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Bohemian Edwardian London

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William Orpen, ‘Café Royal London 1912′
William Orpen, ‘Café Royal London 1912′

The London of the artistic, sporting, and theatrical sets, as well as those who hoped to recreate a little of the Continental elegance and rousing debates of Parisian brasseries or Viennese coffeehouses, convened in Soho. Here popped champagne–drunk from a Gaiety Girl’s dainty slipper–; succulent oysters were tipped down throats; and in the later Edwardian era, the illicit pleasures of a nightclub could be found.

Alongside this were bookstalls that sold “naughty” French novels wrapped in yellow book covers, diverting markets where one could find a whole host of defective or secondhand goods, Bohemian clubs, and street corners filled with radical European exiles and socialist-minded British rousing the rabble against capitalism and the social order of the day. A true essence of Cosmopolitan London, a passing visitor to Soho could brush shoulders with people of various ethnic and religious groups from all corners of the world.

According to Count E. Armfelt’s article in Living London, Berwick Street was the heart of Soho. It was populated by “foreign shops where all commodities generally required by foreigners can be bought or hired. There are emporiums where French and Viennese chefs and scullions, German, Austrian, Italian, and Swiss waiters, can, without crossing another threshold, choose kitchen utensils, boots, slippers, wooden shoes or sabots, vests, overalls, cigarette papers, caps, dress shirt-fronts, and where dress suits can be hired by the day or the week.” Squeezed between these shops were employment agencies and registry offices, some of which featured reading rooms, where unemployed immigrants could “smoke, drink, and play at dominoes and cards for small stakes.”

Soho was also the preferred hub for visiting theatrical artists, where one “may be met Andalusian dancers, Bohemian acrobats and fiddlers, Cossack horse whisperers and trainers, Bulgarian wire dancers and dagger jugglers, Austrian and German gymnasts, lion-tamers, and strong men, Moldavian gipsies who play on weird instruments, Hungarian equestrians lithe and elegant, Tyrolese whose peculiar songs are imitative of their mountain calls, Neapolitan ballerine who have been admired in San Carlo and at La Scala, and the nightingales of the North and the South whose voices may raise them to the positions of world-famed primadonnas.”

The Café Royal, in Regent’s Street, provided elegant French fare for a mixed audience of barristers, doctors, men-about-town (or knuts), actresses, revolutionaries, sportsmen, and officers–to name a few of its denizens. Lieutenant-Colonel Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, that connoisseur of sybarite Edwardian living, describes the restaurant thus:

“Sportsmen have always had a special affection for the Cafe Royal. The men who were prominent in the revival of road-coaching were all patrons of the restaurant, and any night you may see half-a-dozen well-known owners of race-horses dining there. The Stage, the Stock Exchange, and Literature also have a liking for the old house, and hunting men love it.

When I mentioned it as the ideal place for a dinner of bachelor gourmets, I did not mean that men do not bring their wives and sisters and sweethearts there. They do. But the Cafe Royal does not lay itself out to capture the ladies. I never heard of anyone having afternoon tea there, and when a lady tells me that she likes dining at the Cafe Royal I always mentally give her a good mark, for it shows that she places in her affections good things to drink and good things to eat before those “springes to catch woodcock,” gipsy bands in crimson coats, and palm lounges.

In the great gilded cage of the restaurant and the big room the windows of which open on to Glasshouse Street, the custom is to eat the lunch of the day, or to select dishes from it, while dinner is an a la carte meal.

Down in the cafe a table d’hote meal is served, wonderful value for very few shillings, but I am not smoke-proof, and I like eating my meals without the taste and smell of tobacco added to them. The grill-room is always full, and perhaps more solid eating, of juicy fillets and grilled chops and cutlets, is done there than anywhere else in the house, except in the banqueting rooms.”

Around the eve of WWI, the youth of London high society began to penetrate Soho and its cosmopolitan delights, with duke’s daughters and Foreign Office clerks continuing the very Victorian trend of “slumming”–and they considered themselves daring and anti-establishment for even breathing the merest whiff of Bohemianism. Despite this, Soho was, at its heart, a homey mecca for many immigrants in London, where they could forge and cement connections between the New and the Old World.

