The gay scene in 1930s London
For the majority of The National Archives records, same sex acts between men have been criminalised. Historically, various social and cultural practices could be used as evidence against individuals. Despite this, throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s there was a thriving queer community who were able and willing to socialise despite the risk.
The National Archives collection has a particularly striking set of records around queer spaces from this era. A hidden network of private members clubs, pubs, restaurants and dancehalls provided a sanctuary where men could meet other men regardless of the law.
Knowledge of these spaces were spread through queer networks and many venues had an entrance price, which for some may have been prohibitive. However we can see a broad range of people, from various social backgrounds, gathering, from labourers to school masters.
Our records demonstrate a community resistant, resilient and determined in the face of persecution. These clubs and dancehalls were vital places where men, and some women, could freely meet, socialise and undertake relationships. One such club was the Caravan.
The Caravan Club
The Caravan Club, described in the 1930s as ‘London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous’, was a makeshift private members’ club in the basement of 81 Endell Street, Soho.
The club was run by Jack Neave, known as ‘Iron Foot Jack’ and William Reynolds, known as ‘Billy’. For the price of 1 shilling for members, or 1s 6d on the door, ‘all-night gaiety’ could be enjoyed while dancing to the music of Charlie, the club’s pianist. The dance floor could be found full of people, men would dance with men and women with women.
Metropolitan Police files indicate that from October 1933 the Caravan Club was kept under regular surveillance due to a number of complaints about the manner in which it was run.
A note, signed anonymously by ‘Some rate payers of Endell Street‘, describes the club as ‘an absolute sink of iniquity… frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites‘. Police surveillance was often implemented in response to pressure from the public or organisations such as the London-based Public Morality Council.
Police observed the Caravan Club over a few weeks, watching from an unused part of the Shaftesbury Theatre and an old school. An hour-by-hour account of men entering and leaving the club on 11th October 1933 paid particular attention to any conversation that suggested the club was being used as a brothel or, to use the legal term, a ‘disorderly house’.
In the early hours of the morning on 25 August 1934 a number of plain-clothed policemen entered the club pretending to be visitors. Divisional Detective Inspector Clarence Campion, the officer in charge of the raid, noted how he was able to introduce the officers without being noticed and described the scene that greeted him:
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… all the couples I saw were acting in a very obscene manner
Campion described the dramatic moment when the police revealed themselves:
I waited until the officers had taken up their positions allotted to them, and I then had the music stopped and said to the assembly: ‘Police Officers are in this place to arrest principals for maintaining the place in a manner likely to corrupt morals, and you are all aiding and abetting, and if you will remain quiet you will be taken to the police station as quickly as possible‘
Campion’s statement ends with an account of one of the attendees, Cyril de Leon, approaching the inspector in an extraordinary act of resilience: ‘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‘.
In the course of the raid 103 individuals, both men and women, were arrested and taken to Bow Street police station. During the arrest Cyril had to undergo the humiliating process of having his face tested for evidence of make-up with blotting paper.
The reason we have records about this unique venue is the policing. Often LGBTQ+ history appears in the archive because of criminalisation, leading to a wealth of records that would not otherwise survive. In these files are items used as evidence, including black and white interior photographs, floor plans and even letters.
Among the police witness statements and reports, there are personal letters that were used as evidence in court. These demonstrate a fascinating and rare personal reflection on what it meant to be queer at the time.
The first letter, addressed from ‘Cyril’ to ‘My darling Morris’, was found at the scene. Cyril begins: ‘I was very disappointed that you were not coming to the club tonight’, and describes ‘counting the hours until I could see you’, signifying the importance of the Caravan Club as a space where he could be himself; somewhere not just for casual sex, but where same-sex relationships and friendships were forged.
The letter continues:
I only wish that I was going away with you, just you and I to eat, sleep and make love together, perhaps when you are away you will think of me sometimes and even write me, I sincerely hope so
The note was found torn up under a divan in the club with a powder puff, the note was retyped for the police file.
Another letter was found in a hotel bedroom on the Isle of Wight in a follow up investigation in the weeks following the raid. Written from Cyril to his dear friend Billy, the owner of the Caravan Club, the letter describes how he has ‘only been queer since coming to London two years ago‘, and reveals he has a wife and a little girl.
The note ends with the powerful words ‘Please be a dear boy and destroy this note’. Cyril was only too-aware of the implications if it was found.
The case was heard at the Old Bailey, where there were 22 defendants, including three women. The majority of arrested individuals were found not guilty on the condition that they never frequent such a club again, but the punishment for the owners was severe.
Jack Neave and William Reynolds were found guilty of keeping a disorderly house described as ‘a place for people willing to pay for lewd, scandalous, bawdy and obscene performances and practices’.
Neave was sentenced to 20 months hard labour in prison, and Reynolds received 12 months. Cyril was committed to trial for aiding and abetting in keeping a disorderly house and found not guilty, despite the use of his letters as evidence.
The Caravan Club was forced to close. It had only been open for six weeks. Many other venues in the area continued to cultivate a queer clientele. Despite being under constant threat of police raids and arrests, queer venues like the Caravan remained important hubs for men and women to express their sexuality and love freely.