An excerpt from

Queer London

Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957

Matt Houlbrook

This is London

This is Cyril’s story.

He moved to London in 1932 at the age of twenty. There he became a young man about town, enjoying the privileges and possibilities that an independent income created in a modern consumer society. At first he stayed at the Montague Hotel in Bloomsbury, though he later took a furnished room in Leicester Chambers off Lisle Street, in the heart of the West End, that bustling realm of shops, theaters, restaurants, and bars. Cyril seems to have found his way around quickly. He began to frequent certain commercial venues, making a kind of home for himself in places like the Caravan, a basement club in Endell Street. Here he made friends and socialized, found sex and, eventually, embarked on a series of passionate affairs. In 1934, he wrote to Morris, one of these men:

I was very disappointed to find that you were not coming to the club tonight, as ever since I phoned you on Monday and made arrangements with you I just lived for tonight …I stayed in bed all day yesterday, didn’t even get up to eat and just thought of you and counting the hours until I should see you …I love you Morris darling …I only wish that I was going away with you, just you and I to eat, sleep and make love together.

Tortured with the exquisite agony of a new love, Cyril was, still, happy. Also in 1934, he reflected on these experiences in a letter to his friend Billy, who ran the Caravan. Seventy years later, Cyril’s excitement at the world in which he had only just begun to move and its importance to him remains tangible. He talked about his relationships, his feelings, and the life he was forging in the city. He wrote, “I have only been queer since I came to London about two years ago, before then I knew nothing about it.”

On one level, it is easy to interpret this story because it seems so very familiar, so instantly recognizable. In many ways Cyril’s story is all “our” stories. In mapping his own changing sense of self and sexual practices onto his encounter with London, he establishes a productive relationship between space, the social, and subjectivity. Geographical, temporal, and subjective movements blend together. “Being queer” is equated with the cultural experience of urban life—“coming to London about two years ago.” Retrospectively, self-knowledge—self-realization—is correlated with that moment of migration. London is both a symbolic and experiential rupture, a productive space that generates and stabilizes a new form of selfhood and way of life. Cyril’s story pivots upon an implicit opposition between silence and speaking out, repression and fulfillment, nonbeing and being. This can easily be a recognizable tale of the big city as a space of affirmation, liberation, and citizenship—the city as a queer space.

This story can be taken further. Cyril found himself within networks of public and commercial sociability constructed by men like him. For the “homosexual,” we are told, this was a period of social intolerance, legal repression, and cultural marginalization. London was, nonetheless, the site of a vibrant, extensive, and diverse queer urban culture. Overlapping social worlds took hold in parks, streets, and urinals; in pubs, restaurants, and dancehalls; in Turkish baths; in furnished rooms and lodging houses. Across this city, men met in these places, brought together by their desires for sex or sociability. By participating in this world, they were able to forge social ties and ways of being that belied their nominal exclusion from metropolitan life. Little wonder that Cyril’s letters are marked by a profound sense of belonging.

In linking sexual selfhood and place Cyril thus illustrates a familiar theme: the association between “homosexuality” and the city. It is this broad historical, historiographical, and conceptual issue that Queer London addresses. Stories of the city as a queer space—stories like this—have become a cultural and academic commonplace over the past century. As Matt Cook recently observed, “think of 'gay’ men and 'gay’ culture and we think of cities.” Such patterns of thought have permeated popular culture through TV series like Queer as Folk or books like Maupin’s Tales of the City. In that proliferation of historical studies of sexual difference since Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking History of Sexuality, there has, moreover, been an overwhelming focus on the organization of queer sexualities in their urban setting. Together, the work of George Chauncey, Marc Stein, and others comprises a dynamic queer urban history.

