Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Reading the Great War London Blog on the case of Lieutenant CLR Falcy, who was cashiered and stripped of his rank after being arrested for gross indecency in 1916, has made me revisit some of my own previous research. Falcy’s tragedy came after he had had sex with three different men in a flat in Edgware Road, a hotel in Marylebone and another hotel in Oxford Street. That final encounter ended up with the younger Jewish waiter he had picked up trying to blackmail–the moment at which a sexual relationship which was then still illegal came to public notice.
None of this was particularly unusual. Falcy was one of countless men who went looking for sex in London’s streets and commercial venues while on leave during the Great War; it was commonplace for men to find a room for the night in one of the capital’s busy hotels; the risk of blackmail and arrest remained a feature of queer urban culture well into the 1960s and beyond. The fact that Falcy’s first encounter took place in a hotel in Edgware Road intrigues me though. For a long time I’ve had a sense that Edgware Road was at the centre of one of London’s most important and vibrant queer urban enclaves in the early decades of the twentieth century. I wrote about this in Queer London, drawing on tantalising flashes of evidence from the records of the London County Council and Metropolitan Police, sensational newspaper reports and the accounts left by contemporary observers. This is what I said:
Edgware Road was a busy commercial thoroughfare, running north-west from Marble Arch to connect central and north London. It was, moreover, a physical and cultural frontier, upon which distinct districts converged: to the north and west rooming districts like Paddington, Bayswater and Maida Vale, home to a transient working-class and migrant population; to the south-east the West End; Hyde Park directly south; to the east prestigious residential areas like Mayfair. As a result, local bars and cafes attracted a diverse clientele, crossing boundaries of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in a nocturnal world noted for its protean and cosmopolitan character. Throughout the 1920s, the Adelphi Rooms, for example, were regularly hired for local dances – by the Irish Clan Na’ Heirran for its St Patrick’s Day Ball, or by Laurie French for black men and white women.
In the decade after the First World War this neighborhood culture sustained a distinctive queer enclave. The street’s proximity to the barracks in Regent’s Park and Knightsbridge made its pubs popular amongst soldiers from the Brigade of Guards. Drawn by the opportunities to pick-up rough trade, bourgeois men like John Lehmann simultaneously made the short journey up from Mayfair. This conventionally masculine homosociality, however, co-existed uneasily with the scene surveyed by Thomas Burke in 1922:
The painted boys… to be seen in certain rendezvous in Edgware Road… You may know these places by the strong odour of scent when you enter them, and the absence of women. The sweet boys stand at the counter, or lounge, beautifully apparelled and groomed in chairs, under the wandering eyes of middle aged grey faced men.
Burke encountered a vibrant public world forged by workingmen from nearby rooming districts. In 1927, for example, police watched a “typical ‘Nancy’” – a youth in a “dress blue suit… long hair brushed back” – visit a coffee shop before going to the cinema opposite. Leslie K. – a waiter living in Westbourne Grove – similarly hired the Adelphi Rooms for fortnightly dances throughout 1926, after being barred from halls in other neighborhoods. Selling tickets via friends and acquaintances, his events attracted up to 300 men – clerks, cabinet makers, a coach painter – “painted and powdered… [wearing] earrings and low necked dresses.” By winter 1926 such events seem to have become simply too visible, too vibrant, too extensive. After several letters of complaint, local police raided the Adelphi Rooms, and prosecuted Leslie, sparking a series of “grave dance hall scandals.” This dramatic intervention, and the ensuing responses of local proprietors, re-configured the district’s character. Whilst men continued to socialize discreetly in local pubs long after 1927, the “painted boys” rendezvous disappeared and Edgware Road’s reputation faded.
I’m still convinced by all of this (and amazed at how much I actually knew back then). My account is plausible, for sure, but it draws on fragments or flashes of evidence in ways that make me think of its as provisional and uncertain. I have often thought that there was much more to know about Edgware Road in the 1910s and 1920s–about its commercial venues and hotels, about its character and cosmopolitanism, about the patterns of everyday life that took place there and in the surrounding neighbourhood. If anyone out there has anything to add to my knowledge, I would be extremely grateful to know.