How show girls bolstered the blitz

In September 1940, when bombs first fell on London, there were forty two theatres in the city’s West End. But as the dust settled, only one remained, its lights on, the show still going.

The Windmill Theatre, known for its show girls, fan dances and naked tableaux, was the capitals unlikely Blitz stalwart. But what made this little strip show that could even more incredible was that it not only positioned itself as London’s go to wartime theatre, but actively worked to make itself a key player in the allied fight to win WW2.

Press photo of The Windmill Theatre and its infamous ‘We Never Closed’ signage

In the early 1930’s, Laura Henderson (more commonly known as ‘Mrs Henderson’) bought The Windmill Theatre. Previously a cinema, she had it totally pulled apart and transformed into a tiny theatre that she hoped would celebrate Britain’s many storied variety acts.

Sadly for Mrs Henderson, variety was on its last legs. The audience were nowhere to be found, and down and out variety performers far outnumbered those in work.

So Mrs Henderson roped in entertainment maestro, Vivian Van Damm (more commonly known as VD) to think up a way of making her variety theatre a sell-able form of entertainment.

VD re-branded the theatre as an all British home for a truly British art form and its homegrown British acts (can you see a theme here?). Alongside the patriotic love fest, The Windmill was also sold as a sort of charity, after all, Mrs Henderson was giving previously unemployed performers work, which if you squint hard enough, could technically be counted as charity.

But all of this wasn’t enough to put the theatre in the black. You see, no matter how much you re-branded it, at its core The Windmill just wasn’t doing anything different. It was still just another theatrical revue.

So, with rival revues running all over London, ones that offered tons of acts and ran all day long, why pick the Windmill over anything else?

Answer: Naked Tableaux

A 1934 tableaux, entitled, My Pearls

The brainchild of VD, the idea of naked women on a London stage was at once, new, taboo and a must see ticket.

Sure the idea of half dressed women creating a picture on stage, had clear roots in regency era theatre, BUT it hadn’t been done to the level that The Windmill was offering.

Which is exactly why The Lord Chamberlain took such an interest in The Windmill girls.

The Lord Chamberlain was the censor for all theatrical pursuits and thus the person who could license The Windmill’s use of nudity to this level. But, a stiff upper-class Lord, licensing erotic theatre in the 1930s? Doesn’t seem likely right?

Enter Mrs Henderson… who just happened to know Lord Cromer, the current Lord Chamberlain. Mrs Henderson hounded Cromer, showing him how The Windmill ran and that everything was above board, crucially arguing that her show wouldn’t be titillating audiences, but would in fact be a true artistic endeavour.

After all, you wouldn’t argue that the Venus Dimilo put her boobs away. So much like a statue, if the naked windmill girls didn’t move, they couldn’t possibly be considered ‘vulgar’ public pornography.

And so, The Windmill not only got their license, but censorship backing that prevented morality groups from forcing them into closure.

Programme from a 1930s-production at the Hammermsith Lyric direct from the Windmill Theatre

Throughout the 1930’s, The Windmill ran under the banner:

‘Naughty specialities, gorgeous girls and comics who are destined to go places’

Female dancers, singers and show girls, were sandwiched between male comedians sets, with the highlight of each show being the multiple nude tableaux’s, offering depictions of art, historical events and fiction all told by nude female live statues.

Suddenly The Windmill ticket office was buzzing! But if you thought that audience inside the theatre would be the same, you’d be wrong.

Audiences to the show were often deathly quiet. And as one former Windmill Girl, Doris Barry remembered, much of the audience were:

‘Men with raincoats over their knees, half of them playing with themselves’

It was far from a good experience for the girls on stage. Many of whom were young and wanted to perform, not be openly masturbated at.

Then WW2 hit and everything changed.

Staged photo of Windmill dancers performing in gas masks

After the blitz truly started in 1940, The Windmill found fame as one of the only theatres not to close up shop. Dubbed the ‘Great little windmill’ by press.

But just staying open when there was no bomb insight, wasn’t good enough for VD. He wanted The Windmill Theatre to never close.