In many senses this focus on the city is understandable. It is, after all, in the modern city that queer lives have assumed their characteristic contemporary forms—think of Old Compton Street or San Francisco’s Castro. It is here that the novelists, autobiographers, and historians who write about such practices have made their home. It is, moreover, in the city that regulatory agencies and newspapers have generated the most extensive and vivid evidence of such practices in the past. The city appears important because, as Neil Bartlett’s compelling Who Was That Man? illustrates, it is here that we can see the accumulated historical traces of queer male networks, both visually and through the surviving historical record. The world that Cyril was beginning to explore so eagerly in the 1930s can be traced back through the late nineteenth-century cases of Oscar Wilde or Cleveland Street to the early eighteenth-century Molly Houses. If the links between these different worlds are problematic, London’s importance to queer men and public knowledge of “homosexuality” was long established.

This focus on the city, moreover, reflects current trends in critical academic thought, particularly the “spatial turn” within the fields of history, cultural studies, and human geography. As the work of David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, or Edward Soja suggests, space—the city—is not simply a passive backdrop against which social and cultural processes are enacted but a “constitutive part of the cultural and social formation of metropolitan modernity.” Male sexual practices and identities do not just take place in the city; they are shaped and sustained by the physical and cultural forms of modern urban life just as they in turn shape that life.

In this context, it is unsurprising that the dominant paradigm in historical analyses of male sexualities has been the correlation of the emergence of visible queer cultures with the experiential dimensions of urban modernity. Just as Cyril mapped “being queer” onto “coming to London,” so historians taking their cue from Foucault have mapped the “great paradigm shift” of the “making of the modern homosexual” onto the process of urbanization. In the early work of John d’Emilio or Jeffrey Weeks, for example, urbanization—by disrupting structures of authority, weakening the family, and offering the anonymity of the modern metropolis—is a precondition of the emergence of the “homosexual” as an identity, state of being, and social world from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

Such analyses of the temporal conjunction of space and sexuality reach their apogee in Henning Bech’s When Men Meet (1997). Bech’s starting point is the notion that “being homosexual …is not primarily a matter of discourse and identity but a way of being.” He locates this particular “homosexual form of existence” within modern experiences of urbanity, in particular, the flux, anonymity, and visuality of the crowd. Here the city is a productive space, generating specific forms of desire and conventions of social interaction. Bech concludes with an axiom: the city is “the social world proper of the homosexual …to be homosexual he must get into the city.” Simultaneously, this is a suggestive historical analysis and a profound cultural imperative.

Such arguments are compelling because they seem to be commonsense. They are, however, deeply problematic. Simplistic invocations of urbanization as a liberating agent or the city as a queer space efface very real experiences of the city as alienating, disruptive, and dangerous. Cyril’s letters suggest a life full of happiness and affirmation. Detailed accounts of his behavior in the Caravan suggest its role as a site of private sociability in his life. They offer tantalizing details about his character and appearance. Yet how has this evidence come down to us? Because the British state sought to suppress particular social and sexual interactions between men; because plainclothes police kept the club under observation over several weeks; because they raided the venue and arrested everyone there; because at Bow Street Police Station Cyril was subject to the humiliating ritual of having his cheeks rubbed with blotting paper for evidence of make-up; because he was imprisoned and then brought to trial at the at the central criminal court, Old Bailey, for aiding and abetting in keeping a disorderly house; because the Metropolitan police searched his flat, confiscating his letters, a pencil sketch of a naked man, and a photograph of a penis. In the end, Cyril wasn’t convicted but only because he arrived late at court and the director of public prosecutions deemed the week he had already spent in prison “a sufficient lesson to [him] not to associate with such clubs in future.”

Entering the public record was a disaster in Cyril’s life as it was in the lives of those countless other men who encountered the law in this period. This disaster was, moreover, compounded by being reported in the national press: Cyril’s name and address, his nickname, and his letter to Morris were mentioned in The Times, News of the World, and Illustrated Police News. That his story is preserved is thus evidence of a momentary failure to negotiate the tensions inherent to queer urban life—a failure to evade the law and public hostility. Simultaneously, however, we can read these sources as I do here: to suggest how men were able to create a place for themselves in the city and explore how they understood and organized their desires. This dissonance means we must understand the records of official agencies—on which this book draws—as being produced at the point where public and private, pain and pleasure, intersect. They are, in this sense, paradigmatic sources in understanding the contradictory nature of queer lives in early twentieth-century London, for just as the city opened up certain possibilities for certain men, it closed down other possibilities and left other men marginalized or silenced. We can celebrate the fact that Cyril and men like him created this world, but we must also recognize its exclusions, dangers, ambiguities, and limits.

