"I have only been queer since I came to London... before then I knew nothing about it"
This surprisingly open expression of a queer identity and its link to London is found in a letter written in 1934 housed at The National Archives.
The author of the letter, Cyril Coeur de Leon, would have to wait a further 33 years before the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which finally decriminalised homosexual acts in private in England and Wales. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the acts passing.
Metropolitan police records and government files held at The National Archives give a valuable insight into how the state played a major role in repressing and controlling the lives of queer men and women. There are photographs in the police files showing what some of the spaces looked like. One such space was The Caravan Club, private basement club on Endell Street, on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue Soho. From the images in the files, we know that it was decked out with striking bohemian interior and described as 'London's greatest Bohemian rendezvous. This was one of a number of underground clubs in London's West End where men could meet other men, socialise freely and carry on relationships.
These spaces were important. If men looked for partners on the street or even in their own home they could be arrested, prosecuted, whipped and imprisoned for up to ten years. Alongside this, public exposure in the newspaper or press could mean exclusion from friends, family and dismissal from work. Some chose to commit suicide rather than risk public exposure.
Despite state targeting of LGBTQ people and the risk of being found out, there was a thriving queer community. Gay men could find partners undetected on the street through a look or a gesture: experience, gossip and stories reported in the press taught them how to evade surveillance. Across London individuals were able to create queer spaces in a variety of locations: urinals, pubs restaurants, dancehalls, clubs, houses, Turkish baths.
Again, from police files we know that The Caravan was the target of persistent police surveillance. In the early hours of August 25th 1934 the club was raided by plain clothed police officers pretending to be visitors. The officer in charge of the raid described men dancing with men, and women with women on the packed dance floor. 103 individuals were taken were arrested and taken to Bow Street police station, where some had to undergo the humiliating ritual of having their face rubbed with blotting paper to test for evidence of makeup. In the trial that followed the owners of the club were found guilty of keeping a 'disorderly house' and sentenced between 12-20 months Hard Labour in prison.
In amongst the police witness statements, reports, and photographs of the trial and the raid, there are some personal letters which were found and used as evidence in court cases. One letter from Cyril contains a fascinating reflection of one individual's experience of what it meant to be queer at the time.
Written to his dear friend Billy, he describes the importance of the Caravan Club as a space where he could be himself and carry out a relationship. It ends with the powerful words 'Please be a dear boy and destroy this note'. He was only too aware of the implications if it was found.
These files and letters which tell Cyril's story and the many others held in archives throughout the country demonstrate the importance of queer spaces in the context of a time when people didn't always have safe access to such spaces.
Archives across the country can play a key role in re-examining traditional historical narratives and bringing marginalised histories to the forefront. Many of them have joined the Explore Your Archive initiative (#ExploreArchives) and host free events for visitors where they learn more about the collections and research.
This piece was co-written by Rowena Hillel, Education and Outreach Officer at the National Archives. She runs regular workshops, talks and events for schools, young people and community groups, to engage people with archival material in new and interesting ways. She has a specialism and passion for diverse history and has developed research around The National Archive's LGBTQ+ and Black history collections.