London’s gay bars

New Musical Express | 14104

Gay bars have existed in London for hundreds of years, although they weren’t originally called that.

Dr Matt Cook, Social Historian at Birkbeck College, University of London points out that the nature of gay identity has changed fundamentally.

“The idea of a singular identity is very new. In 16th Century England there was a subculture loosely relating to the theatre. Men didn’t identify as specifically gay. Things happened in the context of a sexualized, risque environment and being queer was a part of a more general underground culture.”

In the 17th and 18th Century, “Molly houses” started appearing. Sometimes they were coffee or ale houses or private rooms in otherwise straight pubs.
“A lot of the knowledge we have about early gay culture is from criminal records. Molly houses were often raided and people being prosecuted is the main source of information about what happened at that time.”…

“In the 1940s and 1950s there was the A&B club, otherwise known as the Arts and Battledress and there was also the Rockingham, both in Soho. They were for a more middle-class clientele. There were also pubs such as the Salisbury in Covent Garden which weren’t as exclusive.”

The Salisbury is no longer gay, but the current duty manager, Jon Badcock, says tourists still visit the pub and ask about its history. “We’re in the middle of theatreland … Some of our older regulars remember sitting in the snug while Kenneth Williams held court.”

The early part of the 20th Century saw women becoming visible on the gay scene, with the Gateways Club opening on the King’s Road in Chelsea in 1931. Because women hadn’t featured in criminal trials, there were no public records of lesbian culture.

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