A Brief History of Queer London

Despite the legal and societal marginalization faced by the LGBTQ+ community, queer life in London still thrived in secret throughout history.

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LGBTQ+ History Month 

LGBTQ+ History Month provides us the opportunity to recognize LGBTQ+ history and celebrate the identities which make up this vibrant community. 

Q in LGTBQ+ - What Queer Means 

Queer has historically been used as a derogatory term to put down people in the LGBTQ+ community. However, in recent times, the term has been reclaimed by LGBTQ+ people and used as an umbrella term to describe a more fluid area of sexuality and gender identity. ‘Q+’ includes a variety of different sexual and gender identities not covered by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Although many people use the word queer to describe themselves, it is always important to ensure that someone is comfortable with being called ‘queer’ before using it due to its harmful history.  

 Bishopgate Institute located by Liverpool Street station hosts a range of cultural records and owns a rich LGBTQ+ archive.  

History of Queer London – How the Law Evolved 

For much of UK history, people in the queer community were excluded from public life and faced criminal prosecution for expressing their identity. The criminalisation of sexual relations between men was introduced to the United Kingdom by Henry VIII in the 16th century (1500s). In 1861, the death penalty for this offense was repealed. In 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended the decriminalisation of sex between consenting men over the age of 21, citing that what is done in private is not the law’s business. Ten years later, the recommendation came into law through the Sexual Offences Act 1967. However, in 1988, the Local Government Act widely banned the ‘promotion’ and teaching of homosexuality in schools. In 2000, the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual people was equalized at 16 years old. In 2014, the legalisation of same-sex marriage took effect.  

The Wolfenden Report - Source: National Archives 

Thriving Queer Subcultures Throughout History 

Despite the legal and societal marginalization faced by the LGBTQ+ community, queer life in London still thrived in secret throughout history.  

Molly Houses - 1700s 

Much of what we know today about queer history in London unfortunately came as a result of policing and prosecution records. During the Georgian era, Molly Houses were popular spaces where gay men could meet and express their sexuality openly. ‘Molly’ was a slang term for gay man. These houses were run in taverns, coffee houses, pubs and inns – ultimately representing the extensive and flourishing subculture which grew despite the intense stigma of the time period. 

Molly House London Picture Archive No. 26875 – Source: City of London 

Mother Clap’s Molly House was a house in Holborn run by Margaret Clap in the 1720s. This club was very popular amongst gay men at the time. It was known that Margaret ran the club for her own pleasure rather than profit. The club was raided in 1726 and around 40 people were arrested. As a result, unfortunately, three men were hanged for their sexual ‘crimes’.  

Princess Seraphina, whose birth name was John Cooper, was a well-known Molly in the mid 1700s. She lived in the Strand and was well liked by the women in this neighborhood. According to witness testimonies from that period, it was believed that Princess Seraphina was more than a Molly who enjoyed cross-dressing, but perhaps a transgender woman. She was known to enjoy attending balls and masquerades, donning elegant dresses and dancing with ‘fine gentleman’ 

Underground Gay Clubs - 1900s 

Secret socials continued throughout London’s history. In the 1930s, there existed a network of underground clubs where gay men could freely express themselves. Of these, the Caravan was described as one of the greatest ‘bohemian’ clubs in London. Here, gay men as well as lesbian women could socialize, find companionship and openly date. They would even stage mock marriages where patrons of the bar wedded each other. 

However, the club’s popularity drew the attention of the police and resulted in frequent surveillance. On the 25th of August 1934, the club was raided by undercover police officers posing as club-goers. 103 people were arrested, with the proprietors of the club being sentenced to hard labour. Eventually, the club was permanently shut down. As a result of this raid, a famous love letter between two male club-goers was discovered. This letter intimated the details of a relationship between a man named Cyril and his lover Morris – offering a rare glimpse into the lives of a same-sex couple in the 30s.  

