Born Kate Evelyn Nason; also known as ‘Ma Meyrick’.
Sector: Travel and Leisure
On 3rd March 1928, the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, dictated a letter to the head of London’s Metropolitan Police, Sir William Horwood. The topic was “The Forty-Three Club”. A friend in the House of Lords had ‘informed me that…it is a place of the most intense mischief and immorality [with] doped women and drunken men. I want you to put this matter in the hands of your most experienced men and whatever the cost will be, find out the truth about this Club and if it is as bad as I am informed prosecute it with the utmost rigour of the law.’
The proprietor of this infamous establishment is not named but both men knew exactly who she was: Kate Meyrick was notorious and a thorn in their side. A 52-year old mother of eight, Kate had gone from a doctor’s wife in Brighton to the Queen of London’s nightclubs and in less than ten years. Crowned heads of Europe, countesses, criminals and call girls descended the stairs to her West End basements for a few hours of music, escapism and illicit drinking. In her early days she had been fined multiple times, culminating in four months in Holloway in 1924, but since then she had managed to expand her business while miraculously staying out of court.
Bulging files in the National Archives testify to the hundreds of hours of police time spent trying to pin a charge on her. The Home Secretary blamed police incompetence for the lack of progress; the police perspective was that ‘the law as it now stands with references (sic) to the registration of Clubs, is a farce.’
However, three months after this exchange, Kate was on her way back to prison. She would spend the next eighteen months moving between the court-room and jail on a range of licensing and corruption charges and within four years had withdrawn from the nightclub business. Who was this woman who built a thriving but shady empire, how did she do it and what ultimately led to her downfall?
Kate Meyrick was born on the 7th August 1875 into a Protestant family in what is now Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin. She lost both her parents before she was seven and she and her older sister, Ethel, were brought up by their grandmother and two elderly grand-aunts. Dark-haired, lively, she became ‘a thoroughly wayward child’, climbing trees rather than attending the lessons of her governesses, but eventually completed her education at Alexandra College, one of the best schools in Ireland.
After enjoying the Dublin social scene for several years, on 12th December 1899, Kate married Ferdinand Merrick (sic), a tall, blond and good-looking doctor. They immediately left for England, settling in Southsea and changing the spelling of their surname to Meyrick. The reason for their rather hasty ceremony arrived on 23rd May 1900, a daughter, Mary (known as May). A second daughter, Dorothy, (known as Dolly), soon followed. For the next eighteen years, Kate’s life was in many ways traditional: she had more children and Ferdinand grew his practice. However, Ferdinand’s area of specialisation, mental illness, was relatively uncommon and when he started taking residential patients Kate had to deal with some risky situations. On one occasion she narrowly avoided being seriously hurt when a patient got hold of a carving knife, perhaps preparing her for some of the rowdier moments in her later ventures.
Kate came close to ending her marriage in 1910, leaving her husband and filing for divorce while she was pregnant with her sixth child, but she and Ferdinand patched things up and had two more children. Their youngest child, Irene, was born on 2nd August 1914, two days before Great Britain declared war on Germany. Through the war, Ferdinand treated soldiers with shell-shock while Kate brought up the children and the marital cracks became chasms. Kate started to work on her exit plan: if she wanted to keep custody of her eight children, she needed to be able to support them. ‘Somehow, no matter at what cost, I would render my children economically secure’, she reflected. Kate had her own assets, including a small legacy from her great aunt, a share portfolio and rental income from properties in Ireland, giving her an income of c. £10,000 p.a. in current terms. She was not penniless but it was not enough to house, clothe and feed a family of eight and keeping her family together was her top priority.
After the armistice was signed in November 1918, nightclubs started to do a roaring trade. Before the First World War, Londoners could socialise at almost any hour. Pubs stayed open from 5am in the morning until 12.30am the next day while restaurants were open until 1.30am. Going out for supper at 11.30pm was not uncommon. On the continent, the cabaret emerged as a social space for men and women to enjoy live performances, party and play around with social and gender norms. The London version appeared in June 1912. The Cave of the Golden Calf was a basement club just off Regent Street, decorated by artists including Jacob Epstein and Wyndham Lewis. It attracted a bohemian crowd and rapidly became a hotspot for late night carousing.
