‘Co-existence through calypsos and Cockney cabaret’: the inter-racial movement and dutiful citizenship

On a Friday evening in early February 1955, three hundred and sixty Brixtonians assembled at Lambeth Town Hall on Acre Lane. Half those present were West Indians, the other half were ‘natives of Lambeth’. They came to dance together.

Despite some initial hesitation on both sides, after a run of mambas, salsas, and rhumbas, followed by a quick fox trot, the Lambeth Walk, and a rendition of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’, it seems that inhibitions lowered. ‘Coloured guests piloted the wives of councillors to the floor’, reported the South London Press. Leon Goldrich, a local salesman, engaged a young West Indian nurse in a ‘vigorous jive session’.[1] Pathé newsreel captured the evening, and played footage of it at the local cinemas, the ABC, the Regal, and the Brixton Palladium.[2]

The evening was largely judged to be a success. ‘The rhythm of the mamba’, the Pathé news reader enthused, ‘was doing its bit towards racial unity’. The Anglo-West Indian Committee, who had financed the evening, proposed changing their motto henceforth to ‘Co-existence through calypsos and Cockney cabaret’.[3]

Promoted by the local mayor, and co-ordinated and funded by the Anglo-West Indian Committee, this event at the Lambeth Town Hall was an early effort in the management of what came to be termed ‘race relations’. As Pathé noted in its coverage, by the mid-1950s there were thousands of new black Londoners living in Lambeth. The dance was an attempt at managing ‘race relations’ in the borough—managing, in effect, the racism that these new Londoners met, and doing so by promoting inter-cultural exchange and sociability.

The Anglo-West Indian Committee were just one of a raft of ‘inter-racial’ organisations established in the 1950s and early 1960s, interested in managing ‘race relations’ in their local areas. In their championing of cockney and calypso, it would be easy to read their activities as an early embrace of the popular energies of Caribbean and vernacular London life that came to transform the cultures of the metropole in the coming decades.[4] Such a reading, however, would be only partly true. To understand the inter-racial movement in London and its relationship to and role within the transformation of London into a modern multicultural city, we need to attend not only to how such initiatives attempted to manage ‘race relations’, but to how they attempted to manage the city’s black working class, and to reform it in an image of middle-class metropolitan respectability.

The inter-racial movement, whose activities I explore in this post, was dominated by middle-class black Londoners, well-connected with local political elites, political representatives from their home nations, and business and community leaders. This class of migrants is often eclipsed in the photographic and literary record of London’s postwar newcomers, in which images of the city’s new workers predominate. But they played a significant role in the early politics of black London, and, importantly, they held a complex, ambivalent relationship to that wider mass of migrants whose image is more readily called to mind when remembering the years of the ‘Windrush’ generation.

In Stuart Hall’s recently published memoir, he recounts a moment he encountered precisely this archetypal image, when living temporarily in London in 1951 as he prepared to begin his undergraduate degree at Oxford. Passing Paddington Station, Hall ‘saw a stream of black people spilling out into the London afternoon’. He would soon be far from this mass of black humanity, settling down in Oxford, where his first formal meal was ‘white fish on a white plate with boiled potatoes and cauliflower in a white sauce!’. But this moment at Paddington Station stuck with him. ‘This was a game-changing moment for me. Suddenly everything looked different’.[5]

‘West Indian Arrivals’. © Howard Grey, 1962

Hall was a representative of that same Caribbean class that came to dominate the inter-racial movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Professional, colonial educated, many of this class had likely, like Hall, grown up in close proximity to that ‘other’ Caribbean that also came to Britain in the Windrush years, ‘darker and less subservient to the sensibilities of colonial order’.[6] But like Hall, too, their experience of this proximity was likely an experience of its disavowal. Colonial society in the Caribbean worked through strict, if often unspeakable, regimentations of class and colour—what Winston James has referred to as a ‘pigmentocracy’.[7] However close these various strata of Caribbean society came to one another, their distance was also rigorously policed by those seeking to separate themselves from people they did not regard as their social equals.

I recount Hall’s ‘game-changing’ moment here, though, not for how representative it was. Rather, I mention it to underline the stakes of this encounter between two social worlds whose simultaneous proximity and distance had been the making of their social life while in the Caribbean. In this post, I explore how this encounter became the stuff of politics in the inter-racial movement of the Windrush decades.

For many of those of the same class as Hall—professional men and women, students, business leaders, politicians—meeting this ‘other’ Caribbean now on British soil was less a moment for their own reinvention, and more an opportunity for the reinvention of that other. In the movement for co-existence through calypso and cockney, in other words, the politics of multiculturalism was routed through a racialized politics of class.


Social workers

Some sixty miles away from Paddington Station, in Folkestone, Kent, Sydney Bellenger also watched West Indians disembark from their Atlantic crossings in the early 1950s, and also felt a moment of transformation. Bellenger was a white English man, an office worker living in Clapham. Watching these migrants arrive looking, in his view, ‘lost and bewildered’, he decided to set up a social club on his return to London. Working with St Anne’s Church in Clapham, he established the Overseas Goodwill Club in their church hall, running it with his wife, Ella. Here, they provided advice about housing and employment, and offered a social club to relieve the loneliness of London life in the mid-1950s.[8] In this work, the Bellengers considered themselves ‘spare-time social workers’, assigning to themselves the task of managing the many difficulties these new Londoners encountered as they negotiated their way around an often deeply racist city.

The Bellengers were just two of many such spare-time social workers, meeting the needs of London’s newcomers where the state failed to do so. Similar roles might be taken on by the private clubs established to accommodate those frozen out of local pubs and other recreation spaces. The Mango Club, in nearby Coldharbour Lane, for example, was run by West African Albert King Harman-Lewis, a former social worker with the Colonial Office, who upon retirement had used his club as a social work centre to solve his customers’ ‘domestic problems’.[9] A little further down Coldharbour Lane, the Atlantic pub served, as Flamingo magazine noted in 1964, as ‘the unofficial Community Centre of West Indians in Brixton’.[10]

More formalised structures also existed. Migrants arriving in London might expect to be met by a welfare officer or a charitable social worker when they disembarked from the train station—in a memorable scene from A Man From the Sun (1956) an officer from the Caribbean Welfare Service and an English woman from the Church Army swoop in on lost migrants to protect them from pimps and direct them to sanctuary.[11] Welfare officers, though too few, were provided by the various West Indian high commissions, as well as the Colonial Office. And various overseas associations of home islands—the Barbados Overseas Community, the Jamaica Overseas Families and Friends Association, the Overseas Social Centre, or the Caribbean Overseas Movement, also offered help. As regularly, though, migrants fell back on informal friendship networks. They helped each other out, as Sam Selvon memorably recounts in his novel Lonely Londoners, so that each might in turn become, like Selvon’s protagonist Moses Aloetta, ‘like a welfare officer’ taking new arrivals ‘around by houses he know it would be all right to go to’.[12]

This ad hoc welfare provision was a necessary response to the lack of substantial state provision in these early years. In the new postwar welfare state, welfare remained, as historians of the postwar settlement have emphasised, a ‘mixed economy’.[13] As the question of ‘race relations’ became increasingly politically pressing, all the more so after the 1958 white riots in Notting Hill increased the diplomatic pressure from West Indian political leaders to protect the rights of West Indians in Britain, the voluntary sector expanded to meet various social needs.[14]

