Soho’s gay history revealed in new tours
Better known for looking after Britain’s stately homes, the National Trust is organising a series of walking tours on Soho’s gay history to celebrate 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised.
The tours bring to life the hidden stories of a once-seedy and now increasingly gentrified part of London that served as a refuge for gay people in an era when a kiss could send you to prison.
The visits last around 90 minutes and take visitors to six spots tracing the history of the area between World War I and 1967, when homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales.
The first stop on the tour is 41 Dean Street, now a high-end restaurant that used to be the Colony Room, a famous hang-out for artists and poets that was a favourite haunt for the painter Lucian Freud.
The area was filled with gay bars at the time and, by the end of the tour, names of places and their secret locations become a blur because there are so many.
Along with gay revellers, the central London area was also filled with police — both in the streets and in the clubs — many looking for easy prosecutions.
“It was very dangerous to wear lipsticks,” said Richard Sutton, one of the volunteer tour guides.
“One of the tests to see if someone was gay was actually to use blotting paper. They put blotting paper on your face and if it came up that you were having make-up it was used as evidence,” he said.
Sometimes “just being effeminate was enough to convict you of being gay”.
– ‘There was life before’ –
Some 46,000 people were prosecuted for homosexuality between 1895 — when the Irish poet Oscar Wilde was convicted for sodomy and sent to prison — and 1967.
Alan Turing, the legendary mathematician who helped crack Nazi codes during World War II, was arrested for homosexuality in 1952. He was given the option of chemical castration to avoid prison and was found dead two years later at the age of 41, probably from suicide.
The last stop on the tour is a partial reconstruction of the Caravan Club, which was shut down in 1934 and was described at the time as a meeting place for “sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites”.
Inside, there were low chairs, drapes and tea cups. A typewriter and a police report from when the club was shut down could be seen on one of the tables.
From this time of persecution, the situation has improved immeasurably and gay marriage was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in 2014. Soho has also changed.
Some of its most famous clubs and cabarets have shut down and been replaced by cocktail bars and burger restaurants. According to some residents, it has lost its soul.
“A lot of places have closed. It’s all grey! People cannot afford the rents,” said Camilo, a shopkeeper at Ze German Clothing on Greek Street. “There was life before, it was full of colours!”.