If established narratives of the “making of the modern homosexual” obscure these often brutal realities, so the singular linearity of this chronology effaces the complexities of men’s relationship to urban space and, in particular, the relationship between sexual practices and identities and the city. Attempting to map changes across time has obscured the persistent differences and tensions in the organization of queer practices across space. Too often, the city is treated as a universalized agent of social change, producing a hegemonic singular “homosexuality.” As Scott Bravmann suggests, “the modernist narrative logic of social constructionist accounts of gay identity formation …elides the multiple differences among gay men”—differences of class, race, age, gender, and place. Thinking of urbanization as a “grand, universalizing historical process” thus “obscures recognition of effective and meaningful difference within that overarching process of change.” The key point is very simple: men are different from one another, and those differences shape their experiences of the city, the lives they lead, and their sense of selfhood.

The apparent familiarity of Cyril’s equation between “being queer” and “coming to London” is thus deceptive. Cyril’s “London” is most definitely not our London. Moreover, his use of the term “queer” itself cannot easily be mapped onto contemporary categories of queerness. When Cyril went to the Caravan, his face was powdered, lips rouged, and eyebrows plucked. He was called—and referred to himself—by the nickname “the Countess” and the pronoun “she.” He was married, had a two year-old daughter, and “still like[d] girls occasionally.” Despite this, he thought his current affair “a better pal to me than any women could ever be.” It seems Cyril understood the distinction between what he called “normal” and “queer people” in terms very different to our own.

The strangeness of Cyril’s story underscores Steven Maynard’s emphasis upon the need to explore “the conceptual categories and ways of knowing actually used by actors in the past.” What did Cyril mean when he used the terms “queer” and “normal”? What did the terms mean to other men, both those who thought of themselves as queer and those who did not? In its simplest sense, queer signified men’s difference from what was considered “normal.” This difference was, in part, located in their sexual or emotional attraction to—and encounters with—other men. Yet it could also encompass differences in behavior and appearance. Queer, in this sense, could be a mode of self-understanding, a set of cultural practices, and a way of being. Its meanings were, moreover, never self-evident, stable, or singular. Within broader categories of class, race, gender, age, and place, men experienced, understood, and organized their desires very differently; understandings of sexual difference were multiple and contested.

Cyril, for example, located his queerness in an ineffably womanlike character, constructing an “effeminate” public persona consistent with what he assumed to be his inner nature. He was, in contemporary terms, a quean—a flamboyant and striking figure in London’s streets and commercial venues and, for many Londoners, the very embodiment of sexual difference. For others, particularly middle- and upper-class men, by contrast, their choice of sexual partner was the only thing that made them different. Conventionally masculine and discreet, they neither looked nor behaved “differently” and remained invisible to passersby. All these men might have referred to themselves as queer, but they did not necessarily understand the term in the same way.

If the meanings of queerness diverged, then so too did notions of what it meant to be a “normal” man. To a twenty-first-century observer, the most anomalous figure within queer urban culture in the first half of the twentieth century is the working-class man who engaged in homosex or ongoing emotional relationships with other men, at the same time as with women, and without considering himself—or being considered by other men—to be anything other than “normal.” At the time, however, such figures—known variously as men, trade, rough trade, roughs, renters, or to be had—were an integral part of London’s sexual landscape. To have sex with or to love another man did not necessarily make a man different. The most remarkable thing about queer urban culture is that it was, to a large extent, composed of and created by men who never thought themselves queer.

