The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Tattoos and the texture of the past

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Some Friday afternoon thoughts prompted by the tweet above and the photograph of Villiers Street I posted on the blog earlier in the week.

I have two tattoos.

I have one on each shoulder. Each of them is the reference number of a file held in the National Archives:

PRO: MEPO 3 405: Francis Henry Bateman Champain, importuning: successful appeal against conviction on grounds of drunkenness causing strange behaviour (1927)

That one’s on the left.

PRO: CRIM 1 639: Salmon, Austin and (33) others, conspiracy to corrupt morals, keeping disorderly house. Includes references to style of ‘dress’ and attitude of those arrested (7 February 1933)

That one’s on the right.

I know that I have out-of-date tattoos: how was I to know that the Public Record Office would turn itself into the National Archives and my PRO would date me so badly?

I know also that I have tattoos that mark me out as an obsessive history geek: I have no problems with that. History is what I do and it is my life. Getting the tattoos was a way of marking the end of my PhD. When I finally get the manuscript of The Prince of Tricksters off to the publishers I have every intention of getting another one (the rather stylish colophon of the rogue publishing company that the confidence trickster Netley Lucas set up in the late 1920s, in case you’re interested).

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking again about why I chose those two particular files, however. After all, there were so many that I could have gone for – not just fantastic cases from the National Archives or the London Metropolitan Archives, but rich newspaper reports, intriguing published life-stories, and recorded personal testimonies. One reason is to do with timing: as I remember it (and I could well be wrong with this) MEPO 3 405 was the first primary source I looked at when I started my doctoral research; CRIM 1 639 wasn’t the last primary source I looked at, but over the years I have often forgotten that and found myself telling people that. In that sense, they mark or bracket a particular period in my life as a historian.

Another answer – a more compelling one, I think – is that each of these files contains such a powerful sense of the texture of the past; and it is that sense of texture – of a grain that is tangible, and of surfaces and depths that can be felt – that draws me into the career I have been lucky enough to choose, the subjects I have written on, and the way in which I have tried to write about them.

The stack of papers filed as MEPO 3 405 came into being after Frank Champain, a public schoolmaster, war hero and Oxford blue was arrested, prosecuted and convicted for importuning in urinals in and around the Adelphi Estate in London. He appealed and his sentence was overturned – money spoke, and Champain’s barrister, the famous Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, tore the evidence of the young policeman Reginald Handford to shreds. As well as discrediting Handford, Curtis-Bennett explained his client’s ‘strange behaviour’ – giving the eye to a young man (the detective was in plainclothes), following him, going into several urinals in the space of an hour – in terms of his being drunk, and having a weak bladder that meant he needed to piss more than most other men. That Champain was acquitted meant the case became yet another sensational example of police malpractice in the 1920s. It was discussed at length by the Street Offences Committee, set up to investigate the law and practice relating to soliciting and prostitution, in 1927. As well as the witness statements and court papers, the file thus also includes transcripts of the sessions in which the committee members grilled Handford and his colleages in E Division of the Metropolitan Police.

Here is the texture that drew me in: listening to the reports filed by police officers, the evidence given by Champain and the dialogue that absorbed the attention of the Street Offences Committee is to follow a group of very different men through one London neighbourhood. Located near the theatres and restaurants of the Strand, the cheap hotels and lodging houses of Villiers Street, that notorious red light district, and the bustle of Charing Cross Station, the Adelphi had a notorious reputation by the 1920s. The grand Georgian houses built by the Adam brothers were crossed by narrow alleyways and lanes – it was here that many of the urinals that Champain visited were located. Beneath were darkened vaulted arches – places of damp quiet, in which homeless men slept rough, couples found space to fuck, and queer men looked for each other and for privacy close to London’s heart. To listen to the evidence contained in that file is to feel the damp, the uneven cobbles and the rough stone work; to hear the noise of the Griffin or Appendrodt’s restaurant fading into the distance; to smell the rubbish and the piss on the floor of the green cast iron public urinals; to see the painted ‘sodomites’, scarcely disguised public school masters, and rough trade moving through the shadows. None of this emerges immediately from the page, but reading and re-reading and setting the file against what else I could know brought out the texture of the past.

I remember the depositions, witness statements, police testimonies, advertising flyer and dress filed as CRIM 1 639 (and the two other files that accompany it) having a similar effect, though one that was much more immediate – more easily won, perhaps. Here was Lady Austin, and his Camp Boys, a group of barmen, waiters and other workingmen who organised a series of fantastic drag dances at a ball-room on Holland Park Avenue over the winter of 1932-3.What began with Kings and Queenies, gloriously flamboyant in dresses and carmine pink culottes and kimono jackets, dancing cheek to cheek ended with dozens of men in court with numbered placards around their necks to identify them for the judge. This ‘hornet’s nest of sodomites’ had been raided by the police – one dramatic half hour that followed weeks of observation inside the ballroom by two plainclothes police officers. You can imagine, of course, what plainclothes in a drag ball meant: a police constable in rouge and a dress; his colleague in a lounge suit, dancing, flirting and kissing with the queens who approached him.

Here the texture of the past took different form: I could pick up the outfit submitted in evidence to the Central Criminal Court, and see what I saw as the rouge and powder stains left on its collar. However much I hinted, the National Archives never let me try it on, though I like to think it was about my size. More than this: the eavesdropping ever-attentive policemen meant I could hear the response of these working-class men when they were arrested – a moment at which they must have known many of them were destined for prison and the front page of the tabloid press. ‘We are a species of our own,’ proclaimed a man identified only as the Duchess, ‘You could tell us a mile off.’ William H. challenged the legitimacy of the laws that placed him at risk – ‘the law can’t tell me what I shall do with myself … if this boy likes to be my love … it’s only a matter of us.’ After a passing comment about an attractive passing police officer – made to the officer leading the raid – Lady Austin stepped up: ‘There is nothing wrong in that. You may think so but it was what we call real love man for man. You call us Nancies and bum boys but … before long our cult will be allowed in this country.’ While the sources that record these comments mark countless individual tragedies, they paradoxically give the past that texture that I found so powerful.

So tattoos mark me, and they mark me with the texture of the past that draws me in: whether in the research I did during my PhD or in the years I have spent hunting Netley Lucas across countless archives and continents, I have sought out moments and material like this. The moments have no prior existence, I know – they acquire so much of their texture from the preoccupations I bring to them as a historian, and the reading I have done before and will continue to do after I encounter them in an archive. They are no less powerful for that, however, and I will keep on looking for them.

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6 comments on “Tattoos and the texture of the past

  1. Pingback: My name is Joanne, and I’m … a historian | Joanne Bailey Muses on History

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  5. inviteguest
    November 19, 2014

    Great post Matt, I’ve had more and more students interested in the idea of tattoos as historical practice recently. I know that mine are certainly an act of composure as a life historian would understand it. And a more recent one, bread and roses, is a manifesto of my historical practice. The turn from tribal to sailor jenny in popular tattooing is in itself a statement about ideas of authenticity that I think is interesting and much of the broadcasting around tattoo parlours focuses on tattoos as a form of memorialisation and rite of passage as form of genealogy. Most of the lit I send students too is anthropological or sociological. I wonder what it would look like to take tattoos as a historical practice seriously? Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago about archiving tattoos and teaching. http://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/observingthe80s/2012/09/21/observing-tattoos-and-textiles-with-davison-high/
    Lucyx

  6. Pingback: My name is Joanne, and I’m … a historian – Joanne Begiato Muses on History

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