The Sohemian Society in its own words “exists to promote greater awareness of the characters and events associated with the history of Soho covering areas such as the arts, crime, sex, and politics.
A space free of kill-joy and culture-death pre-occupations such as anti-smoking campaigns, obsessive risk avoidance, concerns about diet, pubs with sofas and fear of ‘offensive’ statements.”
The Sohemians regularly hold talks in the top room of the Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia, or North Soho. Dylan Thomas and George Orwell used to hang out here in the 30s. In fact the Fitzrovia area was stuffed with bohemian types such as Aleister Crowley and Quentin Crisp.
Last night David Thompson gave a talk entitled ‘Old gay Soho’, one of the best delivered and most interesting talks I have ever attended.
The area in the 17th century: Oxford St. then known as Oxford Road was open land, full of highwaymen. Covent Garden, its arcaded piazza influenced by Roman architecture, perfect for cruising, was a well known red light district, full of brothels and mollyhouses.
Soho as a name was first used in the 17th century. It became a centre for Huguenots, French protestants. But it was never as rich as the surrounding areas. Soho was a destination for poor working class men from the East End going up for ‘trade’ and transvestitism. Straight prostitutes lived next to gay men, a strange coalition. Some of the famous streets are named after grand families: the Wardour family, the Frith family, the Comptons, all of whom were landowners of the area.
Michel Foucault in his ‘History of Sexuality’ noted that up until the 19th century people weren’t defined by their sexuality. They weren’t called homosexual, a term invented in the 19th century. Rather, you’d say he’s a man who likes sex with other men. In semiotics and semantics words become things, concepts become a labels: common terms of the era included ‘buggeranti’, ‘catamites’, pederasts (still used today in the French ‘pedé’ for homosexual).
Thompson talked about how homosexuality was often blamed on foreign influences…in the 18th century gay men, dandified men, were called ‘macaronis’ part of The Macaroni Club (in Italian ‘macaron’ is slang for ‘buffoon’, in Spanish ‘maricon’ means ‘queer’). Sodomy was seen as a crime imported from Italy.
In France, interestingly, homosexuality is known as ‘the English disease’. Prime Minister Edith Cresson controversially suggested that English men were all homosexual for they barely looked at her when she visited.
Horace Walpole, the writer and art historian, wrote about the goings on of young men on the grand tour ‘which is composed of all the travelled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses’
There was a general fear of sensitivity, a quality regarded as feminine and Italian. The ‘Penny dreadfuls’, the tabloids of the day, said all homosexuality was all down to immigrants,
In 1772 Captain Jones was convicted of sodomy, penalty death, but he received a royal pardon. It’s unproven but David Garrick, the theatre impressario, was having an affair with the dramatist Isaac Bickerstaff a ‘powdered fop’.
Mrs Connelly from Vienna was a courtesan who rented Carlisle house, the scene of much cruising and bawdy behaviour. Entrance was a shilling and it was classless in that duchesses would be squashed next to paupers.
D’Eon de Beaumont, the chevalier d’Eon was a transsexual who at the same time achieved political importance; he/she was a spy for Louis XV, sent to Russia as an envoy to the Empress Elisabeth. When he/she arrived in London, there was a French edict that he must be addressed as ‘Madame’. De Beaumont concocted a fanciful story that he was born as a girl but disguised as a boy by his parents in order to inherit some money, but on his death in 1810 doctors confirmed that his genital organs were masculine, at least on the outside.
Today the transsexual society of Britain is named the Beaumont Society.
Another man that managed to evade some of the predujice against homosexuals was William Beckford, one of the richest men in England. Stridently gay, he was extremely learned and cultured. He wrote a gothic novel ‘Vathek’ a thinly disguised autobiography.
It cannot be underestimated the danger of being homosexual. In 1533 Henry VIII introduced a sodomy law punishable by death. But proof was not easy: evidence was needed that the man had ejaculated into another man.
Beckford built Fonthill Abbey where it was rumoured that orgies took place. Few people got in, but Nelson and Lady Hamilton spent three days there (the ‘Posh and Becks’ of the day quipped David Thompson).
Richard Payne Knight who started the Society of Dilettantes, and wrote a book about ancient phallic cults ‘The Worship of Priapus’, had a house in Soho square. Ironically, his house is now the British Board of Censors.
