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The Caravan Club

If you’ve just sat back in your sun lounger in your open toed sandals, long grey socks, tailored shorts and white vest to read your copy of the Daily Mail then I apologies as I’ve obviously mixed up my Caravan Club’s.

No, I’m sure that members of that august club are unlikely to have much interest in it’s namesake, which although it took the name some twenty odd years after the mobile holiday homes establishment had interests of a far more exotic and different kind.

The basement of No.81 Endell Street in the area known as Seven Dials was situated down a small alley. It was home from July 1934 to the Caravan Club that advertised itself as “London’s Greatest Bohemian Rendezvous said to be the most unconventional spot in town” which was code for being gay-friendly. The club helpfully promised “All night gaiety” and was frequented by both gay men and lesbian women. It was financed by a small-time criminal named Billy Reynolds and run by Jack Rudolph Neaves, known as “Iron Foot Jack” on account of the metal leg brace he wore.

“Iron Foot” Jack Neaves

Neave’s was what you might describe as a colourful character. He had been born in in the working class area of Woolloomooloo, Sydney, Australia, but was taken to England at a young age by his mother, who died about a year later leaving him in the care of his Grandparents. In his teens Neave’s ran away to join a travelling fair where he developed his skills as an escapologist and strongman. He also became a mystic and even invented his own cult, the Children of the Sun. At some point while at the circus he injured his leg which necessitated the use of an iron caliper from which he got his nickname. The cause was unknown and Neave told many tall tales about how it had happened, bitten by a shark while pearl diving, being caught in an avalanche in Tibet, or shot while smuggling liquor out of Marseille amongst them.

Entrance to the club cost one shilling for members or 1s 6d on the door, for which you could enjoy the “all-night gaiety”. Entertainment came from the club’s resident accordionist, Charlie, and there were occasional cabaret acts. The interior was eclectic and very ramshackle. Colourful fabric hung from the ceiling, giving a Bedouin tent appearance and odds and sods of material attached to the walls. The tables were wooden barrels, and to set it all off, a random assortment of chairs and other furniture. 

The club came to the attention of the police almost straight away and in August local residents complained to the local authorities that the club, “Is an absolute sink of iniquity.” a phrase used in an anonymous letter sent to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Trenchard

The club was raided on 25 August, with 103 people arrested. Also found was a cache of weapons including firearms.

Derek Curtis-Bennett

The trial at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court caused a sensation when reported in the News of the World and it was estimated that around five hundred people crowded the pavements around the court. The club’s owners Neaves and Reynolds were accused of “exhibiting to the view of any person willing to pay for admission lewd and scandalous performances“. They were represented by a young Derek Curtis-Bennett, who later defended William Joyce, Lord Haw Haw, and murderer John Christie. Neave and Reynolds denied that anything improper happened at the club saying that it was their job to ensure it did not but under oath Reynolds had to admit: “we have definitely quite queer people down there.” A police officer testified that “Some men were made up like women and acted like women. One started to dance as a woman would be expected to dance. Men were cuddling and embracing… No evidence was offered against seventy-six of the defendants and they were allowed to go, leaving the two principals and 25 other defendants, who were ordered to appear for trial on 5 September 1934.

Holman Gregory

By the time of the trial at the Old Bailey there were only 22 defendants, including three women. Neave denied the suggestion that there was indecent dancing at the club. Miss Carmen Fernandez, a professional dancer, called as an “expert witness” by the defence, stated that the Rumba and the Carioca might be thought indecent by those who saw them for the first time by that they were danced at well known West End halls. She was asked by the defence to demonstrate the Rumba in front of the dock but was prevented from doing so by judge Holman Gregory, who commented there will be nothing of the sort in this court.

On 25 October, three of the minor figures were acquitted, including Charlie the accordionist, who said that he concentrated only on playing his instrument. The verdict in the trial was delivered on 26 October. Neave was sentenced to 20 months’ hard labour and Reynolds to 12 months’ hard labour. William Dodd, a shop assistant got three months’ hard labour. The rest of the defendants were either found not guilty or received much shorter sentences, which with time served resulted in their immediate release. In his final comments, the judge described the club as “A foul den of iniquity which was corrupting the youth of London to a very considerable extent

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