Its popularity paved the way for other, more financially successful, venues around Soho and Piccadilly but the outbreak of war triggered the Defence of the Realm Act (D.O.R.A.), which brought in sweeping changes. It reduced the number of hours pubs could open from nineteen to six and banned nightclubs from serving alcohol after 9pm. When the war finished, the rigid licensing restrictions of D.O.R.A. remained in place, but whether to celebrate still being alive, block out the trauma of war or drown their grief, young people wanted to party.
What made Kate decide, at the age of 43, to enter the nightclub business? As she shows over the next ten years, she was clearly a woman prepared to take physical, financial and social risks and running nightclubs offered plenty of all three. With no formal work experience, she saw a route to quick gains: ‘I was first and foremost a business woman..there was money to be made by ministering to the unfailing demand for amusement and I made up mind to have my share’, she later wrote. There may have been a very practical element: as a single parent with four children still under the age of ten, this was a job that made it easier for her to be around during the day. And it offered her escapism: ‘It has always been so infinitely fascinating to think of all those multitudinous lives, so different from one another, yet all converging in that one goal – pleasure… [the club] was a wonderful theatre presenting drama after drama to supply food for imagination.’ In the end, many of those dramas was hers.
Kate’s formal business experience was fairly limited and so thought she had found the solution when she saw an advertisement in January 1919 for a partner in a new club in Leicester Square. She released some of her capital and invested the equivalent of c.£25,000 in Dalton’s Club, which was registered at the end of April. In July 1919, after a particularly violent row with Ferdinand, she walked out of her marriage for good and moved with her children to London.
Dalton’s made money but it also attracted violence: gangsters started fights and on one occasion fired shots in the club. During one brawl, Kate was knocked to the ground and kicked. The club was soon under surveillance and in January 1920, Kate was in court, accused along with her partner of permitting Dalton’s to be used as ‘a habitual resort of prostitutes’. The police stated that nearly 300 women ‘of this class’ has been seen leaving the club in a two-week period between 22nd September and 5th October, roughly twenty a night. During the hearing the club was described as ‘a dancing hell’, ‘an absolute sink in iniquity’ and a ‘noxious fungoid on the growth of our social life’. Dalton’s was struck off and Kate was fined c.£1,300 but far from being put off, Kate could see only the opportunities nightclubs offered. She decided to strike out on her own.
The 43 Club
In 1921, changes in the Licensing Act meant drinks could be served until 12.30am if accompanied by food and Kate went on the hunt for a new venue. Together with May, she found a site on Gerrard Street in Soho that would make her name. A former provisions store, with the remains of decaying vegetables still scattered across the damp basement floor and an audible scratching of rats, Kate must have drawn on all her powers of imagination to see its potential.
She signed the lease, rented out the top floor to a tailor and got to work on the remaining levels. Over the next eleven years, the club would be registered as the Cecil, Proctors, John’s, the Richmond and the Bunch of Keys. However, it was generally known by the name under which it first opened in November 1921, the 43 Club, in honour of its address.
The 43 Club felt edgy, a sense of danger lurking under its thin veneer of glamour. Within a month of opening its cards were found in the possession of defendants in a gun-running case. Two months later, in February 1922, Kate was fined c.£13,000 for licensing offences. Fans of Peaky Blinders will know that cocaine was an increasingly popular drug in the early 1920s and when a young dancer in Kate’s clubs, Freda Kempton, was found dead in her Westbourne Grove flat from an overdose on 6th March 1922, Kate and the 43 Club became bright flashing beacons on the Soho police radar.
Playing the system
If Kate wanted to stay out of jail, she had to be smart. In the 1920s a club could have one of three statuses. In an unregistered club, no club-type activity was permitted, for example music and dancing. A registered but unlicensed club could make money from membership fees, entry fees for members’ guests and sales of food. Only a registered and licensed club could sell alcohol and then just within permitted hours but this is where the real money was made, with a huge mark up on prices. A committee, a secretary, set of club rules and a list of members were requirements for any registered club, whether it was the Athenaeum on Pall Mall or a seedy basement dive in Soho. Successive Conservative Home Secretaries tried to create legislation and a definition of a members’ club which outlawed the Soho dives while allowing the Pall Mall grandees to keep operating, but failed.