Sydney and Ella Bellenger’s Overseas Goodwill Club was a relatively small-scale and short-lived component of this social work network. Beginning in 1955, by early 1958 their operation had grown sufficiently that Sydney began plans to relocate to a bigger premises in Brixton, where he hoped to enlist local church and council support, and increase membership from a few dozen to a few hundred.[15] In the event, however, the move did not happen. Following the Notting Hill riots, the Bellengers noticed a steady decline in the numbers of those attending. Indeed, the South London Press reported that ‘Social workers running clubs for coloured people in Clapham and Brixton’ had ‘reported that dozens of West Indian members have “faded away” since the racial fights’—a phenomenon also noted by Edward Pilkington in his oral history of the riots, undertaken in the late 1980s.[16]

Other initiatives, however, continued to thrive, usually led by West Indians but with connections linking them to local trade councils, local councillors, businesses, and religious leaders. Alongside the earlier-mentioned Anglo-West Indian Community, such organisations included the Internatt Social Club, run for international students from West Norwood;[17] the West Indian Good Will Association, which held dances at the Cornet of Horse in Battersea’s Lavender Gardens in the late 1950s;[18] the Clapham Inter-Racial Club, which ran regular charity dances at Wandsworth Town Hall between 1959 and 1965;[19] the British Caribbean Association, active in Balham in the late 1950s;[20] Racial Brotherhood, active in Somerleyton Road in the late 1950s;[21] the Lambeth Inter-Racial Council, active in the mid-1960s, and involved in the high-profile campaign then running against the colour bar at Forest Hill’s Dartmouth Arms pub;[22] the Islington Friendship Council, who in 1964 led a campaign against the colour bar in housing in the borough;[23] a Citizens Committee, set up in Deptford, under the patronage of local MP Sir Leslie Plummer, in 1960;[24] and an ‘inter-racial club’ discussed for formation in Balham in 1962—although it is unclear whether this final example ever actually got going.[25] By 1966, when the new state politics of race relations saw government funds available to employ full-time officers in such organisations, Martin Ennals of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants reported some forty inter-racial committees across the country, working with their local councils.[26]

Export as KML for Google Earth/Google MapsOpen standalone map in fullscreen modeCreate QR code image for standalone map in fullscreen modeExport as GeoJSONExport as GeoRSS
Inter-Racial Organisations

loading map - please wait...

Anglo-Caribbean Club: 51.474955, -0.036992
Anglo-Caribbean Organisation: 51.464520, -0.028925
Brockley International Friendship Association: 51.473020, -0.054832
Overseas Goodwill Club: 51.463197, -0.139424
Overseas Social Centre: 51.483475, -0.217978
Southwark Inter-Racial Committee / Southwark Council for Community Relations: 51.503450, -0.080552
The Internatt Social Club: 51.430650, -0.103465
West Indian Good Will Association: 51.464101, -0.162623
Clapham Inter-Racial Club: 51.457162, -0.190694
British Caribbean Association: 51.457162, -0.190694
Racial Brotherhood: 51.460671, -0.109117
Lambeth Inter-Racial Council: 51.455082, -0.127059
Islington Friendship Council: 51.541694, -0.102172
St John\'s Inter-Racial Social and Cultural Club: 51.467486, -0.109098
Caribbean Overseas Association: 51.513223, -0.304145
Ladywell Action Centre: 51.465048, -0.018711
London Committee for Inter-Racial Unity: 51.530662, -0.121795


These initiatives represented a particular kind of voluntary social work, rooted in ideas of ‘inter-racial’ community. In the remainder of this blog post, I focus in on two such inter-racial organisations, who became the most prominent such organisations in South London: Brixton’s St John’s Inter-Racial Social and Cultural Club, and South-East London’s Brockley International Friendship Association.



The ‘spare-time social workers’ of London’s inter-racial movement, like generations of philanthropists who preceded them, were moral and social reformers. Their programme was an uplift programme.

One of London’s earliest inter-racial organisations was St John’s Inter-Racial Social and Cultural Club, founded by Jamaican Courtney Laws in 1951. The club took its name from the Church of St John the Evangelist, on Brixton’s Angell Road, in whose hall they held their activities. As for preceding generations of philanthropists, churches played a key role in the uplift programmes of London’s new inter-racial social workers. Many London churches certainly turned their back on black Londoners in this period, forcing them to establish their own churches instead.[27] But many churches were also crucial in providing buildings and support. The vicar at St John’s, who supported Laws’s club throughout its existence from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, would indeed lend his hand to many such ventures, also hosting a regular ‘Hip City Disco’ in the church’s youth club in 1969.

St John’s Inter-Racial Club was perhaps best-known in Brixton for its social functions. They held numerous social evenings and dancing events. Each year they held a carnival at Lambeth Town Hall, an event for which, the South London Press reported, ‘the hall rocked to the rhythms of the calypso and steel bands’.[28] They also held regular beauty competitions at the Town Hall.[29] These events were extremely well-attended. Indeed, an event at Balham’s New Park Ballroom to mark Jamaican Independence in July 1962 was reported as ‘One of the largest gatherings of coloured and white people [to] take place in Lambeth’.[30] Such events, too, were co-ordinated to include local dignitaries, and Brixton MP Marcus Lipton, as well as the Mayor of Lambeth and his wife, were regular presences.

But these events always went alongside a more explicitly social reformist agenda, and dancing alone was never enough. For Oswald Simpson, the club’s cultural officer, the ‘problem’ for West Indians in Brixton was that as far as it was a cosmopolitan place, this extended only to its drinking and dancing culture:

Brixton is a working class area and we meet one another at work. But beyond that we don’t seek to know each other. We may have a drink together in a pub after work, but that’s about all.[31]

The inter-racial clubs that arose in London in the 1950s and 1960s sought to convert this limited, ad hoc, popular cosmopolitanism into something more ‘respectable’, and to build it around a programme of social work and ‘cultural’ events. Their rather haughty attitude to black working-class culture and working-class cosmopolitan conviviality in the city was often visible, despite the important work they did in offering advice, support and social welfare to these same communities. Better community relations and a better lot for Brixton’s West Indians, in Simpson’s estimation, required more organised ‘cultural’ events. But, he said, ‘the working class background makes it not too easily responsive to anything cultural’.[32] ‘Culture’, here, obviously did not mean working-class culture. Indeed, Simpson probably had in mind something closer to the group established by the St John’s Club in October 1964—a ‘Caribbean Drama and Choral Group’.[33]

When St John’s Inter-Racial Club ran a Jamaican Independence Day anniversary celebration at Lambeth Town Hall in 1964, a commentator for Flamingo, who shared the club’s reformist, uplift ambitions, and regularly reported on and supported its activities, condemned the behaviour of the crowd who flocked to the celebrations. ‘Far too many of us seem to think that codes of conduct are not for us, whether in private or in public. We defy, or seem wanting to defy, any form of authority’, Flamingo’s Africanus lamented. During the crowning of a beauty queen at the contest, he recorded, ‘There were so many people, who shouldn’t be on stage, yelling and shouting who they wanted that they almost drowned the M.C.’s voice over the mike. It is no wonder that in such disorder “Miss Jamaican Independence” was won by a St Lucian’.[34]

Sharing such ambitions for uplift was the Brockley International Friendship Association, a social work, race relations and political campaigning body active in nearby Lewisham.

Brockley International Friendship Association. From left to right: V. L. Farr, Assistant Secretary; Roy McFarlane, Secretary; S. N. Trait, Treasurer; A. A. Brown, Vice-Chairman; R. Brown and W. Lawrence, Entertainment Organisers. From ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964.

