Latest Word in Social Clubs

Last term I ran a short course for adult learners called ‘Tourist London Since 1800’ at Bishopsgate Institute. As with all the courses I deliver, I selected a range of original sources from the Institute’s library and archive collections to direct the learning process and each week students explored a different theme using tourist guidebooks, restaurant guides, and so on.

The final week’s theme was ‘Nights Out in London’. As I gathered materials for the session, I stumbled upon this slim pamphlet.


This was an item I hadn’t seen before. Attracted by the cute jester on the front cover, and overlooking the rather dog-eared appearance otherwise, I popped the pamphlet on to the top of a set of materials on pubs, clubs and dining out at the very last minute – and started to deliver the class without having looked inside this one item. Honestly, this is not how I usually plan my sessions.

The notes read: “You don’t shay sho” “glad eye” “Oh how I wish Mother was here”.

As the group started to explore the sets of archive materials laid out for them, one student called me over to share an incredible find. On every page of ‘Tabarin Club’ someone had annotated the illustrations with droll remarks. With the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute, I’ve reproduced this fabulously acerbic set of marginalia here for your enjoyment over the bank holiday weekend.

These notes read: “smug faces” “ought to know better” “new method of shaking hands”


These scribbled lines smartly undermine the formal, almost pompous, tone of the printed content that outlines the facilities offered at the Tabarin Club (‘special care has been given to the proper ventilation to ensure a refreshing and invigorating atmosphere…’). They also offer insight into popular catchphrases and comic conventions of the 1920s.

Here we have: “Someone has pushed him in the neck” “Booking up Vacant Dates” “I don’t care for you!!” “Frank with Bird and headache”.


I would like to thank my eagle-eyed student Jacqui Ross for bringing these previously overlooked notes to my attention – and now also to yours. As is often the case with original historical sources, this item asks more questions than it answers. Most obviously, who wrote the comments? Were they based on personal experience of nights out at the Tabarin Club (“why do we do this?” “you’re not going home yet sweetie…”)?

The notes here read: “Some dance” “why do we do this?” “liar” “ha ha” “You’re not going home yet sweetie” “last train for Balham”


And what else can we discover about the Tabarin Club? Street directories from the 1920s give the club’s stated address of 31 Tottenham Court Road as the Rector’s Club rather than the Tabarin. Yet the production of a high quality brochure of this type suggests a degree of permanence or longevity as opposed to a short-lived residency. This useful website mentions the Tabarin in the body of a longer piece of writing on London’s interwar jazz clubs but otherwise I’ve been unable to find out more about the club. Anyone able to provide fresh insight is invited to comment below. Similarly, anyone wishing to get their hands on this and dozens of other original sources on the history of ‘London at Play’ is encouraged to sign up for my next archives-based course at Bishopsgate Institute, starting on Monday 9 May. This annotated pamphlet will also be featured in a session delivered as part of Duckie’s Quite a Lot of Balls weekender on 7-8 May.

Disappointed Borrowers at East Ham Public Library

East Ham Public Library opened in east London on 2 January 1899. More than 1,400 borrowers’ tickets were issued within a fortnight of the opening date. By the end of the month, chief librarian William Bridle (1868-1927) was growing concerned about the dwindling numbers of books remaining on his library’s shelves.

Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900
Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900

On 27 January 1899, he submitted a report to his library committee managers that included the following urgent appeal for more stock:

The result of starting with an insufficient supply of books is that within a month I have had to refuse further admittance, and practically close the Library to all but the fortunate 1,500 readers who were able to make early application [for tickets], thereby causing disappointment, even disgust, among the large numbers of people who are now patiently awaiting their turn to become members [of the lending library]. To meet our pressing needs, the stock of books should be doubled at once. We cannot do less than this and keep faith with the public. We are, by our action in opening the library, inviting them here, and we must be prepared to keep pace with their increasing demands.

This story of immediate, almost unmanageable, demand for reading matter was repeated in new public libraries across London at the turn of the twentieth century. From Hither Green in south-east London to Chiswick in west London to Willesden in north-west London to Lambeth in south London, chief librarians struggled to keep pace with borrowers’ needs. Many became resourceful in their efforts to secure additional stock. Some librarians circulated begging letters to local businesses or authors for books and others got up fund-raising events to secure money to buy additional stock – all to ‘keep faith’ with a reading public whose appetite for literature appeared limitless.


To all from all

In August 1906 Alfred ‘Alf’ Leicester visited London from Bridgwater in Somerset with his friend (also called Alf). On 21 August he sent this picture postcard of Oxford Street home to his sister.