The theatre’s layout meant that -hypothetically- bombs could be raining right outside it’s doors, but those in its theatre would still be safe.

The way VD saw it, The Windmill could and should be the one place in London that could keep its lights on during those hellish nights and do it with laughter and a healthy dose of nudity – it was a hell of a way to give Hitler the middle finger!

And so, VD militarised The Windmills workforce. Staff were put on bomb and fire watching rotas and they strengthened the theatre exterior with sandbags.

Most of the company moved into the theatre itself, both to be able to take on extra shows and for safety, with an emergency bunker being installed.

Shows were altered to include wartime themed numbers and tableauxs. With VD ensuring around 500 free tickets per week were given to soldiers. Soon the brigade of creepy mac wearers were gone and The Windmills audience were allied soldiers from all over the world.

The girls became pin ups, not only during performances but in the everyday. With staged pictures of their ‘daily lives’ in their new underground dorms being released to the public. Catipulted into a strange type of duel celebrity, the Windmill Girls became postcard pin ups for soldiers a long way from home. But they also served as a type of propaganda on the home front, providing Britain with a much needed reminder that life, laughter and fun could still go on.

Staged photo of Windmill performers sleeping

And this really cannot be overstated: The Windmill girls, were risking their lives to do their jobs.

They were working right in the middle of the blitz, in a target area. Members of The Windmill’s staff died whilst working there.

A bomb actually landed on the doorstep of The Windmill and though it did not explode, it lay there, a ticking time bomb. Upon seeing the bomb, VD purportedly proclaimed:

‘Get this bloody bomb off my doorstep! I’ve got a show to put on’

Often the girls on stage could hear the bombs falling right outside. Yet only a few times did a girl make any movement whilst in their tableaux. Once when a bomb dislodged a dead rat from the rafter and it fell at her (who wouldn’t have moved for that, to be fair)

On another occasion, a bomb hit a hotel in the same street. At the sound of the enormous impact, one of the women performing supposedly turned her head ever so slightly in the direction of the bomb and thumbed her nose at it.

Windmill girl, Sonia Stacpoole walks the corridors of the windmill with both her costume and helmet

An example of just some of the immense bravery shown by these women, is the story of Margaret McGrath. Who was one of the Windmill’s most beloved performers (in 1942, she was actually named The Windmills no1 girl, by Life magazine!)

In addition to her work on stage, Margaret took turns on fire watch, looking out from the theatres rooftop to ensure that no spreading blaze was coming close. Then in October 1940, Margaret was thrown into action when a bomb hit a cafe, which sat just opposite the theatre.

Bodies and debris were strewn across the street. Worse still, The Windmill staff quickly realised that someone was missing, a teenage electrician who’d been by the cafe at the time of the explosion. He was also the brother of one of Margaret’s fellow showgirls.

Someone needed to go out into the street, walk amongst the pile of bloodied and mangled bodies and identify if their boy was one of them. Margaret stepped up.

Almost immediately after, she was back at work. Which was fortunate for those around her, as pretty soon after, a fire bomb hit some stables right by the theatre.

Margaret put on her metal helmet and rushed to the blaze, along with fellow Windmill girl, Annie Singer.

The fire was ferocious, killing several people. None the less, Margaret and Annie managed to rescue six horses.

They then led the panicking horses through Piccadilly Circus, singing the whole time to calm both themselves and the horses. Until another bomb hit. The horses bolted, but Margaret and Annie stayed firm, despite the very obvious continuing danger. Going after the terrified animals and eventually leading them to safety.

All this and still, when she was aged 97, Margaret told the Daily Mail:

‘The war years at The Windmill were the best of my life. And boy, have I had a life!’

Pin up postcard of Margaret McGrath

Margaret was not a rare case! All The Windmill girls stepped up and risked a lot, many being only being in their late teens or early twenties.

They witnessed horrors right outside their front door and went on stage minutes later. They met and fell in love with soldiers by the stage door, who were killed just days later. And yet no matter what, these women acted as the positive, cheerful, sexy, fun face of the war effort.

And of course, they did all this whilst being publicly put on trial by the morality police.