Transcript of ‘My Darling Morris’ - Source: National Archives 

Post World War II 

Although there has never been a law explicitly prohibiting same-sex relations between women, historically these relations have been frowned upon. Due to the historical subjugation of women, including societal norms which restrained women from going to pubs, there were less opportunities for the development of a lesbian subculture. This subculture emerged during and after the Second World War when women were afforded more freedom as a result of having to work away from home. At this stage, many bars and clubs were established, and women were free to socialize with each other and dress as they pleased. Many women chose to dress as men and adopt male names. Through these social gatherings, a distinct butch/femme culture developed. Eventually in the 1970s, the influence of feminism led to less gender-specific fashion being accepted by younger lesbian women. 

 

  

Gina Ware proprietor of Gateways club, a notorious London lesbian club - Photographer John Bignell   

Significant Historical LBGTQ+ Figures 

Julius Caesar Taylor 

In the 1970s, Julius Caesar Taylor ran a popular Molly House on Tottenham Court Road. Taylor was a Black man who is believed to have been previously enslaved. In order to be initiated into his club, each member would have a glass of gin thrown in their face and be given a ‘molly name’. Some molly names include Susan Guzzle, Primrose Mary and Duchess of Camomile. In 1978, Taylor was found guilty of having ‘indecent relations with another man’.  Julius Caeser Taylor’s Molly House, like many others at the time, provided queer people a place to feel accepted and find their chosen family. 

Turnpike at entrance of Tottenham Court Road – near the site of Julius Caesar Taylor's Molly House – Source: City of London 

Vera Jack Holme 

Vera Jack Holme, who went by Jack, was a lesbian crossdressing actress and singer. She was involved in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and helped promote the suffragette movement. One of her most notorious works includes a poem published in Votes for Women 1909 called ‘An Organ Record’. The poem describes a political stunt where she disrupted a political meeting by hiding in an organ at Colston Hall in Bristol and repeatedly shouted out ‘Votes for Women’ through the organ pipes. Jack was involved in a romantic relationship with Lady Evelina Haverfield up until the Lady’s death in 1920.  Lady Eve was a fellow suffragette who too had a masculine style. During the First World War, both Jack and Lady Eve were sent to Serbia as members of the transport wing of the Scottish Women’s Hospital – Jack serving as an ambulance driver. In 1918, she was recognized for her work with the Scottish Women’s hospital and awarded the Samaritan Cross by the King of Serbia. 

Vera Jack Holme - Source: Google Arts and Culture  

Alan Turing 

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, logician and cryptographer, often dubbed ‘the father of the computer’. His most notable work is breaking the Nazi Enigma Code which helped the Allies win the war. His idea for the ‘Universal Turing Machine’ provided the foundation for the invention of the first computer. Despite his significant contributions to the UK and world at large, he was not properly recognized for his work until after his death.  In 1952, Turing was convicted under Victorian laws of ‘gross indecency’ for having a sexual relationship with another man. He was sentenced to probation which prescribed Turing to undergo hormone therapy. This conviction also meant he was no longer allowed to continue his work for the government. In 2009, over 5 decades after his death, Alan Turing was issued a formal apology by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and in 2013 he was given a posthumous royal pardon. In 2017, the ‘Turing Law’ (formally Policing and Crime Act 2017) came into effect – pardoning men convicted for same-sex relations prior to its decriminalisation.  

Alan Turing – Source: Fine Art Images—Heritage Images/age fotostock 1930s 

Maureen Colquhoun 

Elected to the House of Commons in 1974, Maureen Colquhoun was the UK’s first openly lesbian Member of Parliament. She was known to be a fierce advocate for women's rights – working to end policies and practices which excluded women from actively participating in public life. Colquhoun was the first MP to ask the speaker of the lower house to address her as ‘Ms.’ instead of ‘Mrs.’. She recognized the importance of grounding women’s rights in legislation in order to ensure that gender equality was recognized by the law. Colquhoun’s groundbreaking actions in Parliament include bringing a group of sex workers to a committee room in Parliament in order to secure them a new status protected from prosecution.

Maureen protesting with Gay Defence Committee December 1977. Credit Getty Images

Noel Coward  

Noel Coward, born in the year 1900, was a famous English playwright, composer, director, actor, producer and singer. Coward was known not only for his wit and talent but also his mastery of many different creative roles. He has an extensive body of work including over 50 published plays. Although it was never recorded openly, it was well known that Coward was a gay man. He famously wrote the song Mad About the Boy, a ballad about the singer’s unrequited love for a movie star. The song became popularized after a rendition by Dinah Washington.  

