Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret

Benjamin Levy’s book Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret (published by The History Press, with a foreword by Dita Von Teese) is out next week, and tells the tale of a unique institution in the history of British entertainment. Here the author explains why Murray’s was so special, and introduces the hundreds of costume designs that lie at the heart of the book, images that are now available for licensing through the Mary Evans Picture Library website, courtesy of the collection of poster dealer and expert, Charlie Jeffreys.

 

Cabaret Club Menu' - from Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date: 1950

“Working at Murray’s left you in an unreal world: at night-time you entered this fantasy place, where the rich and famous queued for your attention; the days were an endless series of dinner and party invitations, and the social life was truly amazing. It was only after I left Murray’s and returned to the real world that I realised the strange underground fantasy life I had been leading” – Christine Keeler

Night after night, Murray’s Cabaret Club set imaginations ablaze, forged fantasies for deadened aristocrats and Arab businessmen, and provided refuge for the hounded celebrity. In that intimate basement beneath the pavements of Soho’s Beak Street, sexy was never sordid, and nude never naked. That is until the Profumo Affair—a sex-and-spying scandal that involved a love triangle between Murray’s showgirl Christine Keeler, Britain’s Minister of War John Profumo, and a Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov—erupted in 1963. In the middle was Murray’s regular, Stephen Ward, an osteopath and socialite who had taken Keeler under his wing. The furore resulted in the eventual downfall of the British government, the advent of the permissive society, and the birth of the Swinging Sixties. London would never be the same again.

 

(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.
(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.

 

The club began life in 1913, making it one of London’s very first modern nightclubs. In the Roaring Twenties, it spearheaded the craze for the Folies Bergère and tango fever. London’s Soho district was then a hotspot for gambling dens and clip joints—anywhere to fuel the demand for out-of-hours drinking—but Percival Murray’s nightclub was never part of this druggy underworld. During World War Two, the nightlife aficionado entertained off-duty officers with ingeniously costumed and choreographed cabaret floorshows, and Murray’s was soon employing a 130-strong staff including classically-trained choreographers, inventive lyricists, celebrated bandleaders, and skilled seamstresses.

 

Programme for Murray's Cabaret Club

 

The racy and respectable numbered amongst its illustrious roster of members: royalty (Princess Margaret, King Hussein of Jordan), film stars (Jean Harlow), politicians (Winston Churchill), and all sorts of louche business tycoons and shady sales executives. Racketeers like Peter Rachman, who dated showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, rubbed shoulders with diplomats such as Henry Kissinger. Many showgirls, including Kay Kendall and Gertrude Lawrence, became household names. Not all for the right reasons; Ruth Ellis danced at Murray’s before shooting her lover, and becoming the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The tragic glamour model Vicki Martin, the peroxide blonde bombshell Carole Lesley, and even the founder of a satanic cult, Mary Ann MacLean, were all once in Mr Murray’s employ. The long-time companion of the actor John Hurt was a showgirl at Murray’s. Her death at a young age was the reason for Hurt’s decision to portray Stephen Ward in the 1989 film Scandal. Similarly, the mother of singer Sarah Brightman was a dancer at the club; this brought it to the attention of Sarah’s husband Andrew Lloyd Webber who, years later, staged the musical Stephen Ward.

 

The exterior and interior of Murray's Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)
The exterior and interior of Murray’s Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)

Though the enduring fascination of Murray’s Cabaret Club is borne out by the attention it has received in the press, in exhibitions, and on stage and screen, all physical remnants of the club apparently disappeared without trace – the whiff of exotica extinguished. “There’s nothing much left of [Murray’s] except the legend and memories,” wrote Keeler, years after the Profumo Affair. She was wrong. In 2014, two albums containing hundreds of costume designs were unearthed at an obscure auction in Surrey. After research, it became clear that this treasure trove, hidden away for decades, was of great value, capable of illuminating the untold history of post-War cabaret in London.

 

Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

Soon, hours of film footage documenting the floorshow routines in glittering technicolour, as well as hundreds of photographs showing life amongst the showgirls off-premises, were discovered sitting in the archives of major public collections, such as London’s V&A Museum. Scores of surviving dancers were tracked down and interviewed and their stories have been preserved in the book: of late-night adventures with businessman Paul Getty; and spy meetings held in the club itself by movie producer Harry Alan Towers. Film footage was found that captured Percival Murray and his wardrobe mistress Elsie Burchmore sifting through those very same portfolios of designs that were revealed sixty years later.