Further Reading

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London by Judith Walkowitz

The Cave of the Golden Calf: The Real Delphine’s

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London nightclub, 1914

Mr. Selfridge takes license with the life and times of the real Harry Gordon Selfridge, but there actually were nightclubs in Edwardian London! We can thank ragtime and the tango for that, as well as Paris and New York, where the cabaret–dining with a floor show–was popularized by the ultra-fashionable Americans and Europeans who flit across the pre-war world’s glamorous capitals via ocean liners and sleek trains. The only thing that kept London from joining the fun was the vigilance of the London police, who made it difficult for nightclubs to thrive in the English capital.

According to Robert Machray, in his The Night Side of London published in 1902: “The fact is that night clubs have practically become impossible, or almost impossible, in London, thanks to the ceaseless vigilance of the police, whose constant raiding of such dens has made keeping these places a dangerous, and therefore an unprofitable business. From time to time one is started, but it is quickly ‘spotted’ and suppressed. Only a few years ago there were many of them open, furnished with ballrooms, bars, supper-rooms (which had a way of being turned into gambling-hells on the slightest provocation), and a bevy of painted ladies—the whole protected by bullies or ‘chuckers-out.'”

The Cave of the Golden Calf was more avant-garde than previous attempts at owning a club in London, and fit in with the rise of modernism in art, music, literature, and fashion. Founded in 1912 by Frida Uhl Strindberg, an Austrian divorcee (she had been married to Swedish playwright August Strindberg in the 1890s), the purpose of The Cave was “for the promotion of the arts and for the association together of artists and other persons who are interested in literature and the arts.” Madame Strindberg leased a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors.

On opening night in June 1912, the basement was packed with journalists, artists, and other curiosity seekers. The Cave’s reputation was immediately sealed as the place to be to rub shoulders with Milanese opera singers, Guards’ officers, and famed artists who sought the latest in drama and entertainment. There one could find leading and soon-to-be leading modernists such as Ford Madox Ford, Katherine Mansfield, and Ezra Pound. Madame Strindberg’s devotion to the avant-garde led her to support–financially and with publicity–many a struggling writer or artist, which eventually led to the financial troubles of herself and of the club.

Nevertheless, from June 1912 to March 1914, The Cave of the Golden Calf helped usher London into place as an influential capital for artistic expression and artistic progressiveness (Roger Fry’s exhibit of Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in 1911 had shocked the Old Guard at the Royal Academy), as well as Parisien entertainments like dancing the tango or sipping absinthe. Before its doors closed, a number of other nightclubs popped up in London, though these were naturally less avant-garde and more concerned with dancing, dining, and drinking into the wee hours of the night. These nightclubs were particularly seductive to the “Corrupt Coterie,” or the circle of friends made up of the offspring of “The Souls.” Lady Diana Manners risked scandal and censure to sneak out of Mayfair ballrooms to dance and drink with friends at places like The Four Hundred Club or Murray’s, and then tip-toe back just before her mother or brother came to collect her from the ball.

Though The Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt months before WWI, it led the way towards to the breaking up of old mores of the long 19th century and pushing society into the 20th century. The club and others like it also set the precedent for the dance- and jazz-mad 1920s, for the war years urged young men and women to drink, dance, and be merry while they still lived.

Further Reading

The Cabaret by Lisa Appignanesi
Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century by Philip Hoare
Geomodernisms edited by Laura Doyle
Race and the Modernist Imagination by Urmila Seshagiri
Peace And War: Britain in 1914 by Nigel Jones

Tattersall’s in the Edwardian Era

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Tattersall's in 1896

For those of you familiar with Regency romances, Tattersall’s is one of the “hot spots,” so to speak, at which the gentlemen (and some daring ladies) of the ton convened for their horse flesh. Read more about that on Candice Hern’s website. During the Edwardian era, the equine hubbub had dispersed a bit towards other horse repositories such as Aldridge’s in Upper St. Martin’s Lane–which, incidentally, was founded thirteen years before Tattersall’s, in 1753–, the Royal City Horse and Carriage Repository (Barbican) and “Aldersgate in the City, and Ward’s Repository in Edgware Road”. However, despite their presence, the removal of the Jockey Club its own premises, and the move to Albert Gate after the landlord, the Marquis of Westminster, refused to renew the lease on account of the scandalous bets exchanged between bookies and race enthusiasts, Tattersall’s remained and remains the top horse repository in England.