The boundaries between sexual difference and “normality” were thus problematic, unstable, and contested, and discrete frameworks for interpreting male sexual practices and identities coexisted, intersected, and overlapped. Being queer was never simply the same as being “homosexual,” though it could be. Being “normal” never simply denoted what would today be labeled “heterosexuality,” though in specific contexts and for certain men—particularly bourgeois men—it often did. Forms of understanding that we often assume to be timeless—the organization of male sexual practices and identities around the binary opposition between “homo-” and “heterosexual”—solidified only in the two decades after the Second World War. Remarkably, their origins lie within living memory.

Rather than seeking to “rediscover” a “hidden” “gay” culture, this book thus explores the historical production of diverse modes of sexual difference and “normality” and the ways in which these interpretive frameworks shaped how men understood their desires; their sexual, social, and cultural practices; and the urban lives they forged. My interest is, in Joan Scott’s terms, “how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world.” Like earlier generations of historians, I explore the relationship between “being queer” and the city. Rather than conceptualizing the city as constituting a unitary “homosexuality,” however, I scrutinize the competing understandings of masculinity, sexuality, and character that shaped men’s participation in queer urban culture and relate these to differences of class, race, age, and place. Rather than focus solely on those who identified as queer, I give equal attention to those who considered themselves “normal” but nonetheless socialized with, had sex with, and loved other men. Diverse desires, ways of being, and cultural practices converged upon and were constituted by what I have called queer London.

Just as we must recognize the fragmentation and antagonisms of queer urban culture in the first half of the twentieth century, so we must also, crucially, recognize its difference from London today. The relationship between “being queer” and “coming to London” is so ubiquitous that it can obscure the process of meaningful change over time. Too often the “modern city” is taken as a static category of analysis, creating the impression that the modern “homosexual” and the modern city came into being at the same time—at some point in the mid-nineteenth century—and have remained unchanged ever since. Yet Cyril’s unfamiliar life reminds us that the relationship between sex and the city is historically specific. This thing called the modern metropolis is an organic and fluid entity that changes over time. London 1885 is different from London 1918, London 1934, London 1957 or London 2004. And, if the experience of being modern and urban is constantly shifting, then so too are the boundaries between sexual difference and “normality” and the geographical and cultural organization of male sexual practices and identities.


This book is about London. Simultaneously, London existed as a large-scale social unit—a physical area roughly coterminous with the administrative boundaries of the London County Council—and a series of related but discontinuous sites of sociability, danger, and pleasure— public spaces, commercial venues, and private flats. It existed, moreover, as an imagined space, exercising a profound influence on the ways that contemporaries thought about sexual difference. In this sense, London was never isolated or distinct but instead occupied a nodal position in national and international networks of sociability and knowledge. London was an imperial metropolis, and its queer cultures reflected the influence of immigration and racial difference upon metropolitan life. National newspapers reported metropolitan vice more frequently than that of any other urban center, establishing an axiomatic connection between “homosexuality” and the capital. As such, London often occupied a prominent place in the minds of many provincial queer men, representing an enticing space of affirmation and possibility.

This is not to suggest that London represented the limits of queer experiences in early twentieth-century Britain. There were, for example, established public and commercial networks in towns and cities like Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, and Brighton from at least the 1920s. Many men, moreover, came to find metropolitan life restrictive, oppressive, and dangerous or found the more public manifestations of queer urban culture distasteful. They sought refuge elsewhere—in the rural idyll evoked by E. M. Forster, or abroad, in the Mediterranean, Berlin, or New York. Queer urban culture took shape within a persistent tension between London’s centripetal and centrifugal power.

Just as London occupied a particular place within national queer cultures, so it was also part of a global network of queer cities. Many men—usually, but not only, the wealthy and privileged—moved easily between London and New York, Vienna, San Francisco, Berlin, Rome, or Paris, to work, to live, or simply for pleasure. These transnational connections underscore this book’s organizing theme—that relationship between modern urban life and “being queer.” In part, by exploring this relationship in London in the first half of the twentieth century, I aim to contribute to the ongoing debate about the generalized cultural and experiential dimensions of urban modernity. This was, after all, one of the quintessentially modern metropolises. “London,” remarked the progressive urban sociologist Robert Sinclair in 1937, “is a sun among cities in an age when life is almost wholly urban, and by examining London we examine a ringleader, for good and evil.”

