'Recreating LGBT Club Reminds Us Of Prejudice Suffered By Many'

By Joe Watson Last edited 20 months ago
'Recreating LGBT Club Reminds Us Of Prejudice Suffered By Many'

Bucolic country estates, stretches of dramatic coastline, and award-winning cream teas are the usual associations conjured up by the words 'National Trust'. So it may come as something of a surprise to learn that it's partnered with The National Archives to re-create The Caravan, a 1930s queer-friendly club on the fringes of Soho. London creative director for the National Trust, Joe Watson explains why it's important.

Inside the recreated Caravan club. Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon

Along with other 'establishment' institutions, the National Trust has taken the opportunity presented by the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act to scrutinise its own LGBTQ+ histories, and explore some other histories beyond our own walls that have lain otherwise hidden.

The 1967 Act led to the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men but, for us, this anniversary year is about casting the net as far as possible to uncover the lives of those who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality.

If anywhere in Britain tells the story of LGBTQ+ communities and identities, and the fight for recognition, it is London. And if anywhere in London stands as a focal point for much of that story, it is Soho. So it was inevitable we turned to the area in order to tell the history of the places that have allowed people to explore and express their own identities. As a love letter from Cyril to Billy, regulars at The Caravan, expressed: "I have only been queer since I came to London about two years ago, before then I knew nothing about it."

The club will be the focal point of LGBT history tours, but will also host talks and cabaret. Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon

Our recreation would not have been remotely possible without the rich holdings at The National Archives. There, photographs, court reports, police papers and witness statements all build up a picture of life in The Caravan for the short number of weeks in 1934 that it existed.

The great irony is that were it not for the police observation and raid on the club, we would have none of the documents that now reveal its history and have informed its recreation.

These not only tell the story of a wider club culture, of private places where people could socialise with like-minded people, but also of the everyday prejudices facing the homosexual community at the time.

Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon

Just one of many such places, the re-created Caravan stands as a focal point for our series of daytime tours of the Soho area that focus on LGBTQ+ heritage. The smoky atmosphere of the re-created club recalls the sounds, smells and sights of other such places of the era. That will be most obvious in the evenings, when ticket holders can become a club 'member' and enjoy entertainment by some of the finest names on the cabaret circuit. Drinks drawn from clubs of the era will be provided by Freud Café-Bar.

Meanwhile, a wider programme of talks and performances will see Christopher Green bring legendary music hall artiste Fred Barnes back to life, while Dan Glass and Tom Cordell host events that commemorate 1967 and those lives lost to oppression.

While the whole project is an opportunity to celebrate the partial decriminalisation of same sex relationships, it will also confront the realities of those lives that were fettered, destroyed, or worse, by prejudice of that era. It provides a timely reminder of the important role that often sidelined cultures have played in our national heritage.

Joe Watson, London creative director at the National Trust. Photo: Josh Jones

Last Updated 03 March 2017