Soho is a place with a powerful and distinct identity. If you ask any Londoner: ‘What’s Soho like?’, whether they love or hate it, they won’t struggle to paint a vivid picture of the area. For many of us in the London LGBTQ+ community, Soho was one of the first places we ventured to, our first taste of openly queer clubs and bars. But why is Soho such a gay hotspot? The answer is rooted in its fascinating and complex history.
Soho is currently home to the largest concentration of LGBTQ+ friendly venues in the UK – so what can a contemporary audience learn about it from watching Absolute Hell and meeting the patrons of the fictional ‘La Vie En Rose’ night club? Absolute Hell explores the lives of a large and lively cast of artists, bohemians and alcoholics in the Soho of 1945. Many of these characters are queer, and it was largely for this reason that the play was actively censored and repressed for 30 years.
(A photograph seized as part of a police raid of the ‘The Caravan Club’ in 1934, part of the National Archives.)
Like all of London, Soho has gone through many changes; from being an affluent well-to-do area in the late 1600s, through to becoming a neglected backwater known for prostitution and the origin of an infamous cholera outbreak in 1854. More recently it has been known as a hub for sex-workers and has formed close ties with the theatre world. This area of London has also become home to London’s Chinatown following a relocation from Limehouse.
(Left: A reconstruction of ‘The Caravan Club’ researched and created by the National Archives based on police reports. Right: The alleyway down Endell Street which acted as an entrance in the 1930’s.)
This diverse mixture of histories and communities crafted Soho into an artistic and permissive place, known for ‘loose morals’ but also open-mindedness. For these reasons, throughout the early 1900s Soho has been the home for London’s queer culture, where, against a backdrop of persecution, LGBTQ+ people would meet in secret. During the 1930s places such as the ‘Shim Sham Club’ and ‘The Black Cat’ would offer spaces for queer people to come together. These lavish and richly decorated spaces would be hidden down alleyways and behind secret doors protected by passwords, as police raids were a constant threat.
One particularly famous haunt was ‘The Caravan Club’ on Endell Street. The club was known for providing ‘all-night gaiety’ and was popular with bohemians and a largely queer clientele. The night club was run by the famous Soho character ‘Iron Foot Jack’ (Jack Neave) a strongman, escapologist and occultist. Sadly, in 1934 the club’s ‘proclivities’ caught the attention of neighbouring establishments who labelled it ‘a sink of iniquity’. This resulted in a raid wherein its owner and patrons were arrested, personal possessions, letters and photos were seized as criminal evidence and the establishment was closed down.
Many other queer-friendly venues in Soho soon followed suit; they would be scrutinised, scouted-out and, once discovered, permanently closed and their patrons punished. By the 1940s, homosexuality among men was still a punishable offense, but the LGBTQ+ scene was still very much alive in the underground night clubs of Soho. Living and loving in London after World War II was a strange time; on the one hand there was a sense of having survived an unthinkable fate that fuelled an explosion of hedonistic behaviour and comparative sexual freedom. But on the other hand, there was real hardship and danger, as well as terrifying stories coming out of Nazi ‘Horror camps’, as described by Douglas Eden in the play.
After the end of the war, things did not simply return to normal. The British People suffered from poverty and their blitzed-out homes crumbled around them as all of Europe grieved its losses. In response to this, the streets of Soho and Central London were full of places that advertised themselves as offering a reprieve from everyday life; the world famous ‘Windmill Theatre’ with its elaborate sets and ‘tableau vivants’, the ‘Queensberry All-Services Club’ (now the Prince Edward Theatre), which catered for the allied armed forces remaining in the UK and the seedy but lively ‘French Club’ (the real-life basis of the fictional ‘La Vie en Rose’ in the play) were all such places.
Many of these clubs, whilst not exclusively queer, would offer refuge for queer clientele given their naturally bohemian leanings. There were no visible invitations (no rainbow flags or ‘drag queen bingo’ posters adorned Old Compton Street, as they do today), but Soho was still a cultural hub for London’s LGBTQ+ community. Indeed, it was a place of escape, not just for the LGBTQ+ community, but for anyone who did not fit in or who wanted to avoid the reality of a world in upheaval. There is a good reason why one of the original titles for the first version of Absolute Hell was The Escapists.
Set in 1945, Absolute Hell is a tragi-comedy, but when Hugh, the lead character in the play, describes his partner Nigel as, ‘ my home’ and later as, ‘Ni darling’, it reveals a complex mix of public and private selves, in the language of post-war, queer, Soho.
(Cyril, an ex-drag performer, laments how the end of the war put an end to his cabaret performances. Photograph by Johan Persson.)
‘Drag’ has been in use since the 1870s and ‘queer’ has been a slur against the LGBTQ+ community from the 1890s. In the play, from the mouths of self-identifying ‘queers’ we hear these terms reimagined and transformed into expressions of resilience and defiance. By using terms and phrases known only to other members, the queer community was able to stay safe and assert its own identity. This linguistic camouflage has its roots in ‘Polari’ a codified slang that operated in London within a broad range of subcultures, including the queer community, possibly as far back as the 1500s.
In Absolute Hell most gay and bisexual characters use euphemisms when talking about the details of their lives and relationships, another means of protection through the use of language. Many non-queer characters in the play clearly knew of their queer friends’ private lives and were in most cases actively supportive. The gay characters lead difficult double-lives but are painted very much at the heart of the Soho community; in Soho, they are not outsiders nor are they victims.
(Hugh, one of the lead characters, is a gay man whose lover Nigel is trying to pass as straight by marrying a woman. Photograph by Johan Persson.)
Today, homosexuality is now legal, and though there is still prejudice, the right for LGBTQ+ people to exist is enshrined in law. Back in 1952, when the first version of Absolute Hell was performed it was panned and described as a ‘libel on the British people’. Stories of gay people and their ‘proclivities’ were still not welcome in the public sphere.
It would be another 15 years until the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.
It is powerful to remember that despite fear, secrecy and repression, LGBTQ+ people were living full lives by using the night clubs of Soho as safe-houses. Today those of us with a passion for LGBTQ+ history hunt through documents, photographs and records to find evidence for these lives lived in the margins. Absolute Hell is such a record – whilst the setting and characters are fictional, the story was inspired by the lived experience of Rodney Ackland, and paints a fascinating picture of queer lives shortly after World War II. It gives a powerful account of how Soho was a tangible and lively queer space even before it was legal to be openly gay.
Personally, for me it reaffirms that our community has a real stake in Soho that goes back a long way, one that we should continue to fight for.