 April 1932, p. 11

[3] ‘Night Life up the River’, Daily Express, 3 March 1933, p. 7