On the reverse, Alf wrote:

Dear Sis,

Getting on alright so far. Having lovely weather. Alf went back last night. Annie just had a PC [postcard] from him to say he got home safe. He says it was raining in Cardiff. We have not seen any rain yet. Eh, what? You say you would like to go down Oxford Street, shopping? I suppose you would. Kind regards to all from all,



‘New friends here. Want nothing.’

The public life of Muriel Lester (1883–1968) is a remarkable story of localised welfare work, interwoven with political activism on an international stage. It is a story that spans more than five decades and extends from east London to South and East Asia and the Americas. It overturns expectations of class and gender in the first half of the twentieth century – and it includes short but significant chapters on one of the world’s best-known civil rights leaders, Mohandas Gandhi.  

This lecture card from 1953 hints at the range of interests and connections in the extraordinary life of Muriel Lester.
This lecture card from 1953 hints at the varied interests and connections in the life of Muriel Lester.

Muriel Lester’s informal social work started in the early twentieth century in Bow in east London. Shocked by the poverty she witnessed in her chance observations of the lives of the working classes and motivated by spiritually-informed notions of service, charity and social equality, Lester directly initiated programmes to provide free childcare for hard-pressed working families. She also personally stood on open-air platforms in Victoria Park and Hyde Park to speak out against militarism, and in favour of women’s suffrage; and she offered practical support to those affected by the General Strike of 1926. Perhaps her best-known achievement during this period was the establishment of the Kingsley Hall community centre in Bow where all were seen and treated as equal and all had equal access to a range of learning and leisure activities.  

Kingsley Hall was established in the 1920s as a true community centre. All were seen and treated as equal, regardless of (in the language of the time) class, colour or creed.
This 1939 flyer indicates the range of activities on offer at Kingsley Hall.

From the 1920s, Lester travelled across the world campaigning for peace and reconciliation between nations.  It was during these travels that she met Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) in India in 1926. Sharing much in common – most notably their pacifist views and rejection of materialism – the two became regular correspondents and firm friends. When Gandhi visited London in 1931 he refused all offers of luxury accommodation in the West End, preferring instead to share the no-frills communal living enjoyed by Lester and other self-styled ‘apostles of voluntary poverty’ at Kingsley Hall in east London.

In 1941 Lester was partway through a speaking tour of America when she was arrested and imprisoned by British authorities at Trinidad. Speaking against militarism, at a time when Britain were engaged in World War Two,  Lester’s actions were viewed by the British authorities as unpatriotic. At the time of her arrest, Lester was en route from South America to China, Japan and India via the United States. She was almost sixty years old. Fearing negative publicity, the authorities offered Lester hotel accommodation but – true to her egalitarian principles – she refused special treatment and insisted on serving her time in prison.  As this telegram sent to her sister Doris during this period of incarceration shows, Lester accepted her situation with characteristic stoicism and good humour: ‘Imagine Whitsun camp extended. Books. Wonderful birds. Excellent food. No responsibilities. Health never better…New friends here. Want nothing.’  

blah blah
1941 telegram from Muriel Lester to Doris Lester from Trinidad.

Alongside her international travels, Lester continued her work in east London. Her selfless and enduring contribution to local life across almost half a century was acknowledged when she was awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Poplar. The East London Advertiser covered the story on 6 March 1964:

‘In recognition of her eminent services to the people of the Borough of Poplar, particularly…her work in founding and maintaining the Kingsley Hall Social Settlement with the help of her sister, Miss Doris Lester; and in recognition also of her valuable contributions in wider spheres to the cause of world peace, the improvement of social conditions, the fight against poverty and disease, and the removal of race and class barriers, Miss Lester [has been] admitted an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Poplar.’

In fact, Lester always objected to the term ‘settlement’, disliking the suggestion of patronage embedded within its meaning. Kingsley Hall had been run as a community-led initiative with local men, women and children involved in every aspect of decision-making from the first. But, the use of ‘settlement’ aside, this quotation neatly sums up the remarkable story of the life of Muriel Lester. This was a story both of its time and ahead of its time, most notably in its recognition of the need to remove ‘race and class barriers’ an ideal Lester not only promoted in theory but also practised in her daily life and activities.

To find out more about Muriel Lester

The images in this post have been reproduced with kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute. You can find out more about Muriel Lester by visiting the Bishopsgate Library where the Lester Archive is held. A pinterest board was created using items from this collection as part of The Only Way is Ethics project at Bishopsgate Institute in November 2013. This short article provides a useful summary of Lester’s life and achievements – with the emphasis on her spiritual convictions.  An academic treatment by Seth Koven of aspects of the life of Muriel Lester is due to be published by Princeton University Press in autumn 2014. There are also rumours circulating of a feature film.

