PRISON KATE EVELYN NASON
Kate Nason was sent to Holloway Prison five times, mostly for periods of a few months, though once for fifteen months with hard labour. Why was this?
Although there was no prohibition in England, there were pretty restrictive licensing laws. The 1921 Licensing Act “permitted normal opening time of nine hours a day between 11 am - 11 pm with a break of at least 2 hours after 12 noon. Where meals were provided, licensed premises or registered clubs could add an extra hour at the end of the day. If members of the public were found on licensed premises after closing hours, they faced a fine of up to £30.” Which is pretty difficult for a club dedicated to providing entertainment for the after theatre crowd. Throughout her book Kate maintains her innocence in providing drinks after hours, maintaining that she gave in to her clients, or, indeed, that she kept to the licensing hours. Personally I cannot believe this - she was a businesswoman after all and surely not stupid.
Whatever the truth may be, her clubs were raided and closed several times. She paid many fines, and went to prison for the first time in November 1924 for six months. In her book she gives a detailed, very melodramatic account of her time in the prison, but cannot resist digressing into the juicy stories of some of her fellow inmates, just like her stories of her nightclub patrons.
Still it must have been truly a shock to the system for somebody raised in ‘polite’ society. Here is her lengthy description of prison food: “At noon we had our dinner, if it could be dignified by such a name. On Sundays this consisted of a small portion of bully-beef, a couple of potatoes and thin slice of bread. Other days were equally bad. The couple of ounces of bacon we got for Monday’s dinner was so rancid that I could never manage to swallow it, but just had to spit it out. On Tuesday we received a bowl of pea broth. Wednesday was brightened by a slab of heavy dough called ‘suet pudding’. Then on Thursday we had stewed beef and a carrot or two. But what beef! Never was meat like that tasted outside the walls of a prison - stringy, tough stuff that no human teeth could chew. On Friday we were given pea broth again. Then on Saturday once more that ghastly ‘suet pudding’.” A far cry from the champagne and caviar she was used to. The rest of her descriptions are couched in similar terms.
Kate’s longest period in jail was as a result of what came to be known as The Goddard Case. George Goddard was a policeman, on the take. He took bribes from nightclub owners and turned a blind eye to their breaking the licensing laws, or warned them of raids. Kate, and one other nightclub owner were tried with him as people who paid him bribes - a rather more serious charge than simply serving drinks after hours. Apparently the evidence was somewhat circumstantial and hinged on some numbered notes (money that is), found to have been in both her and Goddard’s possession. She, of course, maintained her innocence. The Daily Express was not convinced: “Mrs Meyrick was obviously distressed. She clutched the rail of the dock, glanced around to the back of the court, where one of her daughters was sitting, and then burst into tears. She sobbed for three or four minutes, her handkerchief held to her eyes and when finally she overcame her emotion, she leaned back in her chair and a flicker of a smile came over her pale face.” The performance, if such it was, was all to no avail though. The sentence was fifteen months hard labour. It was 1929
Hard labour has the ring of chain gangs about it, and indeed such prisoners did indeed “have to do all the laundry work, boot-repairing and cooking for the other prisoners. Also they get the heavier tasks to perform in the workroom”. The beds were harder - not as in the ‘privilege cell’ shown at right. But Kate actually preferred it in hard labour. Why? “There are so many more prisoners, which means a little more freedom. One is not perpetually haunted by that peculiarly dreadful feeling of one’s every movement being watched. The prisoners, too, are nearly all old hands, far more cheerful and contented people on the whole than the new arrivals.” By then Kate had already served two shorter terms in prison and was delighted to find old friends amongst the inmates - “a pair of sweet-natured sisters, one the widow of a doctor, the widow of a commander in the Royal Navy. Poor things, being utterly impractical they had lost all their money in foolish business ventures. And now here they were in prison, both sentenced for the same offence - that of staying at hotels and finding they had no money to pay when the bills were presented.” You have to wonder whether Kate really believes half the stuff she writes, which would make her incredibly naïve or whether she is having everybody on. I mean - “There was a French girl who had shot her lover. She was a friendly soul.” She speaks of most of her fellow prisoners in similar terms. Maybe I am being harsh - and she was really just a kind, empathetic and lovely woman - indeed the behaviour of her friends and family outside would support this.
For her children never seem to have disowned her in any way. Indeed they used to visit her in prison - apparently only three visitors at a time were allowed and so they used to draw lots. Bearing in mind that they were either still at very posh schools, or moving in the ‘best’ circles, this cannot have been easy for them. One wonders what sort of treatment they got at those schools because of their mother’s exploits. Throughout the Goddard trial one of her daughters was there - “by twisting my neck I could just catch a glimpse, far behind me of my darling little daughter, who stayed with me there from beginning to end of that terrible trial, pouring courage into my heart by the mere knowledge of her presence.” May is the only child she ever refers to by name, so I do not know which daughter this was - it implies one of the younger children - Lilian or Irene perhaps? Before she was led off to prison, each time they were all there to farewell her. Perhaps even more extraordinary though is the support she seemed to have had from her customers. The 43 Club remained open whilst she was in prison, “often with the help of friends and members. And it was in my office that the gay young men about town and other adventurous spirits would sometimes give voluntary help. Seated behind my desk, they would make a great business of checking and passing in their friends and the simple amusement always seemed to afford them the most intense enjoyment.”
But the stays in prison took their toll. There were two more after her 15 months of hard labour. The last of them was in 1931, two years before her death. The picture at the head of this page was taken as she left Holloway after one of her stays there. She looks frail. I have no doubt that her health would have suffered.
In 1932 the club was raided for the last time and she was “obliged three months later to give in a court of law an honourable undertaking that I would not transgress for three years those laws which dictate to grown men and women the hours within which they may purchase alcoholic refreshment.”
She kept the club open until her death, apparently without transgressing again. “The undertaking which I gave I will adhere to scrupulously, but it is London and the night clubs that I love. It is at night that people become alive and real to me. I still spend my evenings regularly at the ’43’ or some other club”