Cannabis in the 1950s British Tabloids

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Alex Brown. Brown researches and writes for the drug history podcast Hooked on History. He has a Master’s in Contemporary History from the University of Edinburgh.

It will likely surprise none of this blog’s readers that British tabloids have proved poor custodians of “drug” information. Evidence of their inflexible anti-drug stance was presented during the Leveson Inquiry in 2011. Ex-Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt told the inquiry: “If a scientist announces their research has found ecstasy to be safer than alcohol, I know my job as a tabloid reporter is to portray this man as a quack.”[1] Instead of offering accurate information, “drug” articles tend to act as conduits through which moral judgments and social anxieties can be expressed.

The 1910s and 1920s origins of this were explored in Marek Kohn’s Dope Girls. In an era of vocal feminism, the “cocaine girls” were framed as innocent damsels and waif-like, bearing little resemblance to the actual women. With “yellow peril” fears running high and cultural anxieties surrounding miscegenation, these articles also played up fears of white women mixing with Chinese men.

A remarkably similar tone was struck in Britain’s early and mid-1950s “reefer” scare stories. Cannabis was a popular drug in many colonies and had been a very profitable trade for the Empire. However, it was never widely used in Britain itself. As a result, the post-war colonial immigration brought to Britain not only a significant black minority but also sustained cannabis use. The association between cannabis and black men would drive the tabloids’ coverage of the drug.

In 1950 the police raided two bebop jazz clubs, Soho’s “Club Eleven” and the Paramount Dance Hall on Tottenham Court Road. Both clubs held a racially mixed audience. On the floor, the police discovered packets of hemp and arrests were made respectively. The press’s attention was aroused by the raids. The racial mixing found in the clubs was a particular point of curiosity. One article opened with the line “Teen-age girls in bobby-sox and coloured men wearing zoot-suits and wide-brimmed hats”.[2]

The discovery of racial mixing in the presence of cannabis gave birth to a narrative of black men pushing the drug on white girls. As one 1950 article put it, “teen-aged girls are falling victims[sic] to marijuana cigarettes, given them[sic] by coloured seamen.”[3] Following this new interest in the drug, a wave of articles and exposés about “marijuana” in the racially mixed bebop scene came out during the early 50s. It is quite clear that drug use was not the dominant issue. When the Paramount Dance Hall closed down eight days after the police raid drugs had nothing to do with it. Instead, the attention had brought them too many complaints about black men dancing with white women.[4]

The exposés language tended to specifically target this social fear:

“The young girls, in particular, abuse themselves in a nauseating fashion before their suppliers, Negroes many of them.

Sometimes the dealer tantalises his victims, refusing to sell until one of the girls has danced with him. Eyes rolling, body twitching, a sixteen-year-old girl then slides into the motions of bebop in the arms of the black peddler.”[5]

In 1951, the Daily Mail wrote a couple articles covering two seventeen-year-old “respectable girls,” Thelma Drage and Audrey Jones, who traveled to London to visit bebop clubs. They made friends with a man called Nwakanama and exchanged addresses. Drage later wrote to him and requested he send her “doped cigarettes, reefers, marijuana or whatever you call the things,” which he did. The letter was intercepted by Drage’s father, who reported them to the police.

The nature of the relationship between the girls and Nwakanama was a particular point of investigation for the court and the Daily Mail. Thelma Drage signed her letter with, “All my love.”

“What is the meaning of all this rubbish?” the Recorder, Sir Gerald Dodson, enquired.

“I just thought…” was all Drage offered the chastising judge.

The Daily Mail reported the Recorder then turned his attention to Audrey Jones and asked “what the idea was of exchanging addresses”?

“I don’t rightly know… it was just something to do. Someone to write to-”[6]

In summing-up, the Recorder presented the girls as immature, “foolish” and “quite incapable of taking care of themselves… There they were in London, inexperienced, and with nobody to look after them, and they got in touch with coloured men.”[7] The young women were cast in the role of a Victorian waif, just as young female drug users had been in the 1920s. Helpless, without agency or ability for independence; vulnerable to becoming victims of drug pushing ethnic minorities.

By and large, the voices of the users were barely represented in cannabis articles. Black men were usually cast as background scenery to increase the threat, white men did not fit the narrative and were totally absent, and white women’s opinions were not needed for their helpless role—in fact, the role required them not to have such agency. (There were very few black women in early post-war immigration, which is why they are not mentioned.) One exception was an article written by Duncan Webb. Webb was a particularly dogged crime reporter, for his stories he was willing to get beaten, date a serial killer’s ex,[8] and talk to the subject of his weed exposé.

Ann Winters was an avid parter. Initially, she was disappointed by London. Visiting traditional dance halls she found everyone too “ordinary” and boring; however, she encountered more excitement upon discovering the bebop clubs. After getting her first joint from someone in the scene, Webb explained, “Ann Winters was now in the drug’s clutches. She has not freed herself since.”[9]

Winter’s did not fit the traditional role of Victorian waif. She was unrepentantly self-assured of her lifestyle and, having lived in London for two years, was self-sufficient. It was this independence and unwillingness to conform which was offered as the most dire, morally corrupting symptom of cannabis use. Webb presented her answer to the question “What are your plans for the future?” as the conclusion of her corruption and proof of the evil dope peddlers were wrecking on teenagers:

“I don’t know. I want to travel. I want to see France. I don’t want to get married. I don’t want a career. I’ve got no ambition. All I want to do with my life is have a good time.”

