Herbert Greaves and the Casino Club

In another in our short series of blogs to mark Black History Month we tell the story of how a 23 year old Jamaican man’s visit to a Warrington  jazz club led to questions being asked in Parliament.

When the Casino Club dance hall opened at Market Gate in Warrington on December 1938 the weekly dance band newspaper Melody Maker described it as a venue that could “take its place amongst the swell joints of London’s West End”. It was decorated in an Art Deco mix of ivory, cream and black and featured a series of murals depicting jazz celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Maxine Sullivan and the Mills Brothers.

The manager, Nathan “Nat” Bookbinder, was a Jewish jazz musician who had recorded radio shows with Jazz celebrity Nat Gonella. Accompanied by his “Six Chapters” dance band Nat’s mission was to inform as well as entertain with specially arranged presentations. These included ‘Blue Interlude’ where he told the history of Blues music and popular ‘Harlem Nights’ where he paid tribute to W.C. Handy and other African-American musicians.

Nathan “Nat” Bookbinder

Even the outbreak of war in 1939 didn’t give Nat Bookbinder pause. When his entire band got drafted into the army he hired the popular radio Jazz celebrity Syd Mack and his band as artistes in residence. He also made a point of offering discounted entry to the armed forces. During air raids Nat would regularly take his band into the Warrington air-raid shelters and entertain the people with renditions of classic jazz tunes, later commenting:

“when’s all said and done, if we can occupy people’s minds, we consider we have made some slight contribution towards helping the people put on a brave front to ‘old nasty’”   

Through Nat’s efforts by 1942 the Casino Club was the most popular nightspot in town. It was helping to generate a real taste for American dance, rhythm and style in Warrington and acted as a training ground for local semi-professional musicians. Jam sessions were held there regularly as were contests for local jazz bands. The top prize was a personal introduction to Jack Hylton, the so-called “British King of Jazz”.

Nat Bookbinders’s plan was to create a network of modern dance clubs in Warrington and the surrounding area which would be able to negotiate better pay for the musicians and singers who performed there, many of them people of colour.

All of this was about to change when, in 1942, the RAF base at Burtonwood near Warrington became one of the biggest American Airbases in Europe. Warrington quickly had to adapt to having a large numbers of American personnel suddenly on their doorstep and this certainly created quite a stir in Warrington’s nightlife.

The G.I.s nights out in Warrington would follow a fairly standard pattern. Those G.I.s with dates would meet them in the town centre and then head to the Pelican or one of the town’s many other pubs for a few pints. The night would often conclude with a trip to the cinema and then the G.I.s would end up at the Casino Club where the crowd would jitterbug the night away to the sound of Nat Bookbinder and his dance band.

One night in 1943 a 23 year old Jamaican technician called Herbert Greaves arrived at the club for a night out. Herbert was a skilled technician who had traveled 3,000 miles to live and work in support of the British war effort. By all accounts a “quiet and diffident” man, he had attended the Casino Club before with no issue and didn’t expect anything different that night. Almost immediately however a group of American soldiers complained to the manager insisting that Nat should throw Herbert out. In their eyes, and despite the number of African-American Jazz musicians who graced its walls, the Casino Club was a “whites only” establishment.

In 1943 the US Army still operated a policy of segregation and although there were more than 12,000 Black G.I.s stationed in Britain by 1943 they could expect to be placed in less comfortable billets and paid less than their white G.I. colleagues. This general policy of segregation on base was often extended to nearby settlements such as Warrington in a policy known as the “Color Bar”. US army commanders argued that these policies were designed to keep the peace, particularly among those servicemen originating in the heavily segregated Southern United States. While the British Government felt uncomfortable about this practice, particularly where it applied to British subjects, their approach was to refuse to support it rather than oppose it directly.

Nat Bookbinder refused the G.I.s request to eject Herbert from his club but the young technician, quite understandably, was upset by the treatment he had received and told Nat he would never visit the Casino Club again. Nat told him that “as long as he paid his admission money and behaved with his usual good manners the doors would be open to him and he would be welcome”.      

The incident might well have been forgotten but a few days later Nat received a letter from Captain A.G. Laing of the US Army which made the Nat’s position very clear:

“It is not our intention to dictate the policies of privately-owned establishments, but in the interest of eliminating trouble in which our troops may be involved, we will appreciate your co-operation in prohibiting Negroes from attending the dances.”

Captain Laing went on to advise Nat that if he did not display a notice banning all people of colour from the Casino Club the club would be placed “out of bounds” to all US personnel.

Nat passionately believed in the slogan “Fit to Fight, Fit to Mix” and objected to the US captain’s ultimatum. He responded that he would rather “place the ballroom out of bounds to white Americans rather than forbid the attendance of coloured British subjects”.

