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The general of Gerrard Street: a ‘proud and violent man’

On this week's virtual ramble, Diary explores the history of London’s Chinatown, and recalls a live music venue that was 'filthy and full of strangers'

30 October, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Gerrard Street. Photo: Oast House Archive

WE wandered along the length of Wardour Street last week, so now let us pause at the faux Chinese gates at the western end of Gerrard Street where it meets Wardour, and dive down a thoroughfare steeped in history.

Now considered the centre of London’s Chinatown, its Asian link is a recent invention.

Gerrard Street is called Tong Yan Kai by Chinese people, meaning literally Chinese Street. But Chinatown was originally in Limehouse – and only moved to the West End after the Second World War, when a handful of Chinese restaurants served food to Tommies who had developed a taste for the cuisine after returning from service in the Far East. A collapse in the Hong Kong rice industry then saw people migrate to London – and set up homes and businesses in the Gerrard Street area.

Its name comes from Cavalier General Charles Gerard, who owned the land in the 1600s and used it to square bash troops. He fought at the battles of Naseby and Edgehill in the Civil War, and went on a murderous rampage through South Wales. He was finally beaten during the siege of Oxford, and is believed to have gone into exile with Prince Rupert. From Holland, he plotted continuously to overthrow the Commonwealth, planned to poison Cromwell, and would eventually return to these shores with Charles II. He would then spend his days trying to take hold of lands and titles and being involved in various litigations – one libel case saw his sworn enemy, his cousin Alexander Fitton, imprisoned for 20 years for the cross words he had with the peer.

He did not enjoy much of a reputation: Pepys described him as a “proud and violent man” who was a notorious “cheat and rogue”. One of the scams he is accused of was not informing authorities of the deaths of troopers under his charge, so he could draw their wages. When this came to light, the man who accused him of the actions was fined £1,000 and stuck in the stocks. The petition his accuser presented to the House of Lords was ordered to be publicly burned by the common hangman. His troubles did not end there: he was then caught conspiring to murder the Duke of York, fleeing to the Continent once more, before returning with William of Orange. He died, it is said, from a “fit of vomiting”. An unpleasant end for an unpleasant man.

Deceitful deeds and wrongdoings have never been too far away from Gerrard Street.

In the 1920s, the home to the notorious 43 Club, owned by society hostess and general wrong ’un Kate Meyrick, Number 43 had been the home to the poet John Dryden in the 1650s. When Meyrick opened her establishment, it came to typify the outrageous behaviour of the well-heeled in the Roaring Twenties. Attracting gangsters and the nobility, she served five prison sentences for selling booze after hours and trying to bribe the Old Bill who frequented the place. In 1929 she did a 15-month stretch for passing brown envelopes to Inspector Knacker of the Yard, and it was the beginning of a sad end.

In 1933 she died after contracting a nasty bout of the flu. Such was her mark on the area that on the day of her funeral, as her cortege toured the streets, every theatre in the West End dimmed their lights in her honour.

Later, another notorious club could be found on the stretch. Businessman Hew McGowan bought a bar in Gerrard Street in 1964 and opened the Hideaway. Foolhardy (or perhaps brave), he offered the Kray twins a 20 per cent stake, having heard they were keen to get a foothold in the West End. But then he got cold feet and told the twins the deal was off – an extremely unwise decision. They came round and told him they would now be taking a slice of his profits, regardless of whether they had invested or not – prompting McGowan to grass them up. The Krays were arrested and held in Brixton Prison while the trial came to court. It took three trials and significant nobbling of jurors before it came to a conclusion – which saw the pair acquitted.

Once back on the streets, the brothers immediately bought the Hideaway, changed its name to El Morocco, and celebrated their freedom by throwing a massive party at the club.

Less frightening, but just as notorious, Number 39 was the original home of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. In 1959 he joined forces with Pete King and they took over what was a dingy basement used by cabbies and musicians to while away the hours. Scott borrowed £1,000 from his dad to get it up and running: when they first moved in, it had two billiard tables and served tea and sandwiches.
Scott and King built a small stage and managed to get a baby grand piano somehow down the front steps, with a lot of pushing, shoving, grunting and cursing. It soon gained a reputation – the likes of Harold Pinter, Peter O’Toole and Eric Hobsbawn were regulars. It was here Scott found his natural talent as a jazz club host, wisecracking his way into history as he introduced bands. His self-deprecation saw him deliver one-liners such as: “I love this club, it’s just like home. Filthy and full of strangers.”

And while no one in the band can quite remember it to confirm it (those 1960s, eh), it is believed Number 39 was the site of the first ever rehearsal for four musicians, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones – who would, of course, form Led Zeppelin. The story goes they played some rhythm and blues in the basement on August 19 1968, and decided they might be on to something.

And on that noisy note, let us bid farewell for another week.

Stay safe, stay well.

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