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Tag Archives: Leicester Square

Lord Camelford: Gentleman Thug (Part Two)

(This is Part Two of Lord Camelford’s story. For Part One, please click here)

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Despite a notorious incident in which he’d assaulted his former captain, George Vancouver on Mayfair’s Conduit Street, Thomas Pitt the 2nd Baron of Camelford was permitted to remain in the navy.

Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford in his late 20s

Quickly rising through the ranks, he was made commander of HMS Favourite aged just 22- a controversial choice given it bypassed Camelford’s senior, Charles Peterson. 

Although Peterson himself was soon granted command of HMS Perdrix a bitter rivalry festered between the two.

This came to a head when both ships were docked in Antigua and Camelford gave an order to Peterson who, claiming it was not conducive to his own vessel, refused to obey. 

Antigua in the early 19th century

This resulted in a tense standoff, during which Camelford asked, “Do you still persist in not obeying my orders?” To which Peterson replied, “Yes my lord. I do persist.

With that, Camelford stepped forward and shot Peterson dead at point-blank range.

Despite this cold-blooded killing, Camelford was acquitted. 

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When he returned to London in autumn 1798 Lord Camelford conjured up a plot in which he planned to personally assassinate the nation’s arch enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte in his early 20s

Packing a brace of pistols, a dagger and a “Letter of introduction to the French” Lord Camelford caught a night coach to Dover where he chartered a boat, comically claiming he had a collection of fine watches and fabrics he intended to sell to potential French bargain hunters. 

Dover as it appeared in Lord Camelford’s time

As Britain was at war with France during this period any attempt to cross the Channel was punishable by death.

Fully aware of this, the boat’s skipper instead took Camelford straight to the authorities who, once again, set the Lord free, this time claiming “His only motive had been to render a service to his country.

Nevertheless, Camelford was disgusted and quit the navy in protest. 

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Now a man of leisure, Lord Camelford once again took to menacing the people of London.

In May 1799 he was one of “Several gentleman intoxicated with liquor” who instigated a riot at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

During the brawl, boxes, doors and windows were splintered and smashed and Camelford punched and kicked a man down a flight of stairs.

As a result, he had to cough up £500 in damages- about £22,000 in today’s money. 

Interior of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1804 (image: British History.ac.uk)

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Around this time Camelford also employed a servant; a black American named Bill Richmond. 

Bill Richmond

Bill had been born a slave on Staten Island, New York but made it to England in 1777 where he rose to become a celebrated bareknuckle fighter. 

A known boxing fan, it’s believed Camelford encouraged Bill to teach him some moves and the two men attended a number of prize-fights together.

Bill and Lord Camelford could also be seen frequenting London’s many taverns- apparently, the pugilistic peer’s favourite ruse was to stir up drunken trouble so he could delight in watching Bill knock people spark out. 

Bill Richmond in his boxing days

Bill Richmond would later go on to own a pub named the Horse and Dolphin near Leicester Square and became close friends with fellow boxer and publican, Tom Cribb.

Indeed it was in Tom’s pub on Panton Street that Bill spent his final evening before passing away at the age of 66. 

Tom Cribb’s pub today, Panton Street

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In January 1802 Britain and France announced peace with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens (a declaration which would soon transpire to be short-lived). 

A contemporary cartoon satirising the Treaty of Amiens

Properties across London were lit in celebration but Camelford’s residence on the junction of Oxford Street and Park Lane remained resolutely dark; no doubt due to his cynicism and the fact he’d been prevented from having a crack at bumping off Napoleon.

Consequently a mob gathered outside and began breaking Camelford’s windows in protest at his lack of participation in the festivities.

Unperturbed, Lord Camelford armed himself with a club and stepped outside to tackle the crowd, beating them back single-handed until they were subdued. 

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In March 1804 Camelford became embroiled in a spat over a woman with his former friend, Captain Best. 

After a charged meeting at a coffee house on Oxford Street, Camelford refused to withdraw insulting comments that he’d made.

Only one course of action therefore was left to the two rogues: a duel which was to be held in the grounds of Holland House.

Camelford knew his old pal was a far better shot- but backing down would mean cowardice and that was not an option.

Holland House as it appeared in the late 19th century- the building was largely destroyed during WWII

When the two turned to fire, Camelford missed but Best’s bullet found its mark, puncturing his foe’s lung. The bullet also destroyed part of Camelford’s spine, paralysing him.

With the score settled, Captain Best rushed to his old friend and tried to comfort him.

As the pair gripped hands, Lord Camelford assured the victor, “You have killed me, but I freely forgive you. 

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Camelford spent the next three days in agony, during which time he managed to compose his will. In it, he stated that his impending death was his own fault; lost “In a contest of my own seeking” and that nobody was to take proceedings against his antagonist.

On March 10th 1804 Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Lord of Camelford finally succumbed to his injuries. He was 29 years old and had no heir, meaning the Camelford peerage died with him. 

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Following his death, Lord Camelford’s body was embalmed and placed in a crypt beneath St Anne’s Church in Soho. 

The modern day entrance to St Anne’s Church, Soho on Dean Street

This was intended to be a temporary measure: in his will, Lord Camelford had stated his desire to be buried on the shores of Lake St. Pierre in Switzerland- a place that had been dear to him since childhood- and his body was to lay in St Anne’s only until transport to The Continent could be arranged.

However, whilst stored in the crypt the corpse inexplicably vanished 

To this day, the fate and current whereabouts of the thuggish Lord’s body remains a complete mystery. 

