Today (February 24) in London History – traitors’ heads stuck on poles

Nearly 100 years later, the 1927 Chelsea Arts Club Ball – it was held on February 24 – yielded up some spectacular, invaluable treasures for a certain London Walks guide. That ball and its treasures are the rollouts for this Today in London History podcast.


Oh my goodness, look what David’s found.

I did the research in four libraries. The British Library, which in those days – this was back in the 1970s – was in the British Museum. Worked in that wonderful round reading room. Worked in the library at the V & A. I did a manuscript study there. The manuscript was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. What a thrill that was – working with the manuscript of a Dickens novel. Third library was the British Library’s Newspaper Library. It was up in Colindale. I ploughed through scores of newspapers that had been published in the year 1859 – the year A Tale of Two Cities was published. 

Fourth library was the London Library. My favourite. For all kinds of reasons. Not the least of which was you could – you still can – go into the stacks. Wasn’t allowed in the British Library. You had to look up the books you wanted, put in a reader’s ticket and then wait. Wait 45 minutes if you were lucky. If you were unlucky the wait could be a 48 hour one. The long wait was because you’d put in for a book that wasn’t there, at the library, in the British Museum. They didn’t have room there for all their books. They had a depository for the overflow down in Woolwich. There were fleets of vans moving back and forth every day (Sundays excepted) between the British Library in the British Museum in Bloomsbury and the overflow depository down in Woolwich. Taking the books back and forth. 

But delay – well, I could live with that. If I’d ordered six books and I got four of them within forty-five minutes, that set me up fine. I had enough to keep me busy until the Woolwich outliers arrived two days later. 

No, the big disadvantage to the British Library operation was not being able to go into the stacks. It was completely understandable. Turning any number of scholars and readers and graduate students loose in the stacks of the British Library things we’re going to get misplaced and once a book is misplaced in a library that has forty miles or whatever it was of shelving, well, you’ve got a problem. So, yes, completely understandable that we had to fill out and submit the ticket and then they’d fetch the book for us.

But of course that meant, no serendipity. Ever.

By serendipity I mean those happy accidents that occur quite frequently in the stacks. You’re in there looking for a certain and out of the corner of. your eye you’ll spot a title that you didn’t know about – and that’s perfect for what you’re working on. No chance of that happening, ever, in the British Library. Every chance of it happening in the London Library. Because readers can go into the stacks in the London Library.

Now I mention that because a version of same is happening from time to time with the digging that I’m doing for these Today in London History Podcasts. I’m not literally turning page after page of old newspapers the way I was up in the Newspaper Library in Colindale back in the 1970s. Instead, the page-turning is being done digitally. And it’s not so much page-turning as it is digital searches. But the fact of the matter is, from time to time I have “in the stacks propinquity moments.”

I might be searching for a date – because of the nature of this project – Today in London History – quite often I am searching for a date. And the date will bring up something out of the blue, as it were, unexpected. Something I wasn’t looking or in fact didn’t know about.

Happens quite often. And sometimes I get really lucky. I don’t just find a good date-specific London story – I find a good date-specific London story that’s brilliantly illustrated. A long lost image that I can get a picture of, blow up, laminate and show my walkers out on the ground. Boy is that special. I love saying to them, “it isn’t just that this image is magnificent – it’s also that it hasn’t been seen in over 100 years.” That’s satisfying.

And that brings me to today’s date, February 24th.

I knew that sooner or later I would do a piece in one of these podcasts about the Chelsea Arts Club Ball. Because for half a century they were the best party in London. You know that sitting around and shooting the breeze scenario where one of you says, “if you could time travel to three London past events or times, what would they be?” And you compare notes. My three would be: 1. Being a young Roman coming up the Thames in a trireme when this place was in its infancy. A seriously big-time adventure that would have been – wilderness on either shore. Venturing into the heart of darkness. Here’s a taste of how Conrad puts it in A Heart of Darkness:

Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages… 

Ooohh. High ampage, that visit to London.

2. Being at the Globe Theatre the first time – the first timeHamlet was performed. And 3. attending a Chelsea Arts Club Ball when those things were in their heyday. About a century ago. 

Huh? Chelsea Arts Club Ball you say? What’s that?

Ok, ask and thou shalt receive. First – the club itself.

It got started in 1890. The trigger man was the famous painter James Macneil Whistler. The directives laid down for the club said it should be “bohemian in character”, should “promote social intercourse amongst its members” and should “advance the cause of art by means of exhibitions, life classes and other kindred means.” 

