Inspired by LGBTQIA+ history month, final year History student Helena Potter shares the fascinating subculture of London Lesbians in the 1920s-30s.
Lesbians have been periodically silenced in British law. Under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, ‘gross indecency’, in other words any homosexual act between men, became a punishable offense. The deliberate silence surrounding sexual activity between women was intended to hide the reality of many women’s lived experiences. A proposition for a ‘gross indecency between females’ clause in a 1921 bill was overruled by MPs. Acknowledging lesbians in law legitimized it as a concept, so it became a secret which only elite men could choose to share. Public narratives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century assumed that women were sexually passive and desireless, therefore the possibility of women being attracted to each other was not understood as a cultural possibility. Victorian values upheld an image of women as modest and demure, and their sexuality served purely as a reproductive tool. Women were valued in society as mothers before all else.
It would be easy to assume that lesbians in the early twentieth century lacked agency, but this was certainly not the case for certain women in London, in which a thriving underground Lesbian nightlife was developing. It has often been assumed that lesbians had far fewer public spaces than in other European cities, such as Paris, but recent studies have revealed a thriving nightlife in present day’s China Town district in Soho and the West End. The wartime Defense of the Realm Act brought in narcotics and alcohol restrictions but a loophole in the law which stated that a ‘private members club’ didn’t need a license. This led to the growth of ‘shifting speakeasies’, which often catered for same-sex erotic encounters. We can tell this from police files, memoirs, anecdotes and some fictional evocations.
Gerrard Street in London was a hub for the lesbian community. The ‘1917 Club’ was frequented by Virginia Woolf and provided a day and night space for a ‘queer crowd of avant-gardists.’ A further example was the Cave of Harmony, set up by Ella Lanchester which was a cultural hub which hosted plays and dances at night. Smokey Joe’s stayed open until the mid- 1930s despite several police raids. The dancing that occurred in these spaces can be characterized as a revolt against hierarchy and tradition. The lesbian community was not confined solely to nightclubs which were only accessible to upper class modern ‘bohemian’ lesbians. Coffee bars and all-night cafes, such as Sandy’s Bar and Maxies Café, catered to those from working class backgrounds.
Public narratives attempted to portray these women negatively; the police described Gerrard Street as a place for ‘sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites.’ The press pushed the idea that middle class women were merely following a trend which would inevitably influence working class women. Transcending these class distinctions was the assumption promulgated in the media that all lesbians were degenerate and alcohol dependent. The People published an article on 30 November 1924 titled ‘Another Phase of the Smear: Women Friendships that People Talk About’ which claimed that lesbians were ‘drug-takers, uteromaniacs, perverts, [and] alcoholists.’
There was a growing feeling in the 1920s and 30s that lesbians were becoming more overt. With the shortage of men since the first world war, it became more common to find females dancing with one another in these spaces. Perhaps this postwar environment provided an unfamiliar environment for lesbians to thrive in. Lesbian literature, such as The Well of Loneliness (1928) written by Radclyffe Hall, thrusted lesbianism into public discourse. Dennis Archer argued in The Cloven Hoof: A Study of Contemporary London Vices (1932) that there had been a significant social shift since the publication of The Well of Loneliness. Nerina Shute, an English writer, wrote of the book that it ‘encouraged everyone concerned.’ Clearly, despite the official silencing on behalf of the government and disdain from the newspapers, lesbians and bisexual women were able to find public spaces to explore their sexualities in the context of interwar London.
Thanks to Helena!