The Billie Carleton Exhibition
Billie Carleton (stage name of Florence Leonora Stewart), was a rising star of the West End until her tragic death in November 1918, at the end of the Great War. Billie had enjoyed some success treading the boards in musicals and plays such as The Boy, Watch Your Step and The Freedom of the Seas.
The Great War had brought about considerable change in the circumstances of women. Whilst the Suffragettes had called a truce on their campaign to obtain the right of women to vote, the war had found women employed in occupations hitherto the providence of men. Factory workers, miners, farm hands had all taken up arms and were dug-in in Flanders or fighting further afield in the Middle East and North Africa. The war effort demanded that women take their places at the blast furnaces, coalface or on the land, and women eagerly accepted the freedom this afforded them.
For Billie, her profession already granted her the opportunities that women before the war could only dream of. She was independent, spirited and in her own non-politicised way - she was an emancipated women. She lived a lifestyle, sometimes in excess of her means, despite the not insignificant earnings enjoyed by a woman of her status in the West End. She courted a number of older men, who adopted paternalistic roles in her life, whilst she partied with a friendship circle that included the dressmaker Reginald DeVeulle and the actor Lionel Belcher.
Their's was a brat pack, long before the term was coined. They attended opium parties, often at Reggie's flat on Dover Street. They used opium and cocaine interchangeably, well versed in their respective depressant and stimulant properties. In addition Billie sought prescription drugs from her doctor, who obliged her with Veronal, a barbiturate drug. In modern day parlance, Billie was a poly drug-user.
Reggie, with his flair for the dramatic, would arrange cushions on the floor so that the close knit group of friends could lounge in their night attire, whilst Ada Lo Ping, the wife of a Chinese migrant worker, would prepare opium pipes for them to smoke. Amongst the entourage was Donald Kimful, an Egyptian exile and occasionally Olive Richardson and Irene Castle, both established actresses who went on to enjoy successful careers.
"Show us how to do the Fox Trot" (Irving Berlin) Billie Carleton & George Graves HMV C 624 - from Watch Your Step, C.B. Cochran.Click on the play button to hear the original recording from 1914.
The opium parties cost Billie her role in an early performance under the impresario C.B. Cochran, however it wasn't long before she found herself back on the stage. Her reputation as an actress grew. Cochran considered her ‘a young girl of flower like beauty, delicate charm, and great intelligence’. She was particularly suited to comic roles.
On the 11th November 1918 the guns went silent across Europe. The Great War was over and Britain and turned her attention to celebrating. Crowds thronged to Buckingham Palace, cheering and waving flags. In the weeks that followed parties were organised up and down the land.
Foremost amongst the celebrations in the weeks that followed was the Great Victory Ball, held at the Royal Albert Hall. It was to be a fancy dress party for London's elite and the military brass. Reggie, Lionel, Olive, Fay and Billie were on the list.
Unusually, there was no alcohol available at the Great Victory Ball, although one might suppose those attending secreted hip-flasks into the venue. A lack of alcohol may have caused little concern for Billie and her friends who would have come equipped with cocaine to help while away the evening, dancing and chatting with one another. Reggie had created costumes for them both to wear; Billie standing out from the crowd in a cavalier costume made of crepe.
Billie had additional cause for celebration - there was talk of an American theatrical tour, one that would surely have led the young actress into a career on the silver screen. The atmosphere must have felt jubilant, enhanced by the cocaine powder they would have enjoyed on discreet forays back and forth to the restrooms. By the end of the evening, with no alcohol to dampen the stimulant effects of the cocaine, one might suppose the small party to be positively flighty.
At the end of the evening, the revellers took carriages. Reggie left with his wife Pauline and headed back to Dover Street where they lived. Perhaps Reggie would have liked to have left with Lionel, Olive and Fay who accompanied Billie back to her flat at the Savoy Place, but Pauline would have put her foot down. They parted company - unbeknown to Reggie, this would be the last time that he would ever see his friend Billie.
In their own carriage, Billie would have chatted and laughed with the remaining party, as they rattled past Hyde Park Corner and down towards Charing Cross. Fay might have regaled Billie with stories of her native America, the rising skyline of New York and the bustling Broadway.
Late November 1918 in London was mild with little rain to sour the mood. Alighting at Savoy Place the party would have paid the before making their way up to Billie's flat. Perhaps their was wine or even champagne, maybe more cocaine.
Opium would have been too ritualistic - the preciseness of its preparation and the necessary accouterments would not have been available at that hour. Besides, it was not that sort of a night.
Lionel, Olive and Fay left off in the early hours of the morning, but not before they had enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Billie retired to her bed, physically tired but still mentally alert from the cocaine. Whether she lay there for some time, her mind racing from thought to thought, or whether she went straight for the little bottle tucked away in a bedside drawer, it is impossible to know. Either way, the Veronal prescribed by her physician, Dr Stewart, would have aided her swift passage into sleep.
Later in the morning the door to the flat was opened by Billie's housemaid, who was most likely used to the scene of discarded wine bottles and breakfast plates that greeted her in the living room. No doubt she was also used to the hours that her mistress kept and set about tidying the things away quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping occupant of the bedroom down the hall.
In the months that followed, the housemaid described to the coroner's court how she had heardthe snoring of her mistress reverberating through the small flat. It was some time later in the morning when she returned to the flat that the housemaid noted that the snoring had stopped. She checked in on her mistress to find still in bed, her breathing had stopped and her life had slipped away from her. Billie's doctor was called for along with the police, but she was pronounced dead.
Patriarchal society needed someone to blame for what was considered to be the tragic death of a young, white woman who had strayed beyond the protective, guiding hand of traditional Edwardian values. 'How could this have happened?', the newspapers echoed. The cause of death was revealed to have been cocaine (erroneously), the supplier, Reggie De Veulle, who suddenly found himself thrust into the spotlight of public speculation. Reggie was ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught that befell him in the Coroner's Court; this wasn't the stage that he had dreamt of, and the focus of the court turned to matters of his sexuality. The circle of friends, with whom he shared his passion for opium and cocaine, quickly distanced themselves from him, and in so doing they provided their counsels with evidence set to undermine Reggie's good character. It is worth remembering that the Sexual Offences Act came in to legislature in 1967; decriminalising homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of twenty one. In 1919, Reggie was liable to the same public contempt which befell Oscar Wilde and led to the poet and playwright's imprisonment in 1895. Reggie was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for eight months.
To find out more about the life of Billie Carelton and other women whose lives gave rise to the Edwardian backlash against drug use, we would recommend Marek Kohn's seminal work - 'Dope Girls, Birth of the British Drug Underground'.