First and foremost, Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret celebrates the ingenuity and inventive wit of the costume designers who chose Murray’s as their stage. Ronald Cobb’s costumes celebrate the Latin craze that was rife through London’s dance clubs of the Fifties, and played out through the sambas of Carmen Miranda and mambos of Perez Prado. Visions inspired by the aesthetics of space exploration and sci-fi movies of the period mingle with costumes that predate the style of Cecil Beaton’s idiosyncratic attire for My Fair Lady and that reflect the glamour of Horst P Horst’s Vogue models. Naughty nurses, stern-stockinged policewomen, racy Bo Peeps, and women wearing nothing but chandeliers don G-strings that incorporate all sorts of sexual puns from fans to violins. Many of these designs are still covered in glitter and gold foil. Michael Bronze’s lithe vamps complement Cobb’s Deco pin-ups. They reflect the costumier’s dual profession of theatre designer and chic dress designer for London’s high society. Hilda Wetton’s ‘fan dancers’ extended a form of entertainment seen at the popular Windmill Theatre to the nightclub scene; historically, the dancers dodged censorship laws that forbade nudes to move on stage by skilfully manipulating a set of ostrich feathers so as to titillate though never reveal all.

 

'Little Bo' - Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

The overheads were enormous; at half a million pounds in today’s money for each show, the club’s performers were some of the most expensively-clothed showgirls ever to grace the West End stage. Each costume took around 300 hours to construct, and were made by a team of six seamstresses who worked all year round in permanent employment from a workshop on Percival Murray’s country estate. The extremely elaborate jewelling and ornamentation was intricately stitched by hand. The headdresses were often comprised of thousands of tiny beads or sparkling sequins, and the expense of the fabrics matched the level of craftmanship; for example, only real furs were used. It all made Percival Murray a very rich man indeed. Yet the fleet of Rolls Royces, sumptuous flats in Whitehall and Mayfair, and the country house in Surrey weren’t to last. The Playboy Club arrived in London in 1966 and was sexier and edgier, though—to Mr Murray—unacceptably artless. The writing was on the wall; the club closed, and the dream ended.

Today, 16-18 Beak Street is a burger bar. Step downstairs to the basement and the waitresses, most of whom were born long after the club’s closure in 1975, flit between the tables serving the tourists of Carnaby Street. The wood panelling has been whitewashed, resembling the muddy grey of ‘Bombsite Britain’ in the Fifties. Post-war, the West End may have been blighted by austerity, but underground, the oak walls of Murray’s once shimmered as they reflected the sparkle of costumed showgirls dancing.

 

Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date:
Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray’s Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London. Date:

 

Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret preserves the wonderful visuals and is an invaluable resource for fashion students; retro enthusiasts; cabaret and burlesque fans; and professional designers looking for fresh source material.

 

 

 

 

Searching for Jumbo – an Elephant in the Archive

The body of Jumbo the elephant

In honour of the recent documentary entitled Attenborough and the Giant Elephant, we’ve delved into the archive to share these lesser seen Jumbo gems.

Captured as a calf in the Sudan, Jumbo toured with Menagerie Kreutzberg in Germany and was exhibited at Jardin des Plantes in Paris before arriving at Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in 1865(he was traded for a rhino, fulfilling London Zoo’s desire to have both an African and an Indian elephant in their collection). He became a great favourite with visitors, giving rides to children on his back. Amongst the treasures in the archive is an original handwritten letter from Jumbo’s keeper Matthew Scott, accompanied by a photograph, replying to a fan enquiring as to circumference of the elephant’s feet.

JUMBO / LETTER

Jumbo the elephant at Regent's Park, 1865

Jumbo the elephant in his younger days

When P.T Barnum, the American showman and businessman, purchased Jumbo some seventeen years later in 1882 for £2,000, there was widespread public outcry in England, summarised in this cartoon by Alfred Bryan, published in March of that year, with the caption “If you take Jumbo, Mr Barnum, and he should revenge himself, don’t expect any sympathy from the English people.” Punch magazine cheerfully published a cartoon suggesting Barnum take an altogether different beast, the MP and atheist Charles Bradlaugh(caricatured as an incalcitrant wild boar), instead of the much loved Jumbo.



Jumbo’s departure from England was covered in great detail in the press; the logistics of transporting such a large cargo even to the docks, let alone across the Atlantic, aroused great interest. Pleasingly for the English, Jumbo showed great patriotism in his reluctance to leave the country, with much cajoling required.

Jumbo the elephant: on the way to St Katherine's docks

On Jumbo’s departure from Millwall docks, Mr. A.B Bartlett the superintendent of the Zoological Gardens gave a speech, quoted at the time in The Illustrated London News, which interestingly alluded to Jumbo’s occasional violent outbursts.  “He was an extraordinarily good-tempered beast…at the same time he was subject to periodical outbreaks, which from his immense strength made him, although the most amicable, the most dangerous animal Mr Bartlett had ever known.”