The London Fiction #Shelfie

For your reading pleasure, I’ve assembled some extracts from a few of my favourite London-based novels (1887–1960). No real attempt at a system has been made. I simply transcribed scenes in each story that seemed to capture the spirit or atmosphere of the city at a particular time in the past. I hope you find these descriptive extracts evocative. Maybe they will send you running to your own #shelfies to revisit London authors or novels I’ve inevitably overlooked; or perhaps you will be inspired to add to your own fiction collections as a result of one or more new discoveries from the passages below.*

The short-list of London novels used to compile this post.

‘a negligent November London’

H.G.Wells Ann Veronica (1909) [1993 edition, p.94]

She went about in a negligent November London that had become very dark and foggy and greasy and forbidding indeed…Her little bed-sitting room was like a lair, and she went out from it into this vast, dun world, with its smoke-grey houses, its glaring streets of shops, its dark streets of homes, its orange-lit windows, under skies of dull copper or muddy grey or black, much as an animal goes out to seek food. She would come back and write letters, carefully planned and written letters, or read some book she had fetched from Mudie’s [circulating library]…or sit over her fire and think.

‘a band was playing’

Barbara Comyns The Vet’s Daughter (1959, set in c.1910) [1981 edition, pp. 3-4]

‘We walked in Battersea Park. Lucy’s hair fell down her back like water from a tap, very straight and long. Mine was like a pale yellow bell. We talked on our hands because Lucy was a deaf mute; her mother was turning her into a dressmaker because she considered it a suitable trade for those that were deaf and dumb. We were both seventeen. Mothers sat on dark green benches watching their children playing on the sooty grass, bowling bright hoops and balls. We went to see the birds, and in the distance a band was playing. Soldiers tried to speak to us until they noticed that we used our hands to speak with. Then we watched the pleasure-steamers and barges on the river. Great bales of different-coloured paper and boats loaded with straw went past very quickly, and a man with a black face in a coal-barge waved to us, and we waved back because we knew he couldn’t stop. It was lovely by the water; but too soon it was time to return home through the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses.’

‘walking on the Common’

Graham Greene The End of the Affair (1951) [1975 edition, pp. 34-5]

What a summer it was. I’m not going to try and name the month exactly – I should have to go back to it through so much pain, but I remember leaving the hot and crowded room, after drinking too much bad sherry, and walking on the Common with Henry. The sun was falling flat across the Common and the grass was pale with it. In the distance the houses were the houses in a Victorian print, small and precisely drawn and quiet; only one child cried a long way off. The eighteenth-century church stood like a toy in an island of grass – the toy could be left outside in the dark, in the dry unbreakable weather. It was the hour when you make confidences to a stranger.

‘watch the big life’

Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners (1956) [2006 edition, pp.72-3]

Many nights he went there…and see them fellars and girls waiting, looking at they wristwatch, watching the people coming up the escalator from the tube. You could tell that they waiting for somebody, the way how they getting on. Leaning up there, reading the Evening News, or smoking a cigarette, or walking round the circle looking at clothes in the glasscase, and every time people come up the escalator, they watching to see, and if the person not there, they relaxing to wait till the next tube come. All these people there, standing up waiting for somebody. And then you would see a sharp piece of skin come up the escalator, in a sharp coat, and she give the ticket collector she ticket and look around, and same time the fellar who waiting throw away his cigarette and you could see a happy look in his face, and the girl come and hold his arm and laugh, and he look at his wristwatch. Then the two of them walk up the steps and gone to the Circus, gone somewhere, to the theatre, or the cinema, or just to walk around and watch the big life in the Circus.


‘small, senseless sounds’

Alexander Baron King Dido (1969, set in 1911) [2009 edition, p.91]

He was talking, talking, and she gave him answers. People thronged in the foggy dusk, hurrying bowed, in flight from the chill mist, jostling past, vanishing into it. Great shire horses loomed out of the fog, sparkles of moisture on their backs and manes, high-laden wagons from docks and rail depots rumbled behind them, carters huddled, grotesquely wrapped, on their perches. The clash of the great hooves on cobbles, the iron rims of wheels mingling their noise in a thunder, the wide road a jam of wagons, here and there the gawky, coloured upper deck of a bus among them, all in a pale yellow cavern of light that blurred away into fog [on the City Road]. Her voice and his were small, senseless sounds among all the noise and movement.

