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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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