Kate’s strategy was to carve out the basement, ground floor and first floor as one premises and keep the second floor separate. After the raid on the 43 Club in February 1922, she registered the lower three floors as Proctor’s Club and when that was raided in July 1924 and the premises disqualified, she registered the second floor as John’s Club. By the time John’s was disqualified, the lower floors could be re-registered under another new name. Disqualifications were usually no longer than 18 months, so as long as one of the premises was registered at any point, she could keep charging for entrance and if either of them had a licence, she could legitimately serve alcohol. If neither area was registered for a short period, she just took the risk. In 1923, Kate set up a new club, the Folies Bergeres, on Newman Street and in the space of eight months, while it operated under three different names, fines were imposed equivalent to over £30,000. This was against a revenue of (very roughly) £1.5m in the same period.
From 1922, Kate’s name did not appear on any of her club registrations or licences. An application she made in March 1923 was turned down ‘on evidence of character of Mrs Merrick (sic)’, so she started to find men to front her clubs who were clearly happy to be involved in slightly shady activity if the price was right, judging by how many of them also appear in newspaper reports of other club raids, fraud and burglaries. But she remained a hands-on boss, staying in the club til closing time and keeping a close eye on both customers and staff.
Since all club were private entities, police could only enter on official business if they gathered enough evidence to prove reasonable cause. The officers of ‘C’ division, who covered the Soho area, used a range of ruses for their undercover operations: bringing female friends with them as cover; adopting disguises (one declared himself a Russian Grand Duke complete with phoney accent); and using confidential informants. Kate could refuse entry to anyone she deemed suspicious. She had a small office on the right of the entrance passageway, where she kept ‘needle-sharp eyes’ on her guests and their visitors as they signed in, trying to spot the cops as well as prevent entry from trouble-makers. She was ‘a tiny wisp of a woman’ and she had security on hand if conversations turned nasty.
Any officers who made it past Kate’s keen eye found themselves hanging out with an eclectic crowd. Early adopters were some of the Golden Calf’s habitués, Jacob Epstein and Augustus John, along with Joseph Conrad. The American actress, Tallulah Bankhead, was a fan of its louche vibe and more glamour was provided by Rudolf Valentino who would drop in when he was in town. The club’s disreputable reputation attracted some of the ‘Bright Young Things’ who spent the 1920s scandalising, fascinating and irritating London in equal measure. Parental vetoes only made the pull of the 43 stronger for young women exploring new-found freedoms. Harrow sixth formers sneaked out of school for illicit visits. Oxbridge rowers and rugby players celebrated there after their races and matches – Kate claims to have taken c.£40,000 on Boat Race night in 1927. Amy Johnson’s aviator husband, Jim Mollison, and Champion Jockey Steve Donoghue were both regulars, mixing with members of the Romanian royal family. More than a few of Kate’s guests had dubious backgrounds and a couple met sticky or suspicious ends.
Clockwise from top left: Barbara Cartland, Evelyn Waugh; Tallulah Bankhead with Augustus John; and Steve Donogue. All images (c) National Portrait Gallery. See sources for full credits.
Actors, musicians and writers who hung out in the left-leaning 1917 Club across the road co-founded by Leonard Woolf would end their night with a quick trot across the road and sometimes stay for a breakfast of bacon and eggs, kippers and sausages. One was Evelyn Waugh, who later immortalised the 43 in A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited as the Old Hundredth Club on Sink Street, with Kate becoming Ma Mayfield. The journalist, later novelist, Barbara Cartland, also knew and wrote about Kate and her daughters.
Nightclub or brothel?
Kate is sometimes described as a madam. It is without question that some of ‘Meyrick’s Merrye Maids’, the attractive young women she employed to dance in her clubs, also sold sex. In his autobiography, the actor David Niven tells of losing his virginity aged 14 to ‘Nessie’, a 17-year old dancer from the 43 Club, who earned money on the side from prostitution. Undercover police reports frequently mention seeing known prostitutes in the club but found no evidence that sex was being sold on site.