That was who, what, when and why.

Where was Chelsea. Chelsea because it was London’s Latin Quarter at the time. Full of artists. Hundreds of studios. 

It was like a gentlemen’s club but specifically for artists and socialites who were drawn to artists and their world. A place where they could meet, hang out, socialise, relax, network, chow down, overnight if they wanted to and so on.

And then in 1908 it was well and truly out of the chrysalis for the club. That was the year they started their annual New Year’s Eve ball. And OMG – oh my god. In no time at all, it was “the most scandalous event in the social calendar.” In the words of Tatler Magazine, “the greatest fancy extravaganza that London ever saw.”

In the words of Lady Muriel Beckwith, “the mere mention of the Chelsea Arts Ball would make the debutante blush and dowager blanch.”

They were blushing and blanching because the Chelsea Arts Balls were off-the-charts wild, colourful, extravagant affairs. Mardi Gras come to London and jacked up on steroids. For half a century. Basically the roaring 20s for 50 years. Explosive, creative carnivals where anything goes and inhibitions are left at the door. 

They were held either on Mardi Gras or New Year’s eve. The order of the occasion was outrageous costumes and wild fancy dress. The venue for many years was the Royal Albert Hall. So these weren’t discreet, intimate little gatherings. Well, there was plenty of intimacy going on – but it was going on in the midst of thousands of other revellers. Yes, literally, thousands. There’d four to six thousand people partying like there was no tomorrow. There’d be over 100 performers. And lavish, extravagant, Albert Hall-size decorations. Of very high quality – because they were the productions of artists and art students. A different theme every year: Noah’s Ark, for example. Or Sun Worship. Or The Naked Truth. They’d go on all night. Breakfast at 5 am would signal an end to the festivities.

It got a bit of reputation, the Chelsea Arts Ball. For rowdiness, nudity and public homosexuality (remember, homosexuality wasn’t legalised until 1967). So in 1958 the Albert Hall said enough’s enough. You’re not welcome here anymore. That didn’t snuff the candle on the Chelsea Arts Ball – they still go on – at the Club’s premises at 143-145 Old Church Street in Chelsea. And very nice do’s they are – but they’re a shadow of those glory days back in the first half of the 20th century.

And that brings me to the one I’d like to attend. The 1927 ball. It was held today, February 24. It’s not in the history books – didn’t make the splash that some of its kindred did – but it’s the one I’d plump for. And why is that? Because its theme was “Merrie England.” 

So there was an almost life-size reproduction of the Golden Hinde, the ship Drake sailed round the world. It sailed round the Hall, pushed by some 70 dancers. There was an Elizabethan May Day get-up. There was a huge model of old London Bridge. 

Best of all for my purposes, though, contemporary press accounts of the model were accompanied by two large, wonderfully detailed illustrations of the bridge – which the artist had drawn on to make the model. One is a view of London Bridge before 1561. The other a view of it in 1588, the Armada year. Both views are magnificent. And I think largely forgotten. Certainly I’ve never seen them before. And the fact of the matter is, they’re the best illustrations of old London Bridge I’ve ever set eyes. So it’s a wonderful find. Straight off to the printer they go. They’re big enough and of high enough resolution he’ll be able to do a big reproduction for me – A3. He’ll laminate them for me. And I shall be whipping them out to show people on walks on which old London Bridge puts in an appearance. All of this has come about because of these podcasts. They’ve in effect created an extra dimension for my walks. By definition a walking tour moves through the dimension we call space. And when we paint a word picture about “what was here” or “what happened here”, well, then we’re moving through the time dimension. But these images are an in-between dimension. With them we can time travel visually as well as the concoction the mind’s eye can make of what comes in the ear. It’s really very exciting.

Instead of just talking about St. Thomas’ chapel I can point it out. Ditto the Great Granary – it’s the building with the four semi-circular turrets. And beyond it, Nonesuch House, the House of the Lord Mayor. And of course, Traitors’ Gate, with the heads of traitors stuck on poles on the roof. And, yes, you guessed right – there in the distance is Old St Paul’s.  

It’s cut from the same cloth as what goes on in the world of sport – it raises my game. I’ve got goodies in my bag nobody else has got. You see stuff you’re not going to see elsewhere – they’re aces up my sleeve that none of our rivals have got. 

And on that very satisfying note, good night from Merrie England – good night from February 24th, 1927. See ya tomorrow. 

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