Formed by Stanley Brown and Vernon Laidlaw, and most active under Laidlaw (as Chairman), and Secretary Roy McFarlane, a local estate agent, the Brockley International Friendship Association was active for eleven years, between 1959 and 1970. Their advertised aim was ‘to help foster better relationships’ between different ‘races’ in London. They offered, as Flamingo reported, ‘a bridge in the community on which West Indians and their English neighbours, who are still too few, can meet to have an evening together and try to understand each other’s way’.[35] Each Thursday they hosted card and domino nights; each month, a Saturday-night dance; and annually, baby shows, beauty competitions, and trips to Clacton-on-Sea. They also had an associated youth club, and fielded a cricket team.

Vernon Laidlaw. From ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964.

The day-to-day activities of the Association were often in social work. Fred Morris, a former secretary of the Association, was described by Flamingo’s Africanus as one of south-east London’s ‘best social workers’.[36] Equally prominent in this respect was Vernon Laidlaw, who effectively ran, as Flamingo explained to its readers, ‘a kind of Advice Bureau at his home on behalf of the Association’. It was ‘not unusual’ for Laidlaw ‘to be awakened late in the night by someone requesting his advice on this or other matters, which he is obliged to give and does give to the best of his ability’.[37] In the 1950s and early 1960s, much of the Association’s social work activity was as intermediaries between West Indian landlords and their English tenants, at a time when the race politics of housing was substantially heating up.[38] On a day-to-day level, the Association also provided support for West Indians caught up in state bureaucracy, or the criminal justice system, particularly in the later 1960s. Laidlaw regularly accompanied young people to court appearances, acting as their representative in a system which he found to be often ‘totally ignorant’ about them.[39]

Like the St John’s Inter-Racial Club, the Brockley Association was firmly middle-class, and well-lodged in professional and political networks of the city. Roy McFarlane was a local estate agent, and one of the team of West Indian men who established Magnet newspaper in 1965, edited by Guyanese writer Jan Carew.[40] Vernon Laidlaw, as well as chairing the Brockley Association, was also president of the Standing Conference of the West Indian Organisation. Melbourne Goode, Vice-Chairman and later Chairman, was a local businessman who also took a lead in the campaign against the Dartmouth Arms ‘colour bar’. The Association also included white members, also of a professional political class. Reg Scafe, a white member from Catford, for example, was also secretary of the West Lewisham Labour Party.[41]

A part of local political networks, the Brockley Association’s dances and beauty contests also brought in local and visiting dignitaries and their spouses: the mayor of Lewisham, local councillors, and representatives of the Lewisham Conservative office, for example.[42] Such events were common territory for the Association, who also hosted the Jamaican National Dance Theatre Company and national poet Louise Bennett at Lambeth Town Hall in October 1965, and held annual dances at the Town Hall to celebrate Jamaican Independence, always inviting local politicians and West Indian high commissioners.[43] As Flamingo reported in June 1964, ‘hardly a visiting politician has come from the West Indies over the years and has not visited Brockley through its Chairman’.[44]

The Brockley Association’s political activities reflected their role as a primarily professional organisation, with philanthropic social work ambitions. The Association acted, as Flamingo reported, ‘as an agent through which Members of Parliament, as well as other interested persons, seek advice and consultation on matters pertaining to West Indians in the community’.[45] In October 1964, they took up the fight against an infamous colour bar at the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill, organising picketing of the pub after Geoffrey Browne, a West Indian company director, was refused service in the saloon bar. In the summer of 1965, they launched a campaign to highlight discrimination in the job market against qualified West Indians. As a representative pointed out, this was ‘a problem that is especially critical where professional coloured people are concerned’, a constituency which made up much of the membership of the Association.[46]

This embeddedness within local civil society was not just a fact of these inter-racial organisations’ existence, but a part of their mission. If a part of the agenda of inter-racial organisations was moral and social uplift—training working-class black Londoners away from ‘yelling and shouting’ at beauty competitions, and converting them to a more rarefied version of ‘culture’—this went hand-in-hand with an effort to form new ‘responsible’ citizens, who could take on the mantle of ‘race relations’ in the management of their own lives.

This ambition was most immediately evident in Brixton, considered to be a particular problem in these regards. When Flamingo journalist Eric McAlpine visited Brixton in 1964, he reported on what he considered to be a widely held view among West Indians ‘that, culturally and socially, Brixton is a “belly ache”’. It was a sentiment with which he concurred: ‘West Indians in Brixton today are not alive to their duties as citizens’, he wrote. In Stoke Newington, in Hackney, in Willesden, even in Clapham, McAlpine saw West Indians fully immersed in civil society—playing leading roles in local trade union politics, and joining local councils. In Brixton, though, he found a dearth of such activity.

St John’s Inter-Racial Social and Cultural Club, for McAlpine, stood out as ‘the only organisation concerned with West Indian affairs in Brixton’.[47] It was interested, as its secretary, Herbert Cameron put it, in trying to ‘teach the Brixton community its civic duties as well as to appreciate other cultural activities than dancing’.[48] When I describe St John’s Inter-Racial Club, or Brockley International Friendship Association, as ‘uplifters’, then, I am referring not only to their cultural programmes. It was this determination to create ‘dutiful citizens’—socially responsible, and integrated into the spaces and institutions of local civil society, that also preoccupied men like Courtney Laws, Vernon Laidlaw, or Roy McFarlane.


Proximity and its disavowal: the rise of ‘black’ politics

If this conception of dutiful citizenship and moral uplift defined an early moment of multicultural politics in postwar London, when did this change, and why?

In some respects, it did not change. Courtney Laws was still active in Lambeth politics well into the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he was just as driven as ever in his commitment to anti-racist activity in the borough. He often found himself, though, fighting a rear-guard action against a new, more radical black politics in the area. In the mid-1970s, at the height of the ‘mugging’ panic, for example, he pressed local parents to recognise their citizenly duties and establish a Parents Against Muggings group. But he met the fierce opposition from black radical groups, who labelled such activity a ‘linking [with] the repressive organs of the state’, and acting as ‘a sub-police’ to defend his ‘bourgeois class interest’.[49] For all that he had tried to find ways to establish black Londoners as part of the existing political and civic structures of London, the increasing evidence of entrenched racism within these structures made many more likely to turn away from them, and seek alternative modes of social and political organisation.

I began this post by remembering Stuart Hall’s recent writings on his experiences growing up in colonial Jamaica, a ‘pigmentocratic’ society in which subtle variations of skin colour, class and culture were mapped together to produce a finely graded hierarchy. In the voluminous oral history literature now existing charting West Indian migration to Britain in the early postwar decades, the moment of arrival is often staged as a moment of becoming ‘West Indian’, a moment in which it was similarity, rather than difference, that came to be acknowledged. This is often narrated as a shift away from ‘island chauvanism’, and toward a diasporic West Indian—later Caribbean—identity. But it implicitly suggests an over-riding of other markers of difference, too. In other guises the moment of arrival is also narrated as a moment of ‘becoming black’.

But if West Indians became West Indians in their moment of arrival in Britain, we must recognise this as a varied experience. The uplift agendas of those West Indians who headed the inter-racial movement of the 1950s and 1960s draws our attention to exactly this issue. In their efforts to create a stable, safe, prosperous West Indian London, they repeatedly charged that cultural, moral, social and political life had to be reframed—effectively, they repeatedly insisted that working-class cultural, political or social traditions could have little place in the making of a positive version of West Indian British citizenship. Such projects surely involved some heavy work of splitting and disavowal, but surely also such work was hard to sustain.[50] When the question of blackness entered the scene more forcefully in the later 1960s, such pressure became even more marked.