‘dissolved in mist’

H.G.Wells Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) [1993 edition, pp.79-80]

They lunched on cutlets…and little crisp brown potatoes, and they drank between them a whole half bottle of – some white wine or other…Then, very warm and comfortable, they went down by the Tower, and the Tower Bridge with its crest of snow, huge pendant icicles, and the ice blocks choked in its side arches, was seasonable seeing. And as they had had enough of shops and crowds they set off resolutely along the desolate Embankment homeward.
But indeed the Thames was a wonderful sight that year! Ice-fringed along either shore, and with drift-ice in the middle reflecting a luminous scarlet from the broad red setting sun, and moving steadily, incessantly seaward. A swarm of mewing gulls went to and fro, and with them mingled pigeons and crows. The buildings on the Surrey side were dim and grey and very mysterious, the moored, ice-blocked barges silent and deserted, and here and there a lit window shone warm. The sun sank right out of sight into a bank of blue, and the Surrey side dissolved in mist save for a few insoluble spots of yellow light, that presently became many. And after our lovers had come under Charing Cross Bridge the Houses of Parliament rose before them at the end of a great crescent of golden lamps, blue and faint, half-way between the earth and sky. And the clock on the Tower was like a November sun. It was a day without a flaw…


‘Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth

Christina Stead For Love Alone (1945) [1986 edition, pp.313-4]

They climbed up to the top [of the bus] and saw London; Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth, got out and walked in some of the little streets behind Piccadilly, saw some of the taverns…Jonathan had friends among Oxford and Cambridge aesthetes; one undergrad had a room painted in black with a row of silver skulls…one had purchased a tavern and others frequented taverns near the East India Docks; all went to low dives, which was considered the romantic thing to do. He asked her, passing one pub, whether she would take a gin and lime juice, for they could go in and take one in the company of men with painted cheeks and hair dyed yellow.

‘into the West End’

Roland Camberton Scamp (1950) [2010 edition, p.94]

His parents were wealthy, had a large house in Golders Green…and gave him a couple of shillings pocket money each day for his jaunts into the West End, where he had discovered that cosy, steamy little cafe behind Foyles, frequented by art-students, film extras, bums, and several very pretty girls. A couple of shillings was not a lot but it was enough to buy a packet of cigarettes and a cup of tea. And what more did one want, when one was eighteen, not entirely repulsive (though far from brilliantly handsome), and potentially the greatest lawyer, doctor, painter, actor, and lover in the world?

‘footfalls numberless’ 

George Gissing In the Year of Jubilee (1894, set in 1887) [1994 edition, p.58]

No one observed her solitary state; she was one of millions walking about the streets because it was Jubilee Day, and every moment packed her more tightly among the tramping populace. A procession, this, greatly more significant that that of Royal personages earlier in the day. Along the main thoroughfares of mid-London, wheel-traffic was now suspended; between the houses moved a double current of humanity, this way and that, filling the whole space, so that no vehicle could possibly have made its way on the wonted track. At junctions, pickets of police directed progress; the slowly advancing masses wheeled to the left or right at word of command, carelessly obedient…there was little noise; only a thud, thud of footfalls numberless.

‘peering into the murk’

Lynne Reid Banks The L-Shaped Room (1960) [2004 edition, p.143]

At last I got on a bus, which trundled quite briskly to the far end of the King’s Road, but after World’s End, where the streets were darker, the fog seemed to close in and the bus was forced to nose its way cautiously along in first gear. The journey went on and on – before long we were travelling at a walking pace, and I and the few other passengers were anxiously clearing the condensation from the windows and peering into the murk in an effort to see where we were. Passing a street-light came to seem quite an event; one watched their brave little smudges receding with a feeling akin to despair, as if we might never find another.

‘the show’s never, never twice the same’

Colin MacInnes Absolute Beginners (1959) p.85

Whoever thought up the Thames embankment was a genius…If the tide’s in, the river’s like the ocean, and you look across the great wide bend and see the fairy advertising palaces on the south side beaming in the water, and that great white bridge that floats across it gracefully, like a string of leaves. If you’re fortunate, the cab gets all the green [lights], and keeps up the same steady speed, and looking out from the upholstery it’s like your own private Cinemarama, except that in this one the show’s never, never twice the same. And weather makes no difference, or season, it’s always wonderful – the magic always works.