It would be misleading to assume too close a fit between the histories I tell here and those of other urban centers. In Britain itself, London was unique in terms of its sheer size, its role as a financial, political, maritime, imperial, and cultural capital, and its racial and social composition. It was unique, moreover, in the scale and vitality of the queer world that developed there. Internationally, London had a history and character that distinguished it from anywhere else. If forms of commercial or public sociability look similar and it is possible to discern commonalities in the understanding, organization, and experience of sexual difference between Western cities, all these cities were, nonetheless, unique. As compared to gay New York, for example, queer London was more deeply divided by extremes of wealth and that powerful British sense of class. London’s ethnic composition, by contrast, reduced the salience of race as a fault line. London had its East End and its Seven Dials, but neither of those neighborhoods was anything like a Harlem. In London, white, black, or Indian men were more likely to socialize alongside each other. Moreover, London’s cultural geography, particularly the West End’s status as the metropolitan site of commercialized leisure, shaped a queer world that was more obviously centralized. If it is important to draw out parallels in queer urban histories, we must equally remain alive to the particular, the local, and the national—that uniqueness that makes cities different from one another. This book is, above all, about London.

This book is about men, not women. Certainly, queer men and women inhabited many of the same commercial venues, and their sense of self took shape within overlapping understandings of gender and sexuality. Yet their experiences of London were fractured by differences of gender. While men were able to move through the public city by day or night, women’s access to public space was more problematic. The association between femininity and domesticity, familial and neighborhood surveillance, anxieties surrounding the moral status of public women, and the city’s very real dangers constrained women’s movements. Women’s marginal position in the labor market lessened their ability to access commercial venues or private residential space. In London, queer women negotiated a very different set of problems. While female sexual deviance—particularly prostitution—was inscribed within forms of surveillance that echoed the regulation of male sexualities, lesbianism remained invisible in the law and, in consequence, in the legal sources on which this book draws. Lesbian London demands its own study.

This book starts with the First World War drawing to a close in 1918 and concludes with the publication of the report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution—more commonly known after its chairman, John Wolfenden—in 1957. In 1918 and 1957 alike, British public life was saturated with anxious debate about the social problem of “homosexuality” in general and metropolitan queer culture in particular. The 1918 “Black Book” libel trial at the Old Bailey, following scarcely veiled allegations of lesbianism aimed at the actress Maud Allen by the proto-fascist member of Parliament (MP) Noel Pemberton-Billing, drew the reading public’s attention to the characteristic spaces of queer London. In those pubs, bathhouses, and cruising grounds where men found sex and sociability, Pemberton-Billing saw Britain’s corruption by German “vice” and espionage—a threat to the nation’s very existence. In the 1950s, similarly, the Second World War’s disruptive impact on British society rendered queer urban culture increasingly problematic, placing London at the center of apocalyptic tabloid exposés of metropolitan “vice.” And yet, if we can identity common themes across the four decades separating these moral panics, their outcomes diverged radically: a libel trial—which Pemberton-Billing won—in 1918; the creation of a departmental committee that recommended the decriminalization of private sexual relations between consenting adult men in 1957. This book is, in part, an attempt to understand how the shifting organization of queer urban culture shaped this chronology.

Queer London thus maps the geography, culture and politics of queer life in the period between the “Black Book” trial and Wolfenden—the lives of men like Cyril. Drawing upon an increasingly vibrant literature within history, human geography and cultural studies, it moves beyond simplistic invocations of the city as a queer space, and of a unified “homosexual” experience to explore the complex interrelationship between modern urban life and the organization of sexual and gender practices.