When the politics of blackness began to redefine struggles for racial and social justice in the late 1960s and 1970s, many London organisations were quick to change their vocabularies. In 1969, Rudy Narayan, a Guyanese barrister and secretary of the newly formed South London West Indian Association, called on Lambeth’s Council for Community Relations to switch its language from ‘coloured’ to ‘black’. ‘We consider that black is not shameful as it is in English usage’, he remarked. ‘These people are proud to be black. Black is beautiful in their philosophy’.[51] Two years earlier, the Universal Coloured Peoples Association had reframed questions of welfare through the language of blackness, too, advertising their Brixton meetings with posters carrying a simple message: ‘Do you find it hard to be hired and easy to be fired because of your beautiful blackness?’[52]

The Brockley International Friendship Association, by contrast, refused to make such a transition. At one meeting in Catford June 1969, Melbourne Goode criticised the references made to ‘black people’, suggesting that ‘The word invariably meant something unpleasant … I have always seen Satan depicted as a black and ugly brute while the angels are always white and pure’.[53] This refusal to realign with the new politics of blackness and secondary decolonisation, though, and the genteel dislike of some of the more rambunctious elements of Caribbean popular culture, would come in for increasing censure by the later 1960s. Calling out the class segregation of St John’s Inter-Racial Club at a club dinner in July 1966, for example, Joe Hunte complained that ‘there seems to have been some class distinction in the selection of guests for this dinner. I do not see any of my friends—but then, I am not in the same social class as some members’.[54]

As members like Hunte, and more radical black groups emerging out of local Black Power movements, came to define their own visions of black London life and politics, it was often in an express refusal of the models of ‘respectable’ civil society, dutiful citizenship, and social reserve that defined the inter-racial movement of the earlier generation. The founder of the inter-racial clubs were sometimes uncomfortable with the language of blackness or the cultural practices of what Hall called the ‘other’ Caribbean, ‘darker and less subservient to the sensibilities of colonial order’. They struggled, as we have seen, to define themselves against, and to reform, the working-class black cultures they worked with and among.

And yet, such distinctions were far less likely to be noticed by their white neighbours, police, or local government. The police would raid an inter-racial social club as readily as they would a blues party, and they would do it with an equal amount of disrespect, as the St John’s Club eventually found out to their dismay.[55] I’d suggest (though this is something I will develop more in a later post) that this became increasingly the case by the mid-to-late-1960s, as racist politics began to gain in confidence, soon to receive national approval in the speeches of Enoch Powell. In this transition, or so my hunch goes, the meanings of black London, and its potential politics of anti-racism, multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism, transformed.




[1] ‘”Mixed” Dance is a Success in Lambeth’, South London Press, 15 February 1955, 1.

[2] ‘Lambeth “No Colour Bar” Dance’, British Pathé, 17 February 1955, Film ID 505.10 < http://www.britishpathe.com/video/lambeth-no-colour-bar-dance/query/west+indian+lambeth>.

[3] ‘”Mixed” Dance is a Success in Lambeth’, South London Press, 15 February 1955, 1.

[4] See Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London, 1979); Dick Hebdige, Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (London, 1987).

[5] Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (London, 2017).

[6] Hall, Familiar Stranger.

[7] Winston James, ‘Migration, Racism and Identity Formation: The Caribbean Experience in Britain’, in Winston James and Clive Harris (eds), Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain (London, 1993), 231­–287.

[8] ‘Coloured Club to Move to Brixton’, South London Press, 18 April 1958, 14; ‘Coloured Members Leave Clubs Since Race Riots’, South London Press, 19 September 1958, 9.

[9] ‘Mango Club Fights to Stay Put’, South London Press, 1 August 1958, 1.

[10] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, 13–15.

[11] A Man From the Sun (BBC, 8 November 1956).

[12] Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Penguin, 2006 [1956]), 3–4.

[13] John Clarke, Mary Langan and Fiona Williams, ‘The Construction of the Welfare State, 1945–1975’, in Allan Cochrane, John Clarke and Sharon Gerwitz, (eds), Comparing Welfare States, 2nd edn (London, 2001), 29–70; Katherine Bradley, Poverty, Philanthropy and the State: Charities and the Working Classes in London, 1918–79 (Manchester, 2009).

[14] See John Davis, ‘Containing Racism? The London Experience, 1957-1968’, in Robin D. G. Kelley and Stephen Tuck (eds), The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States (Basingstoke, 2015), 126–127. On the significance of 1958, see also Kenetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford, 2015), ch. 3.

[15] ‘Coloured Club to Move to Brixton’, South London Press, 18 April 1958, 14.

[16] ‘Coloured Members Leave Clubs Since Race Riots’, South London Press, 19 September 1958, 9; Edward Pilkington, Beyond the Mother Country: West Indians and the Notting Hill White Riots (London, 1988).

[17] ‘Multi-Coloured Nightclub But Not Naughty’, South London Press, 30 November 1956, 5.

[18] ‘Coloured Chords’, South London Press, 24 May 1957, 7.

[19] See ‘Club For All Races’, South London Press, 6 November 1959, 5; ‘Clapham Inter-Racial Dance’, Flamingo, December 1963, 37; ‘Top Talent 64’, Flamingo, June 1964, 7-8; ‘Charity Dance’, Flamingo, December 1964, 58.

[20] ‘Coloured Members Leave Clubs Since Race Riots’, South London Press, 19 September 1958, 9.

[21] Wanderer, editorial, South London Press, 16 September 1958, 2.

[22] R. J. Derring, letter to the editor, South London Press, 18 September 1964, 12.

[23] ‘Colour Bar Flats—Call for Action’, Flamingo, March 1964, 61–62.

[24] ‘Citizens Committee for Immigrants in Deptford’, South London Press, 4 October 1960, 1.

[25] ‘Independence Day Party’, South London Press, 10 August 1962, 7.

[26] Martin Ennals, letter to the editor, South London Press, 21 October 1966, 14.

[27] See for example, ‘“This is the Old Religion”: Pentacostal Church in Brixton’, Flamingo, March 1962, 25–27; ‘The Immigrant and the Church’, Flamingo, January 1962, 14–16; ‘The Church and Race Prejudice’, Flamingo, January 1963, 2–4.

[28] ‘Caribbean Night in Coldest Brixton’, South London Press, 26 February 1962, 1.

[29] ‘The Girls Who Took Part in the St John’s Inter-Racial Club of Brixton Beauty Queen Contest’, Brixton Advertiser, 1 March 1963, 3.

[30] ‘Jamaicans Celebrate’, South London Press, 20 July 1962, 3.

[31] Oswald Simpson, quoted in Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, 13–15.

[32] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, 13–15.

[33] ‘Little Theatres’, Flamingo, March 1965, 26.

[34] Africanus, ‘Talking’, Flamingo, October 1964, 55.

[35] ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964, 28–29.

[36] Africanus, ‘Taking New Printing Techniques Home’, Flamingo, March 1964, 47.

[37] ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964, 28–29.

[38] ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964, 28–29. See John Davis, ‘Rents and Race in 1960s London: New Light on Rachmanism’, Twentieth Century British History 12, no. 1 (2001): 69–92.

[39] ‘Race Call for More Coloured Magistrates’, South London Press, 3 July 1970, 5.

[40] ‘Coloured Folk Get a Paper of Their Own’, South London Press, 12 February 1965,  4.

[41] ‘Colour Darkens Job Prospects, They Say’, South London Press, 2 July 1965, 13.