‘a melancholy and futile star-shine’

Norman Collins London Belongs to Me (1945) [2008 edition, pp.609-10]

Bill had got embarkation leave. That was why Doris was there at King’s Cross waiting for him. The train was late. Very late…it was after ten o’clock already. Outside, the light had faded from the evening sky and King’s Cross was settling down to its nightly black-out. The platform lamps, like so many blue inverted night-lights had been turned on by the stationmaster and made a melancholy and futile star-shine of their own. Through the murk, the word ‘BUFFET’ on the tea-room door showed up magically in 6-inch letters cut out of cardboard. Every ten seconds or so the word would disappear altogether as a soldier, carrying the war on his back, pulled the door open and went inside. It was the same wherever you looked. Tired, thirsty soldiers. Soldiers going, soldiers coming. The tramp of their boots mingled with the smell of train oil and the hiss of high pressure steam. It might have been the Tottenham Court Road and not the Siegfried Line that they were going to storm at any moment.

‘at dusk it glitters’

Patrick Hamilton Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) [1998 edition, p.41]

He spent over an hour in [the crowded Lyons in the Hampstead Road], smoking three cigarettes, and strangely enjoying the electric-lit, spoon-clinking liveliness of the place; and when he came out the world was transfigured by dusk. Bob identified and adored this transfiguration. All day long the Hampstead Road is a thing of sluggish grey litter and rumbling trams. But at dusk it glitters. Glitters, and gleams, and twinkles, and is phosphorescent – and the very noises of the trams are like romantic thunders from the hoofs of approaching night. In exultant spirits he strolled down towards the West End.


*To discover more about how London has been portrayed in novels past and present, the London Fictions website is well worth a visit.

Bridget Jones versus Charles Pooter

Image from Diary of a Nobody

Completing the revisions for a paper on leisure in the London suburbs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has meant revisiting the secondary literature on class and the suburbs. I initially reviewed this literature a decade ago as part of the research for my doctoral thesis. Notwithstanding the publication of several new titles offering less pejorative accounts of suburban lives and lifestyles since my first research phase, the gaps in the literature remain considerable – and frustrating.

Bridget Jones' Diary

When is somebody going to publish a scholarly study of the London suburbs using primary sources to reconstruct the experiences of the lower-middle-class men and women living there? Or, expressed another way (and aside from a handful of journal articles and unpublished theses), why do we still know so little about the social lives and leisure pursuits of clerks, shop-workers and pupil teachers in the city’s suburbs in the late-nineteenth century? Census data, business and institutional records, letters, diaries and novels would all yield valuable information upon which a comprehensive and comparative account might be constructed; an account that would finally remove the need for general studies of the London suburbs to rely for ‘proof’ on a handful of novels and autobiographies. It would also ensure oral history evidence from the inter-war years wasn’t a-historically backdated to provide testimony or light and shade for earlier periods. Best of all, otherwise credible scholars would no longer feel obliged to reference the satirical diary of a made-up Islington clerk to illustrate or support their arguments. After all, imagine historians in 2113 relentlessly (sometimes exclusively) using the fictional experience of Bridget Jones to describe and represent the lives of single thirty-something women in late-twentieth century London…

London Studies Network: a new initiative by the Raphael Samuel History Centre

London for the Curious

On Thursday 9 May academics, project workers, educators, postgraduates and authors gathered at Queen Mary (University of London) on the Mile End Road to discuss the possibility of forming a London Studies Network to facilitate informal collaboration between historians, geographers, writers, artists and film-makers interested in the life of the city. The meeting was initiated and chaired by Professor Barbara Taylor, Co-director of the  Raphael Samuel History Centre 

Attached to the Raphael Samuel History Centre since 2000, I attended the meeting which began with introductions. The thirty-plus people present were researching a range of topics from different periods, with modern and post-modern London especially well-represented in the room. Strikes, social clubs, consumer cultures, queer theory, carnivals, London docks, popular television, gender and childhood were among the subjects mentioned. Everyone seemed to agree about the need for a network to foster dialogue and co-operation across disciplines and institutions so it was decided to hold a second meeting in the autumn to continue the discussion. In the meantime it was recognised that a Facebook page might be a useful way to test wider interest in a London Studies Network over the summer, as well as experimenting with the proposed network’s form and function. For example, did people want to use a network to find research or heritage project partners, draw upon others’ experience and knowledge or simply to socialise with a wider grouping of men and women sharing their interest in London past and present?

The London Studies Network Facebook page was set up  last week It is anticipated that the page will eventually become a welcoming virtual home for the widest possible community of ‘Londonistas’. The more people *like* the page and post events and requests on the timeline, the sooner this goal will be attained so please spread the word about this new venture to your metropolitan friends and colleagues.