Barnum reportedly recouped the money from the purchase within just three weeks with the takings from exhibiting Jumbo in America. Jumbo became a star attraction, and on 30th May 1884 took part in a publicity stunt by Barnum, where 21 of his elephants marched across the newly built Brooklyn Bridge, to assure members of the public that the bridge was safe following a stampede just six days after the bridge was opened, in which 12 people were crushed and killed during a panic.

Jumbo died in tragic circumstances when hit by a train at a marshalling yard in Ontario, Canada in 1885. Barnum encouraged a story that suggested Jumbo has died trying to protect a junior elephant, Tom Thumb, from an oncoming train, but examination of Jumbo’s bones in Attenborough’s documentary suggest a less altruistic version of events, where Jumbo may have died simply whilst trying to escape from the train himself.

Even in death, Jumbo was a source of fascination and revenue; The Graphic depicted the plans to have Jumbo’s hide stuffed and displayed, with his skin reportedly being stretched to enhance his stature even more. The Graphic reported that the day after Jumbo died, “Mr Ward of Rochester, New York State, aided by half a dozen butchers, skinned the monster in three pieces, which were placed in a warm bath of salt and alum, and together with the bones, sent off to Rochester, where a special house was constructed in which to mount the skin and skeleton.”

His skeleton was sold separately and also exhibited, with his heart being sold to Cornell University. Poor stuffed Jumbo continued to tour as a stuffed exhibit for two years, when he ended up on display at P.T. Barnum Hall at Tufts University, Massachusetts. In 1975 much of stuffed Jumbo was destroyed by fire, but his bones, stored separately in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, escaped destruction and proved a valuable asset in Attenborough’s research for his documentary.

Poster for P.T. Barnum & Circus featuring

Jumbo the elephant stuffed

The diverse material in the archive here at Mary Evans offers a fascinating on-the-spot look at how Jumbo was portrayed in the British press at the time, and is a compelling evocation of the great public interest that was taken in Jumbo.

ELEPHANT/JUMBO SCRAP

Sprucing Up – The History of the Christmas Tree

Bringing home the Christmas tree

On 23 December 1848, The Illustrated London News published an engraving by J. L. Williams of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children gathered around a twinkling Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.  The publication of the picture was to mark the defining moment for the Christmas tree and within a short few years, it had, despite Dickens dismissing it as, “the new German toy,” become a widely adopted and accepted part of festive celebrations in Britain.  But the history of the Christmas tree stretches far further into previous centuries.  Allow our timeline to take you on a pine-scented journey back in time.

Christmas Tree

8th century – European legend attributes the origin of Christmas trees to the English St. Boniface, aka Winfrid of Crediton, a missionary in Germany.  Its rather grisly genesis stems from Winfrid’s chopping down of a tree before a crowd of barbarians, used previously as a site for human sacrifices.  According to legend, the blood-stained tree, “fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder” but close by, a young fir tree stood miraculously unharmed leading Winfrid to lecture his audience, “This little tree, a young child in the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight”


ST BONIFACE/SACRED OAK

1533 – There is a belief, particularly in Germany, that Martin Luther invented the custom.  One Christmas Eve he was so apparently moved by a firmament of shining stars that he recreated the spectacle for his family by standing a young fir tree in their darkened house and placing candles on its branches.

1605 – The earliest authentic record of Christmas trees as we known them today is in a manuscript in which a Strasbourg merchant wrote, “At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets etc.”

Martin Luther with his Family and their Christmas Tree

1737 – A member of the University of Wittenberg describes a country lady who distributed little trees bearing lighted candles to children, together with gifts laid beneath them.  Later in the century, Samuel Coleridge visited Germany and was intrigued by the delight his hosts took in their Christmas tree, which he described as, “a pleasing novelty”.

1800 – Queen Charlotte, German wife of King George III, hosts a children’s party at which a large yew tree is centre stage, decorated with, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

Decorating the Christmas tree, 1938.
1820s
– In the household of Queen Caroline, maligned consort of George IV, Germans set up Christmas trees bright with candles and hung with presents for English children of the palace.

1840 – A thriving market for pine-tops are sold at a market in Manchester by German immigrants.

CHRISTMAS/TREE DUG UP

1841 – Prince Albert introduces a bedecked tree into seasonal royal festivities writing, “Today I have two children of my own to give present to who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.”