[42] ‘Coloured Folk’s Big Night in Lewisham’, South London Press, 27 October 1964, 1; ‘Brockley International Friendship League Held Their Annual Beauty Contest’, South London Press, 1 November 1966, 1.

[43] ‘West Indian Dancers in Brixton’, South London Press, 8 October 1965, 11; ‘More Integration Needed Says Mayor’, South London Press, 16 August 1968, 11.

[44] ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964, 28–29.

[45] ‘International Friendship’, Flamingo, June 1964, 28–29.

[46] ‘Colour Darkens Job Prospects, They Say’, South London Press, 2 July 1965, 13.

[47] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, 13–15.

[48] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, 13–15.

[49] See John La Rose, ‘The Police and the Black Wageless’, letter to the editor, Race Today, March 1975, 65.

[50] This could be seen dramatized, for example, in the famous scene from Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners in which Harris, a ‘ladeda’ Jamaican businessman who makes his money staging inter-racial dances, at once attempts to manage his friends, insisting that they behave ‘like proper gentlemen’, and has constantly to guard against his own mask slipping, and his well-suppressed creole vernacular slipping out. See Selvon, Lonely Londoners, 104.

[51] ‘The Blacks Prefer to be Called Just That’, South London Press, 24 March 1970, 1.

[52] ‘Check on “Black Power” Meeting’, South London Press, 13 October 1967, 1.

[53] ‘The Devil is Black But Angels Are White, Says Coloured Man’, South London Press, 6 June 1969, 13.

[54] ‘“You Must Try Harder” Says Jamaican Envoy’, South London Press, 8 July 1966, 9.

[55] ‘Club Raid Brings Protest’, South London Press, 3 September 1965, 1.

The rise and fall of the drinking club

A packed night at the Coleherne. From Valerie Wilmer, ‘Sunday at the Coleherne’, Flamingo, August 1964.

Between the mid 1950s and the early 1960s West Indian and African drinking clubs were founded with increasing rapidity across the city. Most were quickly recognised, by supporters and detractors alike, as important new black or cosmopolitan spaces in the city, significantly changing the character of the urban landscape. In this first blog post, I use my recent research reading West Indian magazines and local newspapers to ask why these clubs arose when and where they did, and why they declined so dramatically by the early 1960s. What is the story of the drinking club, and what was its role in the creation of new social and leisure sites and experiences in black London of the 1950s and early 1960s?


The pub

When Valerie Wilmer, writing for Dominican journalist Edward Scobie’s Flamingo magazine, visited the Coleherne in South Kensington’s Old Brompton Road in 1964, he found the pub to be a beacon of cosmopolitan conviviality. ‘At 12 noon the Coleherne opens its doors and five minutes later you’re lucky to find a seat in the place. Half an hour later, if you can force your way through the jostling crowd of beer-swigging West Indians and Europeans, brother, you’ve got wider shoulders than I have!’. Trinidadian steel drummer Russ Henderson began performing at the Coleherne with his band in 1962. He was soon joined by Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, leading lights of London’s jazz scene. ‘[T]he coloured boys threw open the doors’, wrote Flamingo, ‘and the Coleherne became one of the wildest places in London. … Now every Sunday this pub is a marvellous example of integration on every level’.[1]

Not all pubs were as ready to throw open their doors to ‘coloured boys’, however. In South London, where the majority of the city’s West Indian population settled, the ‘colour bar’ was the more common story of pub life. Pubs operating colour bars made regular news in the local press: the Robin Hood and Little John in Deptford hit the headlines for instigating a colour bar in 1958, right on the eve of white riots in Notting Hill.[2] Across the other side of the city, in Battersea, a colour bar was in operation at the Cedars Pub, while down the road in Balham, a bar at the United Ex-Servicemen’s Club saw non-white members of the Club’s cricket team required to stand outside with their drinks after games.[3]


Export as KML for Google Earth/Google MapsOpen standalone map in fullscreen modeCreate QR code image for standalone map in fullscreen modeExport as GeoJSONExport as GeoRSS

loading map - please wait...

Angell Arms: 51.468715, -0.105942
Atlantic Pub: 51.461749, -0.111941
Cedars Pub: 51.466172, -0.150779
Coach and Horses: 51.461384, -0.113505
Coleherne pub: 51.488872, -0.191508
Dartmouth Arms: 51.438672, -0.053797
Milkwood Tavern: 51.462226, -0.101182
Robin Hood and Little John Pub: 51.476209, -0.022800
Robin Hood pub: 51.569048, -0.054084
Swiss Tavern: 51.471256, -0.052160
The George pub: 51.457655, -0.108598
United Ex-Servicemen\'s Club: 51.446057, -0.146524
West Indian Students Centre: 51.491347, -0.187088
C. L. R. James Supplementary School: 51.491385, -0.186917
National Institute of Black Studies: 51.529750, -0.123781
The Black Horse: 51.544108, -0.141378


In the south east, the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill became perhaps the most notorious case, when local fascists pledged their allegiance to the pub’s colour bar, calling a demonstration in support of it.[4] Colour bars were also operating across a range of pubs and clubs in Brixton, where the South London Press reported that ‘Only a few’ pubs ‘encourage the coloured population’.[5] West Indian men were barred, also, from attending local dance clubs in Brixton and Streatham without a partner.[6] These bars were instigated by licensees and usually defended as decisions made on the basis of their (white) customers’ prejudices. The racism here was visceral. As Harry Rawlinson, licensee at Herne Hill’s Milkwood Tavern explained to the South London Press in 1958, customers had told him ‘We won’t drink out of the same glass as those coloured people’.[7]


This was also, though, a race politics cut through with class. In most cases, colour bars operated through a segregation of the space of the pub. London pubs at this time still regularly operated both a public bar and a saloon bar. The saloon bar had developed since the early nineteenth century as a segregated space within public houses, open to middle-class patrons who wanted to distance themselves from the working-class customers of the public bar. Often, a licensee would maintain the pub’s segregation by selling higher-priced drinks in the saloon, and cheap ale in the public bar. But often, too, licensees would simply refuse service in the saloon bar to those they felt did not meet the presumed higher status of its other patrons.[8] In London pubs, the colour bar most often meant that non-white customers were refused service at the saloon bar, and redirected to the public bar.

When Flamingo journalist John Ross visited a number of English pubs researching the colour bar in February 1965, he found the most common situation to be one in which ‘West Indians were permitted to use one bar but not another’, and found that this was most likely to be enforced on nights when the saloon was busy:

My investigation revealed something of the astonishing social and class distinctions which lie behind English pub habits; as in other apparently clear-cut colour prejudiced problems, colour is in fact overlapped by class, by social distinctions, by the appearance and dress of the individual.[9]

If it was a space of middle class and upper-working-class ‘respectability’, though, the saloon, as South London Press’s columnist ‘Wanderer’ commented in 1964, on the eve of the General Election, could nonetheless be a hotbed of race politics of the ugliest kind. ‘Bring up this topic [of race] in the saloon bar of your local and you soon find controversy raging and sometimes we hear the mean little remark, “If you want a n[***]r as a neighbour, vote Labour”’.[10]


‘Operation Guinness’: John Ross of Flamingo in the saloon bar of High Wycombe’s Red Cross Knight. From John Ross, ‘Operation Guinness’, Flamingo, February 1965


