London’s Soho is the heart of the city’s LGBTQ+ scene and it’s a scene which has it’s roots back to the clubs and secretive spaces of the area where at the turn of the 20th century, gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people would meet often at the risk of persecution and against the backdrop of a public who were not welcoming or understanding of the culture.
In ‘Queer City, an exploration of London club culture from 1918 to 1967’, the National Archives have teamed up with the National Trust to tell the story of this contemporary piece of history which helped to shape not only the Soho of today but the LGBTQ+ culture of today.
Pottering around on a wet Monday morning in February we were lucky to have a sneak preview with a tour of some of the areas key spots. Places which have been given new life from researchers at the National Archives, who as part of a wider programme to commemorate 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, have devised a tour of the area.
Places with names such as the Shim Sham Club, Billies Club, the Colony Room and the Caravan Club have found themselves in the spotlight again. Once hidden away from prying eyes on the outside looking in, they would thrive with life on the inside as patrons threw off the shackles of societies lack of acceptance in spaces which can now still be seen but which have changed with the passing of time.
The centre piece of the commemorations is the re-creation of the iconic Caravan Club. Formerly accessed via a small alley and situated in a basement at 81 Endell Street, it’s front door can still be spotted through a gate which bars entry from the road side. The National Trust though has re-created the space just around the corner using old images from the archives and from contemporary descriptions of the place from court reports and police statements.
Inside the recreation, which will only last until the end of March 2017, brings to life the space creating a bohemian feel with furnishings matched so far as possible with those in place when police raided the club and closed it down in 1934, the result of complaints from local residents whose 1930’s sensibilities couldn’t cope with such a place. It is the resulting photographs taken during that raid which provide one of the primary sources of research for how it would have looked.
The series of events commemorates 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which offered a partial decriminalisation of homosexuality and has utilised the vast amount of content available from the National Archives whose reports from the time reveals what life was like for people from LBGTQ+ communities.
Soho is an area rich in history at the best of times but the forming communities of LGBTQ+ people from years gone by has undoubtedly helped to shape the area as it is today. It’s been a long struggle and only as recently as 1999 there was a devatating bombing at the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street showing that prejudice had not yet been contained despite advances in society. The old clubs of Soho might not be there anymore, just ghosts echoing through the papers of the archives, but they speak to a special time, one of risk and danger but also one of excitment and vibrancy, this was their city after all, their Queer City!
Queer City: London Club Culture 1918-1967 will run from Thursday 2 March 2017 to Sunday 26 March 2017 with a series of events hosted by the National Trust which can be booked here. The recreated Caravan Club can be found at the Freud Cafe Bar at 198 Shaftsbury Avenue, just around the corner from its orginal location at 81 Endell Street.
Rowena Hillel from the National Archives talks to Inspiring City about Queer City and about the history of the clubs in the area
Queer City Gallery – The Caravan Club Gallery
Queer City Gallery – The sights of Soho