Extract of my Lecture on Soho's Historic ...

Extract of my Lecture on Soho's Historical Queer Nighttime Spaces, for UCL

May 15, 2020

My name is Dan de la Motte and I am a researcher, curator, producer and performer specialising in Queer heritage, and I am part of the Queer Tours of London (‘A Mince Through Time’) collective. I was due to be with you at the House of St Barnabus for this, but hopefully this is the next best thing.

I’m going to start with a quote to help frame the link between Soho, migration (both internal and international) and Queer identity.

I’ve only become Queer since I came to London. Before then I knew nothing about it

Quote from Cyril Coeur de Leon (‘the Lionheart’), 1934

That quote from Cyril the Lionheart is pretty remarkable because it opens up a very interesting question; what is the relationship between people and place when it comes to queer identity? Do the people queer a place, or does a place queer the people?

This is especially pertinent when it comes to Soho. Soho has always been a melting pot of ‘otherness’ as well as a night-life hotspot for the entire 20th Century, as well as before and after this time. Jewish emigres rubbed shoulders with political exiles, jazz musicians, bohemians, travellers and people of colour would have their coffee and eat their meals run by Italian or Polish or Greek families.

My own family moved from Piacenza in rural Italy to Frith Street, right in the heart of Soho, in the 1920s. What a difference that must have been, to go from a place where there was literally no running water, electricity or cars, where you might exchange a sack of wool in exchange for a sack of salt, to the hustle and bustle of Soho’s nightlife culture. With all this it makes sense that another minority group would see Soho as their adopted home; Queer people.

When I was coming to terms with my own sexual identity, Soho was this mythical place that I’d heard of but not dared yet venture. When I first visited Old Compton Street I walked up and down it as covertly as I could, avoiding the gaze of other young people doing exactly the same, and pretending I was looking for someone.

The artist Andrew Lumsden combined these elements of my identity, when he drew me in Soho Square, with my Italian family watching on from almost 70 years earlier.

2017 was the 50th Anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, the act that [partially] decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. To commemorate this, the National Trust commissioned tours of Soho, shining a light on the area’s rich Queer heritage. Good on the National Trust for doing this, and how laughable that some NT members resigned their membership in disgust.

For me it was fascinating to layer these two separate yet interconnected elements of my identity onto each other; my own Italian family’s life and livelihood in the 1920s-1950s and my own identity as a queer man. How comfortably did all these Diasporas sit next to each other? I remember an anecdote about how shocked an older Italian migrant was to find out that her daughter had a black boyfriend in Soho in the 1950s. Not only that but he was a jazz musician! I was also fascinated by how the bricks and mortar and pavement slabs in Soho are alive with the kinetic energy of those who went before us, the ghosts and shadows of my ancestors, both European and Queer (and sometimes both). I became one of the National Trust’s tour-guides on the project.

The stories of queer spaces in these years are the stories of resilience and survival in the face of structural and societal oppression. As is often the way with queer people, although this survival was a radical and political act and statement in and of itself, it was often peppered with humour, joy, pathos and mischief.

One incredible woman who actively cultivated a queer clientele was Billie Joyce, who ran the imaginatively titled Billie’s Club behind the Phoenix Theatre in 1936. This was a radical space. It was a space where boys aged 18, 19, 20 could experiment with their gender and sexual identity. They could powder their faces, paint their nails, dress and walk and talk in a deliberately effeminate manner. And when we think of our queer pioneering liberators in this country, and we (rightly) think of groups such as ACTUP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in the 1980s/90s and the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, we should also spare a thought for these boys in the 1930s – there is a lot of power and bravery in a limp wrist.

The police noted something was amiss at Billie’s and carried out the practise of ‘pretty police’ – choosing the Met’s youngest and most attractive officers to infiltrate in honey traps. The following is a police report from 1936:

‘[T]he majority of the males were of the nancy boy type and several had rouge and powder on their cheeks…their hair was waved or dyed

the dancing was exaggerated with motions of sexual intercourse…

… when I sat on one of the settees later, a male sitting there said to me: ‘are you queer dear?’ I said ‘what do you think?’ He then said ‘Are you coming home with me?’ I made an excuse that I had to meet someone else.’

One of the boys arrested in such a sting operation was an 18 year old called Fitzgerald.

The police report said that Fitzgerald and a friend:

were both highly powdered and painted and their eyebrows were made up. Their dancing consisted of suggestive movements and was exaggerated more than necessary. They spoke in effeminate voices. On another occasion he danced with a halfcaste. After the dance several people applauded.

Because of Fitzgerald’s age, his father was sent to pay his bail at the police station. His father claimed that Soho had ‘queered’ his son, and that being banished to a life in the country would cure him.

This brings us back to Cyril the Lionheart’s quote at the top of this lecture – so perhaps it really is the place ‘queering’ the people, rather than the other way round.

The club was eventually raided. Billie Joyce, talking about her gay and Queer clientele said ‘they’re not all bad…’ I would love to have this as a quote on a blue plaque on the building where the club once stood. It is a quote that leaves a tingle down my spine. If I had been around in 1930s Soho, I would have gone to Billie’s Club as often as I could, and I would have loved her. It would have been my Dalston Superstore. Joyce was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for running the club. A performer on stage was found guilty of the 1533 Buggary Act – introduced by Henry VIII over 400 years earlier to oppress the Catholics.

