The Queer City of Soho, its clubs and its culture

London’s Soho is the heart of the city’s LGBTQ+ scene. It’s a scene which has its roots within the clubs and secretive spaces of the area. Places where, at the turn of the 20th century, queer people would meet. Often at the risk of persecution and against the backdrop of a public who were not welcoming or understanding.

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. One which helped to shape not only the Soho of today but the LGBTQ+ culture of today.

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The exterior of the Freud Cafe-Bar temporarily changed into the Caravan Club as part of a month commemoration of 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act

Queer City of Soho

Pottering around on a wet Monday morning in February. We were lucky to be given a tour of some of the areas key spots. Places which have been given new life from researchers at the National Archives. It was part of a wider programme to commemorate the 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

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. They would thrive with life on the inside. Patrons threw off the shackles of societies lack of acceptance. Taking place in spaces which can now still be seen but which have changed with the passing of time.

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Patrons from the original Caravan Club in a picture taken from the National Archives

Caravan Club

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. Its front door can still be spotted through a gate which bars entry from the road side.  The National Trust has re-created the space just around the corner. Using old images from the archives and from contemporary descriptions from court reports and police statements.

Inside the re-creation brings to life the space by creating a bohemian feel. The furnishings matching 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. Their 1930’s sensibilities couldn’t cope with such a place.  It is the photographs taken during that raid which provide one of the primary sources of research in terms of how it once looked.

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Inside the re-created Caravan Club

Sexual Offences Act

The series of events commemorates 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. It offered the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. A vast amount of content has been accessed from the National Archives. Those reports from the time reveals what life was really like for people from LBGTQ+ communities.

Soho is an area rich in history at the best of times. However 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. Only as recently as 1999 there was a devastating bombing at the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street. It showed 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 excitement and vibrancy. This was their city after all, their Queer City of Soho.

Queer City: London Club Culture 1918-1967 will run from Thursday 2 March 2017 to Sunday 26 March 2017. The recreated Caravan Club can be found at the Freud Cafe Bar at 198 Shaftsbury Avenue. The location is just around the corner from its original 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

 

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Inside the Caravan Club
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Inside the Caravan Club
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Inside the Caravan Club
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A recreation of a sign psoted at the Caravan Club
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The recreation by the National Trust
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Inside the new club

Queer City Gallery – The sights of Soho

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The first floor of this building at 41 Dean Street was the famous Colony Rooms run by the indominatable Muriel Beltcher and which boasted Francis Bacon as a regular
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The one time entrance to Billies club on Flitcroft Street, now an architect firm
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The original entrance to the Caravan Club and the alley leading to it on 81 Endell Street
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The famous Admiral Duncan pub which subject to a brutal terror attack in 1999
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The Cambridge Theatre where Maud Allen would perform

For more interesting articles on Inspiring City have a look at:

5 Comments

  1. I was proud to be one of the guides for the NT/NA Queer City tours. Indeed, I think I took the largest number of groups on the tour which was 19. Listening to the podcast with Rowena Hillel she was talking about police acting in response to public pressure. I always took this view very much with a pinch of salt. ‘Anonymous’ letters we saw often had a distinctly P.C. Plod vernacular about them. If you read the Endell Street letter reproduced above in a ‘I was proceeding along the High Street on the said day in an orderly manner … etc.’ you’ll get the picture. There was another report where the correspondent had been so outraged by the goings on in a certain club that he had felt to compelled to make a return visit. To be sure, to be sure, no doubt.

    I hope, independently, to be able to reprise a version of the tour in September and maybe run it a couple of times as a way of marking out emergence out of lockdown and raise some money for some appropriate charities.

    1. Hi Steve thanks for these reflections. I really hope you start some of these tours again as they were really interesting. There is such a wealth of history around this area and it needs to be told

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