As I said, usually these female degradation stories did not include the woman’s voice, allowing them to be far more sensational. In 1956, “Detective of the century: ex-Superintendent Robert Fabian!”[10] provided a clear example of the archetype in an Aberdeen paper. He managed to stuff the article with all the drug scaremongering greatest hits: black criminality, racial mixing, and female activity anxiety. He initially discussed a black dealer and pimp, Eddie the Villain, before jumping to an unrelated story covering the moral degradation of a seventeen-year-old, Shirley.

Shirley visited jazz clubs against the wishes of her parents. She was found at the Club Eleven and Paramount raids, and it’s heavily implied she was high. Fabian made sure to mention that black men were present. One attacked a police officer. “The marijuana smoker gets a mad criminal courage. Give him a gun and he will shoot,” Fabian explained. The price of Shirley’s disobedience was typical of the “white slave trade” motif: “She was chained to him, tighter than ever was medieval[sic] slave-girl, by the bangles of the dope hunger.”[11]

While the article readily admitted that the UK did not have a drug problem, it offered a stark warning against youths associating with bohemian types or visiting multi-racial jazz clubs. By 1956 the supposed dangers of jazz clubs were well entrenched in the public’s imagination. A couple weeks prior, the paper’s jazz columnist felt the need to write an article specifically to dispel the association between jazz clubs and “reefer cigarettes.” Apparently, that sort of thing only happened in “cool” clubs in London, New York and Los Angeles, or dives.[12]

News articles did not need to be as explicit as the exposés, since the British public was perfectly capable of reading between the lines. In 1953 the West London Observer–which serviced an increasingly multi-cultural area–ran the headline, “17-YEAR-OLD GIRL SMOKED INDIAN HEMP”. The first sentence elaborated:

“A pretty, blonde-haired 17-year-old girl was said by Det. Insp. Margaret Heald… to have been smoking Indian hemp on and off since she met a coloured man at a party 18 months ago.”[13]

As any journalist worth their salt knows, everything important in your story should be included in the first sentence. It’s also where you include the “hook,” something provocative to give your reader the emotional response. This article, about a teenager being arrested for smoking weed, placed importance on demonstrating the girl’s sexual appeal and that the degrading agent was introduced through racial mixing.

The hook seemed to have an effect. Black immigration had been a contentious issue in the West London Observer’s letter section. R Thorburn, of Castletown Rd, seemed to believe she was about to have the last word on the issue and titled her letter, “Answer this one!” Her final point was, “Lastly, the front page of this week’s ‘W.L.O.’ has a story of a 17-year-old girl getting Indian hemp from a coloured man, which speaks for itself.”[14]

A couple weeks later the West London Observer published a letter by John Bean stating he was forming an organisation to ban non-white immigrants. His fourth point read, “We constantly hear of white girls being induced to become drug addicts through the machinations of ‘reefer’ smoking Negroes. This degradation of our women must stop.”[15]

Overall, 1950s cannabis scare stories made up a small part of British tabloid’s bibliography on racial mixing, which generally pushed ‘white slave trade’ themes of decadence, corruption, and attempted rescue.[16] Cannabis offered the press a tool to stoke up fears surrounding the new black population, and to Exploit the British concern over what “their” women were doing and who they were sleeping with. The similarity in tone and language to 1920s “drug” articles—as well as more modern ones—had little to do with the characteristics of the drugs themselves, but the similarity in social fears.


[1] https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/richard-peppiatts-presentation-to-the-leveson-inquiry-seminar-full-text/

[2] ‘DRUGS SEIZED IN RAID ON BEBOP CLUB, SAY YARD’, Sunday Pictorial, 16 April 1950. P. 3.

[3] ‘Jive girls victims of drug racket’, The People, 19 November 1950, p. 5.

[4] ‘CLOSED-THROUGH SEX SQUABBLES,’ The People, 9 July 1950, p. 5.

[5] Webb, D., ‘DOPE: A warning to young people’, The People, 18 February 1951, p 4.

[6] ‘Hemp Found in Letter: Counsel’, The Daily Mail, 22 November 1951, p. 5.

[7] ‘Two ‘Foolish Girls’ Alone in London’, The Daily Mail, 23 November 1951, p. 3.

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/sep/05/crime-reporting-duncan-campbell

[9] Webb, D., ‘LONDON’S DRUG FIENDS EXPOSED: Dope Street’, The People, 20 June 1954, p. 3.

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cGRl87VTd8&t=62s

[11] Fabian, R., ‘These girls are the city’s damned souls’, Aberdeen Evening Express, 31 May 1956, p. 3.

[12] Enefer, D., ‘Drugs and the jazz clubs…’, Aberdeen Evening Express, 12 May 1956, p. 3.

[13] ‘17-YEAR-OLD GIRL SMOKED INDIAN HEMP’, West London Observer, 4 September 1953, p. 1.

[14] ‘West London Opinion’, West London Observer, 11 September 1953, p. 6.

[15] ‘West London Opinion’, West London Observer, 25 September 1953, p. 8.

[16] Bingham, A. and Conboy, M., Tabloid Century: The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the present, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015).P. 213.

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