Black History Month 2020: The Casino Club II

October is Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 30 years. Originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK, it has expanded to include the history of black people in general.

Those of you have visited our museum will already know that we have collections from all over the world. Over the month of October, we’re taking a closer look at some of the objects with hidden histories that aren’t told within the confines of our gallery.

We’ve already covered how American G.I.s attempted to eject West Indian technician Herbert Greaves from the Casino Club in Warrington one night in 1943, and how the manager Nat Bookbinder interceded on his behalf in part one of this blog. This part covers what happened next.

The incident might very 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”.

True to their word the United States Army 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 printed in 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 might 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 on the face of it, no concerns over overcrowding had been raised previously to the ban. Furthermore, the issue of overcrowding in public places was not the responsibility of the British military, but rather the local police who were under strict orders from the Chief Constable of Lancashire not to get involved in enforcing any form of segregation.

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 British 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 90% from £50 a week to less than £5, the equivalent of £200 a week today. 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 Nat Bookbinder’s 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.

Thankfully, and in spite of their father’s experiences, Nat’s sons 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. One of Nat’s sons, Brian Bookbinder, even opened a club called ‘Bookbinders’ in Manchester’s Minshull Street in 1989. There he would play the saxophone, occasionally accompanied by his cousin, the famous vocalist Elkie Brookes (born Elaine Bookbinder).

Nat Bookbinder and his story was recently featured in the VJ Monologues, directly inspired by recorded histories from actual Warrington residents on their own experiences of World War Two.

Nat’s granddaughter, Tally Bookbinder, also followed her father into the entertainment industry and is now one of the UK’s most sought after makeup artists she still speaks proudly of her grandfather’s defiance of the “color bar” in Warrington.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945 there were probably fewer than 20,000 Black people living in Britain. Although West Indians like Herbert Greaves had been encouraged to come to the UK to serve in the armed forces and work in the factories, politicians from both sides of the political divide sought to limit migration from the West Indies after the war. Those soldiers and workers who returned to their previous home in the West Indies found even higher levels of poverty and unemployment than when they left, quickly returning to Britain. Britain required workers in the Post-War period, and as citizens of the British Empire they had the right to live and work in the UK.

Initially reluctant to allow, by the late 1940s the British government finally decided to allow all British subjects entry. It was widely felt by the British people that all subjects of the Empire had, like Herbert Greaves, contributed to the war effort and so there should not 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 could travel aboard.

HMT Empire Windrush, from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

The Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury Docks on June 21st, 1948 with 492 West Indian people on board. The ‘London Evening Standard’ celebrated their arrival in the Imperial ‘mother country’ with the headline ‘WELCOME HOME’. One of the passengers on board was singer Aldwyn Roberts, who sang his new song ‘London Is the Place For Me’.

This was the beginning of a major migration from the West Indies to Britain and from 1948 to 1955 over 18,000 people migrated from the Caribbean to Britain.

This is an expanded version of the blog article ‘Herbert Greaves and the Casino Club’ for Black History Month 2019. Details in this blog were taken from the article ‘G.I.s and the Race Bar in Wartime Warrington’ by Janet O’Toole.