The scene at the Albert Gate establishment on Monday is one worth going far to witness. The dramatis persona is remarkably interesting, and forms a unique opportunity for the study of character. Here may be seen various types of would-be purchasers, from the be-gaitered, straw-chewing, diminutive man with “horse” plainly written all over him from his cap to his shoes, to the stylishly-dressed nobleman in quest of a thousand-guinea pair of carriage horses, the country parson in search of a pony for a governess car, or a smart cavalry man on the look-out for a clever polo pony: men about town, famous jockeys and equally famous trainers, actors and actresses, members of the Stock Exchange and other important city organisations; and not infrequently novelists whose names are household words may be met with in search of local colour for a new novel.

The well-known oblong building with its glass-covered roof witnesses the sale of considerably over ten thousand horses annually. In the surrounding galleries every description of vehicle is standing for sale, governess cars, shooting wagons, landaus, victorias and coaches—a veritable carriage museum. As each potential purchaser of horse-flesh enters the yard, he dives into the office and provides himself with the broad-sheet sale catalogue, which is printed on almost similar lines to that issued by the firm on the occasion of the historic sale by them of the Prince of Wales’ horses at the Hyde Park “Corner” in 1786, a copy of which hangs in a frame in the office. The Prince was, to all intents and purposes, hounded off the turf in connection with the suspicious running of his horse Escape. It may be mentioned that he, when King, actively devoted himself to racing again in 1826.

Punctually at 11.30 the auctioneer ascends the rostrum. “No. 1” is exhibited on a large board by an attendant in the gallery, the animal to be sold is led out from one of the numerous stables, the keen buyers line up, and the horse is galloped up and down through the throng of expert scrutinisers. In a few seconds a horsey-looking would-be buyer steps out of the crowd, takes a lightning glance at the animal’s teeth, runs his hand over his legs and nods to the auctioneer. Bids are fired at the wielder of the hammer like shots from a Maxim gun, but to the casual observer it is a mystery how the auctioneer manages to catch the bids as they take the form of mysterious nods and winks. The quick eyes of the seller, always on the alert, continually roam over the assembled crowd and quickly discern the slightest inclination of the head or covert twitching of an eyelid. Horses find new owners in the course of a few minutes; no time is cut to waste, for usually about two hundred lots require to be disposed of before six o’clock.

The offices of Tattersall’s are exceedingly interesting, as the walls of the rooms and corridors are covered with old prints, engravings, paintings and photographs of famous racehorses, collected by the different generations during the last 137 years. This is undoubtedly the finest collection in the world, and it is uncertain if £100,000 would purchase them. In a conspicuous position over the stairs is a large photograph of the sensational sale of Flying Fox, who fetched the record price of 37,500 guineas. His Majesty the King attended this sale at Kingsclere, and in the photograph the majority of the sporting aristocracy may be recognised.

At frequent periods on the turf, owing to the death of some famous owner, valuable studs of racehorses are in the ordinary course of events brought under the hammer, and to Messrs. Tattersall is deputed the enormous responsibility of disposing of these racers to the best possible advantage. The general public, although such a large percentage of them take a more than passing interest in the sport of kings, have but little idea of the £. s. d. of racing, and when they read in the papers that some famous racehorse has been disposed of at auction by Messrs. Tattersall for ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand guineas, they are naturally astonished.

The inflated prices now paid for celebrated horse-flesh are due to many causes. In years gone by £2,000 was almost an unheard of sum to pay for a horse, even though he had first-class performances to his credit. When the Marquis of Hastings paid £12,000 for Kangaroo, who afterwards, by-the-by, turned out worthless, and ended his days in the shafts of a cab, the entire sporting world was staggered by the enormous amount of the purchase price, and reflections were made as to the sanity of the purchaser.

Nowadays, at Messrs. Tattersall’s celebrated sales at Doncaster in September, thousand-guinea yearlings are almost as plentiful as blackberries, and during the past few years £5,000 has frequently been reached for a blue-blooded baby racer. This is not to be wondered at in view of the fact that stud fees in some instances are as high as four hundred guineas, and the cost of a brood mare may run into many thousands of pounds. The splendid mare, Sceptre, who during the past year accomplished the most extraordinary record of winning the One Thousand Guineas, Two Thousand Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger, in addition to other races—netting for her owner, Mr. R. S. Sievier, the respectable fortune of £25,000——was sold by Messrs. Tattersall to him at the break-up of the late Duke of Westminster’s stud for 10,000 guineas, which was a record price for a yearling.

The London Magazine, Volume 10 (1903)