Tearing Down the Palace

The demolition of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre destroyed some of the last egalitarian social spaces in central London, including the Palace Bingo Club. We have to understand it as a political act.

The London Palace Bingo Club was one of the largest in the country with a floor the size of Wembley stadium. (Rob Greig)

Southwark Council and developers Delancey got their wish in the end. The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, one of the most derided buildings in London, has finally been demolished. The centre was the future once, a symbol of postwar ambition when it opened to great fanfare on a bombsite in 1965, promising a new era of luxury. Now it is a construction site for another future, a £1.5 billion ‘new town centre‘ made up of apartments, offices, and a college campus.

This marks the end of a years-long struggle. The dilapidated hulk of a building was an embarrassment to councillors and an object of ridicule to culture writers. But it provided livelihoods for hundreds of small businesses, which offered vital services and social spaces to their customers. Traders, including dozens with Latin American roots, worked with local campaign groups to protect their businesses. They lobbied the council and staged direct actions, repeatedly thwarting the development process, which only moved forward after traders secured commitments for new premises with discounted rents and relocation funds.

The traders’ campaign was well-publicised. But the plight of another community, hidden away on the top floor of the centre, has been largely overlooked. The London Palace Bingo Club was one of the largest in the country with a floor the size of Wembley stadium. Up to 2,000 punters would assemble on any given night to try their luck. The intangible value of the club, and the sense of loss it leaves behind, is the subject of new Bafta-nominated documentary The Palace.

Safety in Numbers

The Palace was recently screened at the Cinema Museum—another cherished Southwark institution threatened by development—with director Jo Prichard, club manager Patrick Duffy, and several of the regulars in attendance. ‘It’s a bit of a cautionary tale,’ says Prichard, herself a South Londoner. ‘Be careful about losing these places that you might not think have much value… because you don’t know.’

Her film shows the club as an authentic representation of local diversity, drawing players from the Caribbean, South Asian, Irish, and LGBT communities. It was particularly vital to older people, in many cases forming the basis of their social lives. Retired chef and postal worker Cecil, who arrived in London from Jamaica in 1959, says he sometimes comes every day of the week. This was a rare inner-city space that was safe, cheap—serving meals for £1—and open to all. For many players the club served a therapeutic function. Sally spends time here grieving the death of her daughter on the advice of her doctor. Collin, a former dancer, says it helped him to recover from alcoholism. ‘I was in a bad state when I came out of hospital,’ he says. ‘When I came here… it was like having a big family.’

Despite the large and lively crowds, the club never employed any security. There was enough respect for the institution that the community was entirely self-policing. ‘If we got any scammers I knew about it,’ says manager Duffy at the screening. ‘It wasn’t like grassing.’ Strict rules against abusive behaviour were followed. You could also win serious money. Duffy became something of a pariah within the bingo industry for undercutting his competitors, allowing his customers to play at minimal cost, which drew sufficient crowds for him to offer jackpots of thousands of pounds. One winner says she was able to take her family on a rare holiday.

The Last Dance

The club did not feature prominently in the traders’ campaign, although it hosted and participated in activists’ meetings and fully supported their aims. Duffy doubted whether a gambling parlour was the right public face. But both manager and clientele lived with the same insecurity as everyone else in the shopping centre. Southwark Council had been pursuing redevelopment of the site since 1998 and sold it to Delancey for £80 million in 2014. The threat of imminent closure was present throughout, as the managed decline of the building became more pronounced.

When the wolf finally arrives at the door on St. Patrick’s Day 2019, as Duffy announces the club will close in two weeks, it comes as a terrible shock to the regulars. Chikandra, a retired nurse with dementia, writes a letter of complaint to the Prime Minister. She and other older players emphasise how many years they worked in this country. They were led to believe that entitled them to some reward in retirement, not the loss of their social foundation. Players say they were briefly consulted by the council and then ignored. Some suggest their race or age make them disposable. ‘I think a lot of them (at the council) thought the people who play bingo were not the people they wanted,’ says Duffy. ‘They probably thought they were a lower class of person.’

Despite this devastating blow, the regulars come together for a riotous and heartfelt send-off on closing night with the Palace at full capacity, reverberating to calypso classics, as players of many ages and ethnicities share a last dance, embrace, and memory.

The Aftermath

The manager and his clientele tried to adapt after the closure. Chartered coaches ferried players to another club in Great Yarmouth. When Covid struck, sessions went online but could not replace the social experience. Duffy was close to a deal for another club in nearby Surrey Quays but says he was sabotaged by industry rivals.

Many of the older regulars lived alone and suffered from loneliness, says Prichard. The loss of the club, and then the isolation of Covid, severed a lifeline. Not all of the players on closing night in 2019 were still here to see the film released this year. For anti-gentrification campaigner Jerry Flynn, the film highlights the brutality of the regeneration schemes sweeping London, and particularly Southwark. He notes that many of the traders from the shopping centre are still waiting on promised new premises and facing impossible relocation costs, and the displacement that has accompanied other local developments such as the Heygate and Aylesbury estates. ‘This is the reality of development behind the PR,’ says Flynn at the screening. ‘The people who were living and working in the Elephant and Castle over the last thirty to forty years just don’t earn enough money for the developers who want to come in and build new shops and homes. So they are being moved out.’

As the glittering facades go up over the coming years the neighbourhood will be transformed. Much-needed investment will bring new homes, facilities, and attractions. But they will come at a human cost. For the regulars, the Palace was priceless.