On This Day: The Chelsea Arts Ball – London’s most ‘scandalous' New Year’s Eve Party – is staged for last time

Julian Gavaghan

DECEMBER 31, 1958: The Chelsea Arts Ball, once said to be Britain’s most scandalous New Year’s Eve party, was staged for last time on this day in 1958.

The costume event, which was attended by 7,000 bohemian artists, socialites and ordinary Londoners, had been staged at the Albert Hall every year since 1908.

But after the 50th event, the ball was cancelled after the venue’s chiefs were shocked at the nudity, fighting and unreserved homosexuality, which was then still illegal.

A British Pathé newsreel covering the penultimate Chelsea Arts Ball filmed a carnival of colour, albeit in black and white, with a huge variety of decadent costumes worn.

One man donned a Tarzan outfit and a woman dressed in a schoolgirl outfit while another danced vigorously in a bikini at the event, organised by the Chelsea Arts Club.

It also filmed thousands dancing to Auld Lang Syne, which only served to get the party started rather signal going home time as it might at other parties of that era.

It then showed scenes of people drunkenly kissing before the pageantry parade began.

Raucous events then ensued as a fight broke out, which was meant to be in good humour, as part of the tradition of breaking up the organised spectacle.



By the 1950s, the gala increasingly shocked a society’s elite’s who remained socially repressive at a time when the young were becoming more free spirited.

Along with Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball, which was also held at the Albert Hall, they would come to be described as a “great mecca for the gay world”.

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Lady Malcolm, who launched her event to provide the same type of glamorous night out that butlers and maids usually only watched from the sidelines, despaired.

In a somewhat cryptic letter to The Times she wrote: 'Each year I notice at the ball a growing number of people, who, to be frank, are not of the class for whom the ball is designed.”

She ensured that the tickets were only sold to domestic servants, but they often sold them on for many times their face value.


From 1933 Malcolm reportedly employed two ex-CID officers to remove any identifiable “sexual perverts” and shut the event down in 1938.

Yet neither ball was attended by police and gay people felt relatively free to be themselves without the scrutiny and surveillance they underwent in their daily lives.

Gay sex remained illegal until 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised it.

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But 1950s Britain was gripped by fear of homosexuality, and during that decade around 1,000 gay men were locked up for up to two years after being prosecuted.

Others, like the Enigma Code-cracking genius mathematician Alan Turing, were underwent chemical castration as an alternative to prison.


Turing, whose tremendous contribution towards winning World War II could not be revealed at the time due to the Official Secrets Act, committed suicide in 1954.

The decade also saw the law against homosexuality strengthened, with women liable for prosecution for the first time in 1954.

The advent of the 1960s, however, marked a sea change in social attitudes.

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As well as decriminalising homosexuality, Harold Wilson’s Labour government also legalised abortions and abolished the death penalty.

The decade also saw the advent of a host of new gay parties, albeit on a smaller scale to the Chelsea Arts Ball.

This revolution ensured Albert Hall galas would in future be more elite, with events such as the Proms and Harrow public school’s annual alumni sing-along.