Inside one of London’s unsegregated Jazz Clubs in which the Black GIs were popular dancing partners

True to their word the American authorities placed the Casino Club out of bounds and no US personnel were allowed to set foot in the ballroom. Nat’s business obviously began to suffer but it was  a blow that the Casino Club might well have weathered had the ban not subsequently – and quite unexpectedly – been extended to prohibit all British military personnel too.

Time and again the British military authorities refused to give Nat their reason for extending the ban to all armed forces or even acknowledge his complaint. Many people in Warrington took the view that Nat was being punished by the British Military for showing defiance to their American allies and wrote in support of his stance – sometimes unintentionally exposing prejudices of their own, such as in this 1943 letter from a Mr Unsworth to the Warrington Examiner:

“The war in which we are now engaged is alleged to be a people’s war: a war to preserve the freedoms and the rights of the people. Mr Nat Bookbinder is a Jew, I am a Gentile. I am a Communist, Mr Bookbinder is more than likely a Tory. Whatever he may be he is entitled to stand up for the rights of coloured people without having to be persecuted. I trust that Mr Goldie, the Member for Warrington, will take up this question in a forthright manner. He will be assured the support of every hearty Briton and anti-fascist.”   

Nat did indeed seek the assistance of the MP for Warrington, Mr Noel Goldie, to raise the issue in Parliament and asked for an explanation from the War Department. Unfortunately the reply from the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg, was less than helpful:

“…it became necessary to take this action on account of overcrowding which occurred in the hall on a number of occasions. The hall was not put out of bounds in consequence of any action by the American military authorities”

Percy James Grigg, Secretary of State for War

While Sir James’ explanation of “overcrowding” might  seem reasonable no concerns over overcrowding had been raised previously to the ban. Furthermore, overcrowding in public places was not the responsibility of the British military, but rather the civil authorities such as the local police who were under strict orders from the Chief Constable of Lancashire not to get involved in enforcing any form of “Color bar”.

Whatever the explanation for the ban any question of overcrowding soon ceased to be an issue as by December 1943 the Casino Club was virtually empty every night. Some servicemen attempted to ignore or circumvent the ban, sneaking into the Casino Club regardless, but any soldier who was found in the club was ejected by the British military police and had their entrance fee refunded. The Club’s takings dropped from £50 a week to less than £5. At the same time – and perhaps not entirely coincidentally – Nat Bookbinder was drafted into the British Army and was thus ironically prohibited from entering his own club. Without its visionary manager the Casino Club closed soon after.

Sadly it has proved difficult to determine whether Herbert ever felt able to attend the Casino Club again after the treatment he had received that night. What is clear is that around 20% of the West Indian workers and soldiers who had, like Herbert, travelled to Great Britain to find work in aid of the war effort were repatriated by the government at the end of the war. Many of them, finding high levels of poverty and unemployment, quickly returned to Britain while the majority remained in their new home, forming new communities in England and Scotland.

Initially reluctant to allow major migration from the West Indies, by the late 1940s the British government finally decided to allow all British subjects entry. It was widely felt that all subjects of the Empire had, like Herbert Greaves, contributed to the war effort and so there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the migration of certain groups or nationalities.

In 1948 a Jamaican newspaper featured an advertisement for 300 places on board the ship HMT Empire Windrush headed for England and anyone looking for a better career or education prospects were allowed to travel aboard. The Windrush landed at Tilbury Docks on June 21st 1948, the beginning of a major migration from the West Indies. From 1948 to 1955 over 18,000 people migrated from the Caribbean to Britain.

But what about Nat Bookbinder? Unfortunately his difficulties didn’t end with the Second World War and upon leaving the army he struggled to find a job in the entertainment industry. Eventually the British Legion stepped in to find him work in a club in Manchester.

In spite of their father’s experience Nat’s son’s followed him into the music profession and the Bookbinder Brothers played as a duo at venues across the Northwest, went on tour and even performed at Strangeways prison.

Brian Bookbinder followed even more closely in his father’s footsteps by opening a club called ‘Bookbinders’ in Manchester’s Minshull Street in 1989. There he played the saxophone, occasionally accompanied by his cousin, the famous vocalist Elkie Brookes (born Elaine Bookbinder).

Nat’s granddaughter, Tally Bookbinder, also followed her father into the entertainment industry, although not into music. One of the UK’s leading make-up artists she still speaks proudly of her grandfather’s defiance of the “color bar” in Warrington.

The former Bookbinders club in Manchester which closed in 2009.

Details in this blog were taken from the article ‘G.I.s and the Race Bar in Wartime Warrington’ by Janet O’Toole.