By Catherine Stainer
In 1920s London, women were at the centre of the city’s nightlife. Kate Meyrick (1875-1933), dubbed the “Queen of the Nightclubs” by the press, was a pioneering businesswoman whose career as a nightclub proprietor spanned the length of the decade, despite five stints in prison for contravention of licensing laws.
In early January 1920, just months after opening her first club, “Dalton’s”, Meyrick found herself in court. The Metropolitan Police, led by the puritanical and unpopular Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, led a campaign against her nightclubs throughout the 1920s. This was the beginning of a long battle. Detective Sergeant Goddard stated that he had seen nineteen women belonging to “a certain class” in the club who “behaved in an improper manner,” and a list of convictions drawn up by the Metropolitan Police showed that Meyrick ‘did knowingly permit [Dalton’s] to be used by reputed prostitutes.’ The prosecuting counsel concluded that Dalton’s was a ‘ ’ Despite witnesses vehemently denying these allegations, Meyrick was fined £25 and Dalton’s was struck off the register, never to be reopened. Wartime restrictions, under the Defence of the Realm Act ( DORA), prohibited the selling of alcohol on licensed premises after 9pm. Such restrictions continued into the 1920s until 1921, when they were extended until 11pm, but Meyrick paid no heed.
At their core, debates in this period regarding nightclubs and their supposed immorality and vice, were really debates aro ty. In his 1920 study, The Night Haunts of London, Sydney A. Moseley summarises the anxieties surrounding a successful West End club, arguing ‘[w]hat is so significant about Murray’s is not what it actually is, but what it represents. Murray’s is a modern tendency.’ He bemoans the night club ‘types,’ the patrons ‘mixed in race and manners,’ but his main concern was the young women who populated these late-night dancefloors, with their ‘bobbed hair, the pale face, and the short skirt.’ The press was equally replete with these anxieties. One commentator in The People argued: ‘the supreme obsession of the modern girl is to have a topping time […] it is not long before her strongly-developed craving for thrills, variety and excitement drives her into immorality, alcohol, drugs and nightclubs.’
Unsurprisingly, Meyrick’s assessment of these women differs markedly from the police and other commentators. In her memoirs, she asserts that these women ‘had always told me either that they were on the stage or that they worked as models […] I know for a fact that two of the young women [the police] declared they “knew” were in the chorus at the Gaiety at that very time.’ The contradictions expressed here are indicative of post-war tensions between those who questioned the rights of young working-class women to occupy a public space, and those who did .
Marek Kohn notes that in this period, ‘wearing makeup, smoking in public, eating out or walking the streets unchaperoned were no longer the sole prerogative of prostitutes.’ Instead, for many young women, ‘these signs of independence came with their jobs.’ The women employed by Meyrick were products of a new profession, that of the dance hostess. Largely working-class recruits, they were from dancing schools that opened up for social and theatrical dancing in the years immediately preceding World War One.
Yet, for some commentators – like the police – observing the night world, the line was blurred between the sex worker, dancer, and actress. It is also worth noting that if Meyrick was allowing women to sell sex in her clubs, then the law was an unwitting facilitator. DORA had also empowered local authorities to place curfews on women suspected of prostitution, so ‘pushed [by police] from the blacked-out streets, it was to the Soho clubs that prostitutes increasingly resorted, despite DORA raising penalties for this as well.’ Many of these recruits to the dance hostess profession were working-class, drawn to London from the provinces as a result of greater mobility during World War One. Under Kate Meyrick, they had the potential to make average weekly takings of around £15, a great deal more than they could hope to make in other occupations open to women at that time. Equally, almost all of her female employees owned cars – a rare commodity for women and a strong signifier of modernity and wealth in a period of mass .
Kate Meyrick was progressively aware of the lack of financial opportunities available to young women, noting that whenever one of her clubs was closed by police, it was her female employees who suffered the most. The men, she states, were able to find work because there were far more options for them as bartenders and waiters, but for the women she employed as dancers and hostesses, the club closures ‘meant for most of these [women] the loss of their only decent means of livelihood.’ Due to the reputation that the nightclubs had, along with the blurred lines between hostess and prostitute, these women struggled to find “respectable” work elsewhere. Meyrick remembers one woman who worked for her, who was ‘not even inclined towards loose living […] She was driven to the bad, though – and not by the night clubs, but by the closing of them.’
Kate Meyrick died in January 1933 from influenza, after her final stint in Holloway prison and a bout of pneumonia left her health increasingly fragile. Though her tenure as “Queen of the ” was short, her legacy lived on and transmogrified into the 1930s as imitators followed in her wake. Cultural reformation would come in the form of “coloured clubs” which lit up the Soho circuit and became meeting grounds for the left’s Popular .
Author’s Bio: Catherine Stainer completed her Masters in Historical Research at the University of Sheffield in 2020. Her dissertation was entitled ‘One woman’s vice, another woman’s virtue: Policewomen and “policed” women in interwar Britain,’ with a focus on differing concepts of female liberation. She tweets @cathstainer.
Selected Further Reading
- Bland, Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper (Manchester, 2013)
- Kohn, Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground (London, 1992)
- K., Warsh and P. Tinkler, ‘Feminine Modernity in Interwar Britain and North America: Corsets, Cars, and Cigarettes’, Journal of Women’s History 20.3 (2008), pp. 113-143
- R. Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven, 2012)
For fictionalised references to Kate Meyrick, see E. Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (London, 1945)
 See for example, ‘The Amazing Career of the Queen of Nightclubs’, Reynold’s Newspaper 23 November 1924, p. 5.
 ‘Dalton’s in Court Again’, Pall Mall Gazette 14 January 1920, p. 4, and National Archives [hereafter N.A.]: MEPO 2/4481, Mrs Kate Evelyn Meyrick or Merrick: allegations of irregularities at The Cecil, The 43 and The Bunch of Keys Clubs, Witness Statement of Superintendent Henry Martin, 22 July 1924.
 Pall Mall Gazette 14 January 1920, p. 4.
 S. A. Moseley, The Night Haunts of London (London, 1920), p. 17.
 Ibid., p. 17.
 The People 8 February 1920, p. 7.
 K. E. Meyrick, Secrets of the 43 Club (London, 1932), p. 21.
 M. Kohn, Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground (London, 1992), p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 J. White, London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People (London, 2001),
 Kate Meyrick, p. 149.
 Ibid., p. 154.
 K. E. Meyrick, p. 154.
 J. R. Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven, 2012), p. 243.
Feature Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Meyrick#/media/File:Kate_Meyrick.jpg