Middle-class West Indians led the campaign against the colour bar in public houses, surely in part because they found themselves unable to drink in that part of the pub that they felt their station should allow. These campaigns, which opposed the renewal of licenses on the basis of discrimination, were often successful, and were undertaken against colour bar pubs regularly, until the 1965 Race Relations Act made complaints to the newly formed Race Relations Board a more direct form of opposition. At the Dartmouth Arms, a long and bitter campaign began under Geoffrey Browne, a West Indian company director refused service in the saloon bar in 1964.[11] As the South London Press acknowledged of Browne’s exclusion, ‘If he had been in overalls or uniform he might have been directed to the public bar on the ground that he was not dressed for the saloon bar. But this discrimination was obviously against his colour’.[12]


Browne organised a picket of the pub, and joining him on the picket were more West Indian professionals, including Melbourne Goode, a local businessman and vice-chairman of the Brockley International Friendship Association, and Roy MacFarlane, the chairman of the Association. These men were well-integrated into local civil society, and Browne and the Brockley International Friendship Association quickly recruited the Lewisham Trades Council to their campaign, and were also joined on the picket line by Lewisham Labour Councillors, and the Labour parliamentary candidate for Lewisham, Joan Lester.[13] Such alliances were common, and local West Indians Neville Parkinson and Egris Sinclair had launched a similar campaign against the Milkwood Tavern in 1959, successfully bringing in the support of the Lambeth Trades Council, of which Sinclair was a member, to oppose the renewal of the license.[14] A campaign against the George pub on Effra Parade between 1963 and 1966 also saw a coalition between the Lambeth Trades Council and local inter-racial clubs, including the St John’s Inter-Racial Club and Lambeth Inter-Racial Council.[15] When campaigns against the license renewal for the George failed to end the colour bar, these groups lodged a complaint with the new Race Relations Board, making the colour bar at the George among the first that the Board considered on its formation in 1966.[16] In the case of the Dartmouth Arms, the coalition arraigned against the licensee Henry Hawes made the campaign an instant media sensation through their connections to the press, and their skill at courting the media. While Hawes eventually won the battle, and retained his license, he did so at the expense of widespread public condemnation.


If black Londoners found white licensees refusing them service, however, they might choose instead to visit one of the number of black-staffed pubs springing up in the early 1960s. Brixton’s Atlantic pub was one of the first in Brixton to employ West Indian women as bar staff. The pub was tremendously popular with local West Indians. As Flamingo wrote in February 1964, if Brixton lacked a community centre for West Indians, ‘Well, there’s always the “Atlantic” … Brixton’s favourite pub … the unofficial Community Centre of West Indians in Brixton’. It was also a cosmopolitan space, where mixed-race unions were forged, and new cultures of conviviality thrived, most visibly in August 1965 when Keith Dalton, son of the pub’s English licensee, married a West Indian woman, Miriam Hall.[17]


The Atlantic pub, Brixton’s ‘Unofficial Community Centre’. From Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964.


West Indians also became licensees themselves. In June 1965, Jamaican Oliver ‘George’ Berry, a former refrigeration engineer, became London’s first black licensee when he took over the license of the Coach and Horses, which he ran with his English wife, Rose.[18] Three years later, Martin Luther Perkins became London’s second black licensee when he took the license of Peckham’s Swiss Tavern. Perkins, who had worked pubs since his adolescence in Clarendon, Jamaica, trained in London with Berry at the Coach and Horses. Perkins taking the license was a ceremonial occasion, with the first pint pulled going to the Jamaican Assistant High Commissioner, Mr R. Phillips. Opening the pub, Perkins told the South London press that he expected most of his custom to be from local West Indians, though he hoped to emphasise, at a time when social and leisure spaces still often operated along segregated lines, that ‘Whatever their colour, people will always get a welcome here’.[19]

Interior of the Atlantic.


The private club

The few black licensees making their mark on London by the second half of the 1960s were overshadowed, however, by the far greater numbers who earlier in that decade and the one preceding had opened their basements as private drinking clubs to accommodate their fellow citizens affected by the colour bars of local pubs. Bradford Wilson, a 43-year-old plumber who had emigrated from Jamaica in 1952, and set up the Wickey Wackey Club in Railton Road seven years later, appealed against an attempt to refuse him a license in 1963 by reminding the licensing authorities that ‘there was a large coloured population in Brixton and Jamaicans were not popular in the public houses’.[20] Lester Newell, a former engineer fitter who decided to open such a club in 1961, similarly argued before the Wandsworth Licensing Bench in February of 1963 that ‘Coloured people feel frozen out in English pubs and prefer to drink in their own’.


Newell’s Club Sylvano was a typical operation: thirty members, ‘a predominantly coloured club’, run from a converted basement in Clapham.[21] Such clubs dotted the landscape of South and North London. In South London alone between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, just north of Newell’s Club Sylvano, in Battersea, were the Blue Gardenia at Battersea Park Road, and De Esperanza on Bennerley Road. To the south was the Goldfish Club in Balham. In the east, 31 Loampit Hill ran in Lewisham, while in Camberwell and Peckham were the Carram Club on Northlands Street, the Normandy Club on Peckham Hill Street, and the Sunflower Club on Queen’s Road. Further south in Dulwich was the Eldorado, on Underhill Road. In Brixton the clubs were most numerous. Coldharbour Lane alone hosted Wickey Wackey Club, the Havana Club, the Mango Club, Onie’s Club, and the Afro-Caribbean Café, while Railton Road held the Glass Bucket, the Railton Club, and the Unique Club. On Somerleyton Road was Silver Slipper Club and 41 Club. Elsewhere in Brixton were the Grand Duchess, the Moonlight Club, Club Leslie, Birdland Club, the 74 Club (later the Domino Club), Tropicana Club, Rialto Club, Palm Beach Club, Chicago-After-Midnight, the Effra Club, and another Havana Club, this time on Crawshay Road.

loading map - please wait...

2-3-4 Youth Club: 51.523552, -0.197342
31 Loampit Hill: 51.466848, -0.021722
41 Club: 51.459873, -0.108256
74 Club / Domino Club: 51.458744, -0.108285
All Nations Club: 51.540957, -0.058807
Birdland Club: 51.459100, -0.114769
Blue Gardenia: 51.472638, -0.163302
Bouncing Ball Club: 51.473536, -0.071405
Brixtoria Dance Club: 51.468222, -0.118794
Calypso Club: 51.517942, -0.200643
Carram Club: 51.467972, -0.097741
Clouds: 51.465564, -0.114022
Club Calabash: 51.552536, -0.186838
Club Noreik: 51.582604, -0.073318
Club Sylvano: 51.465243, -0.147159
Columbo's Club: 51.512544, -0.138473
Continental Club: 51.586492, -0.104657
De Esperanza: 51.457922, -0.166747
Disco One at Screws: 51.552191, -0.298870
Dougie's Hideaway: 51.561093, -0.137243
Effra Club: 51.457968, -0.114759
Fiesta One: 51.517942, -0.200643
Flamingo Club: 51.511328, -0.132260
Gilly's Club: 51.513423, -0.132767
Goldfish Club: 51.441141, -0.145984
Grand Duchess Club: 51.459248, -0.124876
Hammersmith Palais: 51.494264, -0.224510
Havana Club: 51.474081, -0.109363
Hibiscus: 51.553511, -0.075040
Hip City Disco: 51.467479, -0.109008
Johnson's Club: 51.525550, -0.187571
K Club: 51.514796, -0.063119
La Parranda: 51.514746, -0.133752
Locarno Ballroom: 51.438931, -0.126656
London Apolllo Club: 51.548475, -0.241068
Loyola Hall: 51.592788, -0.105841
Mango Club: 51.462741, -0.108833
Moonlight Club: 51.465028, -0.118968
Mr. Bee's Club: 51.473536, -0.071405
New Georgean Club: 51.378228, -0.096013
Normandy Club: 51.475887, -0.069286
Nutmeg Club: 51.510758, -0.321907
Onie's Club: 51.463380, -0.106682
Palm Beach Club: 51.456811, -0.105670
Pastor Morris Advice Centre: 51.551968, -0.077226
Phebes Club: 51.554668, -0.068044
Q Club: 51.518871, -0.169225
Railton Club: 51.456610, -0.106057
Ram Jam Club: 51.465458, -0.114170
Rialto Club: 51.472448, -0.111753
Richmond Road Youth Club: 51.542963, -0.074098
Roaring Twenties: 51.513111, -0.138788
Ronnie Scott's: 51.513459, -0.131584
Silver Slipper Club: 51.459885, -0.108269
Spinners Disco: 51.554841, -0.286317
St Paul's Crypt: 51.479619, -0.024451
Sunflower Club: 51.473993, -0.048187
The Eldorado: 51.444676, -0.065889
The Estate Club: 51.605958, -0.090139
The Glass Bucket: 51.457934, -0.108393
The Havana: 51.463380, -0.106682
The Lion's Den: 51.564113, -0.072403
Tropicana Club: 51.450001, -0.116953
Unique Club: 51.460186, -0.110444
West Indian Centre, Red Lion: 51.567933, 0.011035
Whisky A Go-Go: 51.511328, -0.132260
Wickey Wackey Club: 51.464467, -0.103651
Four Aces: 51.546110, -0.073990
Seymour Hall: 51.514657, -0.159876


