In London between the 1920s and 1940s, it was possible to go on drinking after hours if you knew where to go and had (technically) ordered your booze in advance.
The ‘bottle party’ was another of those oddities that arise when legislators attempt to manage people’s drinking habits. Its workings were described by Lorna Hay for Picture Post, 25 December, 1948:
To be admitted to a bottle party, you must be ‘invited,’ and to be ‘invited,’ you must be sponsored by one or more existing invitees. But you must also have an order with a wine company, so that the drinks you order after midnight are, in theory at any rate, already paid for, and are, in theory at any rate, fetched by wingèd bicyclists from the shop. If your merchant is not an all-night one, there is nothing for it but to bring your own bottle along in your own hands.
Throughout the 1930s, there are newspaper reports of attempted prosecutions of people running ‘parties’, such as this account from the Times of 27 July 1934 of the case against Mr. Bridgeman Rochfort Mordaunt Smith, proprietor of the Front Page on New Compton Street, Soho:
Mr Melville, prosecuting, said at a previous hearing that the Front Page was not a registered club. Nominally persons went there by invitation to nightly ‘at homes,’ or bottle parties. Visitors were required to sign a form declaring that they had been invited to a private party, and were contributing 5s. towards the cost of the party. When ordering drinks they filled in another form directed to the Maddox Wine Company, which read: ‘Please place the following goods on order for me. I will give you instructions at a later date.’
As long as they stuck to the letter of the law, however, they were able to continue trading, like half-arsed speakeasies under half-arsed prohibition. The Met managed to close many during World War II using rather draconian emergency powers which permitted them to target ‘undesirable premises’ (Times, 28 June 1944) but they couldn’t do away with them altogether.
Ms. Hay wrote about bottle parties in 1948 because they were under threat thanks to proposed changes to licensing laws which would make it illegal to drink anything at all after hours except in the privacy of private homes, ‘or go to bed’.
She acknowledged that London nightclubs, quite apart from the weird rituals required to gain entrance, were seedy – ‘lush and draped and quilted, over-discreet and over-dim’ – and expensive, with bottle party entrance fees at a guinea (21 shillings) and spirits at £100+ a bottle in today’s money. Nonetheless, they were necessary:
Yet people do go to night-clubs in London. Why? Broadly speaking, for two reasons. The first, that most people from time to time get the feeling that the night is still young, and that it would be pleasant to go on drinking for a bit in company. The second, that, what with the night and the wine and the music, it is a way of getting your girl a step further. Or, from the girl’s angle, of appearing so double desirable in this ‘romantic’ atmosphere, that her young man will want to get her a step further.
(We’re filing that dainty euphemism for later use.)
In fact, in 1949, the Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, extended the hours at which night-clubs could serve drinks with music and dancing until 2 am, with half-an-hour’s drinking up time, thus all but doing away with the need for bottle parties, and spiv-like wine dealers.