Mrs Margaret Mary Maitland Fowler, sometime owner of Leamington’s famous Blue Café in Bath Street, became something of a Midlands legend in her own lifetime. She was appointed OBE for her services to charity, to disabled ex-servicemen and the Red Cross.
Mrs Fowler worked for the Red Cross and fund-raised for charity for most of her life, but having moved to Leamington from Polesworth, in the early 1920s she developed a new interest, opening The Blue Café and Dance Hall at 52 Bath Street. Thenceforth the Blue Café and Dance Hall continued to be listed in local street directories each year, even throughout the second world war, until 1945. In the Blue Café, everything was blue, from the paint on the walls to the curtains and table cloths, and Mrs Fowler herself wore blue. Leamington History Group member, the late Noreen Connolly had fond memories of pre-war autumn evenings spent there: “We used to go dancing quite a lot with the girls. Occasionally we would go to the Blue Café. [It was] upholstered everywhere in blue velvet and Mrs Fowler who owned the premises never wore anything else but royal blue with silver fox. Her Rolls Royce was royal blue and her chauffeur whose name was Morgan, was dressed in a royal blue coat and boots”. [This may have been a slight exaggeration: Peter Chater, Mr Morgan’s son-in-law, has no recollection of a Rolls Royce, or of his father-in-law ever wearing royal blue. Mrs Fowler certainly had a fleet of large cars, but ‘Morgan’ her driver and handyman for over thirty years always wore a dark suit.]
The Blue Cafe hosted some of the most famous “turns” of the day, – actors, music hall stars and dance bands, including Dorothy Holbrook’s Harmony Hussars and the Black Satin Orchestra. Local talent, including the Frank Rawlings Band also performed there. In the Leamington Courier of 16 October 1992 ‘Memory Lane’ column, Bee Blackwell recalled the excitement of visiting the Blue Café as a young girl before the war. One year, just before Christmas, Bee and her friends were allowed the privilege of attending one of the celebrated Blue Café Tea Dances. Each clutching a canvas bag holding their dancing shoes and 1s. 3d for their tickets, they rushed up the steep steps of the Blue Café to the cloakroom on the top floor. They were overwhelmed by the ballroom, the décor, the size of the stage and the shining floor, surrounded by small blue-clothed tables, – but not so much that they didn’t take to the floor along with everyone else when the Black Satin Orchestra played ‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’. Waitresses wearing blue fluted aprons served thin slices of bread and butter, fish paste sandwiches, small iced cakes and trifle with cream. Balloons and streamers were thrown from the stage as the last waltz was played, leaving the girls to make their way home through the late afternoon gas-lit streets.
In 1939, Mrs Fowler and the Blue Café hosted the Warwickshire Amateur [Dance] Championship, an event open to all amateur dancers in Warwickshire. In October that year, the Leamington Courier reported that “a happy company of old time dancers attended the opening session of ‘Ye Old Time Dance Club’ at the Blue Café”. Despite the wartime blackout, transport and other restrictions, people came from as far away as Moreton–in-Marsh. Only one young lady had to be turned away, having forgotten her gas mask. Frank Rawlings and his Band played for favourites such as the Old Time Waltz, the Empress Tango, Jazz Twinkle, the Palais Glide, the Veleta and the Boston. In October the following year, the Dance Club opened their ninth season with a programme by the Rawlings Band, – before an audience of close on 200, made up of local devotees and Allied Military personnel. The popular programme was followed the next week by a demonstration of ‘skate dancing’, presumably performed on roller skates. Like The Windmill in London, the Blue Café never closed, continuing to promote films, plays, musical and other events throughout the war. It was well-known that young women who worked at Lockheed liked to go dancing there on their days off, some of them calling in at the Bath Hotel further up the street, for a bit of ‘Dutch Courage’ beforehand.
The lease on the Blue Café expired on 25 March 1945, but the story did not end there. The Leamington and Warwick Magic Society, founded in 1948, at the White Horse, attracted magicians from all over the Midlands who performed at various local venues. At the end of their first year the Society celebrated its achievements with “a very modest affair”, a dinner at the Blue Café in Bath Street which was so successful that it became an annual event for many years afterwards.
Compiled by Margaret Rushton with information from LHG archives, Peter Chater, David Budd and Leamington Spa Courier online archive.
The Early Days of the Cinema
The Parthenon was home to ‘White’s Electric Theatre’ in the early 1900s, when Mr Waller Jeffs presented New Century Pictures. By 1914, it was known as ‘The Spa Cinema’ which eventually showed full length feature films. From the end of September until the following March, there was also a sporadic season of cinema at The Winter Hall (the boarded-over swimming pool at the Pump Rooms). Mrs Fowler took over the management of this cinema in 1923, using The Blue Café for bookings, until she opened her own venture, ‘The Bath Cinema’ at the Parthenon in March 1925.