As Newell indicated, these clubs served an important social function. When, in 1959, Mr C. Williams was ordered to close the Blue Gardenia, which he had run from the basement of his house on Battersea Park Road, he pleaded to the court that the ‘club provides coloured people in the area with some sort of recreation, particularly at weekends. It is very popular with those who find it hard to find amusement in London’.[22] Making a plea against four other clubs ordered to close in September 1963, a Mr F. H. Samuel explained to the Newington Licensing Planning Sub-Committee that ‘The majority of coloured people in Lambeth are living in extremely overcrowded conditions which make it impossible for them to entertain their friends in their own homes’.[23] While few clubs explicitly advertised themselves as venues for social work and welfare—that role being largely the reserve of inter-racial clubs such as St John’s Inter-Racial Club and Brockley International Friendship Association—they were nonetheless linked up to informal welfare structures. The Mango Club, one of Brixton’s best-known ‘coloured clubs’ of the 1950s, was established by Albert King Harmen Lewis, a West African retired welfare officer, formerly staff at the Colonial Office. Lewis prided himself on having helped several members to ‘solve their domestic problems’, fulfilling, in the words of one member—a civil servant and ex-Royal Navy Reserve Volunteer Lieutenant Commander­—‘a useful social service’.[24]


“They will go to their individual homes for dinner, and then either stay home, visit friends, or attend a local pub. If they decide on a party, they dare not ‘twist and shout’ too loudly, for risk of finding themselves at variance with their neighbours and the police” –Flamingo, February 1964.


Alongside the clubs (the distinction between the two not always clear-cut) was a thriving house party scene. As journalist Colin McGlashan remembered in a reverie on these old clubs penned in the early 1970s, Somerleyton Road, the heart of West Indian settlement in Brixton, ‘was wide open, a shebeen in every other basement’. These parties ‘gave off a sharp joy, snatched, sometimes, from the edge of despair’, a warmth supplied, as McGlashen wrote, quoting from Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage, “with our hips and the art of our shuffle shoes”’.[25] Even in the heart of Brixton’s West Indian settlements, though, such parties had to tread carefully if they were not to come in for censure. ‘They will go to their individual homes for dinner, and then either stay home, visit friends, or attend a local pub’, wrote Flamingo in 1964. ‘If they decide on a party, they dare not “twist and shout” too loudly, for risk of finding themselves at variance with their neighbours and the police’.[26] Indeed, as A. B. Thompson, welfare officer for St John’s Inter-Racial Social and Cultural Club told Flamingo, ‘The easiest thing for an English person to do is to telephone the police and tell them that West Indians are making noise next door; the police will be there in a moment in large numbers’.[27] In one such case in Kilburn in August 1964, police used dogs to break up a West Indian party held to celebrate Jamaica’s independence anniversary.[28]


West Indian and African clubs, and shebeen parties, faced a multi-pronged, coordinated campaign against them in the early 1960s. In some cases the campaign was based on terror. South London’s Chicago-After-Midnight was subject to multiple arson attacks in early 1959, as was the Wickey Wackey Club. Later that year, Peckham club owner Philip Oli had his car burnt out in a similar attack in early November, and youths stormed and ransacked East Dulwich’s Eldorado Club the week following. In 1963, Onie’s Club in Coldharbour Lane was also subject to an arson attack.[29] More often, though, and ultimately more effectively, campaigns were legal, organised, and worked in tandem with agencies of the local state.


By November 1963, the South London Press reported on the closure of Brixton’s ‘last coloured club’, and clubs elsewhere had fared little better. As the newspaper explained,

‘To observers of the Brixton scene a few years ago such a happening would never have been foreseen. With the first rush of coloured basement clubs—all opened without permission—came a tide of white complainants. This started a batch of public inquiries, with furious housewives describing incidents outside their homes’.[30]

As the newspaper reported, the path leading clubs to hearings before licensing and planning authorities was often via complaints from their neighbours. Neighbours’ petitions prompted, or legitimated, action from the council. De Esperanza on Battersea’s Bennerley Road, in a typical case, faced a petition signed by ‘nearly all the residents’ of the street in 1960.[31] Two years on, South London Press described Lambeth Council having been ‘for years … swamped by letters and petitions from residents near some clubs, urging their closure’.[32] Once inquiries were prompted with the local council, clubs invariably fared badly, struck off for lack of planning permission, or for insanitary or insufficient amenities. Often it was argued that the basements should not be converted into clubs in a time of such severe housing shortage—though as the owner of the Grand Duchess club, ordered to close in 1961, said in reply, the basement rooms could not be used as accommodation because of their damp.[33] Behind most neighbours’ complaints, though, was the suggestion that the clubs brought down the ‘respectability’ of the area, and indeed local residents and local papers alike tirelessly provided an image of these clubs as dens of vice and iniquity, where gambling, prostitution, drugs and violence were commonplace.[34]


This operation was also encouraged from above, though. In 1961 the Lambeth Council bought up the freeholds for Somerleyton Road and Geneva Road, where many West Indian drinking clubs operated, in a move designed to close them down by refusing to renew the licenses for the clubs.[35] Minister for Housing, Henry Brooke, publicly lent his support for this strategy.[36] The following year, new powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1962, requiring all clubs to be registered and need planning permission, was further welcomed by Lambeth Council, and put to immediate effect in an order to close Railton Road’s Unique Club. ‘The new Act now means we shall have more control over the clubs, many of which have become dens of vice’, a spokesperson for the council announced. ‘We shall do all we can to stamp out undesirable clubs and oppose those which have not received planning permission’.[37]


In tandem with this action by the council, George Bentley, chief of police in Brixton, promised that ‘Clubs which continue to run after being refused a license will be raided on a warrant, every night if necessary, to let the people running them see they cannot flout the law’.[38] Since September 1961, Bentley had led a campaign dubbed ‘Operation Shut Down’, for which he credited the closure of twenty-five clubs, and fines against the owners. Bentley’s tactics of covert surveillance, under-cover policing, and raids, saw many clubs lose their licenses on charges of selling drinks after licensed hours, and selling alcohol without a license.[39]


In the face of this calculated attack, few West Indian and African clubs active in the 1950s and early 1960s survived into the latter part of that decade. V. A. Safl, a West Indian journalist reporting for the Brixton Advertiser in the spring of 1962, found a many local West Indians melancholic for the loss of their once-vibrant club scene, and cautious to even talk about the whereabouts of any remaining sites of refuge.