In the Victorian period there were two characters: Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park and Ernest ‘Stella’ Boulton who used to cruise the Burlington Arcade and the Alhambra music hall dressed as women. ‘Stella’ even married Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton MP (son of Lord Newcastle) and was known as Lady Clinton. These ‘ladies’ were arrested at the theatre. Full and amusing details of their trial are here. Their defence was that they were dressing as women for a laugh, but the report dryly notes: “if they were merely acting in this way for “a lark”, it must be said that the lark was one of a very long duration”.
Simeon Solomon was one of the greatest pre-raphaelite painters. One of his private works is entitled ‘The bridegroom and sad love’ which tells you everything you might need to know about a homosexual man being forced to marry. In 1873 he was arrested with a stable hand in a urinal off Oxford St. Simeon left, like Wilde, for Paris. He was arrested again in a Paris urinal. Returning to Britain, he spent 20 years in the St. Giles workhouse and died a penniless drug addict and alcoholic in 1903.
Probably the most famous homosexual of the era was Oscar Wilde. When he met Bosey, the young man that led to his downfall, who was in his 20s, Wilde was in his 40s. The Portrait of Dorian Grey had been published, and the gay sub-plot was the subject of debate. In 1895 Wilde dined with Bosey at Kettners in Soho, a private dining room. He was convicted after two trials, but sodomy was commuted to gross indecency.
Wilde was not an aristocrat and therefore did not have the protection of some of the other well known homosexuals. For instance in 1889, the police busted a male brothel in Cleveland St. and arrested the Prince of Wales. Charges were dropped.
The Criterion bar in Piccadilly by the evening was exclusively male. One can guess what went on…
The Victorian era also saw female to male drag artists such as Vesta Tilley whose most famous song was ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’, a song which talks about the East End boy coming to cruise the West End.
Radclyffe Hall lived an open lesbian life, dressed in male attire. She called herself a ‘congenital invert’, a term coined by sexologist Havelock Ellis. Hall wrote the lesbian classic novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West who were in a lesbian relationship disliked her. It has been suggested that this was because they lived behind the facade of marriage and objected to her upfront lesbianism. The Well of Loneliness was banned in England but sold very well at Calais. By the time of her death in 1957 Radclyffe Hall had sold nine million copies.
Hannah Gluckstein, the Lyons Corner House heiress, was a successful painter, living at Studio House in Hampstead. Lyons Corner House, now Planet Hollywood in Leicester square, was a gay cruising joint on Sunday afternoons, where ‘nippies’ the black and white attired waitresses would put gay men in adjacent tables.
Quentin Crisp was, in the 1930s, a Soho rent boy hanging out at the Black Cat café.
David Thompson actually got the opportunity to draw Quentin Crisp, who often worked as a life model, while he was at art college in 1973. It was still unusual in those days to have a male nude model. Thompson was taken aback by the sight of this nude man in his 70s with a violet bouffant hairdo wearing a monocle and carrying a copy of The Times.
The Caravan club in the 1930s attracted a huge gay clientele. Within six weeks it had 445 members, over 2000 visitors. It was raided by the police. Other clubs included the ‘Careless Stalk’ ‘The Sphinx’ ‘The A&B’, run by Jeffrey, who acted as a matchmaker and wore a bizarre selection of hats.
‘Fag Hags’ and lesbians: Talullah Bankhead was a member of the Gargoyle Club. Muriel Belcher ran the The Colony rooms. Elsa Lanchester was Charles Laughton’s ‘beard’, that is a wife married to a gay man. Francis Bacon was kept on a retainer by Belcher at the Colony Rooms to attract drinkers. He was surrounded by young boys.
The word ‘bohemian’ was a euphemism for gay.
In the 1950s Kenneth Williams of Carry On fame used ‘polari’ the gay slang in mainstream comedy…it was very risqué.
In 1976 the Astoria opened the first gay disco ‘Bang’.
Today Soho is still a refuge for gay men. It’s a place where they can walk down the street hand-in-hand with no fear of reprisals.
The pub ‘Admiral Duncan’ is about to have the 10th anniversary of the bombing which killed three people, ironically none of whom were gay. There will be two minutes silence at 18.37 on the 30th of April at St. Anne’s churchyard.
Thompson finished on a sad note. The serial killer Dennis Nilsen picked up young homeless homosexual men at The Golden Lion, Dean St., Soho. These vulnerable men, often runaways, must have felt they were coming to a place of safety, an area which accepted them, but met a horrible fate at Nilsen’s hand.
Talks and walks around Soho are given by David Thompson every Sunday at 2pm meeting outside the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton st. Highly recommended.