Incidentally, the practise of ‘pretty police’ went on right up until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and beyond. Roy Jenkins, the Labour Home Secretary who we think of as being a very progressive politician in terms of bringing in the abolition of capital punishment, divorce and abortion reform as well as this act, had this to say when questioned about the practise in the House of Commons:

While I am sure that the officers carrying out this very unpleasant work do so with great integrity, it is undeniable that they are exposed to great temptations…

Down the road on Wardour Street, and operating at around the same time as Billie Joyce, was the Shim Sham Club. I know that Chardine will talk more about this after me. Using today’s terminology we can describe this place as being ‘intersectional’, a meeting and social place for different minority groups and campaigns; a mini Soho within Soho. The Pan-African movement held meetings here, as did the Anti-Fascist League. But it was for the queer goings on that the club caught the attention of the police. A ‘safe space’ for gay men and lesbians to dance, pull and socialise to the soundtrack of black jazz music.

I especially like the part of the report at 2.23am! [A man under the influence of drink left. He was wearing a fancy hat and blowing a squeaker]

I won’t talk too much more about the Shim Sham Club as Chardine knows much more than I do, but it is interesting that the owner of the club, Jack Isow, was a polish Jew, which suggests further solidarity amongst minority groups, or Isow knew he could monetise this demographic, or a bit of both.

Another space that actively curated a queer clientele was the Colony Room Club at 41 Dean Street, now Duck Soup. In 1948 the owner and runner of the club was a lesbian with a fantastic name – Muriel Belcher. Belcher ran the club with her Jamaican girlfriend Carmel Stuart. How fantastic, and again, radical, that here we not only have a lesbian power couple, but a mixed race lesbian power couple. With LGBTQ+ history too often being only the story of middle class, white, gay men, this needs to be celebrated.

Belcher was known for her acid wit and razor tongue. It was said that she would ‘purr at the women and bark at the men…many even found her gaze [that’s G-A-Z-E…] frightening.’ The celebrated British painter Francis Bacon became a regular, and Belcher jokingly adopted Bacon as ‘her daughter’ and gave him free drinks if he brought in a fancy artsy clientele.

Clients like Bacon and Lucien Freud when hard on their luck would pay their tabs with works of art, and so the place was full of priceless art works from this country’s leading artists.

The most notorious, and subsequently celebrated, queer club in Soho was the Caravan Club on Endell Street. The Caravan was recreated by the National Trust in 2017 as part of their 50th anniversary festival of events, which is how I came to learn about it.

While I might plump for Billie’s Club as my club of choice, it was the Caravan that was the go-to for London’s 1930s Queers by all account. Which is why it also soon caught the attention of the Met, who would hide out in the turret of the Shaftesbury Theatre diagonally opposite, with their binoculars and notebooks.

The club was eventually raided in 1934: ‘The small dance floor was crowded and the number was too large to allow dancing properly. Men were dancing with men and women with women. I saw couples wriggling their posteriors. In fact all the couples I saw were acting in a very obscene manner.’

This photo comes from that police raid.

The fact that 103 men were arrested that night is testament to how popular it was. One of those arrested was Cyril Coeur de Leon, who had this to say to his arresting officer:

Well, I don’t mind this beastly raid, but I would like to know if you can let me have one of your nice boys to come home with. I am really good.

How resolute and steadfast in the face of oppression. And again, radical. Would Cyril ever have dreamed that he would ever have said that to a policeman before he came to London and ‘discovered’ his queer identity?


The best example of the intersection between migration and Queer identity is through the prominence of Polari, the secret gay ‘language’ spoken by predominantly gay men in the years and decades before decriminalisation in 1967. Now, apologies for anyone that heard me give a talk earlier on the subject as part of St Margaret’s House Molly Houses project, but Polari was a patchwork language in which elements of other languages, cultures and identities were sewn together to make a language which would allow, in theory, gay men to speak to each other openly, freely and publicly. It relied heavily on Italian, French, Romany-Traveller and Yiddish, as well as Cockney Rhyming Slang, Backslang and acronyms. It was a fun, sexual and playful language, but also one spoken out of necessity, and would most definitely have been spoken by the clientele in Billie’s Club, the Colony Club and the Caravan. ‘To nosh off’, ie, oral sex, is a Polari expression, but comes from Yiddish, while counting in Polari; uno, duo, tray, Quattro, cinque is simply Italian with a London accent. Soho’s cinemas might employ Usherettes and Soho flats may have Kitchenettes ie, femine or smaller versions of male or larger things. This borrows from the French ette, and even the term ‘And that’s Your Actual French!’ being a Polari expression for ‘That’s the God-Given Truth!’ So here we have a queer culture or identity effectively ‘lifting’ (another Polari term) from the other cultures and identities it found itself in and amongst. Migration and Queerness intersecting joyfully, effectively and politically.

This talk includes elements featured in my Walking Tour of Soho, which has these stories and places and plenty more. The walks will resume after lockdown.



Enjoy this post?

Buy Dan de la Motte a coffee

More from Dan de la Motte