Today (January 8) in London History

Rainbow Corner, at Piccadilly Circus, was the big one – the grandpappy of American Redcross Clubs in Britain in World War II. Located in the very heart of the capital, smack dab on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street at Piccadilly Circus, its doors were the doors that never closed. But on this January day – January 8th, 1946 – they did close for the first – and last time. January 8th, 1946 was the end of the Rainbow. This podcast – on the anniversary of the day Rainbow Corner closed – tours the club, its history and especially its final bow.

TRANSCRIPT

London Calling.

“The door that never closes” closed at last, today, January 8th, 1946.

I’m talking about the door to Rainbow Corner, the American Red Cross Club in Shaftesbury Avenue. 

The club had opened on November 11, 1942. On that occasion the front door key was intentionally lost and since then – until today, January 8th, 1946 – the door remained open night and day.

Old hands could remember the day Rainbow Corner opened. That day – November 11, 1942 – was a foggy day in London. Staff had to go outside to collect U.S. servicemen from the street. They rounded up 10 that first day. Before long, they were servicing 1,000s every day. Eighteen million visits in total in the 38 months Rainbow Corner was open. 

In January 1942 the first 4,000 of some two million American soldiers who were to serve in the British Isles arrived in Belfast. That was the beachhead. In no time at all there tens of thousands of G.I.s and airmen and U.S. sailors spread throughout the United Kingdom, but especially in the southeast and East Anglia. 

London was the centre of gravity for GIs on leave. Rainbow Corner – the most famous and largest American Red Cross Club – was the hub of everything that London had to offer. 

It was a huge operation. 314 paid British workers, 241 volunteers.

Let’s do a tour of Rainbow Corner. Rainbow Corner – the end of the rainbow. It was right on the corner there, where Shaftsbury Avenue meets Coventry Street. The name Rainbow Corner and the Stars and Stripes were emblazoned over the front door. Through the doors you were into the main lobby. There was a cashier’s desk where GIs could deposit their valuables for safekeeping. And exchange American or Continental money for English banknotes. There was an Enquiry Desk where teams of five distinguished Brains-Trusters, one of whom was always a woman, answered every conceivable question the information-eager G.I.s threw at them. Distinguished is the mot juste. The Countess of Birkenhead, lady in waiting to Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, sometimes was behind that desk. Ditto Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter. Ditto Beatrice Wright, the second American-born woman to enter Parliament. She was the first female MP for Cornwall. The first sitting MP to give birth, bringing her baby Faith to Parliament for a vote when she was only two weeks old. Her son, John Rathbone, also an MP, was godfather to David Cameron. And it wasn’t just distinguished women. Duff Cooper, Winston Churchill’s Minister of Information, did stints at the Rainbow Corner Enquiry Desk. As did Churchill’s son Randolph. 

There was no sleeping accommodation at Rainbow Corner, but there were 12 other Red Cross clubs in London where soldiers could find a bed. The Reception Desk at the Rainbow Club was the Air Traffic Control Centre for GIs who needed a place to sleep. Nor where they exclusively directed to one or another of those satellite Red Cross Clubs. Many times – over 39,966 times to be precise – British hospitality was extended via the Rainbow Corner Reception Desk. It directed GIs to the homes of Londoners who’d put out the Welcome mat for American soldiers. 

And that was just the main lobby. Rainbow Corner served over 12 million meals. 

For a snack, the GIs could go to Dunker’s Den, where only doughnuts, coffee, coca-cola and ice cream were served. More importantly, Dunkers Den had a Juke-box, which was played continuously. It offered a choice of 24 records, a penny a play. Those tunes were a link with home. 

There was the Penny Arcade, with its Games Room, with its pinball machines and pool tables. It doubled as the centre for the issue of free theatre tickets. It arranged tours to points of interest outside London.

There was the Arts & Hobbies Room where the GIs could listen to or play the piano. Or, if they preferred, sketch or model. Or have their photograph taken.

There was the Quiet Room where they could sit and read or write their letters or sew buttons and stripes on their uniforms. 

There was Rainbow Hall. It housed Rainbow Corner Ring. Tuesday night was the big night there. Tuesday night was boxing and wrestling night. It was a good-sized venue. 600 excited GIs crammed in there to watch the combatants. 

Fast forward to today, January 8, 1946. This is where the rainbow ends. The war is over. The GIs are going home. Rainbow Corner is closing. There’s a final bash. A tea party, a dance, a cabaret show. And from Rainbow Hall, a broadcast to America. The principal speakers are Eleanor Roosevelt – the widow of President Roosevelt – and Antony Eden, Foreign Secretary and future prime minister.

Mrs Roosevelt describes Rainbow Corner as “the finest example of international cooperation ever seen.”

And so the door that never closed, closed at last. Remember they intentionally threw away the key when it opened. For this day – the day the rainbow ends – a new and special key had to be made for when they closed the door that never closed. 

That said, it would open one more time. There was one last hurrah. Eighty thousand British girls married U.S. servicemen. On January 24th Mrs Roosevelt visited a thousand of those U.S.-bound British brides – London girls, all of them – at Rainbow Corner.  

She told them, “some of you will find yourselves in surroundings that feel very strange. We do not have tea in the afternoon. You will find coffee is an American vice. You will have to learn to make it the way we make it.”

And on that note, time for a cup of tea. Good night from London.

 

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