We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University


Research Forum: Rachel Cowgill (Cardiff University)

Doing the Right Thing for Fighting Men: Music, Morale and the Military Body in London’s West End Nightclubs, 1915-19

Tuesday 24 June 2014, 2pm; Concert Room

London's West-End nightclubs, or supper-and-dancing clubs, were a cause for concern within the British establishment around the end of the nineteenth century. As discreet members-only clubs, they operated within the same legal and customary frameworks that protected old-style gentlemen's clubs from police interference. Whereas clubs such as the Athenaeum were male only, however, nightclubs encouraged mixed dancing without chaperones, and their late opening hours encouraged the liberal consumption of alcohol in a quasi-private and thus relatively unregulated environment. Their presence in the West End deemed undesirable, nightclubs fell victim to numerous police raids and by the turn of the century had been suppressed almost to extinction.

Within a decade the capital's nightlife began to experience a renaissance, inspired by the introduction of a style of improvisatory syncopated dancing from America - ragtime - and new constructions of social intimacy between men and women outside of the marital home. By the outset of the Great War politicians were speaking of 'the nightclub evil'. Heightened by the rhetoric of London's first media-driven 'drug craze' (1915-16) and fears that a new, predatory breed of woman was stalking the capital's dance floors, anxieties were expressed about the impact of nightclubs on the moral and physical health of army officers and, by extension, on national security and efficiency - on the very 'war effort' itself.

This paper takes as its focus one of the most prominent players in London's night-time economy - Ciro's Club, which was located on Orange Street behind the National Gallery. Ciro's became a cause celebre - a lightening rod for contemporary debates about music and masculinity focused on the 'correct' music to which army officers should be listening. Under new military controls licensed by the Defence of the Realm Act, army officers discovered to be dancing in nightclubs were subjected to court martial; and as the war began to exert more and more pressure on the nation's food reserves, conscripted men were hastily trained up to take the places of the officer-elite lost in action, and temperance activists grew more powerful in Parliament under Lloyd George, Ciro's was placed under intense scrutiny and subjected to unprecedented interventions by the civil and military authorities. By the end of the war, as the paper will show, musical provision at Ciro's had been transformed beyond recognition, dictated by the ideas of social reformers and those who believed that the right kinds of music could - at least in part - effect the rehabilitation of trained and traumatised killers into a new generation of model civilians and leaders.


Rachel Cowgill is Professor of Music at Cardiff University. She has published widely in a number of areas including British music and musical cultures c1760-1940, opera studies, Mozart reception, and gender, sexuality and identity in music. Among her most recent projects is a co-edited collection of essays with Hilary Poriss, The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century, which was published by OUP in 2012. Building on several articles and chapters exploring music, memory and memorialisation during and after the Great War, she is currently working on a book-length study of music and the soldier in First World War Britain. This paper airs some findings from that project.