A history of lesbian London
In this extract from her book ’A Lesbian History of Britain‘, Rebecca Jennings describes the emergence of London‘s lesbian world
'A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500' by Rebecca Jennings
Unlike the male homosexual subculture in the UK, which has been traced back at least as far as the eighteenth century, a lesbian subculture does not appear to have developed until the twentieth century. Limitations on women’s freedom of movement in public places, a lack of financial resources and social disapproval of women’s public consumption of alcohol were all factors in delaying the emergence of a lesbian bar culture. Nevertheless, there is evidence that British lesbians participated in a commercial bar and club scene in the 1920s and 1930s, if not earlier, and that this has been important in the development of British lesbian identity and community.
The novelist Radclyffe Hall had a wide lesbian social circle, who met at private parties, in salons and in clubs in London and other cities. Barbara Bell, a policewoman in London just before the Second World War, also stumbled across a lesbian club in Mayfair, which she described as: ‘a very high-class club in Hertford Street – beautiful club, beautiful clients, all women’.
The women who frequented these clubs were primarily professional or independently wealthy but a number of other clubs existed which catered to a more mixed clientele. Ellen, a West End dancer in the late 1930s, recalled several venues around Tottenham Court Road, which were frequented by lesbians and homosexual men as part of a broader bohemian and arty clientele. Pat James recalled visiting one such club, the Jubilee, where you could get Spam and chips very cheaply.
The Second World War gave further impetus to the bar culture in the capital. Many women travelled or lived away from their home towns, working in the women’s armed services or in other wartime employment. Distanced from their families and local communities, and with a new disposable income gained from their war work, these women experienced a new freedom and independence. In London, and other towns and cities around the UK, women took part in a vibrant emerging bar scene alongside male homosexuals and visiting servicemen and women. Pat James remembers the wartime years as a period of great excitement at the Gateways club in Chelsea: ‘When I went to the Gateways [in 1944], the atmosphere was fantastic. For a start we had women from overseas coming in, because they were stationed here, so you had all sorts of different people. Very interesting, very crowded, very packed. You got sightseers, of course, coming to look at all these people. People danced, especially during that war period when they were extra-enjoying themselves’.
Opened in the 1930s by a retired colonel, the Gateways club on Bramerton Street was the longest-running lesbian nightclub of the twentieth century. A middle-class bohemian club in the years before the war, the clientele were genteel and sedate. Ted Ware took over the Gateways in 1943 and the clientele was diverse in the 1940s and 1950s. Chelsea was known for its artistic, bohemian air and visitors to the club included actresses Joan Collins and Diana Dors, Jamaican-born singer Noel Brown and pianists Jack London and Chester Harriott, as well as prostitutes and petty criminals. However, it was in the 1950s and 1960s that the Gateways became an almost exclusively lesbian club, under the management of Ted’s wife, Gina Ware, and an American ex-airforce woman, Smithy, who was herself a lesbian. A small, dark venue, the Gateways only had a capacity of about 200, but it was regularly packed and attracted visitors from far afield on the weekend. The increasing popularity of the Gateways was part of a wider shift in lesbian venues from the centre to west London in this period. In Notting Hill Gate, lesbians were regular customers at The Champion pub on the corner of Wellington Terrace and Bayswater Road and, in the 1960s, Maureen Duffy and her friends used to meet at The Cricketers pub in Battersea. The other popular lesbian club of the period, the Robin Hood Club on Inverness Terrace in Bayswater, was also located in west London.
Butch/femme culture was widespread in lesbian bars and clubs across the UK from the 1940s to the 1960s and women who wished to be accepted by the bar community were expected to conform to a role. An organising principle for community life, butch/femme culture dictated personal image and identity, behavioural codes and the presentation of the lesbian culture to mainstream society. Butch lesbians were recognisable by their adoption of a masculine image, based on jacket and trousers, worn with a shirt and tie, and they often had short hair, slicked back away from the face. Femme lesbians adopted a hyper-feminine image, wearing dresses or skirts and blouses, with high-heeled shoes, handbags and make-up.
Attempts to avoid the attention of police and hostile members of the public meant that lesbian venues in this period were frequently located in obscure places, in basements and on narrow side-streets. Venues were not advertised until the development of the lesbian and gay press in the 1970s and women were dependent on word of mouth to find out where to go. The hidden and enclosed nature of many of these venues meant that, even when women found them, they could be quite intimidating environments. Close-knit communities developed in small bars and clubs, so that newcomers needed both to make sense of butch/femme culture and to break into localised friendship networks.
By the 1970s, however, the lesbian bar scene was beginning to open up to new cultural influences. As social attitudes began to change, the lesbian scene became more open, advertising in the gay press and developing as part of a broader emerging youth culture in the 1970s.
Women were less likely to socialise exclusively in one venue and frequently visited both mixed and women-only spaces. Increased discussion of and information about lesbian and gay bars and clubs meant that they became accessible to a wider range of women and different venues began to be associated with feminists, students or other social groups. Perhaps most significantly, the development of new political perspectives and organisations, such as the Gay Liberation Front and Women’s Liberation, had a major impact on ideas about lesbian and gay identity and community in the bars and on the ways in which these venues were used.
‘A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500’ is published by Oxford Greenwood World Publishing at £18.95
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