1845 – First illustration of a Christmas tree in The Illustrated London News on 27 December 1845 accompanying a report on a celebration given by the London Mission Society at the Temperance Hall in Cripplegate for the benefit of 400 London children.  Their enjoyment “was crowned especially by the exhibition of a German Christmas tree, or Tree of Love, which was erected upon the stage of the Hall.”

Christmas tree at the Temperance Hall, 1845

1848 – One of the ILN’s most famous pictures is published in its 23 December issue and leads to the popularisation of the Christmas tree.  The engraving is accompanied by the following explanation of the tree as, “that which is annually prepared by her Majesty’s command for the Royal Children.  Similar trees are arranged in other apartments of the Castle for her Majesty, his Royal Highness Prince Albert, her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, and the Royal household.  Her Majesty’s tree is furnished by His Royal Highness Prince Albert, whilst that of the Prince is furnished according to the taste of her Majesty.”

Queen Victoria's Christmas tree

1851 – Although Christmas trees have been introduced to America by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, the tradition becomes widespread in this year when a woodsman called Mark Carr begins selling trees from Catskills at what will become Mark Carr’s Corner in New York.

1854 – A giant Christmas tree is erected at Crystal Palace.  Christmas trees for sale in Covent Garden market pictured in The Illustrated London News.

Christmas trees in Covent Garden Market, London

1864 – William Chambers writes of the Christmas tree, “the custom has been introduced into England with the greatest success”

1914 – On the Western Front in December 1914, small decorated Christmas trees are used as signs of a temporary truce by German soldiers.


CHRISTMAS TRUCE 1914 WW1

1930 – Artificial Christmas trees were made from dyed goose feathers in 19th century Germany, but in 1930 a British-based Addis Housewares Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes.  (Aluminium foil Christmas trees appear in America in 1958).

1947 – A large Christmas tree is gifted to Britain by the city of Oslo as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.  Given annually, the tree is the central focus of Christmas carol-singing in Trafalgar Square every year.

TRAFALGAR SQUARE TREE

2017 – Mary Evans Picture Library has almost 2000 pictures on their website charting the legends and history of Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Shopping

 

A Snapshot in Time

In 1946, photographer Jean Straker formed a short-lived photographic firm known as Photo Union at 12, Soho Square in London. It specialised in the photo-essay, a form of pictorial journalism undertaken mainly with miniature cameras with lots of detailed images and bridging shots. Four years later, in 1951, the agency went into receivership when Straker sank capital into colour photography, which was to prove too costly. The archive, now at Mary Evans, consequently documents a particularly brief period of time but in many ways, it is all the more fascinating for it.

Woman on London routemaster bus, 1940s

Ley-On's Chop Suey Restaurant, Soho

Jean Straker was born in London in 1913 to an émigré Russian father and English ballerina mother. He began his career in journalism during the 1930s, specialising in film and launching ‘The Talkie’ magazine. A conscientious objector during the War, he combined duties as an ARP warden with working as a surgical photographer in London’s hospitals. But it was in the 1950s, that fame—or perhaps infamy—finally found a foothold. With the failure of Photo Union, Straker abandoned commercial photography to pursue personally satisfying projects. He set up the Visual Arts Club and as part of this, organised nude photography sessions for members. In 1959, ‘The Nudes of Jean Straker’ was published by Charles Skilton Publications, one of the first art photography books of its kind. Despite his activities being pretty similar in practice to life drawing classes, sensibilities were shocked and he was prosecuted in 1962 under the Obscene Publications Act. Arguing that there was nothing depraved or corrupt about the naked human body, Straker spent the rest of the decade refusing to curtail his activities or compromise his artistic integrity leading to a continuous cycle of prosecutions and appeals. By the late 1960s, Straker had given up photography but continued to campaign and lecture on censorship until his death in 1984.

Nude Danae by Jean Straker

Though Straker’s Photo Union collective was a commercial venture, whose subjects were necessarily more conservative, some of the images seem to hint at Straker’s background and personal interests. There are backstage shots of showgirls and candid shots of jobbing musicians, evocative images of Soho streets and long-gone West End restaurants while guileful London girls are pictured on dates with American GIs. They hint of freedom and a certain type of seedy glamour in an age of rationing and austerity. There are other pictures too, which project a more innocent nostalgia: apprentice carpenters, Kentish apple pickers and the 1947 Royal Wedding. But occasionally, the odd, artistic nude reveals the agency founder’s true, fleshy metier. The Photo Union collection is an eclectic and evocative picture of post-war Britain, and particularly London.  To see a selection of images from the archive on the Mary Evans website, click here.

VE Day Celebrations - Piccadilly Circus

Ballet dancers training