In an extract from his book, Queer London: A Guide to the City’s LGBTQ+ Past and Present, Alim Kheraj traces the roots of Soho's LGBTQ+ bars and clubs.
Soho and the West End have long been epicentres of queer activity...
During the 1600s and 1700s, the area had a reputation as a place where men would solicit other men for sex, although areas of the City of London, such as Bishopsgate and St. Paul’s, were much more popular.
By the beginning of the 19th Century, Soho had become destitute and overcrowded. In the late 1880s, the West End underwent some regeneration: Piccadilly Circus was expanded, and theatres and music halls sprung up around Shaftesbury Avenue. With this entertainment district came a rise in sex work, and Soho soon nabbed itself the moniker ‘the Meat Rack’. According to Historic England, a man named Jack Saul even roamed the roads, handing out cards advertising an all-male brothel on Cleveland Street.
The theatres in the area became hook-up spots, particularly the London Pavilion, a musical hall that later became a part of the London Trocadero shopping centre (and which until recently, rather fittingly, housed Body Worlds: an exhibition of human bodies, preserved through plastination).
During the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde, it became clear that the writer frequented the area, kissing waiters at the Soho restaurant Kettner's (recently re-opened) and hosting orgies at the Savoy Hotel. Just two years before the beginning of the first world war, the Cave of the Golden Calf opened below a draper’s on Heddon Street. This cabaret and avant garde performance club, described as ‘a place given up to gaiety’, was for all intents and purposes the first ‘gay bar’, as we would understand it today.
Like so many that followed, the Cave didn’t last long, going bankrupt in 1914.
"I saw couples wriggling their posteriors"
In 1896, the Trocadero Long Bar opened on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus. It didn’t take long before this gentlemen-only establishment became a renowned spot for homosexual liaisons, although it had a mixed crowd, catering to civil servants and queer men alike. In the 1920s, populist publication John Bull, a Sunday periodical, exposed ‘six notorious places’ that it had dubbed ‘bogus hotels’: spots of alleged disrepute that were said to house fornicators, prostitutes and sodomites. Among these six places was the Hotel de France on Villiers Street, where legendary LGBTQ+ nightclub Heaven now sits.
By the 1930s, however, Soho had a thriving club scene, and was popular with those who committed so-called ‘immoral activity’. Most famous of these venues is the Caravan Club, described as ‘London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous’. This private members’ club in the basement of 81 Endell Street was owned by Jack Neave and William Reynolds, and for the handsome price of one shilling (or six if you weren’t a member), guests could expect ‘all-night gaiety’. According to police files, the venue was under constant surveillance, and in 1934 undercover officers raided the venue. Describing the club, raid leader Detective Inspector Clarence Campion noted that he saw people ‘acting in a very obscene manner’. ‘Men were dancing with men and women with women, a number of couples were simply standing still,’ he said in a report. ‘I saw couples wriggling their posteriors, and where I saw men together, they had their hands on the other’s buttocks and were pressing themselves together.’
"Police described it as a 'rendezvous for homosexual perverts'"
The venue closed in 1934. Still, it wasn’t the only queer club in the area. The Shim Sham Club, which opened on Wardour Street in the mid-1930s, was described as ‘London’s miniature Harlem’. Central to the Black jazz scene at the time, and closely linked with African American culture, the spot operated without a licence, hosting what were then known as ‘bottle parties’. While music was central to the club’s DNA, it was also a space for politics and anti-fascist meetings, welcoming people of all races and sexualities.
Letters sent to police at the time describe the space as a ‘rendezvous for homosexual perverts’, with interracial mingling and relationships similarly chastised. One letter states that the club’s ‘encouraging of Black and White intercourse [was] the talk of the West End’. In 1935, the club was shut down following a police raid, only to re-open as the Rainbow Roof, a similar venue that was charged with unlicensed dancing and music in 1936. It
later became the Flamingo Club.
Soho falls out of favour with the city's queers
While none of these queer establishments operated openly, they were known to Londoners. The second world war pushed queer culture further underground, although a number of bars and clubs popped up during the ‘40s – including the City of Quebec, which still functions today.
Likewise, in 1968, legendary cabaret and burlesque club Madame Jojo’s opened. Still, the West End and Soho had fallen out of favour with the city’s queers, who had started to venture into West London, especially Earl’s Court, where rents and accommodation was cheaper.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Soho flourished again, becoming the LGBTQ+ wonderland it is today. The Sundown Club in the basement of the Astoria on Charing Cross Road began hosting Bang! in 1976, and Heaven opened in 1979. Soho also became London’s red-light district; it was filled with sex shops and brothels, some of which still linger. Nevertheless, by 1987 Westminster Council had clamped down. The sex industry in the area diminished exponentially, leaving numerous empty premises. In 1986, a pub called the Swiss Tavern, which had a reputation for being popular with gay men, became an explicitly queer venue, Comptons. Soon after, the Village, Halfway II Heaven, Rupert Street and the Yard all opened. The 1999 bombing of the Admiral Duncan only cemented Soho’s queer legacy, proving that in the face of hatred and persecution, the LGBTQ+ community of London had found its home.
Like many areas of London, Soho hasn’t been immune to gentrification and redevelopment. Crossrail in particular hit the area hard, with LGBTQ+ spaces such as the Ghetto, queer café First Out and the Astoria all demolished to make way for the new Elizabeth line.
A note of hope
Similarly, property developers have snapped up much of the area, transforming lots into luxury flats or chain shops. In 2014, Madame Jojo’s was forced to close after a violent incident saw the council revoke the venue’s licence. However, the swiftness of the council’s decision led many to speculate that the true motivator was gentrification. Queer pub Molly Moggs also closed, only to re-open briefly as a gay cocktail bar. It is now just a generic pub. Similarly, Man Bar, Shadow Lounge and the Green Carnation have all closed.
There is a note of hope. While undoubtedly, Covid-19 will stamp its impact on queer spaces, it was announced in 2019 that Madame Jojo’s, which has sat empty since its closure, would re-open as a burlesque and cabaret venue. Likewise, the Ku Group recently opened She bar after the only other lesbian bar in London, Candy Bar, closed. These might seem like small wins, but as history shows, Soho has withstood numerous attempts at gentrification and redevelopment, as well as bombs, police raids and even the cholera outbreak of 1854. London’s LGBTQ+ community won’t give up their grip on Soho without a fight.
Queer London: A Guide to the City’s LGBTQ+ Past and Present by Alim Kheraj, is published by ACC Art Books.