Noel Coward – Source: Noel Coward Estate 

Lady Phyll 

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, most commonly known as Lady Phyll, is well-known for her activism work in campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights and antiracism. She co-founded UK Black Pride – a pride event set up to promote unity among LGBTQ+ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American heritage in the UK. One of its central aims is to ‘to promote and advocate for the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual health and wellbeing’ of people in this community. She is also the Executive Director for Kaleidoscope Trust, an international LGBTQ+ human rights charity which champions LGBTQ+ rights around the world and particularly in countries where homosexuality is criminalized.  

Photographer: Kofi Paintsil – Source: The Guardian 

Prosecution of Homosexuality  

The Society for the Reformation of Manners, founded in 1691 here in the borough of Tower Hamlets, was a group established with the aim of eliminating and often prosecuting ‘immoral’ behavior in London. Part of their work included frequent raids on molly houses. The raid of Mother Clap’s Molly House located in Holborn which led to the hanging of 3 men was instigated by The Society.  During the 1950s, police were active in the suppression of homosexual relationships between men. In the 1970s onwards, LGBTQ+ people continued to face hostility from law enforcement and the general public. 

Celebrating LGBTQ+ History and Identity 

The Gay Liberation Front organized the first-ever pride march in London on July 1st 1972 – the nearest Saturday to the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riot. At this point in time, being gay was still considered a mental illness – with actions as simple as kissing between same-sex people being an arrestable offence. One demonstration saw a large group of people participating in ‘mass kissing’ in order to protest this law.  

Photographer unknown - source: Bishopgate Institute Archives 

Young LGBTQ+ members of the GLF played a crucial role in championing for change. In 1971, the GLF Youth Group held a large demonstration to protest the age of consent being set at 21 for queer people but significantly lower for heterosexual people. Approximately 700 people attended this first Pride event. Today, celebrating queer identities and LGBTQ+ history month continues strong in London. Support for the Pride movement in the UK has grown significantly – with over 190 events across the UK and over a million people joining. The London Pride Parade is held annually every summer. This year’s event is set to take place July 1st, 2023.  

 

Resources/Support Services  

Free Sexual Health Screenings and Wellbeing Support:  

https://www.positiveeast.org.uk/  

Helpline:   

Switchboard LGBT+   

Switchboard LGBT+ has provided support and information to millions of people since 1974.  

Open 10:00-22:00 every day - 0300 330 0630 

Mermaids UK  

Mermaids supports transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and young people until their 20th birthday, as well as their families and professionals involved in their care. 

To Learn More: 

Visit museums:  

Queer Britain - learn about British LGBTQ history + culture locate 

 - First ever dedicated LGBTQ museum in the UK 

East End Women’s Museum  

Miss Muff's Molly House in Whitechapel  

Explore England’s LGBTQ+ Heritage Map  

Pride of Place: England's LGBTQ Heritage  

History of Queer London 

History of LGBT rights in the UK: A long road to equality  

Julius Caesar Taylor's Molly House - Tottenham Court Road  

LGBTQ+ History: London's Gay Scene - a brief history  

LGBT history: The men who risked everything for love - BBC REEL  

LGBTQ+ history month: Molly Houses  

‘Princess Seraphina’ Steps Out at Vauxhall Gardens  

Cross Dressing and Queer Socialising  

Lesbian Clubs and Pubs   

How Pride in the UK was born - BBC News   

Educational Material 

LGBT+ History Month 2023: Behind the Lens 

LGBT+ History Month: Resources as Recommended by our Staff and Students  

LGBT collections   

An LGBTQ+ tour of the Natural History Museum, London 

Queer in the city: London 

A short history of LGBT+ rights in the UK  

Molly Houses and Madams: Unravelling Georgian Subcultures  

Other Resources – Get Involved  

Pride London   

Visit Gay London: London Gay History – Links And More  

Hidden Pride: London's LGBT history  

LGBTQ+ History Month 2023: Where to learn about London’s queer history

 

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