My inquiries carried me to some Pubs and some of the few remaining Club Houses left open in Brixton. Most of the Club Houses have been closed since the authorities, due to one reason or the other refuse to renew the licenses.

At present to ask any one “dark” about the whereabouts of a particular club is perhaps an attempt to court a rebuff. The most common answer is “I don’t no man”, in a tone to depict the voice of a mother mourning the death of a dear baby.

I ask more than eight people at different points and times and none seemed to know of any club left opened.[40]


Where and why did the clubs go?

London’s basement clubs did not completely disappear by 1962, but they were certainly thin on the ground. If the genesis of these clubs was in part the exclusion of non-white Londoners from many of the traditional leisure spaces of the city, their decline might be read as the counterpart to the gradual opening up of such spaces as black publicans set up shop in London neighbourhoods, and as the Race Relations Act provided black Londoners with an institutional framework through which to challenge their exclusion. But this was not the case. Rather than a shift from one type of leisure space to another, as pubs became more tenable as sites of sociability, the closure of the clubs was part of a campaign initiated by local residents in tandem with the local council, the police, and often the local newspapers, who regularly ran exposes on these clubs. The club closures pre-dated the introduction of the Race Relations Act, and indeed even with the passing of that act, several pubs, notably the George and the Dartmouth Arms, simply ignored it and continued to operate the colour bar they had long ago implemented.

Jazz at the Coleherne. From Flamingo, August 1964.


The story of the closure of London’s basement clubs, then, needs to be read instead as the history of local conflicts over racialized spaces, in which white Londoners sought to drive out racial difference from ‘their’ streets and from ‘their’ pubs, and in which black Londoners, through campaigns against the colour bar and through the establishment of independent drinking clubs, provided a resistance against this affront, sometimes organised, sometimes ad hoc. In doing so, they carved out precarious spaces for themselves in the city, which would come to serve important symbolic functions in the development of racialized topographies of the city, both for those detractors who lamented the transformation of London’s streets, and, for a later generation, as celebrated early instances of black resistance and the creolization of the metropolis.




[1] Valerie Wilmer, ‘Sunday at the Coleherne’, Flamingo, August 1964, pp. 23-25.

[2] ‘Pub Colour Bar to be Questioned’, South London Press, 25 July 1958, p. 1.

[3] ‘No Colour Allowed in this Bar’, South London Press, 20 December 1963, p. 1; ‘Member Quits over Colour Bar in Club for Ex-Servicemen’, South London Press, 30 July 1963, p. 3.

[4] ‘Mosleyites Support Colour Bar in the “Dartmouth Arms”’, South London Press, 12 December 1965, p. 1.

[5] ‘Of Course I Operate a Colour Bar, Say a Licensee’, South London Press, 9 December 1958, p. 7.

[6] ‘Dance Club Owner Bans Coloured People—“Just a Matter of Business’, South London Press, 10 January 1961, p. 6; ‘Locarno Restricts Coloured Dancers’, South London Press, 8 August 1958, p. 7.

[7] ‘Of Course I Operate a Colour Bar, Say a Licensee’, South London Press, 9 December 1958, p. 7.

[8] See Paul Jennings, The Local: A History of the English Pub (Stroud: Tempus, 2007), pp. 109-110, 216.

[9] John Ross, ‘Operation Guinness’, Flamingo, February 1965, pp. 9-11.

[10] Wanderer, ‘Colour is a Problem No Political Party Dare Even Mention’, South London Press, 25 August 1964, p. 4.

[11] ‘Coloured Men Were Refused Service in Saloon Bar’, South London Press, 15 September 1964, p. 1.

[12] Editorial, ‘Colour Bar’, South London Press, 15 September 1964, p. 4

[13] ‘Pickets Soaked in “Dartmouth Arms” Demonstration’, South London Press, 8 December 1964, p. 1.

[14] ‘Licensee Ends Colour Bar’, South London Press, 17 February 1959, p. 1.

[15] ‘Colour Bar is Alleged at Pub in Brixton’, South London Press, 11 January 1966, p. 1.

[16] ‘“Trial” of Colour Bar at a Pub’, South London Press, 22 February 1966, p. 1.

[17] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, pp. 13-15; ‘Marries a West Indian’, South London Press, 27 August 1965, p. 1.

[18] ‘Coloured Publican Gets His License’, South London Press, 25 June 1965, p. 10.

[19] ‘South London Gets its Second West Indian Landlord’, South London Press, 5 April 1968, p. 3.

[20] ‘No License for a Coloured Club in Brixton’, South London Press, 22 January 1963, p. 3.

[21] ‘Thawing in Their Own Drinking Club’, South London Press, 8 February 1963, p. 6.

[22] ‘West Indians’ Drink Club Defies Order to Close’, South London Press, 30 December 1959, p. 3.

[23] ‘Four Coloured Clubs Refused Drinks’, South London Press, 2 October 1962, p. 3.

[24] ‘Mango Club Fights to Stay Put’, South London Press, 1 August 1958, p. 1.

[25] Colin McGlashan, ‘Reggae, Reggae, Reggae’, Sunday Times Magazine, 4 February 1973, p. 14.

[26] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, pp. 13-15.

[27] Eric McAlpine, ‘What’s Wrong with Brixton?’, Flamingo, February 1964, pp. 13-15.

[28] Africanus, ‘Alabama in London’, Flamingo, October 1964, p. 56.

[29] ‘Hooligans Attack Coloured Folk’s Club’, South London Press, 24 November 1959, p. 1; ‘West Indian Club Blaze’, South London Press, 11 September 1959, p. 13; ‘Yard Probe Fire at Coloured Club’, South London Press, 20 September 1963, p. 1.

[30] ‘The Last Coloured Club in Brixton Closes’, South London Press, 29 November 1963, p. 1.

[31] ‘Residents Petition Against W. Indian Club’, South London Press, 2 December 1960, p. 1.

[32] ‘Well Run Club Refused Permission to be Registered’, South London Press, 29 June 1962, p. 4.

[33] ‘A Coloured Club Must Close in Brixton’, South London Press, 7 April 1961, p. 1.

[34] See, for example, ‘Somerleyton Road Begins to Wake Up Around 2 a.m.’, South London Press, 15 August 1961, p. 4.

[35] See ‘Comment: Brixton and Decency’, West Indian Gazette, June 1961, p. 1.

[36] ‘“Vice Den” Clean-Up: Minister Backs Council’s Drive Against Drink Clubs’, Brixton Advertiser, 12 May 1961, p. 1.

[37] ‘Well Run Club Refused Permission to be Registered’, South London Press, 29 June 1962, p. 4.

[38] ‘Well Run Club Refused Permission to be Registered’, South London Press, 29 June 1962, p. 4.

[39] ‘Police Declare War on Brixton’s Drink Clubs’, South London Press, 26 September 1961, p. 1.

[40] V. A. Sarl, ‘The Dark Strangers—By One of Them’, Brixton Advertiser, 1 March 1962, p. 3.