Bottle Parties, 1940s

Detail from an advertisement for Whitbread Pale Ale from 1934.

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.

4 thoughts on “Bottle Parties, 1940s”

  1. This has trig­gered a very old mem­o­ry of mine. When I was young we had lots of very old Broons and Oor Wul­lie books, left behind in an old dis­used coun­try pub by dad bought for a laugh. In one of them Hen and Joe are off to a bot­tle par­ty, clutch­ing bot­tles of wine wrapped in paper. Don’t know why I remem­ber such a tiny detail near­ly three decades lat­er but I do.

    1. Very ten­u­ous­ly relat­ed is that I remem­ber see­ing a vin­tage Broons page from – I think – the 1940s, in which Paw had been out all night play­ing cards. Wild times.

      1. Also in the stash of comics we found in the cup­board in our old coun­try pub week­end home (it was the Old Club in Rookhope btw) was a Des­per­ate Dan annu­al with a real­ly long strip in it called “Chin­kee Chankee Chi­na Boys”. I recall that Dan saved the lives of two young Chi­nese boys so they said they were hon­our bound to fol­low him round for ever. He spends many pages try­ing to shake them off.

        Can you imag­ine that these days, eh?

  2. It would appear that this social ‘prob­lem’ con­tin­ued to be of con­cern under sec­tion 84 of the Licens­ing Act 1964 it was an offence to organ­ise a par­ty for gain out­side the then per­mit­ted licens­ing hours

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