And still, STILL, they got up every day and did it all again. That is bravery.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? – check out Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, by Judith R Walkowitz. It’s a fantastic read and contains so much more info on The Windmill

Natasha Tidd is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s worked at museums and heritage sites across the UK. A huge history nerd, she will happily talk your ear off about women’s history, over several glasses (be real, bottles) of wine

Quickie: Allotment Annies

Things were tough in WWII, but some enterprising young women in the US came up with a devious money making scheme, at the expense of some poor hapless G.I’s

See, in the US if you were married to a soldier you were entitled to a $20 a week ‘allotment’ if they were shipped overseas to fight during the War, and if they were killed in action you were entitled to $10,000!

Obviously this allotment was a godsend to wives who had families to feed whilst their husbands were at war. BUT the Army was so busy helping out with the war they didn’t keep too close an eye on who was claiming these benefits…

With such a lax system in place it’d be real easy, if you were a nefarious kinda gal, to marry a couple of soldiers, change your last name and just keep claiming that sweet sweet cash.

making it rain
Making it rain with moral dubiousness!

Women that did this became known as: Allotment Annies.

‘Annies’ often racked up multiple husbands, and because of the huge death tolls during the war they didn’t have to worry too much about getting caught; since the poor schmuck they married was likely to get killed off before coming home and finding a new hubby in his place.

It goes without saying that Allotment Annies weren’t very popular people. Never mind breaking some soldier’s heart who’s been out fighting a horrendous war and is likely scarred for life – add finding out your Mrs is a bigamist; thats one mighty kick in the nuts.

The most famous Allotment Annie was Elvira Taylor. Elvira married SIX sailors during her scam and was only foiled when two sailors in an Australian pub showed each other pics of their lovely wife… only to discover it was THE SAME WOMAN!

Fisticuffs occurred, but after beating the crap out of each other, the two men banded together, went to the police and Elvira was duly hauled off to jail.

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Vivian Eggers another notorious ‘Allotment Annie’

Meanwhile, Vivian Eggers from Indianapolis managed to marry a whopping 7 soldiers, including two in ONE DAY! The logistics of that must have been fun.

Viv ended up being taken to court by all 7 of her husbands; here’s what she had to say of her crimes:

“You just get to drinking and having a good time, and you meet someone that’s kinda nice and that’s the way it happens,”

BTW, thats an actual quote from Viv at her trial for bigamy & fraud; yeah… the judge was unimpressed and gave her 18 months jail time. laugh.gif

But, a lot of Allotment Annies clapped back, claiming they were working for the war effort by giving the men something to fight and come home for. Grace Vivien Reinert a 22 year old Annie told press that;

“The girls figure that they’re making the boys happy, and that before the war is over the husbands will either be killed or glad to forget about their marriages.”

sure jan.gif

Incase you were wondering, Grace actually married 2 sailors and was claiming allotments for both of them. She ended up in jail because her husbands met up and realised they were married to the same woman when they noticed their allotment cheques were going to the same address. I guess her theory on the men being ok with it, didn’t really work out.  

The army soon caught onto the Annies scams, after they estimated that there were thousands of bigamist brides getting rich off the allotment scheme. BUT it was really hard to catch an Allotment Annie in the act; in the entire war only a few were ever actually caught.

So, the Army put together a plan to wise up their troops against wold be Annies. They created a series of adverts warning men to watch out for bigamists.

There was even a major film made about Allotment Annies; 1945s, Film Noir, Allotment Wives. Which stars Hollywood Queen, Kay Francis, as the ringleader of a bigamy scheme to get allotment cheques. Spoiler: It doesn’t end well for her.

war-marriage
AN example of an anti-allotment annie ad

After the war the Allotment Annies were finished… not because they got caught, but because the cash flow dried up when there wasn’t a war to fight overseas.

Who knows how many women scammed the US Army out of thousands of dollars. If it’s as many as the army claims then it’s kinda hard not to be impressed by that level of ingenuity.

This was interesting, Where can I find out more? Well, I’d totally check out the film, Allotment Wives, for a lovely slice of over the top propaganda noir. It’s currently available to stream on Amazon, along with several other platforms.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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