Parts 1 and 2—“Policing” and “Places”—explore queer men’s relationship to the broader metropolitan environment, in particular, the ways in which modern urban culture generated particular spaces of sociability and sexual encounter. The five chapters here trace the organization and character of queer life within its public spaces (streets, parks, and urinals), the commercial realm of bars, nightclubs, baths, and the operations of the metropolitan housing market. I contextualize this within a detailed analysis of the regulation of this world by the Metropolitan Police, the London Country Council, and other municipal authorities. As such, I demonstrate both the vitality and diversity of London’s queer culture and its constraints and exclusions. For while the city could open up possibilities of safety and affirmation, it left many men excluded, isolated, and in danger.

Part 3, “People,” turns to the ways in which men understood and organized their practices and their engagement with the city. As such, it explores the historical meanings of sexual difference and “normality.” Drawing upon critical and theoretical insights derived from feminist and queer theory, it identifies three distinct characters—the effeminate quean, the “normal” working man who had sex with men and women, and the respectable middle-class “homosexual.” These characters embodied very different understandings of masculinity and sexuality, structured along intersecting lines of class, place, gender, age, and ethnicity. If such men regularly saw each other as the moved through the city—and just as often interacted sexually and socially—their relationships were always uneasy, as likely to encompass rejection as much as commonality.

Part 4 focuses upon the politics of queer life in the period leading up to the Wolfenden Report—looking ahead to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which passed Wolfenden’s recommendations into law. It explores the construction of the “homosexual” as source of cultural danger and a threat to national stability and, hence, a suitable subject for criminal law. Against this, it traces the emergence of an assertive queer identity politics that challenged the cultural moorings of the sexual offences laws. Rather than being unequivocally affirmative, I argue, this process was consciously exclusionary, encapsulating profound antagonisms between queer men.

In mapping queer urban experiences in particular, Queer London explicitly scrutinizes a series of issues that are central to our understanding of twentieth-century British history in general. Moreover, the work contributes to ongoing debates about the British experience of “modernity.” A number of recent edited collections have identified a sense of living with the new as a key motif throughout the past century, associated with particular forms of social organization and experience. In part, this book explores one aspect of these social forms—the relationship between the city and sexual difference. It contextualizes the organization of masculine sexualities within, for example, modern forms of expert knowledge, municipal government, the urban crowd, a mass media, consumerism, new understandings of selfhood, economic change, and the separation of public and private space. As such it stands as a particular case study in the British experience of modernity, drawing upon these debates to explore queer sexualities and, in turn, subjecting wider historical themes to critical scrutiny.


At around 1:00 a.m. on August 25, 1934, Cyril was wrapped in the arms of Arthur J., a twenty-two-year-old waiter, in the Caravan Club. As Charlie, the pianist, played, they danced, whispered, and kissed. Suddenly the basement was full of uniformed policemen, and several men around them turned out to be plainclothes detectives. Amazingly, Cyril seems not to have panicked. Indeed, he retained a certain poise and self-possession. Approaching Divisional Detective Inspector (DDI) Campion, the officer in charge, he commented, “I don’t mind the beastly raid, but I would like to know if you could let me have one of your nice boys to come home with me. I am really rather good.” The inspector asked who he was. Cyril replied, “I am the Countess, you ought to know that.” Campion, apparently, “did not want to listen to such rot.”

Cyril’s experiences are my point of departure for exploring queer urban culture in early twentieth-century London, highlighting the themes I take up below. In positioning his own changing sense of self and sexual practices within his encounter with London, Cyril embodies the complex relationship between the city, the social, and the self that is the central focus of Queer London. His story suggests queer men’s contradictory engagement with urban life, the ways in which they could find the modern city both liberating and dangerous. His encounter with Campion indicates the role of the law in shaping queer lives and the ways in which men sought to evade and challenge its force. He tells us about what it meant to be “queer” and about the life he forged—about where he went, what he did, how he made sense of his desires, how he looked, who he loved. And he embodies understandings of gender and sexuality very different from our own, opening up ongoing debates about the historicization of sexual difference and “normality.” In all these senses, what follows is Cyril’s story.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-11 of Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 by Matt Houlbrook, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Matt Houlbrook
Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957
©2005, 320 pages, 11 halftones, 1 map
Cloth $29.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-35460-6
Paper $20.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-35462-0

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Queer London.

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