The Colony Room Club
Words by Jane Ryan
Photography by I. D. Buca (Reginald Gray at The Colony Room in 1980)
It was just a small green room up a dark and dingy staircase which people were occasionally thrown down - literally - for being boring, and other crimes against conviviality.
The Colony Room Club, on Soho's Dean Street, was no ordinary bar. A small private members room catering to the bohemian elite, it was opened in 1948 by Muriel Belcher and was one of the last of its kind when it closed 60 years later. Arguably it was the most iconic of a group of afternoon drinking dens that once numbered 500 in Soho alone, a haven and a cocoon of rotting carpet, green walls littered with pictures and endless champagne.
Several years after the last round was served, The Colony Room Club has been immortalised in a book by Sophie Parkin (The Colony Room Club - 1948-2008). A member since her 18th birthday in 1979, Sophie has laid bare this private world of drinks, music, literature, art, the occasional scandal and frequent rule-bending. "It was a place," she says, "where you can culturally connect everything that happened in those six decades."
The Colony collected famous names like they were going out of style. Everyone from Francis Bacon to members of The Clash frequented it. Gangsters such as the Krays would mix with members of parliament and lords. In more recent times you'd spot Damien Hirst, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Keira Knightly and Kate Moss.
Thirty years ago, almost exactly to the month, Sophie's father Michael Parkin held an exhibition called Artists of The Colony Room Club, which for the first time celebrated the talent that had been associated there. Her own book is an evolution of his work which brings to attention not just the glamour and stories, but the raw artistic ability of its owners and patrons.
The Early Days
The Colony Room Club opened in post-war Britain when pubs opened between 11 and 11:30am and then shut their doors at 2:30pm for three hours. It was in that slot that several hundred vacant rooms in the West End came to life was hurriedly converted into bars.
Perched on the first floor of 41 Dean Street, The Colony Room Club stood out not for its décor or quality of drink but for Muriel Belcher herself. She wasn't educated but she was street savvy, boasted a razor sharp wit and people adored her, even with her habitual greeting to every customer of 'hello cunty'.
Sophie's many interviews with the club's former guests have painted Muriel as a tough rogue and the reason The Colony stood head and shoulders above its competitors. In one tale from the early days Dick West, a foreign correspondent in the '60s and 70s, had popped in to the club to see Tom Driberg, an infamous Labour MP and notorious homosexual, in the parlance of the time. Muriel directed Dick, saying, "Tom is the one in the corner with his hand round that man's cock."
"I was once told Tom had been complaining about a photograph of himself and the Kray twins that was going to be published in a book," says Sophie. "The book had been commissioned by another member so Tom begged him to take it out, thinking of the damage to his reputation. The editor said it was too late and that Tom should have kept better company, so he went crying to Muriel, asking her to do something about it, to which she said 'Tom you never complained when Ronnie's cock was in your mouth.'"
Muriel and the club showed no judgment about homosexuality or colour when the former was still illegal (until 1967) and both were shunned from society. People loved the honesty of The Colony Club and in those early days it fitted into the holy trinity of starting daytime drinking in The French House, heading to The Colony for the afternoon and moving onto Gargoyle club with its full band, dancing, super, and fights later on.
Unlike most private members' clubs where people might sit in their own discreet groups having secretive chats The Colony was one big party. Sunday nights in particular saw the small room come to life, by-passing licensing laws by selling tickets to a 'private party'. Shane MacGowan once turned up to play on a Sunday and was forced to buy a ticket to enter. He said it was the only place where he had to pay to perform.
The Colony encouraged champagne culture, epitomising regular Francis Bacon 's oft-quoted saying 'champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends'. Apart from the bubbly, the place was renowned for its 'gut rot' as Sophie describes it: she drank spritzers to water down the cheap wine into drinkable liquid. Muriel herself drank vodka and champagne, occasionally going on liver rest when she would stick to beer only.
"I was at college round the corner but it was quite terrifying for a young person, the level of conversation was quite high, you had to know what you were talking about - they used to say Gerry's [in Meard Street] was the club of the actors who spoke the words of the writers from The Colony. I thought it was part of my bohemian education," says Sophie.
After Muriel's death in 1979, ownership of the club first to Ian Board, and then Michael Wojas, the third and last proprietor of the club. Having previously been a bartender there, as owner he tried to keep up with the lifestyle of his celebrity patrons and eventually succumbed to drug addiction: what started off as having to sell artworks to pay drug dealers became The Colony's death sentence. It also meant Dick Bradsell (bartender in the late 1990s) never inherited the club, which had become the tradition for bartenders. Dick was the last bartender before it closed.
On The Colony's last night every single last bottle was finished. Celebrities took turns bartending and the members celebrated 60 years of glorious history. But it's not just them that will miss this slice of London hospitality. "People who want to join the kind of clubs that are celebrity hangouts, they are deeply insecure people who have to be seen in a place," says Sophie. "You went to The Colony to escape that kind of bollocks."
The Colony Room Club - 1948-2008 by Sophie Parkin is published by Palmtree Publishing