Queer London: An Extract From The Peter Ackroyd Book

Queer London: An Extract From The Peter Ackroyd Book
As London billowed with smoke, its denizens let off steam. Photo: public domain

When the lights went out, during the second world war, a strange mood compounded of fear, hysteria and excitement affected the people of London. Everything was turned upside down, including once more the role and status of the sexes. Any particular sexual orientation was of lesser interest in a world where you might be killed or injured at any moment. Those who have watched the domestic films of the 40s may recall that the voices of the women carry more weight than those of the men — whether it be on the factory floor, in the bomb shelter or in the kitchen.

A genuine confraternity existed in the streets and public spaces of London, and it was not unusual to find soldiers and seamen frequenting public houses, particularly those in the East End, which would remain open all night for whatever purposes were deemed necessary. The added vein of darkness during the blackouts increased the sexual tensions of a world where everything seemed permissible. As Quentin Crisp put it, "never in the history of sex was so much offered by so many to so few". It is often quoted as "to so many by so few". It can be taken either way without distortion. In any case it did not last long after the lights were lifted.

As a form of official retribution, perhaps, the immediate post-War years were dominated by fear and suspicion. Nightclubs as furtive as their clientele, public houses that somehow survived by bribery of the police, 'cottaging' in always dangerous situations, clandestine street encounters were the order of the night. The campaign by the upholders of the law against queers was in fact intensified in the 50s. Ever more sensational and salacious cases were publicised by the ever-devouring press.

Photo: Dante Candal

Those affairs have now been forgotten but at the time they were the subject of front-page headlines. It is not too much to confirm that the police, and the newspapers, were then the objects of terror among gay people. Letters and photograph albums were burned in case of incriminatory suspicions. Men who were visited by the police often fled their immediate neighbourhood. Suicide may have occurred in numbers larger than reported.

Eight policemen, in groups of two, monitored the public lavatories in a well-worn circuit from Victoria Station to Bloomsbury Way. The level of arrests increased exponentially, as did the incidence of blackmail. Some men were given immunity from persecution if they testified against others. All of them were, according to one prosecuting barrister, "perverts, men of the lowest character". Other expressions of disgust were common. It would not be too much to say that an incipient police state was beginning to emerge, assisted by the various home secretaries, directors of public prosecution and assorted judges and magistrates.

Numerous well-publicised cases sustained prurient attention among the readers of newspapers. A group of young guardsmen were caught "riding around in a harness" for the benefit of their customers at a flat in Curzon Street, Mayfair. The activities of the customers in the Fitzroy Tavern also became the subject of a court case. A student of this history might be forgiven for thinking that she or he has read it all before. It is part of the London story.

Extract from Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the present day by Peter Ackroyd. Published in hardback by Chatto & Windus, £16.99

Last Updated 25 May 2017