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Duration 00:13:17

Sexuality under scrutiny in 1930s Soho

In 1934, homosexual acts between men – in public and in private – were illegal in the UK. Police surveilled a number of social spaces across London suspected of permitting what the state then considered to be ‘immoral activity’ and in August conducted a raid on a venue in Soho called the Caravan Club. Possessions such as cosmetics and personal correspondence were confiscated from attendees and later offered as evidence in court.

Vicky Iglikowski, The National Archives’ Diverse History Records Specialist, discusses the content and context of a love letter found in the Caravan on that evening, and considers the difficult position it occupies now as both an important piece of LGBT history and a document that wasn’t intended for publication.

This podcast was produced as part of a series where archivists talk about the documents they think you should know about.  You can view the rest of the series here.

Music:
‘Sam, the Old Accordian Man’ by the Williams Sisters
‘Night Latch Key Blues’ by Virginia Liston

Transcription

I’m Vicky Iglikowski, I work at The National Archives as a Diverse History Records Specialist. That involves researching and promoting historically hidden history narratives, so essentially for that reason I work a lot on LGBT history in the past…

The letter we have here is from a raid on the Caravan Club that was found within the premises. The Caravan Club itself is a kind of notorious place in, well, on the fringes of Soho which essentially was open for a very limited amount of time – about 6 weeks in 1934. It’s described as London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous.As they were kind of private members clubs they were almost seen as brothels as there was a charge on the door and there was often sexual activity happening inside.

In 1934, homosexual acts in public and private between men are criminalised in the eyes of the law. They can lead people to being imprisoned and vilified by their families and isolated. So, very much in terms of the law it is illegal for two men to have sexual relationships. However for women at the time it wasn’t acknowledged in terms of the law, so while there wasn’t any legislation it was arguably pushed further underground – the visibility of women having same-sex relationships.

It’s interesting as well to note that complaints for example from the rate payers of Endell Street in 1834 do pick up on lesbians, so there was a wider acknowledgement even if it wasn’t in the law but through the public, that women were having relationships with other women in this place and in this club, but in terms of the policing, what police were looking for, in terms of evidence, was very much about men’s relationships.

The surveillance was really by undercover police officers going into the Caravan, which was a very controversial police method at that time. They would pretend to be clientele in the club, they would speak to people there as if they were just going for a night out and enjoying themselves and through that they were able to record what people were saying within the venue and gather various pieces of what would have been incriminating evidence.

So they note things like men dancing with men, women with women, and from these observations, and complaints from members of the public such as the rate payers of Endell Street, they eventually raided the venue in August, the 26th August, 1934.

This letter is a letter written by Cyril to Morris, it was essentially found in the Caravan Club and taken as a piece of incriminating evidence because it was a love letter written between two men. So just to read out a little bit of it:

“My darling Morris… Just a note, which I feel I must write – or should I say type – to you. I was very very disappointed to find out that you were not coming to the club tonight. As ever since I phoned you, on Monday, and made arrangements, I just lived for tonight when I was to have seen you darling. As a matter of fact I stayed in bed all day yesterday, didn’t even get up to eat and just thought of you, counting the hours until I should see you. And then the terrible shock of not being with you after all.”

So some of this language emphasises the importance of queer spaces like the Caravan club.
The letter closes with the lines:

“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 and even write me. I sincerely hope so.”

So these letters really are one example of the kind of evidence that was gathered, but actually more common were the observations and the notes that were taken of what people were actually saying.

We do also find in the records lots of mentions to evidence that doesn’t ultimately survive –things like powder puffs that in the kind of eyes of the police and the state at the time were seen to be signs of effeminacy, which was very much seen to be associated with being a homosexual characteristic.

Multiple people went through this very humiliating ritual of having their faces tested for make-up during the raid. Many of the men in the observations were described as having rouged faces, powdered faces, and then ultimately that was tested for by police.

Cyril Coeur de Leon, Cyril the Lionheart… he makes multiple visits to the Caravan Club. He’s identified quite strongly by police in the files. He was quite flamboyantly dressed. Police note the thickly powdered make-up and rouged lips.And all of this kind of captures the police attention. They note that he’s an “effeminate type” – is the words that they use.

So it’s all of this that I think really makes him dominate some of the files, and his kind of bold, resilient reactions to being policed in this space, and the way he talks back to police essentially.

He’s actually been quite defiant and resilient to the police. He does say to the police quite openly: “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 me.”

So he is, yeah, quite a dominant person in the Caravan. So to have these letters relating to the more personal side of his character is really interesting.

Through the research on queer spaces in the 20s and 30s that I’ve done it’s been really clear that there’s a number of spaces that did allow a certain degree of freedom and there’s a real contradiction there, that within those spaces they seemed to be very free, very open, very defiant, and yet ultimately they were very vulnerable spaces. And the evidence that Cyril’s letter provides shows how vulnerable people were because by writing about their feelings to another man they were then seen to potentially be vulnerable to being criminalised.

So for example in another letter from Cyril he writes to Billy, who is actually William Reynolds, the owner or one of the owners of the Caravan, and this is actually after the original raid but it’s in the follow up proceedings when they’re trying to trace Billy. But Cyril is writing about his own sense of identity and how he’s “only been queer since he came to London about two years ago” and that’s particularly interesting because we very rarely get a sense of how people self–define in their own words. Ideally we’d always know that when we’re looking back at the past because we often only get a snapshot into people’s lives and it’s usually through criminal records so it might just be a moment. So the fact that Cyril self-identifies as queer is really, really powerful I think. And it’s also interesting that he does speak about “still liking girls occasionally”, as well as he says that he likes affairs with men. So it also highlights an even hidden element of sexuality, which is bisexuality, in the records.

In one of Cyril’s letters, he ends by saying “please be a dear boy and destroy this note”, and I think in itself that’s incredibly poignant because it now survives in a police record. I guess it makes you feel quite uncomfortable working with these records that they provide an amazing insight into personal queer experiences from the past that we just wouldn’t know in people’s own words otherwise and yet these individuals seemingly didn’t want them – these records – to survive, yes, particularly because of the implications – and the persecution they could face if discovered, as we’ve seen.

“It is two years almost since we first met, then I was crazy about you, but you just seemed to disappear, and I never saw you for months, and I tried to forget, and now since seeing you, it has all started again and I just had to let you know how I felt. Please do not think I am foolish Morris, for I love you such a lot. So please, if you do not feel this way to me, promise that we shall always be the best of friends.”

He just talks about being very kind of, well, really missing Morris because ultimately Morris doesn’t come to the club that night. The letter opens saying “I was very, very disappointed to find out that you were not coming to the club tonight”. So ultimately Cyril is left disappointed but for Morris this happens to be on the night of the raid and he is then saved from that police persecution in the club on that occasion, so it is absolutely very timeless and very poignant.

To our knowledge, at least in this instance, Morris avoids being arrested because he doesn’t turn up, but who knows – if he was going to these clubs and spaces then it certainly might have been the case that he did interact with the law eventually. With Cyril, he is eventually found not guilty but the owners of the venue are both sentenced to hard labour for 20 and then 12 months respectively. So there are serious consequences to this, so the fact that Morris and Cyril were willing to go to these spaces in itself is a really bold move in this context.

“Well Morris darling, I must ring off now, and pray that I may see you on Saturday. I only wish that I was going away with you 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. Well Morris, until we meet, I am yours with all my love forever and always.”

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