Kate refusal to allow solicitation on the premises was for commercial rather than moral reasons: a conviction for pimping would mean serious jail time, as well as changing the vibe in the Club from edgy to seedy. Kate incentivised her dancers to keep it clean. The weekly base pay she offered was around twice what a new secretary would be earning and this was supplemented by tips and a business-specific bonus scheme where, if dancers persuaded a man to buy them a seriously over-priced box of chocolates, they could immediately recycle them back into the stock room and take a cut of the profit. Once they left the club with a man, they couldn’t come back that night. Taken together, girls who spent their evenings in the club could make the equivalent of c. £900 a week. Kate was not so concerned about what else her Maids might be up to as long as it wasn’t happening on the premises.
In October 1924, there was a major raid on the 43 Club. Forty-two men and women appeared in Bow Street Police Court and Kate was charged with selling intoxicating liquor without a licence and found guilty on 18th November, 1924. After a hasty goodbye to her daughters, she was transported to Holloway. Three visitors were allowed once a month and with Kate’s youngest child still just ten years old, it was the separation from her children that she found hardest.
Between the raid and the trial, there was a General Election. In a result which must have driven many of the members of the 1917 Club to cross the street and drown their sorrows in over-priced, watered-down whisky, the Conservatives won with a large majority. The new Cabinet was announced with William Joynson-Hicks, known as Jix, as Home Secretary. Described by Harold Nicolson as ‘unctuous, evangelical and insincere’, this self-styled moral crusader, who was also responsible for various acts of literary censorship, would become the bane of Kate’s life.
While Kate was in jail, considering her position, May and Dolly ran the 43 Club. Kate was released after four months and emerged more determined than ever to expand her operation. She set up a new nightclub, the Little Club, on Golden Square, which became May’s responsibility. In October, Dolly started running the Manhattan Club on Denman Street, later taken over by Henry’s wife, Irene. For a period in 1925 Kate ran a club in Paris and she also invested in the Riviera Hotel in Maidenhead. In the 1920s Maidenhead was the place to be seen with venues strung out along the river offering fun-filled nights of boat rides, fairy lights and dancing to jazz under the stars just a short drive from London.
In May 1927, Kate opened her classiest club, the Silver Slipper. Halfway up Regent Street, it was a ‘sumptuous addition..to the list of London’s attractions for dance lovers’. A wide staircase descended to two dance floors, one a glossy parquet, the other foreshadowing ‘Saturday Night Fever’, made of glass underlit with a multi-coloured lighting system.
Murals of landscapes with rolling hills covered the wall and the food and the cabaret were both top-notch. It was fronted by one of Kate’s regulars and she stayed well in the background with her involvement only emerging after the club was raided seven months later on Christmas Eve.
While Kate was working on earning her unofficial crown as Queen of the Nightclubs, her two elder daughters bagged real titles. In March 1926, Dolly married Edward Russell, Baron de Clifford, who lied about his age to evade the maternal sign off he officially needed. In 1928, May married the recently-divorced George Hay, Earl of Kinnoull, in a wedding postponed twice to fit around Kate’s court appearances. These stories all added to public fascination with Kate and her family.
It was in early 1928 that Kate’s glorious run started to falter. To assure the Home Secretary that all possible steps were being taken to stop Kate, the Met gave a different division the job of investigating Kate. Their undercover operations gave cause for a raid, which led to another jail term for Kate, starting in June. While she was in Holloway, the Met started looking into why ‘J’ division had found more evidence in three months than ‘C’ division had managed in the last three years. On the 23rd September, they received an anonymous letter, telling them to look into the financial affairs of Sergeant Goddard, a member of ‘C’ division and one of the policemen involve in the original raid on Daltons back in 1920.
Three safety deposit boxes were found full of cash and some of the notes were traced back to Kate. On 29th October, a month before Kate was released from prison, Goddard was dismissed from the police force for ‘neglect of duty and failing to give any satisfactory explanation of his receipt of large sums of ready money from an unknown source.’
The press sensed a juicy scandal and on 15th November, Jix was facing questions in the House of Commons. Kate emerged from Holloway on 22nd November and was whisked off for champagne in London followed by a shopping trip in Paris. Her celebrations were short-lived: three days later Goddard was charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 and on 1st December she was also charged under the same Act.
The January trial was front-page news. Even Margot Asquith came along to the Old Bailey to watch. Kate felt a ‘terrible white-heat of resentment’ at the distorted picture painted of her in court, tempting men into her nightclubs like a spider trapping flies in a web when in her view, she was simply meeting demand. But the jury was convinced by the evidence linking Kate to the money found on Goddard and on 29th January 1929 she was found guilty and sentenced to 15 months in prison, this time with hard labour, which meant working in the laundry every day. She was 53.
