Soho’s lost post-war living room of badly behaved bohemians

The Colony Room in Dean Street W1 was a living-room-sized drinking club for members only, above an Italian restaurant up a long dirty staircase. It was at the heart of a post-war Soho packed with pubs, clubs and restaurants full of people wanting to get off their heads on drink or drugs, debate, argue, and have sex with each other. Soho was also where rising generations of artists, writers and musicians mixed with politicians, media people and social influencers, making the area, along with Fitzrovia, the cosmopolitan hub of London.

People in private members club.
Ian Board, second from left. Muriel and Carmel, far right. Leonard Blackett, seated front row, 1950s. Photo: Copyright, Colony Room Archive.

The “heroically bohemian” Colony, as Darren Coffield describes it in his absorbing Tales from the Colony Room, was jammed wall-to-wall with the brightest minds and talents, as well as the biggest appetites for booze: artists Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, the poet George Barker, journalist and MP Tom Driberg, playwright and ex-con Frank Norman and professional drunk Jeffrey Bernard, who was perennially ‘unwell’. John Hurt says, “the intellectual vigour was extraordinary – feverish conversation.” The club was a cross between a drinking den and a salon. It was also an open, accepting home for gay culture in the days when being gay equated to being criminal.

Coffield, who belonged to the club, has crafted Tales from The Colony Room from an archive of members’ tape-recorded reminiscences about their exciting or bizarre, sometimes wild or violent, nights at the Colony. In their anecdotes we can hear the club’s many characters speak as plainly and entertainingly as if we were there at the bar.

Frank Norman says, “there was hardly a week went by without some mention of the Colony Room Club or one of its seven hundred members who are as mixed a bunch as you are ever likely to meet … on a good night they all get along with each other like a big happy family. On a bad night they snap and snarl at one another like a pack of mongrel bitches in a slum alley.”

Some of the best stories are about the original proprietor, Muriel Belcher. She opened the club in 1948 and combined the roles of hostess, mother confessor and foul-mouthed bouncer. No one could get past her except people she judged to be witty, cultured, creative or otherwise interesting. She sometimes gave strangers a brutal reception. The writer Molly Parkin says, “I was totally unprepared for Muriel – as who indeed would not be in instant, bowel-voiding terror of that beak-nosed presence – perched there on her hallowed stool … When I stammered that I was a painter, her eyes glinted with approval. ‘Thought you was a fucking secretary from them awful clothes.’”

Bad behaviour in members was no bar if Muriel liked a person; and the Colony Room saw a lot of bad behaviour. Francis Bacon publicly fell out with John Minton, an artist who had supported Bacon early on. Julian Maclaren-Ross, in Memoirs of the Forties, describes Minton who was a club regular dancing, “down Dean Street towards the Colony Club, his long loose jointed figure … skipping ahead on the cold bare winter pavement, with bony fingers snapping like castanets and gaunt hollow face alight in the neon glow.” Minton apparently became jealous of Bacon’s success and insulted his work one night at the Colony. “Francis poured a bottle of champagne over Minton’s head and massaged it into his scalp, repeating his mantra: ‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.’ Deeply wounded, Minton found the public humiliation too much to bear.” In 1957 he died of an overdose of sleeping pills.

The Colony Room closed in 2008, but to read this book is to be whirled back to its world: Soho’s lost post-war Bohemia. Many of the personalities who belonged there are no longer alive. In Tales from the Colony Room, Coffield has created a very welcome home for their spirits.

Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia by Darren Coffield. London: Unbound, 2020.

Ann Basu is a writer and historian. Her book Fitzrovia: The Other Side of Oxford Street was published in 2019. annbasu.co.uk