Late in 1915, with nightlife in London’s West End driven underground by wartime regulations, rumours began to surface about cocaine use among young women who frequented clubs. Over the following months, reports about cocaine use by West End prostitutes raised fears that they might spread the habit to soldiers.
These fears were sharpened by the realisation that, as it was not illegal to take cocaine or any other drugs, there was little the law could do about it. Stoked by sensational headlines – ‘Cocaine Driving Hundreds Mad – Women and Aliens Prey On Soldiers’ – concern boiled up into panic. In July 1916 the possession of cocaine and opium was criminalised by an order made under the Defence of the Realm emergency powers act. The nascent British drug underground was now outside the law.
It gained a name and a face in late 1918, when the young actress Billie Carleton died the day after she attended a Victory Ball to celebrate the end of the fighting. Her death was blamed on cocaine and on her dress designer, Reggie de Veulle, who was accused of supplying it. A racial note was introduced by revelations of an opium ‘orgy’ at de Veulle’s Mayfair flat, at which the smokers dressed as for bed and the pipe was prepared by a woman married to a Chinese man from the East London neighbourhood of Limehouse. (Mrs de Veulle, however, insisted that although she tried the pipe, she did not inhale.)
In 1922, a nightclub dancer called Freda Kempton died of an apparently deliberate cocaine overdose. Like Carleton, she was posthumously cast as an awful warning of the risks young women ran by experimenting with freedoms and pleasures that, in conservative eyes, they were too inherently frail to handle. Kempton stood for all the ‘jazz-bitten’ young women who were flocking to the dancehalls and nightclubs that had sprung up in the febrile aftermath of the war.
And this time there was a convincing villain to go with the victim: Brilliant Chang, a suave, elegant and sophisticated Chinese man about town, suspected of supplying Kempton with cocaine. Several of the staff who worked at Chang’s restaurant in Regent Street were arrested on drug charges; under police pressure Chang retreated to Limehouse, where he himself was eventually arrested for possessing cocaine.
By the middle of the 1920s Chang had been deported and the first British drug underground had died down. The distinctive themes of the panic that went with it – young women seeking pleasure, young women making bad choices, young white women associating with ‘men of colour’ – expressed the deepest anxieties of their time. They shaped ideas about drug abuse for decades afterwards; and their echoes can still be heard today.