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Snakehips at the Cafe De Paris

This is the entrance to the Café de Paris, a famous London nightclub on Coventry Street near Leicester Square, which first opened to partygoers way back in 1924 and is still going strong today.

The dance-floor of the Café de Paris was originally designed to resemble the ballroom of the fated Titanic and, in its earliest days, one of the club’s most frequent regulars was Edward, Prince of Wales (Prince Harry’s wild nights out at Boujis and Chinawhite are clearly nothing new!)

Edward VIII… renowned party animal and abdicator

This particular Prince of course went onto become King Edward VIII in 1936… but he didn’t stick the throne for very long. Shortly after taking on the crown, he decided to chuck it in; abdicating so that he could pursue a relationship with U.S socialite, Wallis Simpson. I wonder if the hedonism of the Cafe De Paris had a corrupting influence on him?…

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Shortly after it opened, the Café De Paris was the venue for the UK’s first performance of the famously hip and energetic, Charleston dance. This spontaneous debut was carried out by the American model and showgirl, Louise Brooks- a bold act which pulled London firmly into the ‘Roaring 20s’. 

Louise Brooks, the woman who introduced the Charleston to Britain (photo: Wikipedia)

In 1929, the club hit the silver screen when it appeared in the silent film, Piccadilly

Promotional poster for the 1929 film, ‘Piccadilly’

Starring Anna May Wong- the film industry’s first ever Chinese-American actress, the plot of Piccadilly involved jealousy, betrayal, forbidden love, murder.. and, above all, dancing as demonstrated in the following excerpt!-

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A decade later saw the outbreak of WWII and the subsequent Blitz on London- during which time the Café De Paris was considered to be one of the safest places in the West End, due to the fact that the bulk of the club was located several floors underground.

Downstairs at the Cafe De Paris

For those who had the money and style to gain entry, the assumed safety of the Café De Paris was clearly far more attractive than spending the night sleeping on a stuffy, crowded tube platform or huddled in a dank Anderson Shelter at the bottom of the garden.

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During the Blitz, the biggest attraction at the Café De Paris was the nightly entertainment provided by Kenrick Reginald Huymans Johnson; more commonly known as Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, leader of his specially put together, ‘West Indian Orchestra’ who were the club’s resident band.

Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson

Ken was born in British Guyana, South America in 1914.

During the 1920s, he rose to become an acclaimed dancer, coached by Buddy Bradley who had also taught Fred Astaire.

Ken’s smooth moves quickly earned him his famous ‘Snakehips’ nickname, paving the way for appearances in a number of American cabaret acts, as well as leading to Hollywood and a role in the 1934 film, Oh Daddy.

Ken showing off his snake-like hips!

During his time in America, Ken visited New York’s Harlem where he got to witness jazz greats such as Cab Calloway practicing their craft. 

The legendary, Cab Calloway (1907-1994) who would prove to be a major influence on Ken Johnson

Such experiences enticed Snakehips, encouraging him to move on from dancing and to go about establishing his own band who would soon become known as the aforementioned ‘West Indian Orchestra.’ 

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By 1940, Ken and his team of musicians were in London and were already so acclaimed that the Café De Paris snapped them on a permanent basis.

Upon being hired, Ken announced that he was determined to make Londoners “like swing at the Café… or die in the attempt”…

It wasn’t just the rich and famous who got to hear the West Indian Orchestra’s exciting music- Snakehips and his talented line-up were regulars on the BBC’s Wartime Service, giving Brits a welcome and uplifting diversion from the conflict and misery which was consuming the world.

A family gather around their wireless set during WWII (photo: BBC)

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On the evening of Saturday 9th March 1941 Ken and his gang took to the stage as per usual.

Shortly into their performance, the air-raid sirens cranked into action, sending their eerie banshee howl wailing across the capital.

It was a situation Ken and the orchestra were used to and, being the accomplished entertainers they were and safe in the knowledge that the Café De Paris was deep underground, the band played on…

It was during a rendition of “Oh Johnny” that the unthinkable happened.

A bomb hurtled down from the sky and somehow managed to pinpoint an airshaft, sending the sinister device tumbling down into the very heart of the Café De Paris where, in a blue flash, it exploded on the dance floor.

34 people- including Snakehips Johnson- were killed instantly and a further 80 were seriously injured.

A number of those killed perished as the powerful blast sucked the air out of their lungs; a deadly phenomena which caused the victim to display no outward signs of injury, but instead left them statue-like; frozen in the pose they’d been in on the moment of impact.

The aftermath of the Cafe De Paris bombing

One of the first to rush to the scene was a police officer called Ballard Berkeley… who would later go onto become an actor, playing the character of Major Gowen in the much loved sitcom, Fawlty Towers.

Ballard Berkeley, one of the first on the scene after the Cafe De Paris blast and who would later go onto become an actor after the war

Watching him act in such a well-known comic role, it is difficult to imagine the horrors which Ballard witnessed in the aftermath of that dreadful bombing.

Ken Johnson, whose once beautifully agile body was severely ravaged in the blast, was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.

He was just 26 years old.

Ken Johnson 1914-1941

The loss of the great Snakehips and his band was felt deeply. When The Times reported on the disaster, they deliberately avoided mentioning the band by name for fear of damaging public morale.

The devastated Café De Paris remained closed until after the war, finally re-opening in 1948.

Below is a rare recording (made approximately two months before the Café Des Paris disaster) of Ken and his West Indian Orchestra preforming ‘I’m in Love for the Last Time’, the distinctive sound which, for an all but too brief period, lifted spirits during one of Britain’s most devastating periods.