The final years
Kate wrote to the Home Secretary from jail, saying Goddard had blackmailed her and pleading for clemency, but to no avail. She was released in January 1930, two stone lighter, than when she had gone in, and went straight back to work. But without her illicit protection, she was much more vulnerable and was jailed twice in the next two years.
Meanwhile, governments fell and Home Secretaries changed. When a new spending bill was proposed in May 1932, one Conservative MP, FA Macquisten, made the case for a more pragmatic approach to nightclub licensing. ‘I have never been able to see why there is any more difference, or that there should be any legal difference, between drinking good champagne at a reasonable price at one hour and drinking bad champagne at an unreasonable price an hour later’, he said. His proposal was simple: charge a proper licence fee, generate revenue for the Treasury and stop the police wasting their time with these ‘melancholy nightclubs’. ‘Give Mrs Meyrick the OBE and finish with it’, he joked. ‘If fools and their money are to be parted, let us get some of it’.
Five days later, Kate was up in court for the sixth time. Whether moved by the sight of the frail 56-year old woman in the dock or as weary with this repetitive situation as Macquisten, the presiding magistrate decided enough was enough. He offered Kate the option of a fine in exchange for an undertaking to abandon the world of nightclubs.
Kate accepted but needed to do something to generate income: while accounts of her dying penniless are incorrect, financially, there was not much to show for ten years running a high margin business which had generated turnover to the tune of roughly £35m in today’s money. To the concern of many, she decided to write her memoirs. Kate addressed her financial situation head on in the last chapter of her book, ‘Nightclub facts and figures’, blaming the margin dilution on high running costs and customers’ bad debts and the income erosion on unsuccessful ventures, school fees, other costs of living and being the victim of a swindle.
As her finished (and in the end fairly discreet) book winged its way to the printers in the winter of 1932, a wave of influenza swept through the UK. Kate was one of its victims, dying on 19th January 1933. Her funeral at St Martins-in-the-Fields stopped the traffic in Trafalgar Square and that night the West End lights were briefly dimmed in her honour.
Over the last century, Kate Meyrick has been much written-about, her contradictions and complexities part of her enduring fascination. Was she a devoted mother, doing what was needed to support her large family or an ambitious schemer, driven by money? Naïve, dependent on savvier (male) managers or smart, running circles around an overly-restrictive Home Office? Kind, looking out for her staff or reckless, prepared to put herself and other women at risk? Quite possibly at one time or another, she was all of these things. That is what has made her story endure and why, I am sure, we will continue to hear more about Kate for years to come.
Update: 6/6/2022: Kate Atkinson’s upcoming book, Shrines of Gaiety, draws inspiration from Kate Meyrick’s life. It is released on 27th September – should be fun! I wonder if the name of the lead character’s son, Niven, is a tribute to David Niven….??
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National Portrait Gallery photo credits:
Dame Barbara Hamilton Cartland by Bassano Ltd, whole-plate glass negative, 2 November 192
Evelyn Waugh by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1930 Transferred from Central Office of Information, 1974
Tallulah Bankhead; Augustus John by Unknown photographer bromide print, 1930, 8 1/8 in. x 5 7/8 in. Given by Terence Pepper, 2013
Steve Donoghue by Bassano Ltd, whole-plate glass negative, 16 February 1926
National Archives; ‘Secrets of the 43 by Kate Meyrick (1933); ‘King of Clubs’ by Richard Carlish and Alan Bestic (1962); ‘Madness After Midnight’ by Jack Glicco (1960)
‘My Autobiography’ by Tallulah Bankhead (1952); ‘Beginning Again 1911-18’ by Leonard Woolf (1964); ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ by David Niven (1971); ‘Mercury Presides’ by Daphne Fielding (1954); ‘The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh’; ‘The Harold Nicholson Diaries 1907-1964’, edited by Nigel Nicolson; ‘Grace and Favour’ by Loelia, Duchess of Westminster (1961); ‘We Danced All Night’ by Barbara Cartland (1970)
‘Between the Wars’ by James Laver (1961); ‘London in the Twentieth Century’ by Jerry White (2001)